Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.36

Tracy Lee Simmons, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Foreword by William F. Buckley Jr.   Wilmington, DE:  ISI Books, 2002.  Pp. xviii, 268.  ISBN 1-882926-73-0.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Victoria Jennings and Andrea Katsaros, University of Adelaide, South Australia ( and
Word count: 1909 words

This book is about getting high: undertaking the 'arduous ascent' (20) up Parnassus to the 'high perch' (20) of 'high culture' (19) 'high into the uplands of thought' (21) provided by a classical training, from which we look down on our 'over-degreed and half-educated' (18) contemporaries, products of '[o]ur schools...a place where high hopes have gone to die' (10), 'cut-rate educational malls for the intellectually lame' (186). Unless 'we stand on the shoulders of giants', '[w]e drift without classics, floating on our own deracinated, exiguous islands' (20).

Preface: What need for yet another apologia for classics? S. rehearses justifications for the continuation of classical education, eschewing any notion that he offers new arguments (6: 'I do not intend to offer a new gospel'); self-deprecatingly, 'indeed this may be the most impudently unoriginal work to be published in many years' (xvii). He brings his 'limited experience' to the task of (possibly) shedding light on an old problem; and he is not 'saddled with that side-glancing reticence often rewarded by academic tenure' (xvii). Tantalisingly, 'I say here a few forbidden things' (xvii).

Introduction: S. asks the relevant questions about classics' demise. He understands that modern education is the victim of political power-broking (9) -- what is on offer is what is deemed 'popular' -- and that classics cannot be popular because it offers no tangible 'uses' (4). What career-minded politician would dare to push such an unrewarding barrow? S. outlines his distinction between classical education and classical scholarship (22-24). His technical distinction is discomforting: 'Fine classical scholars, like fine nuclear physicists, are rare birds. Would that they were a little rarer...few are needed in a healthy, intelligent society' (23). Some of his pronouncements come dangerously close to destroying his own arguments. S. acknowledges that classical education cannot exist without classical scholarship; therefore, it is astonishing that he can write, ' is primarily classical education -- Parnassus -- not scholarship, I argue for in this essay. The world could do with fewer scholars and more cultivated people' (24). The rigours of classical education (conquering Latin and Greek) are not for all, as S. recognizes. However, he cannot have it both ways: well meant, but hardly well expressed, his words smack of a frightening anti-intellectualism (surely not S.'s position). This sentiment provides more ammunition (as if they need it!) to those who see no value in learning classical languages -- the last thing that classics needs in an age which has already devalued it. When S. does argue for the value of classical languages (164ff.), he does so with clarity and understanding. Consequently, his arguments for their preservation ought to be more consistent. There is a sad naïveté in some conclusions: 'Classically educated people gain the power to ascribe value, simply because they have been exposed thoroughly, systematically, to the best' (82). Similarly, classics may well provide mental and moral attainments, and its languages do exercise our minds in more ways than one, but it is important to be discriminatory about 'the greatest thoughts' (162) that emanated from this ancient world.

Chapter One investigates the origins of 'liberal education' and 'humanism', and their importance in the 'Age of Microsoft' (45). The concepts underlying these elderly buzz-words are timeless: a liberal education ought to foster Newman's 'habit of mind' (35), 'to train the whole person' (31). No one should disagree that, 'such an education is eminently practical' (32). This 'liberal' education is about freedom with discipline (32f.): becoming 'responsible agents' (32), holding a less 'leveling view' (34), pursuing 'intellectual virtue' (36) and knowledge 'for its own sake, irrespective of immediate and material gain' (35), transmitting 'culture' (36), and judging 'what is first-rate and what is not' (this quotation from Livingstone: 43). S.'s dramatic turns of phrase are ubiquitous, but if you can get past his aphoristic style ('we stand deaf to our own ignorance, which has become a white noise': 4; 'Classics served the role of...cultural gatekeeper, a preserver of collective memories': 37), this is all rather good.

How did liberal education go so wrong? What happened to the right sort of paideia? The 'cafeteria style of course selection' -- the 'curricular flea market' -- supports notions of 'self-sufficiency as well as the spirit of relativism'; that is, it has created a 'level plane' (39). 'Schools and their curricula have always reflected the values of the society they serve. They still do -- and this should concern us' (41). What is absent, S. and many others argue, is any sense of 'civil obligations' (41) or 'spirituality' (42); the solution is a return to the 'moral education' of humanism with its teaching of ideals (44) and its ultimate aim of eudaimonia (54). Exactly how do we 'recommit ourselves individually to a rich and humane heritage long neglected' (12)? This is not addressed until Chapter Three.

Chapter Two is a readable account of Greek and Latin teaching and learning from the end of the ancient world until the death of Housman, at which point, S. claims, an essential bifurcation occurred in 'classical learning': on the one hand, 'scholarly detachment grew as a new professional paradigm' (137) to become 'the rare accomplishment of the dedicated few, not a fruitful province of the talented and cultivated. The amateurs were routed. The field belonged to the professional players who would brook no more meddling from dilettantes' (149). On the other hand, '[t]he popularizing had begun. Content was everything, form was no longer required. 'Appreciation' replaced rigor. Scholars became salesmen. Translations of the great classical authors were no longer cribs; they were bestsellers' (148). It is a pity that an otherwise informative account of the fortunes of classical education is marred by such a polarized exposé which descends rapidly into melodrama. S. wishes to encourage access to the classics (we hope), but this is continually short-circuited by his failure to admit any middle ground.

