The Age of Ignorance

By Grayling, A. C. | New Statesman (1996), July 30, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Age of Ignorance

Grayling, A. C., New Statesman (1996)

Why bother with the classics today? Our lack of knowledge about ancient civilization leaves us blind to a true understanding of the modern world.

"To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury," Thomas Jefferson wrote to Joseph Priestley in the winter of 1800. "I thank on my knees him who directed by early education for having in my possession this rich source of delight." Had Jefferson known it, he would have been dismayed to think that the dominance of classical studies was already fading as he wrote, and with it, not just intellectual luxury, but a significant factor in the western world's cultural unity. No one seriously believes that it would now be a good thing to return to a classics-based education, and the "Latin wars" of a generation ago seem well over. But, in fact, the absence of classical studies from contemporary education is a bad thing, and it is time to argue that they should be restored to a more salient place in the curriculum. The reasons are many and good.

The first is a very familiar one. In the "Latin wars", the defenders of classics routinely argued that the study of classical languages is a fine intellectual discipline, which simultaneously gives students a grasp of grammar, of style and of the roots of their own language. They were right, and a comparison of the prose of writers educated in England before and after the 1960s is a remarkable testimony to that fact. This has nothing to do with language purism -- for languages constantly change, and colloquial idioms thrive and become orthodox -- but it has everything to do with a respect for logic, clarity, nuance and the possession of instincts about meanings.

The second reason is more general. Western culture is so deeply imbued with its classical origins that a proper appreciation of it is impossible without some knowledge of these origins. Consider a visitor to the National Gallery in London, the walls of which crawl with allusion to ancient history and mythology, not simply as direct representations of these, but as psychological studies, as conveyors of symbolic meaning, and as a commentary on the human condition. To be ignorant of this wealth of legend and event, and to be unable to see what it means and intends, is therefore to be blind. One does not have to wrestle with gerunds and aorists to recognise Aphrodite in a painting, but to have read some of the source material, in the original tongues, for these depictions is to render one's grasp of them absolute and natural, because it becomes part of one's constitution.

There is practically no area of thought, whether in art, history, philosophy, science, politics or literature, which does not owe a great deal to ancient Greece and Rome. Without a grounding in classical culture, engagement in these fields is like doing arithmetic without knowing how to count. Moreover, as almost all the later intellectual history of the west is itself woven out of the classical legacy, a proper understanding of the thought and writing of every age before our own requires that knowledge, too. To read Spenser, Milton, Dr Johnson or Matthew Arnold without knowing what they took for granted in the way of classical knowledge is simply not to understand them fully.

This point leads to the third -- the resource offered by the classics is immense, and perhaps indispensable. Their literature and philosophy shapes our mentality in a million ways -- not always to our benefit: which is a good reason to be alert to its influence. Think, for example, of the assumptions underlying the concept of "aristocracy", which means "rule by the best". Think of the crushing weight of class divisions, social injustice, lost opportunities and wasted lives which, century after century, resulted from the arrogation of aristocratic privileges by a few at the expense of the many, especially when they were claimed as a hereditary right.

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