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A Student's Guide to Classics

  • by Bruce S. Thornton


Politics, philosophy, history, epic, poetry, comedy, tragedy, rhetoric, democracy, aesthetics, science, liberty, senate, republic, judiciary, president, legislature—the terms included in this brief but impressive list have two things in common: first, their referents constitute much of the political, intellectual, and cultural infrastructure of Western civilization; second, they all derive from ancient Greek and Latin.

Classics is the discipline that studies the language, literature, history, and civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, two cultures that bequeathed to the West the greater part of its intellectual, political, and artistic heritage. For centuries Western education comprised the study of Greek and Latin and their surviving literary monuments. A familiarity with classics provided an understanding of the roots of Western culture, the key ideals, ideas, characters, stories, images, categories, and concepts that in turn made up a liberal education, or the training of the mind to exercise the independent, critical awareness necessary for a free citizen in a free republic.

Times of course have changed, and the study of Greek and Latin no longer occupies the central place it once held in the curriculum. Classics today is a small, shrinking university discipline kept alive, where it can be afforded, more because of prestige and tradition than because of a recognition of its central role in liberal education and in teaching the foundations of Western civilization. Yet at a time when Western civilization and its values are under assault, the need for classics is as urgent today as it was in the past. And people are still interested in antiquity: translations of classical texts continue to sell well, and popular films, Gladiator for instance, testify to an enduring fascination with the ancient Greeks and Romans. I hope that this brief introduction to classics will encourage students to study in more depth what Thomas Jefferson called a “sublime luxury,” the ancient Greek and Latin languages and literatures.

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