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Dr Peter Jones on ‘Why Classics’

Western civilisation began nearly 3,000 years ago, in this sense – that it was the moment when the first voice of the West was heard. That first voice of our civilisation was Greek literature: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, c. 700 BC. Greeks taught the Romans about literature; and the Roman taught all Europe about it. Since when everyone has been churning the stuff out like mowing machines.

And what a literature it was! And now accessible to every school pupil in translation. There you can read the West’s first shot at dealing with love, sex, same-sex relationships, death, old age, citizenship (local and global), education: (Plutarch on lectures: So sit upright, do not sprawl, pay close attention; do not frown, writhe about, doze, whisper to chums.), crime, culpability: (Aristotle: since we have control over the decision whether to be good or bad, it follows that both virtue and vice spring from the same source: ourselves. So any argument: ‘that absolves bad men of responsibility for wickedness would also deprive good men of responsibility for virtue.’), law-making, property-rights, politics, the just war, marriage, the uses of power, xenophobia, punishment theory, the good life.


You can see them inventing or radically developing our alphabet, democracy, republicanism, atomic theory; philosophy, history, rational, though based on totally wrong premises, medicine (the key to those last three being the observation that if you invoke the gods to solve the problems you are not solving them – perhaps the Greeks’ most important intellectual breakthrough, that only human intelligibility can solve human problems); logic, literary criticism, biology (Aristotle responsible for those three); tragedy, comedy, geometry, the arch and concrete (the last two enabling Romans to build the first gigantic free-standing buildings – the Colosseum held 50,000); and establishing those architectural orders and ratios that so grace our land – churches, grand houses, Whitehall. Look at the room in a grand house: the skirting board is the footing of a pillar; if it had a picture rail above, the space between it and the cornice would be a frieze; then the cornice, and often a panelled ceiling. These rooms are trying to look like a grand Roman temple. Draw a pillar from skirting board to frieze and you would almost be there.

And I have not even mentioned myth, magnificent stories which captivate children, with fascinating cross-cultural links to the Near East, like much of Greek thought, already evident in Homer.

All this is what is unique about Classics.

It is simply unconscionable that our children should not be given the opportunity to take their pick from this unmatchable linguistic, literary, historical, artistic, crosscultural, intellectual feast. For, as we are finding out in CfA, when children do discover it, they realise exactly what they have been deprived of – and exactly what they want.