Classical education and engagement with the classics are experiencing a renaissance, principally in Christian circles. As such, we must inevitably ask: what do ancient books give us? Saint Augustine wrestled with this issue, as did Saint Basil the Great. Today, as in generations past, Christians are at the forefront of reviving classical and humanist education—but not without controversy.
So what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? The easy answer is misleading but widely promoted. The basic argument is that since early Christian and medieval theologians drew on Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, it is impossible to understand Christian theology apart from these sources. Even the Reformers were heavily indebted to the classical tradition, many being educated in the humanist tradition of the universities with a deep knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics.
It is also often said, somewhat misleadingly, that “Augustine baptized Plato” and “Aquinas baptized Aristotle.” While there has been a long history of Christian encounters with Greek and Roman ideas, even in The City of God Augustine ranks Plato far beneath the Prophets, and the best ideas of Greek philosophy simply point to the truths of Christianity and not the other way around. Likewise, Aristotle is mediated through divine revelation and Holy Writ rather than being the source of independent truth and enlightenment for Christians to follow.
Saint Basil offered the most succinct and prescient presentation on the importance of the various Greek writings. His sermons on the profitable use of Greek literature highlight the approach commonly employed today in Christian classical educational settings. There is a beauty to the writings, and to emulate beauty is to emulate the beauty of God.
Furthermore, there is also proper praise, from the Christian perspective, of certain men and women of antiquity who died for love, family, and fatherland, and who came to learn the virtues of forgiveness and compassion. This is worthy to emulate as they point to God and Christ. Additionally, the encounter with classical literature is also a training in spiritual maturity and vigilance: it reveals the character of the Christian soul in being able to discern the good from the bad.
According to Basil, the proper use of classical literature is the teaching and training in virtue it provides for the Christian life. The Christian profits tremendously from the beautiful and noble things in classical literature. Likewise, discerning the bad in classical literature also profits the Christian whose ability to discern good and evil outside of the Scriptures strengthens the soul and, ultimately, knowledge of God who is Supreme Beauty and Goodness.
There is tremendous value in growing more virtuous through discerning good and evil, truth and falsity, in classical texts. This isn’t something one should be afraid of. In fact, this is the very spirit of Christian education: an education in the good, true, and beautiful in all things. Wisdom is the goal.
In being able to discern the good, which is tied to God, and being able to reject the bad, rooted in sin and Satan, Basil argued that the reading of classical literature reveals the strength and virtue of one’s soul which is necessary for the spiritual life in this world. After all, we live in the world that the classical authors wrote about, a world of complication, conflict, lust, love, death, and possible redemption.
This education in good and evil, the truth, goodness, and beauty of God in all things, is the underlying cornerstone of Christian classical education in the twenty-first century. Good grammar and beautiful language and imagery is replete in the poetry of the Greek and Roman playwrights and poets. The emulation of beauty is, ultimately, an imitation of Supreme Beauty that is God.
Likewise, being able to recognize the shortcomings and why various classical texts are insufficient in their offering of redemption and salvation reveal the sanctifying spirit of Christianity—Christianity’s unique ability to see the good in all things while rejecting, through understanding, the bad that may be part of it. This equips the Christian for living in the city of man, a world where good and bad are intermixed. It also prepares the Christian to sanctify what is good from the bad in the world we live.
I would add that the sanctifying spirit of Christian engagement with classical literature is the most important reason why Christians read and teach the classics. God is Truth, as Scripture reveals. Augustine also famously wrote that, “Truth, wherever it is found, belongs to God.” This is true, then, when dealing with ancient writings of cultural value and significance. The truth and beauty found therein belong to God, and as children of God, we need not fear what properly belongs to the Father.
In the world today, one in which we cancel those with whom we may have disagreements rather than seeking to engage them in dialogue and even friendship, this spirit of discernment is desperately needed. This is especially true regarding the classics. The contemporary generation of teachers, writers, and hacktivists condemn the depository of the past as everything wrong with our world. White men. Toxicity. Masculine fantasy. Brutality. Misogyny. So on and so on. The classics have few defenders but are worth defending.
I shall take one concise example, a text that is universally read in classical humanities settings. It is one that most people have some vague familiarity with: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
Oedipus Rex is a tragedy dealing with the crime of Oedipus, the unknowing murder of his father and incestuous relationship with his mother, Jocasta. Not exactly “good” themes. Oedipus is also a man who, as tyrant, has pursued an illegitimate claim to power on the Theban throne. Revelation of his actions, the murder of his father and incestuous marriage with Jocasta, leads to his punishment: blinding and exile along with the suicide of his mother in shame.
There is no redemption in the classical tragic mindset. In a world stripped of grace and forgiveness, there cannot be the hope of redemption. Yet from Christian eyes we can see profound truths communicated in the play.
There is the warning against the destruction of the family and how the eradication of filial bonds leads to crisis, crime, and, ultimately, death. That is the most basic theme underlining the play. The Apostle Paul warns, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
We also find Sophocles cautioning against the illegitimate pursuit of power and how that seems to be directly correlated with the crimes of parricide, incest, and the destruction of the family. A politics of illegitimacy invariably leads to the destruction of families.
Throughout the play, Oedipus callously mocks his father, and upon receiving the news of his father’s death he celebrates. This celebration of his father’s death, which he will eventually realize was from his own hands, heightens the dramatic tension of Oedipus’s downfall. Sophocles, very subtly but powerfully, reminds us that callousness toward our parents, our family, is a horrible crime, and this bleak attitude taken toward family members precipitates Oedipus’s own fall. Let that be a cautionary warning to students.
A life without the love and respect of family is a life of tragedy. This is a basic truth and one which we can affirm and sanctify. But it is equally important to extol the necessity of forgiveness within the loving bonds of the family. This is what Sophocles suggests though it is without the revelation of grace and forgiveness and cannot consummate itself. From the Christian point of view, the destruction and tragic demise of family is reconstituted through the grace of forgiveness (which is lacking in Sophocles’ play thus leading to its tragic conclusion).
Thus we can see how one can read the classics in a sanctifying and wholesome light. Reading with Christian eyes sees the good in that which is outside the inheritance of Jerusalem. It also gives us the spirit of love to counter those whose animus of hate leads to destruction, the same hate that spelled the tragic demise of Oedipus—an attitude and fate we surely want to avoid.
Image credit: “A Greek Philosopher and His Disciples” by Antonio Zucchi (1726-1796) via Wikimedia Commons