Saturday, February 18, 2017

Climbing Parnassus

I put a bunch of books on my Amazon gift list that looked interesting based on their similarity to other books. For Christmas, Tim purchase a few of the books for me. One was Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin by Tracy Lee Simmons. With a name like that and a foreword by William F. Buckley Jr., I had high hopes. Fortunately the book delivered. It really changed my thinking in some ways, which is saying a lot. Usually books simply reinforce my views. This one actually made a convincing argument to which I was previously unconvinced.

I'm beginning to learn Latin.

That's kind of big, because, seriously, who learns Latin at my age? What even is the point? Right? Well that's the power of the argument made by Simmons.

The book was written in 2000, so the ideas, while not exactly promulgated yesterday, are still current and modern concerns. He begins the introduction with an indictment of modern education. "Education, that vague and official word for what goes on in our schools, has also been a trinket on the shelves of snake oil salesmen and a plaything for social planners in America for well over a century. They too have been driven by the spirit of ceaseless innovation. And we have paid a high price. The peddlers have shrouded the higher and subtler goals of learning which former generations accepted and promoted. These bringers of the New have traded in the ancient ideal of wisdom for a spurious "adjustment" of mind, settling for fitting us with the most menial of skills needful for the world of the interchangeable part. They have decided we are less, not more, than wiser people have hoped humanity might become. We are masses to be housed and fed, not minds and souls seeking something beyond ourselves." (p. 3-4)

Quite an indictment. "Masses to be housed and fed, not minds and souls seeking something beyond ourselves." Whoa. I have often said, that to the Left, people are pets. Masses to be housed and fed - not individuals with hopes and dreams every bit as important as those of the elites who want to be in charge. Then along comes Simmons to reinforce my point. 

His solution? Classical education. This he defines as "a curriculum grounded upon — if not strictly limited to — Greek, Latin, and the study of the civilizations from which they arose." (p. 15) It is not just a study of ancient wisdom, but also the languages which these cultures employed. This is where I began to think, "Well it's good enough just to study the cultures and their writings, but obviously the languages themselves are not critical. That's why we have translations." I was fully prepared to accept most of his argument, but the actual learning of the languages was another story.

The title comes from an Ancient Greek concept of scaling the highest mountain in Greece. "Climbing Parnassus once helped to form the unformed mind. The arduous ascent fostered intellectual and aesthetic culture within those who had endured the strain." (p. 20) It's hard, but ultimately satisfying. This he compares to Classical education. By studying the ancient languages as well, the student is immersed in the aesthetic and intellectual culture.

Simmons raises the bar for the purpose of education to a very high level. "Liberal education ought to aim not just at furnishing the mind with serviceable knowledge and information, nor even at habituating the mind to rational methods, but at leading it to wisdom, to a quality of knowledge tempered by experienced and imbued with understanding. It should, in a word, humanize... Liberal education civilizes. It transforms us. We are better for having run its course." (p. 30) To be truly educated, learning must speak to both the mind and the soul. "The Western mind elevated this mighty philosophical aim into an ideal. The inner takes precedence over the outer, the mind and soul compose an inseparable whole, and both are fed or starved together. No option exists to train the mind alone without producing soul-deep consequences." (p. 50-51) 

"What was to be the result of all this strenuous philosophical effort? The wise citizen fit to govern first himself and then — and only then — to govern others. Precisely in this way does one become free through liberal learning: first, by acquiring the right habits; second, by intellectual strain, by learning to apprehend the Beautiful and the Good with the mind. And the mind then confirms what the soul has already learned. One can become intellectually powerful, of course, without those right habits, but what good is that? The object of the ancients was not a programmable raticinative machine. It was the cultured man or woman." (p. 59) This is the only kind of education that leads to free people. 

