“We Stand on their Shoulders,” by Andrew Schatkin
I am told that children in the first grade are given computers to toll their sums and learn and compose their first nascent paragraphs. Information is gained by computer, essays are now composed on a word processor and entertainment obtained in the silence of the bedroom staying at one’s computer. In a word, the printed word, as a means of entertaining one’s self and informing, is fast becoming a relic. At one time, men read the dramatic poetic monologues of Browning for pleasure; men and women read the novels of Charles Dickens, Henry James and George Eliot in magazine serial form. There was a time when men and women listened to the three-hour sermons of John Donne and Lancelot Andrews and then read them. There was even a public for epic poetry- witness the publication in 1679 of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Reading tastes and habits have not only altered, but shifted to combine visual and oral mediums. If the printed book is not in danger of becoming extinct, it is surely in danger of being replaced by other more capturing and sensually-exciting forms of oral and visual entertainment.
What then can we say of the relevance of Classical languages and literature, Greek and Latin; What reason can we offer for the study of long dead languages? The answer is much in every way. For better or worse, we stand on the shoulders of the ancients, if not at their feet. Alfred North Whitehead offered the view that all Western philosophy was by way of being a footnote to Plato. Before the Christian or Muslim god there was the unmoved mover of Aristotle, the first and primary cause above all other causes whereby the universal mechanism operates. St. Thomas Aquinas restates Aristotle in the light of revelation Epic poetry primarily in Homer and secondarily in Virgil are the models of the genre. Virgil is the guide in Dante’s Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost and the Italian epics of Tasso and Aristotle find their source in Virgil
Whether it is the epic, the choral lyric of Pindar, Greek Tragedy or Roman Comedy, we of the West owe almost every poetic and dramatic form to the Greeks and Romans. Before Bacon, Montaigne or Ralph Waldo, Emerson there were the essays of Cicero on Friendship and on Moral Duties. The romantic novel of today has its source and is a lineal descendant in the ancient novel of Apuleius.
There is nothing new under the sun. Our so-called modern ideas find their source in ancient philosophy. Feminism is the new wave of the millennium. Plato in the Fifth book of the Republic posited the equality of women and argued for their equality in the educational, governmental and social spheres. Communism found its ultimate model inn Plato’s ideal state where philosophers are kings.
If we are not to be the victims of our continued mistakes, sin and ignorance or if we are not to limit ourselves to current fads and our own particular parochial schools of thought and we are to perchance to step outside of our own limited sphere for a day, the Classics remain relevant and telling.
The Greeks and Romans still speak to us in our time in their literature and art, expressing in their literature ultimate beauty, form, and original thought. We have not grown beyond them or away from them but remain their children growing in our minds and persons as any child does but ever knowing and mindful that whatever is ideal, spiritual, metaphysical and literary in ourselves will never be severed from them. You who have beyond the whims of youth know full well in the approach to the gates of death we are tied and bound to the Classical heritage. For as we die we cease to fight those who have given us life.
The past still speaks to us, dead or alive, advising, loving and pointing the way out of our limitations to our continued relationship with the past.
We do a disservice to our children when we leave them in the ignorance and abyss of the current modern novel and the daily newspaper and the computer. To think one is modern because one is in the throes of some current idea, be it feminism, Marxism, or materialism, is to be cut off and benighted.
The classics free us of our modernity, free us of our presumptions and desire for a relevance found first in the Dialogues of Plato. To know the Classics is to be a little more liberated from oneself, a little freer, and somewhat more human than possible. We reject them at our peril.