In Die Hard, the antagonist, Hans Gruber, shows off his classical education with this memorable line : “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Aside from providing action films with quotable dialogue, there are numerous benefits to being classically educated. It’s difficult to argue that classics should be integral to every person’s education without sounding at least somewhat pretentious, but we’ll try anyway.
For centuries, classical studies were considered the basis of higher education. Greek and Latin were the language of academia and the works of philosophers, scientists, authors, and artists from the ancient world were taught to children from a young age. It would have been unheard of to not know what transpired at the Battle of Thermopylae, or who Pericles was. Classical studies have fallen out of vogue in modern curricula, but this should not be the case.
Many foundational problems in philosophy, psychology, international relations, mathematics, and even science can be found in the works of Greek and Roman authors. Did you know that Greek philosopher Zeno’s paradoxes were the first intimations of differential calculus? Or that you can find one of the first articulations of realist political theory in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta? Also, the Greek historian Herodotus was the first person to write anything that even approaches modern conceptions of history. The list goes on. Essentially, many of the courses that you are currently studying touch on ideas first considered by ancient thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Notably, the Greeks had an early form of atomistic theory and one philosopher, Anaximander, even suggested 25 centuries before Darwin that human beings were descended from other creatures.
The classical civilizations have also had a tremendous influence on the humanities. The main inspiration for the Renaissance was the classical world. The flourishing of art and literature during this period looked to Greek and Roman models. Knowing the mythology, philosophy, and artistic trends of the ancient world can add to the appreciation of post-Renaissance art. For example, Boticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus is based on the mythical story of the same name. Even the pose of Boticelli’s Venus is based on the pose of an actual Venus statue found in Rome. Being aware of the mythology and technique that inspired the artist can lead to a more nuanced understanding of the emotion behind the painting.
Proficiency in Greek and Latin is no longer an integral part of academia. However, studying these classical languages can nonetheless be beneficial. Since most of the English language derives from these sources, knowing a bit of Greek and Latin can help you understand key concepts better. For example, “logic” is derived from the Greek word logos, which means speech or reason. Psychology is then taken from a combination of two Greek words psychos, which means self or mind, and logos. So if you’re studying psychology you’re studying the logic of the self or mind.
On a lighter note, there’s a reason why so many movies and TV shows are based on events of the ancient world: the history of Greece and Rome can be very entertaining.
Ancient history is replete with amusing anecdotes about the crazy antics and strange beliefs of prominent personalities. The Roman Emperor Nero, for example, used to force audiences to sit through his musical performances for so long that some feigned death so they could leave. Incidentally, he also tried to murder his mother three times. The philosopher Pythagoras forbade his followers from eating beans, because he thought they resembled gates to the soul. Ancient sources aren’t as dry as you would expect them to be either. The Roman poet Ovid famously wrote a handbook on the very esoteric topic of how to pick up women.
Clearly, there are significant advantages to being classically educated whether you do it for a career in the ancient history field or for your own edification and entertainment. But what other reasons are there engaging in classical studies? Why should one explore the faded but not forgotten worlds of Athens and Rome? Our final and most convincing argument? Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor of Facebook, studied classics in high school and university, and look where he is today. As Virgil says: “Audentes Fortuna iuvat” — Fortune favours the bold.