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Why read the ancient classics?

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Why would anyone want to read the ancient classics?

It might seem like a rhetorical question. I even have a friend who might ask: "why read anything but classic?" I don't ask rhetorically, nor to imply that there aren't great reasons.What are those reasons?

Here are three reasons:

  • To understand history: We might read some ancient histories, but even works like Homer can indirectly give us glimpses of some culture. Just seeing what concepts and principles are expressed in an ancient work, tell us something about its surrounding culture.
  • To understand the history of a subject: A modern book that sums up Mathematics or Physics or Politics or Philosophy as we know it today might take into account the works by ancients which were incorporated or rejected into modern science. However, going back to the classics gives one a deeper knowledge of the detailed way in which some of the concepts were discovered and "chewed".
  • To enjoy as literature: Literature itself is timeless, and it makes sense to read the best of each age.

Are these reasons valid or not? Is other good reasons? Are there bad reasons? Is there a better classification?

More importantly, if you read ancient classics, or are keen to do so, then what is your personal reason?

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I started reading the Iliad mostly "just because I should someday". Then I realized it was a way of seeing how these people actually viewed the world--what they considered to be important (that it survived, I imagine, proves they thought it was important). Funnily enough, I thought that the first argument between Zeus and Hera sounded remarkably like the kind of argument you'd expect from a modern "trailer trash" abusive husband and his nagging wife, with their peace-making son interjecting. Obviously the language style was different, but the content and even the cadence of the argument itself suggested this to me! Unfortunately I have not actually read all that far into the book.

More recently, I read an old poem about the sea written around 800 AD. The main thing I took away from it was, "Wow, I'm really glad to be alive in the US, in 2012." It sounded like a very harsh life.

I probably should read the classics much more than I do. I think what would keep me reading them would be seeing how these people interacted with each other, how they viewed humanity, what things are similar or different about the mindset, from today.

And, I like all of the reasons you listed, though I probably wouldn't be a good judge of whether they're valid.

Edited by musenji

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... the first argument between Zeus and Hera sounded remarkably like the kind of argument you'd expect from a modern "trailer trash" abusive husband and his nagging wife, with their peace-making son interjecting.
:) Though I have not read the Illiad, I understand what you're saying. The typical classic is good literature, with timeless themes and timeless characters. Classics were often the pop-lit of their day. Sometimes, people put classics on a faux pedestal, as if they're different from a great modern-day book. (Aside: A friend of mine used to tell me this about Opera -- how one needs to understand it was like the pop of its day.)

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On 28/4/2012 at 0:34 PM, softwareNerd said:

Why would anyone want to read the ancient classics?

 

It might seem like a rhetorical question. I even have a friend who might ask: "why read anything but classic?" I don't ask rhetorically, nor to imply that there aren't great reasons.What are those reasons?

 

Here are three reasons:

  • To understand history: We might read some ancient histories, but even works like Homer can indirectly give us glimpses of some culture. Just seeing what concepts and principles are expressed in an ancient work, tell us something about its surrounding culture.
  • To understand the history of a subject: A modern book that sums up Mathematics or Physics or Politics or Philosophy as we know it today might take into account the works by ancients which were incorporated or rejected into modern science. However, going back to the classics gives one a deeper knowledge of the detailed way in which some of the concepts were discovered and "chewed".
  • To enjoy as literature: Literature itself is timeless, and it makes sense to read the best of each age.

 

 

Are these reasons valid or not? Is other good reasons? Are there bad reasons? Is there a better classification?

 

More importantly, if you read ancient classics, or are keen to do so, then what is your personal reason?

Personally I agree with you completely. I myself am a big fan of history, especially WWII, and I believe that reading ancient classics is good because we learn from different perspectives, ones that back then had a lot of weight because people backed them. Another good thing about this is that one can compare said perspectives to the ones of present day. 

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14 hours ago, Luis Enrique Colón said:

... I myself am a big fan of history, ...

Yes, it's interesting to see older perspectives and compare with our own. Usually, one finds that "nothing has changed". Human beings have had a certain set of emotions, certain types of reactions, certain mechanisms of thinking, for thousands of years. Of course, the ethical and philosophical systems we came up with varied over time. So, the concrete things we did varied. The really huge differences in living were the result of learning about the world and developing new technology, but the human beings were the same.

Unchanging Humans: It's fun to read older writers who sound like they could be writing today: for instance, Benjamin Franklin's "Fart Proudly" or "Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress" have such a contemporary tone. It hints at the unchanging nature of man. Older schools of drama used to have stock-characters: the heroine, the hero, the old-woman, the wealthy old-man, the sad clown. And groups would travel from village to village putting on mostly familiar performances. 

