Why Every Man Should Study Classical Culture
Tuesday, May 08, 2018 - Filed in: General Interest
The following is a reprint of an article by Brett and Kate McKay that appears in the Art of Manliness web site.
If you’ve been following the Art of Manliness for a while now, you’ve likely caught on to the influence that the classical cultures of Greece and Rome exert on a lot of our content. We promote an idea of “manliness as virtue” that was espoused by both of these ancient civilizations. And there’s a reason for that: In college, I majored in “Letters” — a degree program connected with the Classics Department. I studied Latin and took classes on the history of freedom in both ancient Greece and Rome. I read and discussed the Greek tragedies and even took an entire course on Ovid. It’s during this time that I developed a deep and lasting love for classical culture; despite having graduated from college nearly ten years ago, I’m still reading and pondering the works of Homer, Plato, and Cicero.
An understanding of the culture, philosophy, and literature of antiquity has greatly enhanced my life, and it’s an education I think every man should be well-versed in. Even if you didn’t study the classics in high school or college, there’s a case to be made that you should begin doing so now. Below are eight reasons why every man should dive into the classics, as well as a list of suggested works to get you started.
1. Enhances your cultural literacy.
Do you know what it means when someone is said to be facing a choice “between Charybdis and Scylla”? Do you understand the reference to someone having “crossed the Rubicon”? Does it make sense to you to hear Alexander Hamilton called the “American Cicero”?
Western culture is infused with references to the history and literature of classical Greece and Rome. With just a passing allusion to an ancient myth or story, an artist, author, or statesman can pack a mighty rhetorical punch. But for that punch to land, the audience must have fluency in the symbols and ideas of the classical era.
Unfortunately, because fewer and fewer people study the classics in high school or college, fewer and fewer are able to grasp the significance of classical allusions in literature, poems, and even film. Without that cultural knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, these folks are missing out on a much richer and deeper intellectual and emotional encounter with these works. Heck, even watching a movie like O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? is more enjoyable when you’re well-versed in Homer’s Odyssey.
If you’d like to make art and even politics more vibrant and vital in your life, then start boning up on the ancient classics. You’ll be amazed at the new insights you’ll uncover in your favorite books or movies, and you’ll be better able to engage in meaningful dialogue with your family, friends, and community:
2. Allows you to take part in the “Great Conversation.”
When the famous Great Books curriculum was created in the 1930s at the University of Chicago, its purpose was to acquaint students with the primary source texts that had played a fundamental role in shaping Western thought and culture. University president Robert M. Hutchins wanted Americans to be able to take part in what he called “the Great Conversation.” For him, this universal dialogue was made up of the deep discussions which form around the philosophical pursuit of Truth, which began with the ancient Greeks and continues today.
Topics of the Great Conversation concern the Big Ideas that philosophers, theologians, and artists have been mulling over for thousands of years. What is justice? What is true friendship? What is love? What is honor? How do you live a good life?
Like any discussion that you take part in, to actively participate in the Great Conversation, you need to have an idea of what’s already been said; you don’t want to be the guy who jumps in and blurts out things that make no sense. Lots of people today are willing to state their opinion on the Big Ideas in life without having taken the time to study the threads of discussion that have come before them. They think they’re contributing to the conversation, but they come off like anyone who jumps into a discussion without bothering to get filled in on what’s already been said — their thoughts are fragmentary, out-of-turn, needlessly repetitive, and lacking in context.
Getting “filled in” on the Great Conversation requires you to go back and read the ancient classics. For example, to understand any philosophers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, you first have to achieve an understanding of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. No philosophy exists in a vacuum; rather, all philosophers have been having an extended conversation with each other for thousands of years, whether explicitly or implicitly. And the origin of this conversation traces back to ancient Athens. Once you’ve got this foundation down, from there you can see how successive philosophers have added, transformed, and rebutted what came out of that city-state. And then, at last, you can start making your own constructive contributions to the Great Conversation.
3. Allows you to see the interconnectedness of ideas.
Our educational system has become increasingly specialized. We’ve created artificial barriers between different fields of study. When you’re in history, you largely just focus on history. When you’re studying physics, you mostly focus on physics. Historian Richard Weaver referred to this as the “fragmentation” of knowledge.
