“And what are you up to now?” they ask politely.
“Oh — I study Classics,” you say, a little apologetically.
They look a bit bewildered. Sometimes they venture a guess: “Classical music?” “Shakespeare?” Even — “Classic cars?” (I’ve had that one myself.)
“No,” you say patiently. “Classics. It’s the study of the civilisations of the ancient world. You know, ancient Greece and Rome. I read their literature, study the history, that sort of thing.”
Now the look of polite bewilderment has turned into incredulity. “You mean you actually read ancient Greek?” they say. Your heart sinks. You can feel the question coming. You ready yourself for it. And then it happens.
“So tell me – why do you study a dead language?”
Every student of Latin or Greek has to learn to cope with this question. Not only that, they have to have an answer ready to draw from their pockets whenever it’s sprung upon them – and believe me, it happens in the places you least expect it. I’ve been accosted with it everywhere from petrol stations and driving tests to job interviews. So how do you give friends, colleagues and potential employers the sure-fire answer to exactly why you study Classics – one that will bowl them over with your intelligence and wit, and, at the same time, show them that the study of the ancient world is still absolutely relevant?
Read on for a couple of ideas that should get you started the next time someone drops the ‘Why Classics’ question.
A good one to start with is the basic fact that ancient Greek and Latin are fantastic toolkits for understanding language better. Few of us have a good understanding of English grammar – after all, we’re brought up speaking it, not reciting verb tables. When you learn Greek and Latin grammar, you start to learn your own grammar at the same time; which means you get to be the annoying person who always corrects everyone else’s syntax. There’s also the fact that the roots of so many English words come from ancient Greek and Latin, which gives you a huge advantage in knowing fancy words other people don’t (it also helps in winning Balderdash). And many of the Romance languages – Italian, Spanish, French – are descended from Latin, making it hugely easier to pick them up once you’ve got a bit of Latin behind you.
Another big advantage of learning Greek and Latin is that it broadens your perspective on language more generally. With English so widespread in the modern world, it’s a humbling and valuable experience to try to get under the skin of another language from scratch. It makes us appreciate what foreign speakers go through when they try to learn our language. And it invites us to begin to understand how relative language is to culture – how different cultures have different words to express the concepts that mean something to them, and how we can begin to understand them in our own languages and our own ways.
Anyone who’s done any ancient Greek will confirm this for you in a heartbeat: to learn a dead language, you need to have a highly sharpened sense of logic. The only way you can possibly learn all those irregular verbs is to get a grip on the patterns underlying their structure. I still have my grammar notes from school with all the different conjugations of Greek verbs colour-coded according to tense, person, voice and mood! Let’s just say you have to learn logic pretty quickly to wrap your head around Classics. It’s a quality that’s highly valued in many professions, from finance to business to law – and it’s something that learning Latin and Greek gives you the chance to develop early on.
A Broad Expertise
When people ask you exactly what Classics is, their first guess when you tell them you study Ancient Greece and Rome is normally, in my experience, that you read the literature of the Greeks and Romans (most people have usually heard of Homer). But all of us know that Classics is so much more than that. Studying Classics, you can be expected to know everything from the style of Alexander the Great’s hairdo and how it was depicted on coins, to the philosophical arguments of Socrates, to the origins of modern language in Indo-European roots, as well as some pretty funky myths. We do everything from language, literature and linguistics to philosophy, history, art and archaeology; and it’s one of the things which I think sets Classics apart. It’s hard to find many other subjects that ask you for such a broad skill set – which means that Classics can provide invaluable training for a whole range of different interests.
Understanding Historical Patterns
Isaac Newton, the famous physicist, once remarked that, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (His comment is also etched around the edge of two pound coins, just in case you need to whip it out at unexpected moments.) The quotation goes to the heart of history and why we study it. Not only do our historical and cultural achievements rest on the discoveries of the past, as Newton put it; our mistakes are, more often than not, repetitions of the mistakes that were also made by the figures of history. By “standing on the shoulders of giants”, as Newton did, we gain an invaluable perspective on the way that history unfolds, in both good times and bad. The opportunity Classics provides us with is particularly unique in this respect. We can look back to the past from our present vantage point, survey the Classical period and the enormous impact it had on later European civilisation. And we can also climb up onto the shoulders of some of the Classical giants – Cicero, Homer, Augustus – and get inside their heads. What was Augustus thinking when he fought the Battle of Actium and defeated the last remaining opponent to his rule and brought about the end of the Republic? Who was Homer, and why did he decide to commemorate the story of Achilles’ wrath? Why did Cicero make the choices he did – and how would modern politicians face similar dilemmas?
And so this brings me to my final point: the way in which Classics enables us to learn from the past. Some scholars would disagree, but it is my belief that, whilst cultures and historical events may change around us, humans remain largely the same. By comparing ourselves to the people of the past, we can begin to explore how and if humans change. We can start to investigate what we share: what interests us, what we’re passionate about, what we find frightening, what motivates us, what we hate, what we love. We can start to understand what it is that makes us human, and explore the big questions that ultimately underpin every search for knowledge in every book that has ever filled the shelves of a library: the question of why we’re here, how agency and history (or free will and fate, put it whichever way you like) interact, what, if anything, is our relationship to the divine, and, last but not least, the question of how to live the good life.
Now that, I think, is something worth learning. Wouldn’t you agree?