On Fiction: This is also the counter-point though; an argument against reading classics; the thought that triggered this thread in the first place. While one can learn about historical facts, one also finds that classical fiction is not essentially better than modern fiction (other than the impressive fact that someone did this ages ago). And, since there is a continuity of human character across millennia, a reader can get the same from modern fiction. One could ditch the Odyssey and dive into Shakespeare. But, he's an oldie too. One can fast-forward to Mark Twain, Chekov, Ray Bradbury, Sinclair Lewis, Dumas, Steinbeck, John Masters, and others. Or, one can really fast-forward to the Rand era or the Harry Potter era. The core values that come from fiction can be found in fiction from across time. A literature expert might say that (say) Harry Potter is unoriginal because all the themes can be found in Shakespeare. But, the basic elements of a modern car can be found in a model-T. It can be fun to ride in a model-T (or to read ancient fiction) to get a feel of it, but you don't want to use it day to day.

On Philosophy: Here too, one finds a continuity, based on the same fact: the unchanging human character. Though people answered things in different ways, they were asking the same questions. Yes, it is useful to understand the history of a subject if one wants to really dive into it. A first-level course on physics can come from a high-school text book that tells you: this is what we know. However, for a deeper understanding, it is useful to see what an ancient scientist thought, and how knowledge of physics grew with time. Learning the historical sequence discovery gives one a deeper understanding of the connection between the concepts, and shows you why certain things are dead-ends. As with Physics or Biology, so with Philosophy. Seeing how ancient ancient Pantheists thought, and how that changed, gives one a deeper understanding of the subject. The bottom-line though, is not that the historical texts are better or fundamental, but that they're good add-ons to give one a historical context. Even here though, a modern reader could get the context by reading a condensed modern history of the subject, instead of reading each individual ancient author. 

 

 

Edited by softwareNerd

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It's hard to add anything to this topic that hasn't been covered by softwareNerd, other than the fact that our notions of super-powerful beings and their influences over behavior of a given society. Mythology heavily influenced the common outlook of the ancients, and thus the actions of common people and their leaders. For example, the Greeks, Romans, Vikings, and many others believed the gods were real, and therefore influential in the outcome of major events, especially military contests. The gods were the deciding factor over good and bad fortune. And while it is common for people today to hold a disbelief in the influence of any form of god, many do hold to a belief in super-powerful extraterrestrial aliens, and in many ways, our comic book superheroes influence our childhood notions of heroism and morality well into adulthood. You might say that the Fantastic Four and Batman are some of our modern-day gods.

Incidentally, I've only read parts of the Iliad, parts of the Odyssey, parts of Plato's Republic, the entire Old and Testament, and many articles on the subject of ancient mythology. There is definitely a benefit from reading these works for anyone who wishes to understand the common perspectives of both ancient and modern societies.

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I would add one more aspect to the discussion: its the question ... "which classics?"

Since modernism began in Europe, and since it all started with the rediscovery of Greek and Roman classics, that has been the focus of classical studies. Then, we have the renaissance and post-renaissance phase, where the focus in the English speaking world (and also in ex British colonies) has been on the English canon. If you look at St. John's college (which follows a "Great Books" theme), this is where they focus.

If people are interested in studying the classics, they ought to add part of the Eastern canon too. It has long been time to globalize the canon. [St. John's has taken an Eastern focus on its second campus]. People in the West do read Buddhist stuff and the Hindu Gita is popular, but too often these are seen as part of a parallel canon: East and West, and ne'er the twain shall meet. What is needed is a human, global canon.

Max Mueller pushed this idea: looking back in human history, we see certain ideas developing in Egypt and in India (probably happened elsewhere too, but this is where we have "documentation"). Then, 600 BC - 300BC saw a flowering in Greece, but also huge changes in India. This is a fascinating period because of the similarities of the two developments: makes one wonder if there was a connection. Then, we have the adoption of the Judaist ideas with the Romans adopting the Christian branch and forming it in their own image; meanwhile another branch was called Islam and thrived in the middle East. Meanwhile, we have Confucius and some important attempts at creating a meritocracy in China. And, on and on ... Max Mueller argues that human's have gone through certain phases as they developed philosophy... from pantheistic ideas, to abstract mystical ideas, to society-oriented ideas, to individual-oriented ideas. And, this did not happen in a single geography.

Looking across the world, at key phases, would allow us to understand the history of human philosophy, and give us a deeper understanding... just as the study of historical developments in (say) Physics or Biology would give us a better grasp of those fields. Not for everyone, of course. But, those who are interested in the history of philosophy ought to use the whole world as their source material.

Edited by softwareNerd

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