Education in the Western world isn’t what it used to be. In the space of a century, education has been transformed from being a process designed to develop the student into a well-rounded thinker who could draw upon a broad knowledge base to being a system which produces over-specialised cogs who fulfill a single purpose in the industrio-economic machine. Concomitant with this has been the development of a serious disconnect between the modern student and the history of our civilisation. The result of this has been a generation of Westerners who have no real sense nor understanding of the historical cultural inputs that guided the thinking of previous generations. This ignorance makes it all the easier for the forces of darkness in our nations to rewrite our history and to obfuscate the underlying premises upon which our civilisation and its institutions are based.
One of the primary fonts of our civilisation is the Greco-Roman legacy. Even a cursory summation of what we owe to that legacy will suffice to show its importance. From the Greeks and Romans, we obtained concepts and institutions that still form integrals parts of the Western experience today, such as civic republicanism, the rule of law, Aristotlean and Platonic philosophies, the central role of mathematics in the reasoning process, our methods of seeking decisive results in boot-to-boot warfare, and much more. To truly understand how the West became the West, a knowledge of the classical legacy is practically mandatory.
This is why it is so damaging to the long-term preservation of our civilisation that so few Westerners, and especially Americans, study the classical writings anymore. Beyond the occasional assignment of the Iliad or the Odyssey in a high school or university curriculum (much less likely now in today’s atmosphere of “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go!”), there is almost no exposure to this large and variegated body of classical works. Plainly put, most Americans wouldn’t know the difference between Cato the Elder and Kato Kaelin.
I would contend that for anyone claiming a well-rounded education – regardless of any degrees or lack thereof – a working knowledge of the classics is a prerequisite. Since we receive so little of the classical writers in formal public schooling, it is therefore incumbent upon the student of Western civilisation and history to take a proactive approach towards the classics and become self-taught in them, regardless of age and “formal” education. Not merely by reading what modern writers have said about them, but by reading them for ourselves. Here are four reasons why:
1) As stated above, the classical works are one of the primary sources of our civilisation and its institutions and ideas. To gain a deeper and richer understanding of this cultural heritage, it behooves us to be knowledgeable of the underlying bases for it. I don’t feel the need to labour this point.
2) If you really want to understand anything of any academic, philosophical, legal, or historical bearing that was written before around 1920 or so, a good working knowledge of the classics will help immensely. That generation and those prior to it were steeped in a classical, liberal education which most often included the primary languages of Latin and Greek. Some ideas are best expressed by reference to the original source from which they came. It’s one thing to simply have the gist of an idea and to have it expressed in a writer’s own words. It’s quite another to obtain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of it when a writer makes reference to some passage from Plutarch or Demosthenes to make a finely graduated argument. If you want to understand the thought of America’s founders, for example, you need to know as much Cicero as you do Locke or Montesquieu. The Federalist Papers, for instance, are packed with classical allusions which will go right over the head of the one unfamiliar with the classics.
3) If we want to break out of the mold of the modernist mindset, then we need to start conditioning our minds to understand the ancients, and therefore reconnect with the mental geography of traditional Western society. Part of the reason why modern education lacks the classics is because the classics are “retrograde” and “reactionary.” Progressives hate them. Progressives don’t want us to look back to the past to gain wisdom for the future. Progressives are like Chesterton’s radicals, who want to destroy the gate across the road merely because it is old and they do not understand why it is there. Within the classical Greek and Roman writers, you will not find political correctness, feminism, homosexualism, transgenderism, White guilt, or any of the rest of the panoply of modern pseudo-intellectual pathologies. You will find, instead, a great deal of common sense, wisdom gained from practical experience, and much more.
4) Lastly, I believe the serious student of Western civilisation will read the classics as part of a self-teaching program simply for the fact that they are hard for us moderns to read. As such, they constitute an exercise in patience and persistence which will be in stark contrast to the “too long; didn’t read” sort of laziness that infects too many Westerners today. Reading the classics is a lot more difficult than vegetating in front of a television while the idiotainment industry tells you what to think. I recently finished reading Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and I’ll be honest, it was more challenging than modern histories. This is not to say that it was boring – it was not – but it required greater attention to grasp the details and the cultural significances found within it. But it was worth every minute, and I believe my mind and my life were enriched for having persevered through it.
As a committed believer in the superiority of Western civilisation and one who is very much interested in its perpetuation to future generations, I believe it is imperative that our people reconnect with this vital area in our civilisational pedigree. This is especially the case as we see the West under attack both from without (Islam, globalism) and from within (political correctness, progressivism). It may seem daunting when you first start, but sticking with it will provide great rewards to the seeker of knowledge. Take the time to do this. Surely an hour a night spent away from the brain-rotting influence of the television isn’t too much to ask when it comes to disciplining the mind and tuning in to your heritage, is it?
Some might not know where to start, or might not have access to a reasonably good library of classical works. Hence, I would recommend the interested budding classicist to slake their thirst at Tufts University’s online library of Greek and Roman works. There’s quite a lot there, don’t let the volume scare you away. I would recommend starting with Cicero for basic political philosophy, Herodotus or Thucycides for Greek history, Aristotle for natural philosophy, or the Attic orators like Demosthenes and Isocrates for rhetoric and style.