Twain tells us that Huckleberry Finn, that quintessential American, was fascinated with the Biblical story of Moses. But it soon dawned on Huck "that Moses had been dead a considerable long time." With that, Huckleberry informs us, "I didn't care no more about him; because I don't take no stock in dead people." Since making the case for learning "dead" languages is, arguably, harder than making the case for learning about Moses, what in the world can contemporary Americans say in favor of Greek and Latin?
The first answer everyone seems to give is the one that is in the papers each week: the study of ancient languages, especially Latin, is useful in building English vocabulary, thus helping to raise our children's SAT scores. We read it, and we wince. Is this how low the mighty have fallen? Is the real competitor to Cicero no longer Catiline but Stanley Kaplan and the quickie cram course?
Or sometimes we read that the best reason for learning Latin is simply that it is tough -- it teaches "rigorous discipline," it "exercises the mind." For what end? Well, so valuable is the rigor of classical learning that I recently heard of a teacher who promotes Latin as good mental training for future computer buffs. A kind of warm-up exercise for the real stuff. O tempora! Such narrow and merely utilitarian arguments are perhaps why a majority of Latin students drop the language after only one year. Surely we need to know the value of these ancient studies, but is there nothing good the classics have to offer beyond vocabulary building, pretechnical training and the academic equivalent of Marine boot camp?
So let us begin a defense of the Ancients with the least popular of all contemporary academic reasons: we read the Ancients because they are ours. These languages and their books, their plays, their modes of thought have helped form not only our contemporary speech but our politics, our literature, our history and the shape of our civilization. If we are to know ourselves, we must know our own. Despite glib talk in certain circles that insists our first job is to open our minds to the understanding of other cultures and ways of life, if we fail to know our own civilization -- its hopes, its principles, its reasons and its greatness -- we will not be able to make comparisons that are even worth a dime.
These dead languages and the civilization they embrace are ours: they formed us, almost as deeply as have Christianity and the Bible. To give a small example, not too long ago I picked up my copy of the Federalist Papers and turned to one of James Madison's attacks on the opponents of the Constitution. In defending the new Republic, Madison mentions, in the space of about two pages, Minos, Theseus, Numa, Tullius Hostilius, Brutus, Servius Tullius, Romulus, Crete, the Locrians, Rome, Athens, Sparta and the Achaean League. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, was just as much at home in Greek and Latin as he was in English and French. But the Federalist Papers were not essays written for a convention of classics professors. They were newspaper articles, read on the street.
In forging this new nation, this Novus Ordo Seclorum (you can read these words in Virgil and on the back of a dollar bill), any number of Americans knew their Athens, their Rome, their Republicanism and their Latin, and knew them as something living, not dead. The problems of Athenian democracy were not far from our own problems. Socrates' questions about human excellence are still our questions.
Nevertheless, the Ancients are not completely ours. If the thoughts of antiquity mirror our own in all or even most particulars, if we are their direct and exact descendants, then there is less, not more, reason to study them. Or if the progress of the human mind was such that the Romans and Greeks were mental children and we are smarter, more thoughtful adults, then looking back is merely an antiquarian affectation. It is only because Homer and Herodotus and Cicero and Socrates are like us, but not exactly, that they are worthy of attention. Locke, Madison, Marx and Nietzsche would not have been possible without the civilization and politics that stemmed from Plato and Aristotle. But they are not Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, their conversations with the Ancients are profound debates, arguments that take seriously the alternatives defended by those who lived before modernity. Arthur Miller is not Sophocles. Sophocles has a different insight into human tragedy from the tragedy of Willy Loman. That's why we read Sophocles. In the Ancients we see parts of ourselves more clearly, yet refracted slightly differently. And we see this other side in texts and through languages that move us from within.
Properly taught, the classics inhabit the best of all possible worlds. They can appeal to the desire to know ourselves, to see the roots of our principles, ideas and culture and, at the same time, to see who we are not. People who speak as the Romans did are not the people we meet every day. The examples of Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Priam, Penelope and Antigone teach thoughts that resonate, yet are still disquieting.
I once met a professor of Latin who taught Roman literature with great misgivings. The Romans kept talking about such unmodern notions as manliness, virtue, the deepest of friendships, nobility, baseness, revenge, honor. It made him uneasy. This unease, not vocabulary building or the chance to play in togas, is the true value of Latin and Greek.
Yes, we can learn "about" the Ancients and become pedantic. We can do our Latin declensions and hope to jump up a notch on the college boards. Or we can try to learn some things from the Ancients, and do it in their languages and with their ears, and become broader, less provincial and more deeply educated. Despite all our contemporary pride, they still might have the best books.
There is one thing more to say, and it has to do not with searching for truth but with beauty. The ancient languages and their poems and plays and dialogues have unrivaled charm, power and grace. They have the singular ability to help us free ourselves from vulgarity. I do not mean "vulgar" in the Roman sense of "common." The Greeks had a more insightful word for vulgarity. They referred to it as apeirokalia, the lack of experience with things that are beautiful. The Parthenon, Euripides, the perfection of each Platonic dialogue, the sound of Greek sentences -- all these have the power to raise us up, not simply our vocabulary scores. It hardly qualifies as the most practical argument to make, but as we work over our Latin declensions, difficult as they might be, we might soon get the sense of something precise, something proportioned, something noble, something truly beautiful. Salve. The writer is deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.