The Importance of being Classical

Graham Wilson

For over two thousand years study of the classics was the touchstone of western education. From second century Rome until today schoolchildren all over the world have been coerced into learning Latin and Greek, reading Plato and Cicero, and acting Euripides and Sophocles. In our country alone the majority of prime ministers have drawn upon a wealth of classical knowledge drilled into them from their first days at school. If the lessons of ancient Greece and Rome have served us well until now, why is it then that today knowledge of the classical world is regarded as a fringe subject at best? 

Take the paragraph above as an example. It is a fairly unremarkable piece of English prose yet without the preservation of the classics it would be nigh unreadable. ‘Majority’, ‘century’, ‘served’, ‘subject’, one thing all these words have in common is that they derive from Latin roots. Even in our daily discourse we cannot escape the long shadow of Rome two millennia on from its heyday. If we want to even begin to attempt an understanding of our own language, grammar, and syntax then we have to recognise the importance of classical linguistics. It has often been stated that communication is the key to success and communication is nothing but the use of language. If we do not understand the words that come out of our mouths, if we cannot attach meaning to these verbal patterns then language ceases to be nothing more than a series of noises. Language is formed by history and I think it would be fair to say that words are formed out of necessity. If this is the case then to understand modern English a rudimental knowledge of Latin and Greek is required to use our own curious Latin-Germanic dialect to its fullest use. One only has to take a look at a list of the great writers of the English language; Tennyson, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Chaucer, Pope – one thing all these men share in common is firm grasp on something people now have the temerity to label a dead language. 

However, enough etymology (from the Greek etumologia by the way) for now. Gallons of ink have been spilt on the subject but for those looking to find classical meaning in today’s world it is the tip of an iceberg that stretches down to the depths of the seabed. These subjects from the keystone of almost all academic thought and dialogue and to assert otherwise is both foolish and rash. To continue with the architectural analogy if one were to take a stroll through the centre of any major British city they would within minutes come across some grand neo-classical edifice which, by and large, is regarded as a showpiece building of that city. The Edinburgh New Town, the crescents of Regency Bath, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Square in Glasgow, I could go on but this is not Buzzfeed and at Diss, we do not do list journalism, as it stands I think the point is made. A similar trend can be noticed in the great buildings of Europe, albeit these constructions were usually a product of empire but this too further serves to demonstrate the value of the classical style. It says something that western culture sought to emulate Rome time and time again all the way up to the Victorian era, and when these nations were at a point when they controlled vast swathes of the globe, they chose this form to erect their own monuments in. Great countries build great buildings, and the greatest countries chose Rome and Greece as their model. 
If one needed more to prove the value of the classics then I would direct them not to Europe, but instead to turn their gaze across the Atlantic and point towards America. If one really wants to understand the American dream, to delve into the fabric of the world’s most powerful and influential country then a firm grasp of all things classical is required. When Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson sat down to form their constitution they had one thing on their mind and that was Rome.  Take a search on Google images for the Capitol Building, the US Treasury Building and the Lincoln Memorial. Look at those pillared porticoes, the pediments, the straight lines carved in almost translucent white stone. These are the buildings of the Republic, but not the Republic of Rome but that of America. The American legislature is not a House of Commons but a senate. The symbol of America, adorning these edifices across D.C. and beyond, is an eagle, a device which two thousand years ago would have topped the standards of legions marching their way across the Danube to take on Germanic tribes. These were men raised on stories of Marcus Aurelius and Caesar, of Brutus and Augustus, and they held the principles of those men in such high regard they were prepared to found a whole county on those ideals. The point is this; even if we do not care about ancient Greece and Rome, even if you argued that that era was of no importance whatsoever, these men did feel it was and their decision to do so was important as it has formed the entire shape of the modern world around, and thus our own lives with it.

All through history leaders have sought to emulate Rome and this fixation it has had on their minds has rocked the course of civilisation and is part of the reason of why we sit now, where we do, doing what we are doing. Pick most spheres of life, or academic disciplines and it becomes swiftly apparent they would be unrecognisable without the ground work and influence of a thousand years of classical civilisation. Poetry, law, art, religion, medicine, history, politics, physics, chemistry, and maths would have utterly different schools of thought, terminology, rates of development and effects on the world had we had not always had that classical blueprint there to give us a pre-conceived parameter of both what these things should be and the direction they should take. Even the basic ethics of human civilisation, the way we interact with each other and the way we think about our place in the universe would still be unanswered questions had not Plato, Socrates and Aristotle distilled their thoughts into writing. Basic human rights, the way we govern ourselves, the very emotions we feel and the entertainment we seek out could not exist had the men in togas got there first.  This of course is a subject which cannot be exhausted and here I have merely sketched around the outlines. 
I shall leave you with one last example though. The next time you sit down to watch your favourite TV show remember this; had not a group of religious fanatics in fifth century Athens sat down one day and decided to invent acting, comedy, drama and the theatre all in one fell swoop you would not be watching anything at all. Now there’s something to think about during the boring bits of The Walking Dead. 

Graham Wilson

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