Why study the Classics?
Classics, the study of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as their wider Mediterranean context, is a wide-ranging discipline. It incorporates elements of history, archaeology, art, religion, mythology, philosophy, gender and queer studies, and numerous other disciplines. At its heart are the two main languages of the ancient Mediterranean world, Greek and Latin, and the literature written in those languages by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The study of Greece and Rome is central to Gonzaga's identity as a Jesuit, Catholic, and humanistic university. Ever since Ignatius of Loyola decided, as an adult, to take Latin with young children, the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans has been central to the Jesuit identity. The Jesuit respect for Classical Antiquity is part of the broader tradition in the West, where for millennia the study of the Classics was synonymous with education. Cicero, Virgil, Plato, and the other Classical authors have provided the primary texts through which countless people have come to know themselves, understand their world, and develop empathy for their fellow human beings. Latin and Greek remain essential languages for understanding the Catholic Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers. The humanist scholars of the Renaissance and Enlightenment were deeply inspired by the writings and deeds of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Students who take courses in the Classical Civilizations Department therefore place themselves in all of these traditions. They come to know more about the world of the ancients, their own world, and themselves.
This was one of the great maxims handed down by the Oracle of Delphi: γνῶθι σαυτόν, “know yourself.” The ancient Greeks were some of the earliest peoples to write down their stories and their thoughts. They developed a long tradition of grappling with the grand questions of human existence: life, death, love, the nature of the world and the soul. They’re the ones who coined the term “philosophy,” after all. Studying the Classics involves grappling with all of these questions and more. Students engage with some of the greatest thinkers and artists in history and thereby come to know themselves.
Know your world
We cannot understand the present without understanding the past. The impact of the ancient Greeks and Romans on our modern world cannot be overstated. Greece and Rome shaped the history of three continents: Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. The example of Rome in particular drove later Europeans to extend empires across the globe. The men and women who founded the United States took their primary inspiration from the ancient Romans and Athenians and modern Americans continue to look to Rome, with its geographically immense and culturally diverse population, for lessons in good and bad governance.
The same can be said of Greek and Roman literature and art. The Greeks and Romans invented nearly every literary genre that exists today and their legacy is still felt. Because the Classics were so central to education for so many centuries, later authors and artists are deeply indebted to the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Latin and Greek pepper the novels of writers as diverse as Austen and Tolstoy. Artists still strive to match the standard set by the sculptors, potters, painters, and other artisans of antiquity. The museums of the world are filled with art depicting the myths of Greece and Rome. Knowledge of the Classics deepens one’s understanding of the literature and art that surround us today.
Know beauty and joy
As Keats says in his classically-themed poem Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Students still read these millennia-old texts in part because they are important, but also because they are beautiful. Likewise, Greek pottery, Roman architecture, and the other arts can be studied for the pure joy that their beauty, craft, and precision create.
Why study Latin or Greek?
If Robert Frost is correct in saying, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” then an ability to read works in the original language restores poetry to literature. It removes all obstacles between the reader and the author. A student who knows Latin or Greek can read the exact words that Homer, Plato, Sappho, Caesar, or Virgil wrote themselves. Each language has its own beauty as well, one that can only be appreciated with study.
There are many other benefits. Some are very practical. English is full of words derived from Greek and Latin. A knowledge of either language greatly increases a student’s vocabulary, understanding, and command of English. In 2002 Latin students scored, on average, 20% better than the mean on the Verbal SAT.
Because Greek and Latin are complex languages with very different syntax and grammar from English, the traditional methods of Classical language instruction stress the fundamentals concepts of grammar and syntax in ways that few modern languages do. Students therefore learn a great deal about the principles of linguistics, principles that serve them well both in English and in any other language that they choose to learn. A Latin student in particular has an easy time learning any of the languages derived directly from Latin, such as Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Italian.
Furthermore, both languages are also passports to worlds other than ancient Greece and Rome. Greek is the language of the New Testaments and Latin remained the language of religion, art, culture, and science in western Europe for centuries. Students study Greek and Latin because of interests in theology, philosophy, law, medicine, political science, Biblical studies, patristics, the Byzantine empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, art, linguistics, rhetoric, music, literature, the humanities, the history of science, et cetera, et cetera.
Skills developed in studying the Classics
You can expect to develop the following capacities:
- The ability to read closely, carefully, and with deep understanding.
- The ability to think deeply and critically about the great questions of human existence.
- The ability to formulate research questions and seek out the answers.
- An enhanced ability to communicate, both orally and in writing.
More outcomes from studying the Classics:
- A sense of community, connection, and understanding with earlier generations stretching back millennia.
- An understanding of the Classical legacy that has shaped Europe, the world, and the United States in particular.
- A deeper appreciation of art and literature, both ancient and modern.