What I really learned from my classical education
Last week, while discussing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I wrote: “This isn’t an unstructured novel by any means, but the structure is paratactic rather than periodic—the plot doesn’t advance so much as proceed inexorably from one bloody set piece to the next.” I chose the terms “paratactic” and “periodic” without thinking, but the more I look at this sentence, the more amused I feel at the return of these particular words. They are, in fact, fossils from my classical education, in which I spent a ridiculous amount of class time dividing authors into one of these two camps. (For those who spent their time in college in more useful ways, “periodic” is a style of prose, typified by Cicero, in which the meaning of a thought depends on the structure of the entire sentence, and often isn’t clear until the very last word, while “paratactic” refers to a style in which relatively short, separate ideas are starkly connected like links in a chain.) And this represents only one example of how my thinking has been shaped by the education I received—although not always in the way I expected at the time.
When I entered college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to concentrate in, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer. On my application, I wrote “English” as my expected major, but over the course of my freshman year, I cycled variously, and with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness, between psychology, the history of science, and even, briefly, engineering. (I nixed the latter after realizing that if I were really serious about engineering, I should have gone to the college just down the road.) I arrived at Classics for several reasons: 1) I knew that I wanted to learn Latin and Greek, but quickly realized that since I was starting from scratch, I couldn’t just study them as electives. 2) My college had the most prestigious Department of Classics in the country, so if nothing else, I’d be studying with the best. 3) I’d just read a book by the classicists Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath lamenting the decline of classical education, and I’m a sucker for a lost cause. 4) Most of all, I wanted a major that would give me the kind of broadly generalist education I thought I needed as a writer, and a field that required at least a superficial grounding in grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, history, art, literature, religion, archaeology, and other subjects seemed to fit the bill.
Well, now it’s more than ten years since I graduated, which seems like a good time to take stock of what I really learned from the experience. If I’d hoped to emerge with a permanent knowledge of Greek and Latin, that unfortunately wasn’t the case: it took a long time to ramp up to the point where I was at all competent in these languages, and although there was a period of about six months when I could capably sight-read Euripides, it didn’t last long. (I’m secretly convinced that I could probably regain a lot of these skills if I sat down and tried it, but I haven’t yet put this to the test.) I read a lot of great literature, but aside from Homer, Plato, Antigone, the Gospels, and possibly Virgil, their lasting impact hasn’t been as significant as that of other writers I’ve read before and since. While I still believe strongly in the importance of classical education, I’m no longer as dogmatic about this as I used to be—and it certainly didn’t help to realize that Victor Davis Hanson is basically a crazy neoconservative. Classics is undoubtedly the key to understanding much of the literature that followed, but for most of us, reading these works in good translations is probably more than sufficient. And as Harold Bloom likes to point out, even the greatest literature isn’t likely to turn us into better citizens.
Yet if I had the chance to go back and try again, I do exactly the same thing. Classics is in my blood, in ways I’ve internalized so completely that the effects are often invisible. The most important college class I ever took, at least in terms of how it affected my subsequent life, was a single course in introductory Latin prose composition, in which I hacked my way ineptly through Bradley’s Arnold and laboriously composed short paragraphs in a dead language. I was never much of a Latinist, but the experience indelibly shaped my style as a writer, to the point where it sometimes seems too proper—I’ve had to work hard to restore the informality and roughness that fiction sometimes requires. It gave me a permanent distrust of semicolons. And it provided me with a critical vocabulary and toolbox that I use to evaluate everything I write. When I’m working on a short story or a chapter in a novel, I’m never consciously taking classical examples into account, but they’ve quietly enforced many of my feelings about narrative clarity, transparency, and elegance. Would I have come to the same conclusions anyway? Probably—but I couldn’t have implemented them nearly as well. Classics wasn’t an end in itself, but an essential starting point. And even as I’ve largely left it behind, I’m grateful that I had a chance to begin there.