As a freshman at Sattler, I took a four-credit seminar dedicated to exploring the classics—thinkers, playwrights, and poets of ancient Greece and Rome, such as Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle. Sattler values history and requires all four-year students to take three semesters of Western civilization, beginning with Homer and ending with Tolstoy. But is it really worth spending hours pouring over the works of men long dead?
Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experience about the importance of classical studies:
Despite the moral shortcomings of Greek and Roman society, classic thinkers introduced many of the intellectual themes of Western civilization that continue to inform both secular culture and Christian theology and practice to this day.
Studying the classics opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of human thought throughout the centuries and helped me view history as a progression. Like tracing a complicated connect-the-dots puzzle, laying a foundation in the classics resolved the more recent past into a recognizable image — something that resonated with my own experience and piqued my interest.
The classics don't just affect the academic world. Plato and Aristotle’s ideas sifted down through the cracks of history to change the composition of societies and the church. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was buoyed by the wave of interest in returning to classical Platonic ideals. Enlightenment philosophy, heavily influenced by Aristotle, sparked the technological explosion of the modern era. The classics have shaped not only Western philosophy, but secular and Christian culture, as well as its literature and arts.
Many writers draw on the classics to add poetic color to their works, but these references are lost on anyone unfamiliar with Greek and Roman culture.
By now you might be thinking, "This has been an interesting (or uninteresting) explanation of how classic thinkers have shaped history, but beyond having a better grasp of old books, why should I care?" I propose that all of this matters for three important reasons.
- The questions asked by classical writers still resonate. What role do fate and destiny play in human affairs? What is justice? What does it really mean to live well? Why should anyone do the right thing if it seems to hurt them? Should I be more loyal to family, ideal, or country? What makes home home? What does it mean to be human? Studying the classics provides an opportunity to ponder the weighty matters that have captivated humanity for generations. Not only did these questions asked by ancient Greeks and Romans resonate deeply with my intellect, they also pushed me toward a deeper gratitude for the answers found in Christ.
- Studying the classics enables a more thoughtful and winsome ability to communicate the gospel. The Greeks and Romans took communication seriously. The Greeks founded the discipline of oratory, and the Romans expanded it. From Demosthenes to Cicero, the Greeks and Romans communicated ideas masterfully both orally and on paper. One of the best ways to develop both rhetorical and writing skills is to study eminent examples. By soaking up the rhetorical genius of classical authors and speakers, we can develop the techniques necessary to present the gospel persuasively.
- Finally, studying the classics enables a more thoughtful and winsome ability to respond to unbelievers. A grasp of the underpinnings of contemporary culture enables a more genuine connection and deeper understanding of the positions and motivations of the people with whom we share Christ. Following the example of Paul at Mars Hill (appropriately, in Athens), we can use our cultural understanding to present the gospel favorably. In addition, pondering the ideas that have endured throughout history can enable us to offer more nuanced and thoughtful responses to questions.
Courses in classical literature should never replace the study of Scripture, Biblical history, or important Christian figures. But as a complementary study, it can broaden one's understanding of both Christian and secular history and culture. Reading Greek and Roman authors has opened my eyes to the rich interconnectedness of historical writing, deepened my understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and better equipped me to share the gospel to a world that desperately needs the hope found in Christ alone. I trust it will do the same for you.
Interested in learning more about Sattler's program of study? Visit our Academics page.
Bryant is currently at home in hot, windy Kansas where he spent the first part of the summer pouring concrete and fishing. He’s a human biology major with a serial love of learning that keeps him busy. He loathes saying “no” to opportunities and has long since run out of arms and legs to keep all the doors in his life propped open. But Sattler has helped him channel his energy toward a pursuit of Christ and His kingdom above all else.