Modern education has given up on transmitting the values of Western Civilization. While "education" is held as a high value, no one can define what that means. Once a standard has been tossed, it's open season on what will replace it. And every opinion is just as valid as another. Modern education has created a well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed mob. The society is not longer convinced that its culture is worthy of survival. He quotes Robert Hutchins, who writes that a "system that denies the existence of values denies the possibility of education. Relativism, scientism, skepticism, and anti-intellectualism, the four horsemen of the philosophical apocalypse, have produced that chaos in education which will end in the disintegration of the West." (p. 42)

But why Greek and Latin? Why do those languages and eras have such an impact on education? "Whereas the Greeks had learned only Greek, the Romans went on to learn both Latin and Greek — and the pattern was set: to be fully educated, enculturated man in the Greco-Roman world on had to know both tongues." (p. 62) He goes on to argue, "Together Greek and Latin constituted a lingua franca for the educated, one that endured for well over a millennium that witnessed colossal turns in the life of the Western world. Indeed they survived the very nations to which they had once given voice. The classical language stood as a sign — and, some thought, a guarantor — of permanence." (p. 72) In 1834, when educators began to make a case for the removal of the classical languages, English headmaster Thomas Arnold stated, "Expel Greek and Latin from your schools, and you confine the views of the existing generations to themselves and their immediate predecessors; you will cut off many centuries of the world's experience, and ... place us in the same state as if the human race had come into existence in the year 1500." (p. 72) Today, it is worse. Today we are confined to an existence that began yesterday. 

Simmons goes on to describe the educational system of the early Greeks and Romans. Education began at home. Here they learned the language, their "letters," and the poets. At around age 7 they went off to Grammar school to gain a more formal knowledge of the grammar of the language through "constant, pulverizing drill and numbing recitation," (p. 74) where no adult cared about stifling the child's inner creativity. Next came the study of literature, specifically poetry. No one cared about "appreciation." It was the student's job to know the material, not to criticize it. "Here was brass tacks schooling, no-frills and rigorous, where the student was set to acquiring a body of knowledge — in this case, literary and cultural knowledge. No one bothered about what we call skills of 'critical thinking,' which came naturally to anyone successfully navigating this course of study. Critical thinking was a result, not a target, of classical education." (p. 75) "So the teaching was strict, the learning hard. But waiting at the far end of the journey would be civilized human beings, citizens who had learned what their culture was about and what it needed to conserve." (p. 80)

This form of education continued from the classical times throughout the middle ages and into the modern era. During that time, Christianity became fused with it, marrying its theology to the eternal search for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. But widespread, mandatory education made it increasingly difficult to maintain the rigor required. And when the "War to end all Wars" erupted, idealism became a casualty. "Heroism was dead, at least for the time being, as was the ideal of the gentleman. So was 'useless' knowledge. A new world waited to be built. Time had run out for the niceties of learning the words of the dead. The prism of classics sharpened the colors of the world no longer. Tags of classical quotation began to fall on deaf, uninstructed ears." (p. 147)

In the 1930s Albert Nock began to call for a return the classical style and aims of education. But the teaching of something previously abandoned required an argument for it implementation. It was no longer taken for granted that educated people knew their Latin and Greek. The argument took two forms. The first was a cultural literacy premise. A Classical education was necessary to interact with all of Western Civilization that had come before. Others, however, took the position that a Classical education was necessary to the formation of a human soul. This second notion is the harder argument to make. It feels undemocratic to "form" human beings. It's hard to measure, and it can fall victim to the philosophy of the one who does the forming. Yet it is this argument Simmons believes is the stronger. We no longer form humans. Our society is the poorer for it.

In making the contemporary case for the study of the classics and classical languages, Simmons states, "The glorious struggle is all a part — and an indispensable part — of climbing Parnassus. Thus do we learn both to freshen and strengthen our minds so as to be worthy conduits of high thought, eloquence, and, at the very least, clarity: not bad for one minute's, one hour's, or even one lifetime's, work. We are changed by it." (p. 179) 

To point out the need to study classic languages in order to better communicate in our native tongue, Simmons references a particularly bad piece of modern writing. He points out how far we have fallen from our Classical roots. He calls today's writing "the murky, self-important lingo emanating from the lit. crit. seminar in English departments. It doesn't exist to communicate anything to the cultivated mind. It exists to confuse and impress the easily bamboozled, uneducated, fee-paying sycophants. It pretends to profundity, but it's tripe. Language like this is not hatched for civilized people." (p. 184) What an indictment!

