Fresh Call for Study of Latin, Greek.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

Fresh Call for Study of Latin, Greek.(BOOKS)


Byline: James E. Person, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Historian Sheldon Vanauken was once asked by an admirer, "What is the reason we ought to study history, after all? Don't most people find it a mish-mash of dates and names attached to dead people and their actions while living? What can we learn from that in an age in which it's more important to know how to pull a mother-board to add memory to one's computer than to learn the reasons the American Civil War erupted?"

Vanauken's response was enlightening: We learn history in order to become oriented to life and our place in it. While we may never be in a position to make decisions to avert another civil war, we most certainly can become men and women of wisdom, knowing that we are more than the flies of summer, having learned what the best minds of ages past have written of the nature of man, his glory and his shame.

Vanauken's godson, Tracy Lee Simmons, has tackled a similar theme in his new book, "Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin." Readers who automatically recoil at any book which contains the word "apologia" in any part of its title, or who suspect Mr. Simmons' study is simply another lonely, fruitless call for the teaching of Greek and Latin in American schools will be pleasantly surprised. For Mr. Simmons, a journalist who writes widely on literary and cultural matters, offers a somewhat new approach to the question of learning the classical languages.

In the past, many advocates of a revived classical education have pushed forward their curriculum in the same spirit as did people in an earlier era when advocating the daily intake of cod-liver oil: Take it; it's good for you. More specifically, you'll understand what Caesar thought, and learn to speak a better grade of English, as well. Mr. Simmons' twofold goal is different; he seeks both to elucidate the centuries-long corner Greek and Latin held on school and university curricula (focusing upon the English and American experience), and to defend at length the signal role the classical languages have played in shaping the formed, cultivated mind throughout Western history until well into the last century.

The climbing of Parnasssus, the Greek mountain emblematic of inspiration and eloquence, is arduous but rewarding. To learn Greek and Latin is difficult, but goes far toward orienting and refining the mind, inclining the soul toward "those things which man, at his best, wishes, and ought to wish, to achieve."

Mr. Simmons is under no illusion that a renaissance of classical learning is a possibility; that cause was lost long ago. However, to those who value wisdom, a more-than-passing acquaintance with the ancient languages helps, for one thing, regain some sense of history and our place along its timeline. "We drift without classics, floating on our own deracinated, exiguous islands," Mr. Simmons warns. "And we become fodder for demagogues. We need not a revolution, but a restoration."

Classical education was long held not to make the learner more knowledgeable or tolerant or mentally agile, but more insightful, with the student learning to think clearly and discourse eloquently, drawing upon a storehouse of wisdom and precise vocabulary. (Compare that concept with what one hears on the televised shout-fests of today, where a well-placed "Excuse me?" is considered a slam-dunk, end-of-argument retort.)

No teacher of the classics goes so far as to say that the ancient world was without its store of cruelty and license; however, it is wrong to shy away from confronting views of former ages simply because they fail to conform to current notions, for doing so shows forth evidence of what Owen Barfield called "chronological parochialism": the glib belief that one's own time, particularly our own, is always right. Someone once argued with T. S. Eliot on this point, stating, "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did," to which Eliot replied, "Precisely, and they are that which we know. …

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