I recently met up with a friend of very long standing who, when he saw the copy of Plato’s Symposium sticking out of my pocket, remarked: “I remember you telling me in about 1991 that classics was all a lot of posh people’s rubbish.”
I’d certainly edited that out of my less-than-total recall. The hot cringe is going to stick with me a while, though.
Because I changed my mind. Bring back the classics! Make them compulsory. Smack them straight into the heart of the national curriculum. As new figures show abysmally low levels of fluency in foreign languages among British school pupils, why not hitch the language engine of Latin to the curriculum? This is potent, practical ancient knowledge. If we must use the contemporary vernacular of social justice, it empowers you.
I can see, just about, how I came to my erroneous forgotten opinion. In the days before the internet, at the time that remark was made, it could be extremely irritating to be learning about something (or even just reading for pleasure anything from before about 1960) and bash into a Latin tag or a classical allusion, often dropped casually in as if you were expected to know it. Finding out what it meant entailed searching, not with Google but an actual physical search with your hands and arms among libraries and indices. It can very rapidly make you feel that classics is an arcane code used by salt-of-the-earth men of the people like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But that’s no excuse nowadays when a couple of clicks can provide detail before you can say Hermes Trismegistus. The reason posh people clung, and to a lesser extent still cling, to the classics is not (or not entirely) as some device to keep out the plebs, it’s because they know it’s the most useful general knowledge. It acts as a bedrock for anything else you want to learn about, and it gives you invaluable insight into why we think the way we think. The western world seems a lot less arbitrary and perplexing when you understand the ancient underpinnings of our culture, from drama to history to the law. And that goes for modern languages too — Latin gives you the ground rules to waltz through French, Italian and Spanish, and smaller but still significant boosters in German. You can’t progress if you don’t know where you’re progressing from.
And if you’re inclined to smash the system? Good news, classics is for you too! It’s impossible to get a good grip on Marx without first understanding Aristotle, the daddy deconstructionist. Classics was a pillar of the establishment not because it’s inherently of the Establishment but because it gave the Establishment strength.
You stand a much better shot at pulling down or blowing up the foundations of Western civilisation if you know where they are and what they are. Otherwise you’re just throwing little pebbles at a ground floor window.
Of course in the real world this policy stands zero chance of being taken up, and the first objection if it was mooted would be that classics is the product of a lot of dead white European males. This is true. It’s true and it doesn’t matter. In the sane and adult world where this policy is immediately adopted, ideas aren’t reduced through prisms of racial or sex identity. They aren’t accepted or discarded because they happened to originate in a particular place or at a particular time, or because of what the person who wrote them down most probably looked like. Because that would obviously be nonsense.
The second objection as this policy got shot down in flames would be that classics is boring, and all about conjugating irregular verbs of a dead language. If you hold to this, you’ve almost certainly been taught wrong. It’s the juiciest of all subjects. Mythology was literally the popular culture of the ancient world, enduring for centuries, and it’s packed with things children love to hear about — and need to hear about, to orientate themselves for adulthood — including sex, transgression, madness, murder, death, betrayal and horror.
At a time when youngsters are looking for meaning in Harry Potter or the Marvel cinematic universe here’s a ready-made, road-tested package of stories about gods, heroes and monsters that have lasted over millennia precisely because they tap right into the eternal concerns of the human brain, reflecting all our anxieties and delights, and more often than not showing us why we are the way we are through the representation of our hang-ups and our pleasures. And they come with a pleasing lack of moral judgment to further sweeten the pill.
It isn’t just in the academic sphere that classics would help kids. A good old-fashioned classical education is therapeutic too. We obsess over what goes into children’s mouths while blithely filling their brains up with meaningless platitudes like ‘love is love’ and ‘everybody’s special’, and then we wonder why they become neurotic and withdrawn. No more. Let us cast aside trite inspirational Facebook quote memes and vague self-esteem affirmations and equip our children with the hard wisdom of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. We talk a lot about how we don’t talk about our mental well-being. A philosophical five-a-day campaign would get us talking about it less, but much more usefully.
If we have to move into a post-Christian crisis of meaning in the West, and it looks like that’s inevitable, picking up off the shelf the tested wisdom of the pre-Christian world is a better bet than looking to be guided by nebulous nostrums dreamed up in 2014. Let’s give our children the knowledge that lived in Carthage, though they might live in Croydon.