To make the point even more clear, he quotes C.S. Lewis at length concerning the education achieved without knowledge of the classical languages. Lewis calls the dichotomy the Optative and the Parthenon. One focuses on the construction of Greek, they other on subject matter content. "When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn't care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn't care for it, and he knows he hasn't got it. But the other fails most disastrously when it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can't construe. It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to be intellectual without intellect." (p. 188)

As the rigor and logical rules of math form the mind to think rationally and clearly, Latin and Greek "give us codes of clarity and fluency." (p. 164) Simmons goes on to argue that Latin and Greek are the best way to learn our native tongue. "Greek and Latin were so taught for so many centuries because they were not native. Their very strangeness and dissimilarity to modern languages made them a unique, irreplaceable tool of teaching for those who would comprehend the workings of language en tout. The object was to gain an understanding of words from the inside, affording the learner an intimate familiarity with their separate and diverse natures." (p. 164-165) "Any student who has invested strenuous years with Latin, both reading and writing it, will own an obvious edge with English over those who haven't. Not only has that student learned what the words mean, he has learned what they have meant; he has seen them jostling and lounging in their original habitat. They've gamboled at his feet." (p. 168) Such a fluency of language could help avoid the meaningless quarrels arising from misunderstood and misused words.

In America, we rightly revere our Founding Fathers, "when people in power did what needed to be done about as well as you can imagine its being possible." (p. 199) We cannot separate them from their Classical education. These men knew their Latin and Greek and the civilizations that produced them. "Never have so many of the wise and well-read come together to do great things; never have book learning and practical experience combined to show the ignorant and cynical forevermore what the human mind and spirit can do when properly formed. Such wisdom cannot be manufactured for the moment — nor can it be aped. It must be cultivated. And it has to come from somewhere." (p. 200) John Adams relates a time when he decided to give up his classical studies. His dad told him that he could dig ditches instead. After a few days of arduous labor, he went back to school. Later in life, he concluded that he owed all he became to that ditch. "If we wish to understand the Founding Fathers from within, we should heed one simple axiom. Don't merely read about them; read what they read — as they read it." (p. 210)

When we look at great sentences, like "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that in order to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed..." that we can really see the majesty of their classical education. These few words contain so many large ideas, concentrated into the most melodic language, encapsulated in a single sentence. Who writes like that today? Who thinks like that? Who can boil down eternal truths, connect them together, and make the case for them like that? Today we are incapable of coming up with a similarly powerful sentiment simply because we do not have the education they had. We do not have the teachers they had. We do not have teachers with the teachers they had. Those men were able to stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants and see farther because they had been bequeathed a magnificent heritage, stretching back to and encompassing the best that humanity had to offer from the previous eons. At best, we can at least start the process. But, at best we are 100 years or more from producing anything like our Founding Fathers. 

The Classics deserve a standing "beyond use." We cannot know what a child will become. "We cannot know early on what kinds of minds and souls are waiting to develop amongst the young we teach. Not all of them may be fit as lawyers, surgeons, or software salesmen; greatness of other kinds may lie ahead for some — if only they be given the climbing gear early enough so as to help them make their own way. The impact of knowledge is impossible to predict. But this we can know: Ignorance is no asset, and the empty, formless mind is surely a positive liability. Few qualities can be more useful whatever one's future may hold, than the fortified mind." (p. 213-214)

In making the final argument for the Classics, Simmons points to classically educated authors Eliot, Auden, and Lewis. " 'To lose what I owe to Plato and Aristotle would be like the amputation of a limb,' Lewis said. 'Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek.' " (p. 223)  To compare the loss of anything to losing a limb strikes me as the ultimate endorsement. That simply cannot be said for anything in education today.

"English essayist William Hazlitt wrote that it is hard to find within people formed intellectually by means other than a classical education 'either a real love of excellence, or a belief that any excellence exists superior to their own. Everything is brought down to the vulgar level of their own ideas and pursuits.' ... An education saturating anyone in these great works of the classical past cannot help but enhance the minds and hearts of those enduring it. Our horizons broaden. We not only learn of principles discovered two or three millennia ago, we begin to grasp them. We become bigger, more tolerant, more generous. We grow up." (p. 228)

He continues to make a very strong case until the end of the book.

He convinced me. 

But the most persuasive argument was simply writing this summary. I found it better to quote him time and again because what he wrote was so succinct and perfectly encapsulated his thought. The clarity of his writing became even more clear in trying to summarize it. In short, I really couldn't. I could have quoted the entire book and just about did. 

I want to be that kind of writer.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary and very convincing concerning the importance of a classical education