Why bother with the classics? Knowing Latin won’t help you talk to anyone currently alive, unless you want to chat up the Pope. And knowing Ancient Greek may be good for nothing except learning SAT words.
But we need the classics. We need them as much as we need art, music and the other humanities that make life beautiful and at the very least, more bearable. The recent push for STEM education, while valuable, tends to suggest to outside observers that the humanities, especially the classics, are merely a curiosity: pretty, but dispensable. Why do we need to struggle over the scribblings of cultures separated from ours by seas and centuries?
Let me be clear: the Greeks and Romans were not heroes. Slavery, xenophobia and warfare pervaded their societies. Nor are the classics universal. Ancient Mediterranean values have little in common with ancient Indian, Chinese, or African values — or even generally with modern American ones.
Despite this, the classics have a spark of humanity that we should kindle in ourselves. The ancient authors had ideas that serve as the foundation for much of modern civilization. Herodotus was the founder of history and ethnography, the first on record to look with curiosity and eagerness — rather than fear and hatred — at the “barbarians” who surrounded his homeland. Cicero left us the idea that public service and dedication to one’s fellow men are the highest good — indeed, he died advocating for it. And scattered throughout the ancient texts are the first flickers of the wild idea that individual human beings have intrinsic value. Centuries of darkness — of war, fundamentalism, and passage of time — could not extinguish that spark, but we may lose it if we lose faith in ourselves.
We need to be reminded that life can have beauty and dignity at a time when circus-show politics, irresponsible media and worldwide crises threaten to make us give up. More importantly, the classics have motivated some of the greatest movements for change in our history. They instructed and inspired the Founding Fathers, and Frederick Douglass studied the ancient orators to become the greatest abolitionist speaker of his time. Rejecting them rejects the heritage through which so much good was accomplished. And the classics are more than philosophy; Much of Western mathematics, medicine and natural philosophy descend from the efforts of the Greeks.
Despite the gulf of centuries, ancient people faced many of the same problems we currently face. Though our responses to wars and migrations should not be the same as theirs, we can use them to examine our own failures and try to do better. It is reassuring to know that our problems were confronted by our predecessors long before we lived. The classics remind us of the deepest roots of our literature, our society and our democracy. It’s a feeling like no other to read something written two thousand years ago or more — something another human being, good or bad, famous or obscure, wrote back when the world was strange and new.
Many criticize the classical authors on the grounds that their views are unrepresentative and exclusive. They point out that we have almost no writings from women or other marginalized groups, and that therefore the classics provide an elitist view of the ancient world centered on wealthy, literate males. This is true. The lack of diversity makes our intellectual heritage poorer. But it does not make what we do have any less valuable. Authors like Thucydides, Euripides and Aeschylus do discuss the lives of women, foreigners and slaves in the ancient world. However limited, they are the best sources we have on those subjects. The surest way to further marginalize those groups would be to shun the authors who discuss them. As rare as female authors are, there is no lack of strong female characters in classical literature: Atossa in Aeschylus’ Persians and the title character of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata challenge the critics. As for other marginalized groups, many famous Roman authors, unnoticed by classroom critics, braved discrimination from the city elite for their provincial backgrounds or birth in the bonds of slavery.
I will never claim that the classics are perfect. Rome and Greece could be harsh and cruel, and their authors represent only a tiny portion of society. Yet the classics remain our bedrock. They have inspired every generation from Petrarch to Milton, from Washington to Martin Luther King. We owe nothing in particular to them, or to Homer or Augustus. We owe it to ourselves to remember the very human classics, because as the playwright Publius Terentius, who was born a slave in Libya, said: We are human, and nothing human is foreign to us.
Connor Wood is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .