Why The Classics?

A former honors student wrote a note on Facebook recently and asked whether there was any truth to the rumor he had heard that liberal university faculties were putting pressure on their students to lean more to the left. I assured him that there is truth in the rumor, but that it is also the case that conservative faculty often, in my experience, try to get their students to lean a little more to the right. But, since there are a great many more liberal than conservative university faculty members, the trend he mentioned is decidedly of some concern. Indoctrination in any form, especially when it passes for teaching, is most disturbing.

One of the victims of the left-leaning faculty who have a political agenda (which they take very seriously) is the classics — to the point that it is now proclaimed by those who hold the reins of power in academia that there are no such things as classics; just books, and the ones the students should read are the ones the faculty select for them, books that tend to present the viewpoint of those teaching them. The idea, I gather, is to force open the minds of the students to endless examples of social injustice. This in itself is not a bad thing. But the books should be the teachers, not the teachers. And the authors should disagree with one another about almost everything. This generates thought, not disciples.

It is said that the so-called “classics” or “great books” are simply works that were written by “dead, white, European, males” and are no longer relevant in today’s climate of hatred and political chaos. I have vigorously disputed this over the years in my writing, including a number of blog posts (which I referred the young man to), because I have read many of those books (in translation) and have learned so much from them that is not only relevant but timely as well. One such passage I came across the other day while reading Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” of all things. It is in a lengthy comment made by the chorus and reads as follows:

” — A tongue without reins,

defiance,unwisdom —

their end is disaster.

But the life of quiet good,

the wisdom that accepts —

these abide unshaken,

preserving, sustaining

the houses of men.

Far in the air of heaven,

the sons of heaven live.

But they watch the lives of men,

And what passes for wisdom is not;

unwise are those who aspire,

who outrange the limits of man.

Briefly, we live, Briefly,

then die. Wherefore I say,

he who hunts a glory, he who tracks

some boundless, superhuman dream, may lose the harvest here and now

and garner death. Such men are mad,

their council evil.”

This is a remarkable passage and also timely, given the current trend to keep old wounds festering with talk among the power-brokers of possible political recounts. It seems worthy of a few moment’s reflection and serious attempts to see how it applies to today’s world where so much that happens is beyond our control and simply must be accepted — like it or not. As Candide said, “It’s time to cultivate the garden.”

Great books are classics because they are timeless. It matters not who wrote them or when. What matters is what they have to say to those who read them and take them seriously.  Passages like the above are said to be “irrelevant” and are ignored by many of those who have chosen to teach the young because they have other fish to fry, more important fish (as they see it), which leads me to quote another snippet from Euripides:

“Talk sense to a fool

and he calls you foolish.”



20 thoughts on “Why The Classics?

  1. While I have not read near as much classical literature as you, I have read quite a bit and know that there is much wisdom … and pleasure … to be found in the classics. I often wonder how many, if any, of today’s works will still be read 100+ years from now. But then, I think the same thing about classical music … I cannot imagine that any of today’s music is destined to compare with Bach or Tchaikovsky. I particularly loved the final quote in your post … it is so true, as I am finding out!

    • It’s not how much we have read it is what we have read and how much we have learned from that!! I daresay you have gleaned a great deal — and I suspect that few, if any, of today’s writers will be read tomorrow.

  2. It is possible that some of today’s works — literature or music — will stand the test of time. We have to remember that the Classics span many centuries, and that someone reading or teaching in the 1700s would have found Dostoyevsky to be as remarkable and timeless as “Hamlet,” or “Don Quixote.” There have been some devastating novels, but, even more, as I read, powerful collections of poetry written in the past 10 years. Part of the problem is it’s harder to find or discern the newer great work, because things are so fragmented, diffuse, and harder for them to have an immediate culture-wide impact.

    Musically, I love classical works. But I also am quite moved by some of the great jazz and blues, and some rock songs where there is virtuoso performance. But I’m less knowledgeable about music than literature, so it’s hard for me to say for sure. But not all old music stands the test of time — even all-classical radio stations don’t play much lute or lyre music, nor modern renditions of Shakespeare’s “Hey, Nonny Nonny.” It’s likely the same would be true of current music.

    Back to Hugh’s core point. He’s quite right — great writing is great writing, no matter where it stems from. We should seek it out, and when it is presented to us, we should also embrace it. The passage he quotes from Euripides is beautiful, as well as wise, and anticipates the Gospels, Whitman and Yeats. Pretty good company. (I do wish more of the classic-era Chinese literature, especially poetry, was presented to today’s students. It’s as wise, timeless and wonderfully written as any Western poetry.) But we should not force-feed students (or ourselves) something mediocre in the name of serving anyone’s agenda.

    • If by “force-feeding” you mean “require,” I would argue it is a good thing. We are leaving it up to the students themselves or to professors with a hidden agenda and paying a price.

    • I am nor confident how the Greek Wisdom “anticipates” the xtrian Tradition as you suggest. Cart before the Horse? St. Paul was good about quoting the Greek Tragedians (being an Academic type himself, and Messenger to the hoi polloi), but that does not make him a consequence of said Tradition either, but more like a insightful Borrower. Pardon my indifference, but the xtian Tradition as regards the Greek wisdom is more akin to a Child parroting their Better than like a natural Consequence or Prophetic Author of the same. If anything, the Mystery of Greek Wisdom was BORROWED by the xtians to further their own interests, and NOT a piece of their own Insight. Frankly, the whole xtian clique was quite smart enough, by half, to stand-in for the Greeks. St. Paul knew as much. WE do not.

