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P.J. O'Rourke on Classical Education

Get an education - a classical education filled with Plato, Cato, Pliny the Elder, Pliny Junior, and Cicero by the yard; with Marathons of an un-Boston kind and Hannibals who cross the Alps, not Jodie Foster; an education that includes Pythagoras's theorem, Zeno's paradox, Occam's razor, the rest of Occam's toilet kit, some basic science (nothing beyond a Bunsen burner), and a few of the mustier works of great literature. (What is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?)

The entire British Empire was built by young men who'd studied nothing but Latin, Greek, and plane geometry. They graduated from college, were sent out to rule India, and telegraphed home: "People here acting as though they were in The Iliad. Have figured out all the angles. Send pecunia."

Nowadays Oxford and Cambridge have courses in anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, economics, and no telling what else. Meanwhile the British Empire has shrunk to three IRA informants, a time-share deal with the Red Chinese in Hong Kong, and that bed-and-breakfast of an island, Bermuda. Sic transit gloria mundi, as if anybody knew what that meant anymore.

There are, admittedly, things that can't be learned by studying the classics. But education is not just a matter of learning things. There's a difference between information and knowledge. It's the difference between Christy Turlington's phone number and Christy Turlington. There's also a difference between knowledge and meaning. Socrates wouldn't know grunge rock, but he'd know what it means. It means every flannel shirt in America should be dripped in Prozac. Furthermore, there's a difference between meaning and life. Hillary Clinton loves the "politics of meaning" and all it's gotten her is week upon week locked in a roomful of nerds figuring how to pay the country's doctor bills. What kind of life is that?

A classical education helps us unravel these, as it were, Gordian knots. It teaches us the lesson of continuity in human affairs. We read Juvenal's Sixth Satire:

"Meantime she completely
Ignores her husband, gives not a moment's thought
To all she costs him. She's less a wife than a neighbor -
Except when it comes to loathing his friends ..."

And we realize first wives weren't born yesterday.

If we can do such reading in the original language, we can travel back in time, go back two thousand years and find what's inside people's minds ... some pretty nasty minds, too, such as that of the poet Nicarchus:

"You should certainly have made a sign saying which was
your mouth, which your asshole.
Just now when you were gabbing I thought you'd farted."

And a classical education gives us perspective. For instance, the fall of Rome is a melancholy tale, but careful readings in history show us that we happen to be the people Rome fell to.

A classical education provides no skills. But, personally, at age forty-five, I don't want a skill. If I had a skill I'd have duller work. I'd be a dentist. Instead, I get to pursue that career of professional amateurs called journalism. Besides, the skills I might like to have - getting on the green in three, pestering trout with lint on a pin - aren't gotten in school. And school is what I wish I'd gone to more of. Much stupid behavior could have been thereby avoided.

If I'd known how Plato came a cropper trying to put his Republic into practice under Dionysius II in Sicily or if I'd had a better idea what caused the collapse of representative government in Rome and Athens, I would have been spared a decade of radical politics.

If I'd read the mush in Virgil's Ecologues:

"... for you the Nymphs bring lilies,
Look, in baskets full; for you the Naiad fair,
Plucking pale violets and poppy heads . . .
et cetera, et cetera, et cetera"

I would have been nauseated enough to escape all sorts of hopeless romances.

If I'd been led from Aristotle through Roger Bacon and Erasmus to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century - if I'd realized what pains mankind had taken to achieve empirical observation, logical thought, and experimental methods of proof - I would have eschewed vibes, auras, mantras, astral projections, and all the other mental rubbish of the last thirty years.

And, if I'd read Petronius and Fran├žois Villon, I would have given the feckless bohemian life a pass and gotten a bath and a job.

On the other hand, I liked being a hippie pretend guerrilla writing horrible long poems to Suzy and Moonbeam and Babs. I had a great time thinking I could end war and social injustice by letting my hair grow and dressing like a circus clown. And - though we're not supposed to say it these days - the drugs were swell.

Such follies are born of ignorance, but I've enjoyed them. So maybe you shouldn't get an education after all. I'm not well educated enough to know.


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P.J. O'Rourke's recommendation of the Classics, from his latest collection, entitled Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995). It was originally published in Esquire, October 1993, as part of a sixtieth-anniversary "Sixty Things a Man Should Know" collection.

Comments

Poppy Buxom said…
I went to Smith, so I didn't learn so much Occam's razor as Occam's Epilady.
Joke said…
And here I thought Occam was a cyclist.

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