But when you read the classics, those walls disappear. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, all knowledge was interconnected. When you read The Histories by Herodotus, you’ll see him connect historical events to political theory, anthropology, and even geography. Plato doesn’t just muse about Truth, Justice, and Beauty, but also math and physics. The Roman Stoics weren’t just interested in learning how to live in alignment with Nature, but also how to govern empires and interact with people you don’t get along with.
My exposure to the classics has instilled in me a drive to connect even the most disparate of topics and ideas. I love the challenge of trying to synthesize these divergent concepts into a coherent and well-thought-out argument or position.
And here’s the thing: As technology and the economy advances and more and more work is outsourced to algorithms and computers, knowing how to make new connections and synthesize data and ideas will be a skill in high demand. It won’t be enough to be a good computer programmer; companies can hire cheap computer programmers in India. But a computer programmer who has a firm grasp of behavioral psychology, and can impute that understanding into a line of code? That’s a far rarer skillset, and consequently a much more valuable one. Some experts argue that the reason Apple has been so successful in the past two decades is that many of the people who work there — particularly the executives — have a background in both the humanities and technology.
4. Instills virtue and morality.
Us moderns typically approach history and art from a very utilitarian, almost scientific view. We’re more interested in the factual minutia of history, while art is only useful to the extent that it entertains us.
But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, such subjects had a much broader and inspiring purpose. History and art were not just interesting and informative, but were also thought to instill virtue and morality. If you read The Histories by Herodotus, The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, or Lives by the Greek-turned-Roman historian Plutarch, and only walk away with an understanding of events that took place thousands of years ago, you’ve completely missed the point these authors were trying to make. For them, history was a way to teach a man to live more virtuously. Woven into their recitation of history is editorial commentary about the morality and immorality of the choices made by the great men at the center of these events. They want you to look at the men and nations that displayed excellence and seek to emulate them, while avoiding the mistakes and missteps of the men and nations that floundered.
The same went for Greek art. The Greek tragedies weren’t just entertainment. They were put on for the edification of the soul. The tragedies taught the Greeks to be wary of hubris and that even the greatest of men were susceptible to moral failings. The audience was not to watch as passive spectators, but to experience a catharsis — the release of stress and the rejuvenation of moral spirit. One was to leave the theater with a renewed dedication to acting in excellence as a citizen.
Whenever I read the classics, I truly feel edified. I’m inspired by Cato’s devotion to republicanism in the face of tyranny; Aeschylus’ Oresteia reminds me how my actions can influence the generations to come; Plato’s Allegory of the Cave motivates me to constantly peer beyond the “shadows” of this life; Cicero’s insights about fulfilling one’s duty inspires me to serve my family, faith, and country with honor.
Now, of course, there’s going to be the naysayers who will argue that there’s no way you can learn virtue and morality from the ancient Greeks and Romans because these were the same people who kept slaves, had sex with boys, and felt no qualms about massacring entire cities — including women and children — during war. This is all true, and yes it’s abhorrent and repulsive.
Yet this perspective would be entirely foreign to the cultures some seek to malign. The ancient Greeks and Romans held a far more nuanced, and intelligent, view of history. They avoided the unfortunate black-and-white perspective of our day, in which one can only learn from historical figures who were nearly perfect in character and who espoused views that directly align with our own — thus ruling out the possibility of learning from, well, anyone. Understanding the dual nature of all humans, Plutarch gleans both positive and negative lessons from a Roman emperor he highlights in his Lives. And it was not uncommon for the ancients to look to the empires and city-states of even their avowed enemies for insights on how to live a good and virtuous life. For example, in his Histories, Herodotus often pointed out lessons the Greeks could learn from the Persians.
Moreover, when you read the classics, you’ll see that men during this time hardly gave an unquestioned pass to the practices we now find abhorrent. Indeed, many regularly wrestled with the moral issues of their time. Aristotle and the Greek tragedians weren’t entirely comfortable with the concept of honor and the blood feuds it spawned, and Roman statesmen like Cicero thought it better to have his farms worked by tenants than by slaves.
Finally, we must keep in mind that these are the same people who birthed the very ideas that would eventually lead to the eradication of these morally bankrupt practices. If it weren’t for Greek democracy, we wouldn’t have had the liberal representative democracy that would eventually bring the end of slavery in the West.
