Why Learn Greek (by Derek Anderson)
Note: The following post is from our guest contributor Mr. Derek Anderson, headmaster of Ridgeview Classical in Fort Collins, Colorado. In addition to leading the school, Mr. Anderson remains an avid student of moral and political philosophy, alongside of intellectual history. His defense of the liberal arts curriculum is based upon his many years of having taught students history, philosophy, literature, and rhetoric.
Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ. Classicists will know that the prior passage is from Homer’s Odyssey. In English translation, it reads, “Tell me, O Muse, of the much-traveled man, who wandered many ways after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy.”
Most students in American schools will never experience the beautiful nuance of ancient Greek because they will never be much attracted by the pains one must undertake to learn it. While books like Victor Davis Hanson’s Who Killed Homer? or Tracy Lee Simmons’ Climbing Parnassus do an excellent job of detailing why one ought to study such a language, they preach to the converted. Those of us who have undertaken the challenge and rigors of Hardy Hansen and Gerald M. Quinn’s Greek: An Intensive Course have few doubts about the language’s attractiveness (or its intensiveness).
One of the arguments I find myself frequently making about Greek (or Latin) is that it is not a dead language, but an eternal one. When we wish to say something that will endure the ravages of time, we say it in Greek or Latin.
Knowledge of these languages was once the sine qua non of the properly educated. It is elitist to say such a thing now, and ironic that popular culture, when it’s not limiting itself to characters who speak in a quasi-Victorian British accent, cannot help but depict the properly educated as possessing a knowledge of one or both of these languages.
For those of us who are depicted in contemporary culture as dead white duds holding onto our white fragility as though culture and tradition were not inheritances to be studied and remembered, it was a relief to see a character in a comic-book inspired television show with youth as its primary audience quote this line from Homer in Greek with a kind of reverence. In the fourth episode of the second season of the popular television show The Umbrella Academy, the character Five, played by Aidan Gallagher, calls out to his adoptive father with these words—in Greek.
Young students, in coming to Greek, can be romanced by the alphabet. The complexity of Greek words like anacylosis and aporia can be tantalizing as well. Students should come to love Homer, but they can only really do so in his language. They may guffaw at lines like, “Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times,” but their comprehension of G. Michael Hopf’s line makes more sense when they understand how Polybius laid out his Histories. A great author, like Matthew Crawford, can offer an insightful definition of a Greek word, even one that is better in many respects than that found in Liddell and Scott’s famous lexicon, but aporia means even more than “without a road” as Crawford points out. He posits it means something like “a moment pregnant with the arrival of something unlooked for.”
What a human experience! How our world expands by having the language to describe it as Wittgenstein pointed out when he said that, “The limits of our language mean the limits of our world.” Let’s give our children not only a better world, but a bigger and more comprehensible one by giving them their due share of their inheritance.