What You Miss By Not Reading the Literature of Old Western Culture
As a writer and Classical Christian teacher, I’m frequently asked why I think it’s important to study the classics, or what C.S. Lewis called Old Western Culture.
Usually the questions go something like:
What does it matter what a bunch of dead guys thought?
Shouldn’t students be focused on an education that will get them a good-paying job?
Isn’t it dangerous for Christian kids to read pagan literature?
Misguided as these questions are, I do understand the concerns.
Even Tertullian, an early church father, famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”
In the last 2000 years, these questions have been raised and answered time and time again. The short version is this: the study of Old Western Culture is an education of the soul.
The modern world has failed to distinguish between vocational training, or sometimes called career or job training, and education—which is the cultivation of the soul toward wisdom and virtue.
Of course, I’m not going to wade through all of the benefits of such an education in this post, but I would like to offer a five reasons why I think it’s important for not only children, but adults, and particularly, writers, to study the art and literature of Old Western Culture.
First, studying Old Western Culture teaches us to read texts of literature carefully, closely, and critically.
Nearly every genre of literature in existence today was invented by the Greeks or the Romans. Plot structures and literary devices still in use in modernity were foundational to works like Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, and many, many others.
And by learning to read these texts closely, carefully, and critically, we enhance our own ability to communicate well in both written and oral contexts.
Second, it gives us profound insights into the ancient near-eastern cosmos.
Theirs was a world very unlike our modern one, but very much like that world we experience in the New Testament. Imagine the way the Scriptures open up to us when we have an operable category of thought for the manners and customs of that epoch.
A third reason for studying Old Western Culture is that the Greeks were some of the first to write extensively about the human experience.
They wrestled with important questions we still wrestle with today: What is death? What is life? What is the nature of the soul? What is love? What is honorable? What is just? What is the nature of the cosmos? What is the nature of human relationships?
Studying Old Western culture allows us to see reflections of ourselves—our own condition in all it’s particularities—and engage in this great conversation with some of the greatest thinkers and writers in history, helping us think critically and cultivate answers to the perennial human questions.
Additionally, the virtue of the Classical Christian approach to Old Western Culture is we get to read it in light of the good news they did not have.
For example, it’s interesting to note the Apostle Paul was educated in Greek poetry and philosophy, and likely played on an ancient Delphic maxim popular among the Greeks, γνωθι σεαυτον, or “know thyself,” when he told young Timothy, ἔπεχε σεαυτῷ καὶ τῇ διδασκαλίᾳ translated Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine…
“Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
To “take heed unto thyself” meant Timothy was not only to know himself, but was to also watch himself in light of the truth of the Scriptures; and by making sure his life was continually being conformed to the truth, he would keep himself and those he was teaching from the seducing spirits and doctrines of devils (1 Timothy 4:1).
Fourth, because ideas have consequences, historians have long recognized that we cannot accurately understand the present without understanding the past.
For so many centuries both the form and content of education, politics, art, and even architecture were deeply rooted in the thinking of the ancient Greeks and Romans. So we cannot fully appreciate the structure and trajectory of our own society without first having a comprehensive understanding of Old Western Culture.
Last, not only should we read the literature of Old Western Culture for its importance, but we can take pleasure in reading it for its beauty.
Few works, if there are any, compare to the literature of the Old Western Culture in terms of magnificent imagery and melodic poetry.
Consider the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad written originally in Greek, in Dactylic Hexameter, and translated into English by Richmond Lattimore:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll present several intriguing posts discussing some of the most remarkable and compelling themes in the three greatest epics ever written: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid.
I’d love for you to join me. If you’d like to get them delivered to your email, you can subscribe for free.
If you’d like to read along, I’ll be working from these copies of the text:
- The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore (ISBN 9780226470498)
- The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore (ISBN 860-1404209468)
- The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (ISBN 0679729526)
If you’re interested in a Classical Christian Education for your high school student, or you’re a writer who’d like to develop your craft within a classical and theological imagination, you can join me at one of the fine institutions where I’ll be teaching this fall.
- Roman Roads Classroom (home school)
- Logos Online School (home school and high school diploma track)
- Poiema Institute (writers and teachers)
If you have a question about Classical Christian Education, would like to share your thoughts on Old Western Culture, or just have a comment about the post, please share your thoughts or questions in the comments.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.