The Classical Part of Education

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me whether Christian kids really need to study pagan literature. “Isn’t the Bible more important than immoral books written by Romans and Greeks?” he asked. My reply: “Absolutely.” The Bible is more important. An old woman living alone in the middle of Nebraska who reads her Bible every day is wiser than a classroom full of godless Ivy League Classics professors. But pious spinster and overeducated atheist aren’t the only two options. Many Christian kids today have the opportunity to study both the Bible and the works of Homer, Plato, Ovid, and Virgil. The question is, given that opportunity, should they take it?

Let me say at the outset that “classical education” and “Christian education” are not the same thing. You can have one without the other, and the latter is infinitely more important than the former. “Classical education” originally meant studying the classics: the language and literature of the Greeks and the Romans. Without those pre-Christian works, an education isn’t classical, but it can still be Christian.

I suspect that most Christian parents send their children to classical Christian schools not because they love the classics but because they see these schools as stalwartly conservative and less likely to cave in to cultural trends. It’s probably true that classical schools are less likely to cave, since anyone who commits to studying old things necessarily has less time to pay attention to passing fashions. That doesn’t mean other schools will cave, however. I’m sure there are faithful schools out there that are not classical. If a Christian family is uncomfortable reading pagan literature, they can choose another school and maintain a clear conscience.

That said, I believe that there are good reasons for Christians to study classical literature. First, there’s the concept of what might be called “free grace” or “natural revelation.” Even the most savage human beings retain a hazy memory of a time when man walked with God in the Garden. This means that pagans can figure out some true things about the world, even about God Himself, and we shouldn’t be afraid of digging around in their books for that buried treasure. After all, we do the same in books written by nominal Christians like Melville, Emerson, and Twain. Is a pious pagan any worse than these? And if we do start removing “objectionable books” from the curriculum, where do we stop? Should we examine an author’s Christian pedigree before reading what he wrote? Worldview should not be the determining factor when deciding the value of a book. Once we start examining an author’s ideology to determine the value of his poetry, we may as well give up studying literature altogether.

Second, we should study classical literature as a broad cultural application of the fifth commandment. Just as we honor the man and woman who brought us into the world, we honor the men and women who brought them into the world and the country that produced them and the history that produced that country. For centuries, those who read and wrote and taught in the Western world drew on the literature of the Greeks and Romans. In practical terms, knowing classical languages and literature is a passport to vast areas of our culture, to the point of effectively doubling a person’s access to knowledge. Hundreds of thousands of words across dozens of languages can be traced back to Rome, not to mention the overabundance of classical allusions at every level of our society (Amazon, anyone?). There is a sense in which the very thoughts in our heads are built out of materials shaped by the minds of Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest. We may wish this were not the case, just as we may wish we had been born in a different time, in a different place, or a to a different family. But here we are, stuck with this heritage.

Finally, we should study classical literature because it’s what Christians have always done. The apostle Paul, whose life was completely transformed by Jesus, was familiar enough with the Greek poets to quote them on at least two occasions (Acts 17, Titus 1). In the fourth century, Emperor Julian, who renounced the faith, passed a law to stop Christians from teaching Greek and Roman literature. This tells us two things: 1) Christians taught that stuff and 2) they taught it in such a way as to enrage a pagan emperor. (I’m grateful to Wes Callihan for this particular insight.) Clearly, pagan literature can be put to good use. Remember that it was the descendants of Cain who invented musical instruments.

One could argue that Paul and the rest drew on pagan literature because they had nothing else. Perhaps we should sweep that culture from the earth and replace with our own based on the Bible. This is an excellent suggestion, so excellent in fact that Christians began the process almost two thousand years ago. In his biography of Saint Francis, Chesterton describes the so-called Dark Ages as a purgation, the time when the spiritual diseases of paganism were expelled from the system. Christians in these times worked and prayed and cleaned and scrubbed until the Gospel was pushed into all corners of the globe, and still they decided that pagan literature must be taught. It was medieval monks, soaked in Scripture, who decided the Aeneid must be preserved.

I suspect that a culture that tossed out everything but the Gospel would soon discover that they had somehow managed to bring everything else along with them. It’s the nature of good news to spread. Christians have been told to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth, which certainly includes the works of Homer, Plato, and all the rest.

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