All this is to say, that while these men certainly fell short of modern moral and ethical standards, we can still learn much from them because they grappled with the same underlying questions of virtue and morality that we struggle with today — and bequeathed to us the very tools that have allowed us to deal with them in a proactive way.
5. Increased understanding of your government and founding principles.
As historian Carl Richard shows in his book The Founders and the Classics, all of the American Founding Fathers were steeped in the literature and culture of antiquity. As children, they learned Greek and Latin and read the great epic poems and political treatises in what would now be considered their high school years. Even as middle-aged and old men, they returned again and again to the works of Ancient Greece and Rome. Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams about his love for the classics: “I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has happened two or three thousand years ago than in what is now passing.”
Many of the founding principles of the American government were cribbed directly from the principles espoused in antiquity. During the debates surrounding the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Founders used ancient Greek and Roman political texts as precedents for the creation of the new nation. It’s thanks to the classics that the U.S. has a mixed form of government — one consisting of an executive, legislative, and judicial branch. The Founders also looked to the Greeks and Romans in considering the type of military that America was to create (citizen-soldiers were preferred to a standing army because standing armies could be used by a strong executive to take away freedom) as well as its foreign policy (be wary of entangling alliances).
The Founders didn’t just look to classical culture for inspiration for the structure of the American government; they also used the classics to inform them of the type of personal character which would be necessary among the citizenry for this great experiment in republican democracy to be a success. For example, while the Founders abhorred the cruelty and the complete submersion of individuality of the ancient Spartans, they admired the ethos of “civic duty” and decadence-fleeing frugality that the city-state instilled in its people. Samuel Adams wished Boston to be a “Christian Sparta,” and John Taylor celebrated the courage and patriotism of the Spartan 300, seeing them as a model for all citizen-soldiers to emulate.
From the ancient Romans, the Founders hoped Americans would draw lessons on the importance of temperance and rectitude in a republic. James Wilson argued that the Roman Republic was a success as long as its people maintained a strict austerity and sense of honor. But once Rome became a massive empire, it forsook those values to pursue luxury and hedonism, which led to its eventual downfall. Wilson argued that the “fate of Rome, both in her rising and in her falling state, will be the fate of every other nation that shall follow both parts of her example.”
The classics thus give us ample examples — both positive and negative — of how a democracy should function. They also inspire us to a higher level of citizenship, showing us the potential and pitfalls of rousing political oratory and rhetoric, the necessity of full participation by good men, and the needfulness of watching for the creep of corruption.
6. Disciplines the mind.
Reading the classics can be hard. The texts often require you to gird up your intellectual loins if you really want to understand and comprehend them. But with that mental exertion comes a strengthening and disciplining of the mind that carries over to other aspects of your life.
One reason I read the classics is because they serve as my intellectual sharpening stone, keeping my mind keen and sharp.
7. It’s fun!
One thing I love about reading the classics is that it never gets old. The tales and characters evince an evergreen engagingness. I finished The Odyssey this year for the umpteenth time, and I found it more enjoyable this time than when I first read it many years ago. I’ve started to dig into Cicero’s treatises again and I’m having lots of fun with them. The guy had a sharp wit.
The thing about the classics is that the more and more you read them, the more you’ll enjoy them. As your knowledge of the classics grows, you’re better able to see and understand allusions classical authors make to each other. What’s more, the impact of classical literature on you will change as you enter different parts of your life. As a young, single man filled with vim and vigor, I resonated most with Achilles; but now as a married father, I find myself relating more to Hector and Odysseus. I’m looking forward to seeing how my readings of the classics will continue to change as I grow older.
8. Fills you with thumos.
The ancient Greeks believed that a man’s soul or psyche was made up of three parts: Reason, Appetites, and Thumos. Thumos represented man’s “fire in the belly” — his energy, fight, drive towards excellence, and eagerness to do great deeds.
We have no true word in our modern languages which corresponds to the Greek concept of thumos. And for good reason — the ancients viewed life as far more epic and heroic than we do. But studying the classics can help renew our sense of thumos and the vitality with which we live our lives.