Chapter Three seeks to diagnose the ills ('equalitarian drunkenness': 153) of the American education system: over-emphasis of vocational, informative training at the expense of 'formative' education (152-155). What is S.'s 'heretical' (154) remedy? S. reiterates the importance of Greek and Latin (and maths: 156) -- above all, the importance of prose and verse composition (169ff.). This comes as something of a surprise given S.'s previously disparaging remarks on classical scholars. For S., language is the key to precise thinking: 'Good language makes for good thinking' (160). S. admits some discomfort with the question of intellectual elitism in a democratic age (153, 161), but once again there is no middle ground: 'Too many brilliant people in the past accepted it for us to ignore it' (161). S. would have us start at the bottom (163) with grammar and composition. Learning Latin teaches mental discipline, assists with English vocabulary, helps us think well, stretches our minds through memorizing, cuts through obfuscation, makes us critical judges of propaganda (168-169). He would have us go much further: Latin and Greek prose and verse composition represent the true path -- we'll be 'sweatier...but stronger' (176); composition offers 'the faultless moments, the ones when the winds fill our sails and the words blow perfectly... They take us halfway up the mountain' (177). We will have to suffer in the 'glorious struggle' (179) with the 'greasy mechanics of classical training' (174): there must be practice, time, submergence, exactitude, inflexibility, seriousness, suffering, pain, etc. (163-165; 229; 241) if we are to achieve 'nobility, restraint, balance, harmony, proportion, generosity, grace' (197); we must start as young as possible (240); there is to be no 'appreciation' and 'response' (188): save these for the 'sunset years' (190).

Throughout this chapter, once again, aphorisms abound: 'It's better to have sat at the feet of our betters than to pretend we're those betters ourselves' (155); 'Nothing quite takes the place of composing a Latin sentence for making one feel immortal' (180). They are too numerous to catalogue further. It is futile to offer such sweeping statements, no matter how exquisitely expressed. Incidentally, we are given a lesson in composing a sentence in Latin (174-175). If one has no knowledge of how a highly inflected language works, S.'s thumbnail sketch is hardly profitable. If one does have that knowledge, it is gratuitous.

'Knowledge is useful...Ignorance is no asset' (212f.). Among S.'s better arguments is his plea for the importance of classics for cultural reasons (215-218). Our immeasurable debt to classics throughout our literature and history is acknowledged: much becomes incomprehensible without this knowledge (215). S. can (just) endorse reading prose authors in translation (218) and acknowledges that they '...should not be shunned. They have great value, both intellectual and cultural' (218), but he proceeds to make a case for reading poetry only in the original (218). 'Almost anyone who has read...the Odyssey in both Greek and English finds even the best translation (and there are several splendid ones) grossly inadequate' (218-219). This cannot be gainsaid: 'those readers unlettered in the original languages can't know what they are missing' (218). Too true: but this ought not mean that those readers should be denied access to ancient poetry. We are not arguing that the case S. makes for languages is incorrect, but what of those with no talent for them? Are they to be relegated to a mere trog's education, with no ancient poetry at all? Or do they, too, deserve 'to drink at the springs of Hellas' (127) even if they do so in ignorance of the intoxicating pleasure (180) that classical scholars enjoy? If classics provides all that S. claims, then surely some classics is better then none at all. After much good observation, S. prices himself out of the market.

It is as well to state that these reviewers are prepared to welcome almost any apologia for classics. However, there are several issues that must be addressed in this timely millennial reminder of its value. One immediate concern is, for whom does S. write? 'Parnassus can be scaled by anyone with intelligence and curiosity who is also possessed of a doggedness for detail. With so much of the climbing gear available now to the disciplined autodidact in the forms of books, films, and computer software, the vistas have never been accessible to so many' (25f.). S. claims to argue for 'the whole package', i.e., learning Greek and Latin: 'Climbing Parnassus...a code for the painfully glorious exertions of Greek and Latin' (16). But his predisposition to vacillation is betrayed by such statements as 'not all knowledge worth having need be worn with scholastic exactitude. Acute intelligence matched to an active imagination can do wonders' (26). This is quite a tall order for S.'s ideal autodidact, whose task is made all the more difficult by a disappointing lack of citation: ancient and modern authors are quoted extensively, but without reference. This may be due to editorial constraints; it is certainly unfortunate for the autodidact. There is a bibliography, but it contains no editions of classical authors, to whom S. often refers, either in the original languages or in translation. Where, too, is Pfeiffer's magisterial history of classical scholarship?

The fine intention of this book is not in dispute. However, the complicated, repetitive and self-contradictory flow of ideas does not assist: there is an uncomfortable mixture of special pleadings, and one is never quite sure -- apart from the already converted -- to whom the author is trying to appeal. S.'s discomfort with pushing the elitist's case amid a public highly sensitive to 'equality' and 'democracy' is all too painfully clear.

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