In defense of ancient history and knowledge
By Andy Monthey, Opinions Editor
When Leonardo Da Vinci was a young boy he struggled with Latin. In fifteenth century Italy, knowledge of Latin and Greek was the cornerstone of a worldly and humanist education. It was also a knowledge of culture, language, theology, and more. Yet in spite of Da Vinci’s genius, he only really mastered Latin in his late 30s, and even then he struggled with it.
Some could see this episode as a perfect example of the superfluity of the Classical world. Certainly the Greeks and Romans were of a spectacular sort, but they were still a different sort. Knowledge of Latin and Greek was always confined to the upper echelon of intellectual rigor—it was esoteric knowledge only for the philosophers, statesmen, clergy, and others. As time went on, the power of the vernacular took over. People began to read the Bible not only in Latin but also in German, French, Spanish, and English.
As a student of Classics, I would hardly ever call myself much more than an interested student. I do not have a PhD, let alone a master’s. I would only characterize myself as an independent scholar on the issue. But even from that side, I see that something is missing from our modern world that Europeans, Arabs, Greeks, and many others had taken for granted: the Classics.
There was a time when one had to know Greek and Latin to attend Harvard University. President Garfield, as legend has it, was able to answer a question on a chalk board, writing in Latin with his left hand and Greek with his right. It may not be as fantastical as it sounds at first. We have succumbed to a view of the world as utilitarian and useful, not as humanistic and story-driven.
So I would argue that a revitalization of the Classics and knowledge for knowledge’s sake could potentially change the world just as it had only a hundred years ago. We barely even scratch the surface of such major questions (truly major questions) on morality, religion, and politics without even the slightest idea that these questions have always been raised as long as humans have existed.
Take for instance how we view democracy or our own country’s place in the world today. The United States is arguably a trader-based economy. We produce, we export, and we especially import. Fifth century Athens also imported. In fact, during the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and the Delian League (i.e. the Athenian Empire), Athens brought in everyone from its countryside into the city. They relied on their imports for their survival.
Even when the plague struck, Athens continued this policy, until it eventually was overwhelmed by the Spartans and forced to surrender.
So what does this episode tell us? It could tell us a lot of things. First of all, that relying on imports without being able to produce is unsustainable. Whether or not a nation’s allies are eager to send food, tools, or, God forbid, oil, it still puts the importing city on a perilous course.
These are the sorts of ideas that an education in Classics fosters. They provide a strong educational basis for all young people.
Additionally, bringing the Classics back into schools for younger people could potentially set them up on a lifelong journey for the acquisition of knowledge. I asked a potential Classics student who came up to me the other day at Get Acquainted Day the question, “Why Classics?” He had said that his father was a Classics major, and that at home he had a library filled with ancient literature. Seeing his father be passionate even as an independent scholar inspired him.
Admittedly the Classics has often taken a western, white, and ethnocentric place among the humanities. We talk about it as if it is “our” civilization and “our” history as opposed to someone else’s (non-Europeans, that is). This has led to a logical shunning of ancient history as racist and imperial. We must of course denounce the return of this perspective, and rather inspire young people to pursue a world beyond their own. Knowledge of Latin or Greek will set them up to learn the many other languages of the world—they will know grammar, they will communicate better than before, and they will become liberalized students even at a young age.
A knowledge in the Classics opens up many doors that otherwise remain closed for one’s entire life. It is a special study—one that few hope to master and few actually master.
Da Vinci struggled with Latin, but his return to it shows that he knew that the pursuit of knowledge can often accompany and indulge the pursuit of happiness.