Are the Classics Enough?

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I am throwing down the gauntlet. That’s a medieval custom—the knight throws down his armored glove in a challenge; his adversary picks it up accepting the challenge. My colleagues, Drs. Pam and Marshall Johnston (who both recently received the Nickel Excellence in Teaching Award at FPU—well deserved!) have been so successful in building our history and classics program that I am honor bound as a student of the Middle Ages to issue a challenge. Maybe it’s not the best historical referent to begin with when I sit here in a Mennonite university, but you will see the connection later.

There has been a movement afoot for quite a while now. It embodies and interesting alliance between professors of the classics at universities and many who come from conservative, Christian circles, and especially home-schooling circles. For both of these groups I have great sympathy and friends within each. But it is safe to say that they don’t always see eye-to-eye on other issues.

I hear a lot these days about the benefit of a “classical” education. “Classical” may have multiple meanings. Does it mean the education a person in the ancient, classical world might have received? For example a heavy dose of rhetoric in order to be persuasive in the civic forums. Or does it mean education in the classical world for contemporary use, as was promoted in the Renaissance? Here a student would study the classical subjects: grammar (particularly classical languages, Latin, Greek and later Hebrew (not quite classical, but ancient at least), rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy. These are the “classical” (in another sense) humanities that a “humanist” might teach. In Italian schools of the 14th-16th centuries, the “umanista” was the teacher of what became the humanities. There is a third sense that I want to address: education in the history of the classical world—the history of Greece and Rome, and Latin and Greek languages.

One of the best examples of the usefulness and insightfulness of what education in the classical world can bring us is the work of the Central Valley’s own Victor Davis Hanson, now of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and a syndicated commentator (see www.victorhanson.com or at www.nationalreview.com). The Sunbird Conservatives have had Victor as their keynote speaker at their four big events over the last four years. He, along with classicist colleague Bruce Thornton (at CSUF and on Hanson’s website) also a speaker at FPU events, are examples of what we can learn from classical history—the problems and conditions of war and peace, how democratic and tyrannical governments rise and fall, the virtues that sustained the ancient world and the vices that compromised it; the use of reason and the dangers of the passions. Both have used the classics to illuminate the contemporary world and are examples of the depth that what we sometimes call the “liberal arts or “liberal learning” can offer us. If more journalists and columnists had this kind of education and insight, the level of our political and social discourse would rise significantly.

But there are things that I do not think can be learned from the classics and that those interested in that liberal learning and heightened level of political and social discussion might want to consider. Of course I mean the history of later periods. Let me offer a few illustrative examples.

Transfer of Power: this is one of the thorniest problems of politics. We in the US and modern democratic societies sometimes forget that the peaceful transfer of power is a lesson that took a long time to learn, and is not entirely secure. The classical world ended with Emperors sometimes (often) put into office by military power. If we want to understand how our means of peaceful transfer was gained, we might start with the political history of England in the 17th century, and early America in the 18th.

Rule by Law and Representative Institutions: there is much about this in the classical world. But it is safe to say, I think, that the thinkers of the middle ages who developed and debated theories of natural law, linked it to customary law, or what became common law, and then through church law develop the early forms of “natural rights” have much to offer us that classical thinkers only hinted at. Similarly our representative institutions developed in conjunction with theories of law, in very practical ways in the growth of parliaments, courts, and councils. U.S. government may call its upper house a Senate after Roman models, but institutionally it shares more with medieval and early modern English parliamentary tradition. Classical writings offered insight to the American founders, but they got their institutional experience elsewhere.

The Relationship between Church and State: this has a long history peculiar to our medieval and early modern periods. In the ancient world an emperor was a god. In the Christian era, religious leaders recognized that neither church nor kingdom, neither bishop or king, should singly exercise both spiritual authority and political power. According to Pope Gelasius I, just before 500, this distinction between the two produced a “healthful humility,” and a safeguard against god-like totalitarian power from either side. The long, twisting history that has brought us to our current arrangements has much to offer our current confusions.

Love, Sex and Marriage: the ancients certainly gave us something to think about here. Modern notions that link love and marriage, equality between the sexes and love and friendship are so deeply indebted to the long history and literature of the period from the middle ages forward, that I hardly know where to begin. Start with Dante and Beatrice, or Chaucer.

Christian Spirituality: this began to take shape in the late antique world, drawing on classical, platonic models among others, but could hardly be a classical subject. Yet we have a long tradition that continues to develop and draw inspiration from the medieval and early modern world.

These are just hints and a wild plea from a medieval and early modern historian. If you want an introduction to what can be done with these topics, read the work of C.S. Lewis, who ended his academic career as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. The gauntlet is down; let’s see who will pick it up.

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  • Bruce Whitsitt

    A right manly challenge.  I still think you medievalists and classicists need to abandon the intellectual sparring, don 16-oz. gloves, and hash it out in the ring.