Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin
reviewed by Gerald J. Russello
Knowledge of the classics was once so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. Public figures were supposed to be well versed in the culture and languages of Rome and Greece. To take examples almost at random: President Herbert Hoover translated, with his wife, the classic mining treatise De Re Metallica; President William Henry Harrison gave the Senate a disquisition on the Roman army; the public architecture in cities across the country reflect classical models; and institutions like the Boston Latin School inculcated a respect for the classics to generations of students. And of course, with notable exceptions like the Pennsylvania physician Benjamin Rush, the founding generation simply assumed the abiding importance of the ancient languages to both public life and private conduct.
Those days are past. Although there remains some interest in retellings of the classic stories, as Christopher Logue’s War Music and Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles attest, the overwhelming cultural and intellectual power a classical education once commanded has all but disappeared. As Françoise Waquet explains in her recent, and excellent, Latin: Or the Empire of a Sign, the use of the classics as a cultural medium has been declining for the last half-millennium. In the last century, the heaviest blows have come from neglect and a condemnation of the classics as “irrelevant” or elitist.
Simmons, a journalist with an advanced degree in classics from Oxford, has written in Climbing Parnassus a spirited defense of a type of education that was common in the West for over a thousand years. He is a passionate defender of not only the literatures of Greece and Rome in translation, but also of the gains to be had from the arduous process of learning the grammar and vocabulary of two languages no longer spoken. Simmons does not shy away from promoting hard study—Climbing Parnassus is one of the few places where you will find a hearty, and persuasive, case for the virtues of Latin composition and translation. But he also conveys a sense of that study’s rewards.
Simmons summarizes the theme of Climbing Parnassus as follows: “At the heart of liberal education stands the conviction that the well-touted freedom of mind comes only by submission to standards external to oneself, that the discipline precedes the freedom, and that this kind of freedom can only be earned as a reward, not conferred as a right.”
Drawing on writers as varied as Erasmus, St. Augustine, and C. S. Lewis, as well as a host of American and British classicists, Simmons emphasizes that the discipline imparted by classical study is important to shape the mind (the argument ad formam) as well as to keep us connected to our larger culture—an argument, as it were, ad culturem. Both the argument from character and the argument from culture have large places here, but at times it is difficult to see which Simmons believes provides the surest support for classical education. At times, he seems to revel in the classics’ non-use, as if the fact that no one reads the classical authors anymore makes them more valuable; at other times, though, he seems to advocate the classics precisely because they remain directly important to us.
While treating us to a spirited account of the importance of Latin and Greek education, Simmons skewers many educational and cultural cows: the cult of the child, the college elective system, our insistence on “prog-ress” at the expense of tried truths. Simmons is defending an identifiable body of classical knowledge, and the tools to unlock it, against educational “technique.” Technique reigns in contemporary education, but technique is not learning. At its worst, the devotion to value-free methods degenerates to mere faddism; at best, it is simply a waste of time (thus, for example, at my Jesuit high school the classics library was given away and computers sprouted everywhere—presumed “relevance” replacing real substance). None of this can replace the civilizational results of scores of generations steeped in Latin and Greek.
If there is a problem with Climbing Parnassus, it is that the picture Simmons draws of Latin and Greek is somewhat static. Classical scholarship has revealed a classical world drastically different from its idealized models, and one that may not have found favor with the Victorian classicists mentioned here. The real value of the twin heritage of Greece and Rome is its constant interplay with our ongoing tradition, as model, critic, and ever-present reminder of our past. It relieves us from being swept away in the controversies of the moment and provides a yardstick for cultural achievement. Now that Simmons has established the enduring value of a classical education, the complex relationships between the classical world and our understanding of it would be a fine future subject for his sharp eye and broad learning.
Gerald J. Russello, a lawyer in New York City, holds a degree in classics from Georgetown University.
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