      • Translaton: Borrower: those who take what is not their own to Parrot those who came before for wisdom. Originator: those who Invent for insight and experience, alone (best guess: Cretians or Cyprians), NOT ‘anticipating’ those who may come after.

      • I must say I have never understood what it means to say that X “anticipates” Y when Y may simply have read or heard about what X had to say. Most great writers draw on prior sources. My thesis advisor was fond of saying “we are all intellectual shoplifters.” What makes the Greeks astonishing is that there was very little for them to shoplift. They were highly original as well as wise, in many cases.

      • There are so many aspects of the Greeks that fascinates me that I have taken them as an inexhaustible source of wonder. How is that possible? What was it about their experience, some set of insights perhaps, that propelled them into such dynamic and lasting an influence for the intellectual exercise and evolution of civilization? I still probe the Tradition at Eleusis on this reflection, and believe some critical answers to this resides there. Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter” and Aeschylus “Suppliant Maidens” collide upon the Story of flight from the sons of Aeguptus to Cyprus then Greece, which appears to be critical to the Tradition…some piece of History stretching into the lineage of Egypt that was carried to the Greeks then disseminated at Eleusis. We know how central was the Mysteries to Greek Civilization, so there’s something fundamental here to the Greek constellation of Ideas informing their evolution, but shrouded in profound mist that largely still remains elusive.

        The Story of Jason and Medea and the books of the Sibyls containing the Future of Rome (heirs of Troy?)…the matriarchal tradition of the Pelasgians against the Olympian conquerors with the resultant Balance of Male and Female personae in the Greek Pantheon (the Germans also had this balance)…all good material for rumination on this crucial question of “what is the psychological dynamic that made the Greeks so lasting an influence to the intellectual development of civilization.”

        Then the Renaissance after a long period of Darkness (what Europe looked like in the absence of this tradition), and Scientific Revolution. I mean, were a person inspired to seek and find the Roots and Branch of Modern Civilization and what made it possible, could they identify a more crucial source? The answer is, of course, perfectly obvious…though a description of this very dynamic constellation of Ideas hasn’t yet been satisfied, to my knowledge. Some suggested reading on the topic you might suggest, sir?

      • Good question, but I don’t know of any sources oaths. I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that there was some contact with the East as Plato’s “Phaedrus” involves an image (the charioteer with the black and white horses) that has definite echoes in Eastern religions that date to the time before Plato lived. Also, the Pythagoreans seem to have borrowed some ideas from the East as well. But it was a remarkable culture, highly imaginative and creative however they may have borrowed some of their ideas.

  3. The Greeks, in Literature among the Poets, are Heralds of timeless Time as regards the fate and destiny of mankind, particularly in the form of the Chorus which condenses the Insight of wisdom as this Civilization understood IT. That we, today, have so neglected this wisdom is only testament to our abject hubris, as children, who are incapable of grasping (the Stoic Term) what SHOULD be obvious to a generation of men who have accepted the Gift of the Past, hell bent on a Course quite apart. Alas, we have not ‘grasped’ this wisdom, and like the Sibyls of ancient Rome/Greece offering a Vision of the Future to a childish Age, find ourselves torn apart from every Memory that could hold US together. The Payment was too dear at first when the whole of the History was offered. The Price remains the same at every offer, but the History is shortened. One day, there will be NO History, while the Price of Wisdom remains the same…by Then, it will be too late to be wise, and the last choice will be merely Survival. Will Mankind choose it? Doubt remains.

  4. Books, art, music – it’s so shallow-minded to shun the masters and their brilliance – those who tapped into their genius, their forward-thinking and observations of man and produced classics that continue to nourish our souls….. thankfully there are like-minded people who refuse to allow the classics to be brushed aside and forgotten.

    Thanks for all that you do, Hugh!

  5. Hugh, sorry if there was a misunderstanding — I wasn’t referring to the classics when I said force-feed, but to the various specialty fields that have students reading average books just because they fit a specialty or PC field.

    • If the books are assigned most of the students will read them. It’s up to the professors to assign material that will encourage thought and not just nodding assent.

      • Exactly. That was what I was trying to get to — nodding assent, coupled with mediocrity just because it reinforces that nodding assent is a problem. I fully agree with you, Hugh! I remember a fiction writing workshop I took where the professor had us read a few contemporary books, which were quite weak, I thought. I said that in class and the professor did not like that.

        If I can address a question BeingQuest had about my use of the word “anticipates” when I connected Euripides to later writers, I should clarify. I didn’t mean to imply the later writers were consequences of his writing. (Whitman was genius enough himself.). I should have used the word “echo,” or “resemble,” because his work and that of the others I mention are in a similar vein. Not that they are in a linked chain or “consequence”. Certainly, though, and obviously, the early Christian writers borrowed from the Greek philosophers and writers. Paul would have been well versed in Greek philosophy, and his hometown of Tarsus has a well-regarded philosophical academy. Whether he parroted the Greeks or added his own insights is maybe up for debate; I’d lean to the latter.

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