This was certainly the case for Henry David Thoreau. He was an avid reader of the classics throughout his life, studying the history, literature, and philosophy of the likes of Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Sophocles, Homer, Seneca, Virgil, Plato, and many more — typically in the original Greek and Latin. As Thoreau’s biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr. explains, because Thoreau believed that the same forces of life and nature that existed thousands of years ago, existed in his day, he regarded “the classics as the still-vital expression of the real world in a living language. The world of The Iliad was as much his as Homer’s.” Consequently, reading the classics reminded Thoreau that he could live just as heroically in the present age as any other:
“What he would later write in Walden he already felt to be true. ‘The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times.’ The classics were heroic books, always alive to those who were themselves alive…
Thoreau’s sense of the nature of the classical achievement had…two main emphases. The first is the assertion of the importance and permanence of nature. In November, reading Virgil…Thoreau was struck by passages about the buds swelling on the vines and fruit scattered about under the trees. The point, he told himself, was that ‘it was the same world.’ His second observation followed naturally enough. If Virgil’s was the same world as ours, then ‘the same men inhabited it.’ Neither nature nor human nature had changed, in essence, from Virgil’s time to ours. Zeno and the Stoics taught the same thing. In early February 1838, Thoreau noted that ‘Zeno the stoic stood in precisely the same relation to the world that I do now.’ And reading Homer brought home the same point once more. In early March Thoreau wrote in his journal, ‘Three thousand years and the world so little changed!—The Iliad seems like a natural sound which has reverberated to our day.’
Because he saw history as he did, the classics were not a burden…but a promise of what he might also achieve…In enunciating this belief in the permanence of human nature and the equivalence of all eras—that is any age is a heroic age to the heroic individual—we come to what is perhaps the single most important set of convictions for the young Thoreau…Since we are the same men and women as those Greeks and Romans we so much admire, we may achieve as well as they did if we only will…’This lament for a golden age,’ Thoreau once said, ‘is simply a lament for golden men.’”
I find, as Thoreau did, that reading the classics fills me with vim and vigor and the desire to live more heroically in my own day. When I read about epic battles in The Iliad or ponder Cato’s stirring defense of republicanism, my “blood runs hot with thumos” as the Greeks would say, and I’m primed to get out there and do great deeds.
How to Get Started Studying the Classics
It doesn’t take much to start studying the classics. Just start reading them! I’d recommend beginning with the Greeks and then moving to the Romans, as they built upon the cultural inheritance they had received from their Hellenistic forebearers.
You can find most of the classical texts online for free. Here’s a suggested reading list to help you get started. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
- Tragedies of Aeschylus
- Tragedies of Sophocles
- Tragedies of Euripides
- Histories by Herodotus
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
- Dialogues by Plato
- Works by Aristotle
- Letter to Herodotus and Letter to Menoecus by Epicurus
- Treatises of Cicero
- On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
- Aeneid by Virgil
- Works of Horace
- History of Rome by Livy
- Metamorphoses by Ovid
- Parallel Lives and Moralia by Plutarch
- Germania and Dialogue on Oratory by Tacitus
- Enchiridion and Discourses by Epictetus
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- Letters From a Stoic by Seneca
If you’re looking for a big picture tour of classical culture, I highly recommend two lecture series from my favorite college professor, Dr. J. Rufus Fears: Famous Greeks and Famous Romans. Dr. Fears made classical culture come alive to both me and Kate when we were at the University of Oklahoma. He was a short, bald, older man with a potbelly, but he was a master storyteller with a vitality that was infectious. He walked around campus with a staff and he’d bring it into class. When he was recounting the gruesome battle scenes in The Iliad, he’d pretend his staff was a sword and he’d walk around the lecture hall slitting the throats of his students while describing the vivid blood that would be oozing from their necks. It was awesome.
Dr. Fears masterfully made parallels between what happened in ancient Greece and Rome and the events that have happened in recent history, and continue to unfold today. Just like Herodotus and Plutarch, Dr. Fears believed the purpose of history was to teach morality and virtue.
Sadly, Dr. Fears died a few years ago, but you can buy his lectures on the history of Greece and Rome from The Great Courses Company. Do it. You won’t regret it.
Whether through audio lecture, books, or both, start diving in the world of Homer and Plato, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius — it’ll make you a better man and a more engaged citizen.