Saturday, July 25, 2015

Falling in love with Classics: How I rediscovered Ancient Greece and Rome

"Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him [Paul]. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection."

- The New Testament, "The Acts of the Apostles," Chapter 17, Verse 18 (as translated by the King James Version of the Bible)

I have long been a fan of Classical Studies, which - in the world of academia - has the specialized meaning of Ancient Greece and Rome. I wouldn't have predicted it in my youth, but I really got into classical studies when I got older. I didn't major in it or anything - I am merely an amateur who studies Classics as a hobby - but it was something that would change my life for the better, when I really got into it.

My favorite painting of Jesus Christ

My first exposure to the classics was in church

I suppose my first real exposure to the classics was in church, when I learned about the Bible in my primary classes. To some, it might seem strange to include the Bible in the field called the Classics; but as anyone who's read the New Testament knows, the New Testament takes place during Roman Empire times; and some can even tell you that it was originally written in classical Greek. Thus, it is a big part of studying the Classics, and it is an important (and sometimes primary) reason why a lot of people today undertake this study. I count myself amongst this group, and in a classical Western heritage rife with significant literary and philosophical work, I count the Bible as the most significant of all these works - the most influential book in history, which is acknowledged to be such even by its detractors. The New Testament is the most important part of our classical heritage, and I firmly believe it will remain so for years to come.

Elementary school discussion of the Greeks & Romans

But as far as the secular history of classical civilization goes, I was not exposed to this until late elementary school. It was fascinating hearing about the Ancient Greeks and Romans in the sixth grade, and I got truly excited about the military history of Rome's glory days - as I suppose many schoolboys have ever since. I even tried my hand at a popular video game called "Caesar II," which was a sort of Roman-Empire version of the game "Sim City." (I've not played video games in years, but I feel I must count this as part of my history with the subject of classics, as it was a way that my fascination with the classics manifested itself.) I had not been truly exposed to what was great about the subject, though; and the revelations about it would not come until much later in life, when I would study the subject in more depth.


The things I didn't yet know about the "dead white guys" ...

The Big Three names of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were nothing but names to me for most of my life; as they were people that I had heard of, but they were not people whose accomplishments I knew anything about. They wrote a lot of great philosophy, I had heard; but not knowing even what philosophy really was, I didn't have enough appreciation of the subject to understand what they were doing; and it was easy to dismiss it as nothing but the "dead white guys" - a dismissal which is much easier for people who've never really studied them before. I won't defend everything they said; but considering how little philosophy there was before them, it's remarkable how much they got right; and there is more reason than one might think to count them among the great thinkers of history. But I didn't know any of this back in childhood, and would not learn about it until late in high school, where I had my first real exposure to Greek thought.


Exposure to the classics in high school history

In high school history, we spent some time on Ancient Greece and Rome - not as much as we should have, perhaps, but enough to know a little about Greek democracy, and about the massive contributions of Socrates - especially Socrates - to Western (and world) history. It was here that I learned what a cool guy Socrates was, hearing about his being put on trial for "corrupting the youth" and "impiety" - trumped-up charges put forward by Socrates' enemies, who were humiliated by him in his constant attacks on the establishment and the status quo. It has been said that the two most important trials in Western history were the trial of Socrates and the trial of Jesus; and I think there may actually be reason to consider this as true - Socrates' trial is one of the great watershed moments in human history. (It was also in this class that I learned about the history of the Roman Empire, and how it was split into two halves shortly before it fell in the West - with the Western half simply called the "Roman Empire," and the Eastern half called the "Byzantine Empire" - all things I did not know before this class. Pretty basic, I know, but that's high school for you!)

Sextus Empiricus

Exposure to the classics in college philosophy class

My first in-depth encounter with the philosophy of the ancient world was in my intro to philosophy class (in early college), which was one of the most life-changing classes of my career. There was in-depth examination of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; about the Hellenistic philosophers like the Skeptic thinker Sextus Empiricus; and about the philosophers of the Roman era who wrote later on. The kinds of things they got right - which are so fundamental to our way of thinking, that it's easy to take for granted what accomplishments they really were - are truly astounding, and no one who has remained ignorant of them can truly understand how important they are. Many graduate from college and still don't know their importance, which may be a sad commentary on how poorly classical (and other) philosophy is taught in our modern educational system, which is so ready to dismiss these people as abstract hair-splitters or, worse, "dead white guys" and nothing more. It's not the young's fault that they believe these things, and it's not too late for their eyes to be opened, through a more rigorous education in the humanities.

