Classics Makes Me Happy. Is That Enough?
Helen Wong

Anyone who has read the Western Classics knows just how bloody and often ridiculous they are. Every culture has its backstory. It is often edited and interpreted to suit the times. This is easier to track in a literate culture like the one revealed by the Classics. Studying the old texts is one way of keeping us honest. The Classics are the backstory of the Europeans, and it is the Europeans who created much of our modern world’s material culture and had an outsized impact on politics and history. Look at a street scene in modern China or Nigeria or Argentina, and you’ll see people walking around in what the Romans called “Germanic garb” when they tried to suppress it.

If you want to understand the modern world, you have to understand the Europeans. To understand the Europeans, it pays to understand their founding myths. The Egyptians may have invented Western writing and the Phoenicians the alphabet, but it was the Greeks who spread their culture across the Mediterranean and as far as the Indus Valley under Alexander. The Romans created a Mediterranean and European empire. Its ancient road system still provides the outline for the modern transportation system in Europe and its legal system underpins modern European law. This web page is encoded in IOS-Latin, Latin being the language of the Romans. An unlicensed religion the Romans failed to suppress has over a billion followers even today. (Is there a theme here? You’d imagine the Romans were good at suppressing things.)

The Classics have a bad reputation. For one thing, they were at the center of the liberal arts, where liberal once meant liberated from having to earn a living. Higher education was always elitist, at least until the GI Bill in the 1940s. They are also hard. Ancient Latin and Ancient Greek are full of declensions and specialized rules. Worse, there are no living native speakers and you can’t just go for a visit. Every text has a thick layer of interpretation and exegesis, and we know countless texts were lost.

The cultures of the Classics are both alien and familiar. I once pointed out on an internet forum how contemporary the ancient Romans seem. Lucian’s two soldiers “on final” with the two bar maids could be a modern comedy skit if you updated the weapons used in the bragging. Then I was reminded by one Tracy Lightcap:

One of my students wanted me to describe the Romans once. My reply: “Take any fairly patriotic American citizen, then subtract charity and mercy.” Then he asked about the Greeks. My reply: “The Greeks were weird, nothing like us at all. Don’t even try to make analogies with them.”

The Classics tell an interesting story. I’m glad you’ve reconciled yourself with your major. The Classics have been used both to reinforce and to critique Western culture, and they always welcome a fresh eye. I wish you a good journey.