Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latinby Tracy Lee Simmons, William F. Buckley
Pub. Date: 04/28/2002
Publisher: ISI Books
Discussions of educational reform often involve windy talk of a "return to the classics," yet rarely do would-be reformers go so far as to advocate a return to education in the classical languages themselves. That is a program that strikes even the most stalwart critics of contemporary educational mediocrity as quixotic, and perhaps even undesirable.Tracy Lee Simmons readily concedes that there is little reason to hope for a widespread renascence in the teaching of Greek and Latin to our nation's schoolchildren. But in this concise and elegantly wrought brief, he argues that, whatever its immediate prospects, an education in the classical languages is of inestimable personal and cultural value. Simmons first sketches the development of educational practice in the schools of the classical and Renaissance eras. He then presents a lively narrative of the fortunes of classical learning in the modern age, including accounts of the classical tongues' influence on some of the West's most prominent writers and statesmen, including, among many others, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Thomas Arnold, Theodore Roosevelt, Evelyn Waugh, and C. S. Lewis. Simmons demonstrates the personally cultivating and intellectually liberating qualities that study of the Greek and Latin authors in their own languages has historically provided. Further, by tracing the historical trajectory of Greek and Latin education, Simmons is able to show that the classical languages have played a crucial role in the development of authentic Humanism, the foundation of the West's cultural order and America's understanding of itself as a union of citizens.In Climbing Parnassus Simmons presents the reader not so much with a program for educational renewal as with a defense and vindication of the formative power of Greek and Latin. His persuasive witness to the unique, now all-but-forgotten advantages of study in, and of, the classical languages constitutes a bracing reminder of the genuine aims of a truly liberal education.
About the Author
Tracy Lee Simmons is a journalist who writes widely on literary and cultural matters. He holds a master's degree in the classics from Oxford.
- ISI Books
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- New Edition
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- 5.90(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)
Table of Contents
|Foreword, by William F. Buckley Jr.|
|A Few Notes at Base Camp|
|Bent Twigs and Trees Inclined: Liberal Education, the Humanities, and the Quest for a Common Mind: The Foothills of Classical Education|
|Prospect from the Castalian Spring: The Long Ascent of Classical Education from Ancient to Modern Times|
|Traveling through the Realms of Gold: The Balms of Greek and Latin|
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This marvelous book is a work of humanism in the best and most encompassing sense of the word. It is an "apologia" - which is not an apology but rather a plea - for Greek and Latin. However, it is not the study of these supposedly "dead" languages alone Tracy Lee Simmons advocates but rather what they stand for. If, in André Gide's words, "culture is what remains when all else is forgotten", Greek and Latin are formative rather than merely educational. They need no utilitarian "defense", no claim that they help to train logical thinking, facilitate the study of law, medicine or theology, or open the door to "modern" (and therefore more "useful") languages. Merely functional arguments miss the point. Simmons' claim is more radical - and for some more "reactionary": If we treasure the culture most of us were raised in, and some of us still want to live in, if we hold our traditions to contain some of that "wisdom of the ages" Edmund Burke wrote about, if with Matthew Arnold we seek for "sweetness and light", we cannot but treasure the world of antiquity - the world without which we cannot truly understand ourselves. The "gradus ad Parnassum" on which Simmons leads us is not only about two languages nor is it dismissive of other cultures or traditions. It never compares, ranks or evaluates though it is certainly an antidote to the smuck version of modern multiculturalism. The book is a story born of love for the Western cultural heritage that cannot be reduced to the Greeks and Romans but would be nothing without them. It is also a potent poison pill for self-indulgent and simplistic Americanists who believe in the myth of a "new civilization" being born in the New World that no longer needs the Old. This very myth is, as users of one-dollar bills will know, itself expressed in elegant Latin and goes back to Virgil's "Eclogae" and beyond: "novus ordo seclorum". Classically educated persons, American or not, will object: "est constantia in rebus" - and yet there is continuity. The study of Greek and Latin, Simmons argues, is its own reward, much as music and philosophy are. The languages are difficult to learn and require intellectual discipline; yet for more than two millennia people of all nations have grit their teeth and labored with them. Some still do, though fewer and fewer, and they are handsomely rewarded for memorizing paradigms and studying syntax. Their prize is the access to a wealth of meaning and a much deeper understanding of what has made us what we are. When, in Part Two of his book, Simmons recounts the history of classical learning through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment to its flourishing in colonial and revolutionary America, he tells the story of a continuity the likes of which are unknown in any other culture - variations on a theme with a constant "basso continuo". One need not be a cultural conservative to appreciate and to want to protect this legacy. One needs only to desire understanding of oneself. But true and full appreciation of classical philosophy, literature, politics, science, and the arts is impossible without assimilating the languages in which they are clad and with which they are so intricately interwoven. This may be the author's strongest claim. More recent cultural achievements - from analytic philosophy to jazz and film - travel regardless of language. But the themes of freedom and dependence, gods and men, individuality and collectivism, truth and appearance, guilt and punishment, passion and jealousy, and the overriding theme of the good life, travel universally and best in the suits into which they were originally fitted. Though views may have changed, and indeed the variety of opinions on these issues was bewildering in antiquity itself, the languages provide the vessels of continuity for their travels. This is what Tracy Lee Simmons wants to communicate. This "doctor elegantiae" tells his story with such grace, style, erudition, and persuasion that