Julius Caesar

Exposure to the classics in college history class and reading Plato's "Republic"

I was also re-exposed to classical history in a college history class I took soon after; and with my education in classical philosophy, I had a better appreciation this time around of how revolutionary Greek and Roman philosophy really was. I was undecided about my major at this time, and actually considered philosophy as a major, but ended up opting for the more economically safe major of business. My interest in the classics, though, was still strong; and so I read Plato's "Republic" in English translation during one Christmas vacation, where I could pursue my own interests without outside interference. I have always been glad that I did this. But for the next few years of college, my education was far removed from the study of the classics, until I took another philosophy class called "Intro to Ethics," where I was exposed to Greek thought once more.


Ethics class (and my early desire to learn Greek)

Plato's "Republic" was actually a strong focus of the class, making me glad I'd read it in its entirety some three years before; and so I was again thinking a great deal about classical history - particularly given that I took this ethics class during a summer session (where it was my only class), and I had a lot of time to focus on philosophy. As I often did in those days, I surfed the Web a little bit to hear arguments for why I should learn one language over another, and decided to type "Why learn Ancient Greek" (or some such similar phrase) into a search engine. Besides the praise of Classical Greek culture (and particularly Classical Greek democracy), there was one other argument which stuck out prominently then, which was that Ancient Greek was the original language of the New Testament. I had heard before that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, but I had not yet made the connection between the New Testament and the culture of Plato. Thus, the argument seemed like a particularly strong one for learning Ancient Greek; and I filed this away in my brain for future reference, having a strong desire at that time to learn Ancient Greek.

The Colosseum

Pursuing other interests after I graduated (for a while)

I pursued other interests when I graduated from college, though, reading textbooks in a number of other subjects - from psychology to economics to the more modern kinds of philosophy - and learning the practical modern language of Spanish. I had an appreciable list of textbooks to read; and the summer after I finished the Spanish class sequence, I finally got through the last textbook on the list, which I'd sworn would be the last one for a while. This was something I'd decided on even before being hired just weeks later at a middle school where I lived, which would require me to work enough hours that I wouldn't have as much time for textbooks. But to make a long story short, the middle school job didn't work out, and I handed in my resignation within weeks of working there. I was able to resume my old job as a tutor at my local college; and because of resuming part-time work, I suddenly had time again for textbook reading. Thus, I decided that I needed something else to study in my spare time; but I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to study. I'd read every textbook on the list, and had sworn off doing hard textbook reading anymore (or so I'd thought), and hadn't thought that I would be pursuing reading again anytime soon.

The Pantheon

Making the commitment to learn Ancient Greek at this time

But it was at this time that the thought flashed through my mind of learning Ancient Greek, and I remembered my old ambition to learn the language. (Looking back on it, it almost seems like a split-second decision to commit at least a couple of years to this; but of course, it wasn't really split-second at all - it was the culmination of a desire that had been growing for a long time, and which was finally given expression as I decided in a moment what my next great project would be. I have studied the Ancient Greek language considerably since that time, and I plan to read both Plato in the original classical Greek, and the New Testament in the later Koine - or common - Greek. I have already studied classical history as well, through a textbook about Ancient Greece's history and a textbook about Ancient Rome's history; and I have revived my interest in the classics considerably since that time.)

Greek New Testament

Life-changing experiences which (I hope) have changed me for the better

Thus, a fascination that began with studying the Bible in Sunday School will eventually be given expression in reading the Bible in the original, and hearing what the great thinkers of the ancient world had to say about life and its meaning. It's been a life-changing experience, and has also changed me as well - I hope for the better.

"Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you."

- The New Testament, "The Acts of the Apostles," Chapter 17, Verses 22-23 (as translated by the King James Version of the Bible)

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (PBS Empires)

My search for the Greek New Testament

How I found Plato in the original

Learning the basics of Ancient Greek from a book

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