Why We Study the Classics

Stories are powerful things. They tell us who we are, and in turn they also shape who we are.

Throughout history, humans have been fascinated by stories. Stories answer the questions that humans have always asked: what is our purpose; what decisions lead towards happiness; what are the strengths and weaknesses of humans?

While most stories answer these questions to some degree, there are certain stories whose answers to these questions have resonated with people across cultures and across time periods. These stories are referred to as the classics. As a classical school, we choose to read books that people have been reading for hundreds of years. Some of the books we read are even from ancient civilizations, being written over 4,000 years ago.

When some people hear that we read stories that were written hundreds of years ago, they question the relevancy of those books. How can The Iliad, an epic poem written over 2,000 years ago, be relevant to a 9th grade student today? And yet when students read about Achilles, a man whose honor leads to him making both immoral and noble choices, they are able to connect with his struggles. Having honor and receiving recognition is something any young adult is going to crave. We read Achilles’ story though to understand how honor is truly won. It is not found through abandoning one’s duty until others come and beg for help. Honor is found when one chooses to do the right thing, even if it is for the sake of an enemy.

Classics matter because of their universal themes, the fact that they have stood the test of time, and due to their ability to answer the question of what does it mean to be human. Classics expose the strengths and the weaknesses of humans. When we read Greek mythology, we are warned that humans struggle with being too arrogant and proud, and there is a consequence for this vice. We read about Narcissus who spurns others and only loves himself for his beauty, eventually becoming obsessed with his own reflection until he fades away into a flower. We read about the daring young Icarus, who is so taken with his brief chance to experience flight, that he forgets the words of caution of his father and flies closer and closer to the sun and glory, only to inevitably fall to his death. Greek myths also show the power of the human heart. Stories like Orpheus and Eurydice or Cupid and Psyche show the lengths that we would go to for a loved one. Orpheus risks everything and descends to the dreaded underworld for a chance to retrieve his lost love, and Psyche risks the wrath of her immortal mother-in-law just to be with the man she loves. While we might not see people transforming into flowers today as a form of divine justice, and we don’t often have to deal with all-powerful, immortal in-laws, these stories resonate with us because the characters demonstrate virtues and vices that we still struggle with today.

The pursuit of a virtuous life is noble, but it can be challenging. By reading stories that have inspired humans across generations, we can gain a better understanding of how to live a life of virtue. Just as characters want to transform into the best versions of themselves, we too desire transformation. We too desire to be people who seek the good, the true, and the beautiful. And so, we will continue to read stories that teach us what is good; what is true; and what is beautiful.

Madison Flatt
Upper School Department Head and Literature Teacher