Saturday, February 4, 2017

A defense of the classics

statue of man on a horse; taken by Benjamin Miller; source:freestockphotos.bizAncient classics don't really need a defense of mine. This has been taken up by others on better footing and with much better style. The funny thing is that I've not come across said defenses. Since I cannot read one, I decided to pen my own. The immediate incentive came from reading Spencer's What Knowledge is Most Worth, where he shows that at his time, knowledge of the classics was ornamental for the most part. This need not be. Classics are not the dusty tomes you find in hinterlands of libraries that no one wants to read. They are a fountain of fantastic virtues:

  • They are quite fun.
  • They are readable. This might come to a surprise to some, but the classics are quite readable. For the most part there are some obscure reference to persons and events, but these can be cleared by a good annotated edition, or can be pieced together after a while (Pompey? Who's that? Oh, that one!), or then again many can be just passed over without much loss.
  • I read once that English men of the Empire era profited from the classics education in that the texts made them ready to understand other cultures.
  • They give examples of shining personalities (both good and bad) from when the world was younger and purer. We've got Socrates and Xerxes and Alexander and Caesar and Cicero and Seneca and so many others.
  • They provide a common frame of reference.  These are (should be) known across the world and their most salient aspects can be called upon to make a point or illustrate certain topic.
  • They give structure and sense to the world. Our society is built on the persons and history we read out of them.
  • Morally interesting.
  • Can give a lifetime of enjoyment.
  • They are basis to (all) later texts. As explained in the Great Books post, ancient texts a built upon by later writers. So to speak, they are the root of the matter.
  • It is a wonder to have them at all. Ever read the Name of The Rose? In a very real sense it a shame to have these survived for millennia and not profit from them.
  • They also shed light on biblical times and texts, since the Bible events (I'd say from Ezra on) developed within the very same sphere on which the classical. Plus, the early church fathers grew, thrived, and built on within it.
  • You can learn style from them.
  • You don't have to learn Greek or Latin. These are now translated to all major languages.

The only problem I find for English readers is the apparent lack of a good annotated collection, other than the Loeb Classical Library out there. The Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries appear to be an alternative (I've not flipped through one yet), but each and every title is outrageously expensive.


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