If you’ve been following the Art of Manliness for awhile now, you’ve likely caught on to the influence that the classical cultures of Greece and Rome exert on a lot of our content. We promote an idea of “manliness as virtue” that was espoused by both of these ancient civilizations. And there’s a reason for that: In college, I majored in “Letters” — a degree program connected with the Classics Department. I studied Latin and took classes on the history of freedom in both ancient Greece and Rome. I read and discussed the Greek tragedies and even took an entire course on Ovid. It’s during this time that I developed a deep and lasting love for classical culture; despite having graduated from college nearly ten years ago, I’m still reading and pondering the works of Homer, Plato, and Cicero.
An understanding of the culture, philosophy, and literature of antiquity has greatly enhanced my life, and it’s an education I think every man should be well-versed in. Even if you didn’t study the classics in high school or college, there’s a case to be made that you should begin doing so now. Below are eight reasons why every man should dive into the classics, as well as a list of suggested works to get you started.
1. Enhances your cultural literacy.
Do you know what it means when someone is said to be facing a choice “between Charybdis and Scylla”? Do you understand the reference to someone having “crossed the Rubicon”? Does it make sense to you to hear Alexander Hamilton called the “American Cicero”?
Western culture is infused with references to the history and literature of classical Greece and Rome. With just a passing allusion to an ancient myth or story, an artist, author, or statesman can pack a mighty rhetorical punch. But for that punch to land, the audience must have fluency in the symbols and ideas of the classical era.
Unfortunately, because fewer and fewer people study the classics in high school or college, fewer and fewer are able to grasp the significance of classical allusions in literature, poems, and even film. Without that cultural knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, these folks are missing out on a much richer and deeper intellectual and emotional encounter with these works. Heck, even watching a movie like O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? is more enjoyable when you’re well-versed in Homer’s Odyssey.
If you’d like to make art and even politics more vibrant and vital in your life, then start boning up on the ancient classics. You’ll be amazed at the new insights you’ll uncover in your favorite books or movies, and you’ll be better able to engage in meaningful dialogue with your family, friends, and community:
2. Allows you to take part in the “Great Conversation.”
When the famous Great Books curriculum was created in the 1930s at the University of Chicago, its purpose was to acquaint students with the primary source texts that had played a fundamental role in shaping Western thought and culture. University president Robert M. Hutchins wanted Americans to be able to take part in what he called “the Great Conversation.” For him, this universal dialogue was made up of the deep discussions which form around the philosophical pursuit of Truth, which began with the ancient Greeks and continues today.
Topics of the Great Conversation concern the Big Ideas that philosophers, theologians, and artists have been mulling over for thousands of years. What is justice? What is true friendship? What is love? What is honor? How do you live a good life?
Like any discussion that you take part in, to actively participate in the Great Conversation, you need to have an idea of what’s already been said; you don’t want to be the guy who jumps in and blurts out things that make no sense. Lots of people today are willing to state their opinion on the Big Ideas in life without having taken the time to study the threads of discussion that have come before them. They think they’re contributing to the conversation, but they come off like anyone who jumps into a discussion without bothering to get filled in on what’s already been said — their thoughts are fragmentary, out-of-turn, needlessly repetitive, and lacking in context.
Getting “filled in” on the Great Conversation requires you to go back and read the ancient classics. For example, to understand any philosophers from the 18th, 19th, and 20thcenturies, you first have to achieve an understanding of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. No philosophy exists in a vacuum; rather, all philosophers have been having an extended conversation with each other for thousands of years, whether explicitly or implicitly. And the origin of this conversation traces back to ancient Athens. Once you’ve got this foundation down, from there you can see how successive philosophers have added, transformed, and rebutted what came out of that city-state. And then, at last, you can start making your own constructive contributions to the Great Conversation.
3. Allows you to see the interconnectedness of ideas.
Our educational system has become increasingly specialized. We’ve created artificial barriers between different fields of study. When you’re in history, you largely just focus on history. When you’re studying physics, you mostly focus on physics. Historian Richard Weaver referred to this as the “fragmentation” of knowledge.
But when you read the classics, those walls disappear. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, all knowledge was interconnected. When you read The Histories by Herodotus, you’ll see him connect historical events to political theory, anthropology, and even geography. Plato doesn’t just muse about Truth, Justice, and Beauty, but also math and physics. The Roman Stoics weren’t just interested in learning how to live in alignment with Nature, but also how to govern empires and interact with people you don’t get along with…