- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

By Tracy Lee Simmons
ISI Books, $24.95 cloth, 268 pages

Historian Sheldon Vanauken was once asked by an admirer, "What is the reason we ought to study history, after all? Don't most people find it a mish-mash of dates and names attached to dead people and their actions while living? What can we learn from that in an age in which it's more important to know how to pull a mother-board to add memory to one's computer than to learn the reasons the American Civil War erupted?"
Vanauken's response was enlightening: We learn history in order to become oriented to life and our place in it. While we may never be in a position to make decisions to avert another civil war, we most certainly can become men and women of wisdom, knowing that we are more than the flies of summer, having learned what the best minds of ages past have written of the nature of man, his glory and his shame.
Vanauken's godson, Tracy Lee Simmons, has tackled a similar theme in his new book, "Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin." Readers who automatically recoil at any book which contains the word "apologia" in any part of its title, or who suspect Mr. Simmons' study is simply another lonely, fruitless call for the teaching of Greek and Latin in American schools will be pleasantly surprised. For Mr. Simmons, a journalist who writes widely on literary and cultural matters, offers a somewhat new approach to the question of learning the classical languages.
In the past, many advocates of a revived classical education have pushed forward their curriculum in the same spirit as did people in an earlier era when advocating the daily intake of cod-liver oil: Take it; it's good for you. More specifically, you'll understand what Caesar thought, and learn to speak a better grade of English, as well. Mr. Simmons' twofold goal is different; he seeks both to elucidate the centuries-long corner Greek and Latin held on school and university curricula (focusing upon the English and American experience), and to defend at length the signal role the classical languages have played in shaping the formed, cultivated mind throughout Western history until well into the last century.
The climbing of Parnasssus, the Greek mountain emblematic of inspiration and eloquence, is arduous but rewarding. To learn Greek and Latin is difficult, but goes far toward orienting and refining the mind, inclining the soul toward "those things which man, at his best, wishes, and ought to wish, to achieve."
Mr. Simmons is under no illusion that a renaissance of classical learning is a possibility; that cause was lost long ago. However, to those who value wisdom, a more-than-passing acquaintance with the ancient languages helps, for one thing, regain some sense of history and our place along its timeline. "We drift without classics, floating on our own deracinated, exiguous islands," Mr. Simmons warns. "And we become fodder for demagogues. We need not a revolution, but a restoration."
Classical education was long held not to make the learner more knowledgeable or tolerant or mentally agile, but more insightful, with the student learning to think clearly and discourse eloquently, drawing upon a storehouse of wisdom and precise vocabulary. (Compare that concept with what one hears on the televised shout-fests of today, where a well-placed "Excuse me?" is considered a slam-dunk, end-of-argument retort.)
No teacher of the classics goes so far as to say that the ancient world was without its store of cruelty and license; however, it is wrong to shy away from confronting views of former ages simply because they fail to conform to current notions, for doing so shows forth evidence of what Owen Barfield called "chronological parochialism": the glib belief that one's own time, particularly our own, is always right. Someone once argued with T. S. Eliot on this point, stating, "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did," to which Eliot replied, "Precisely, and they are that which we know."
Not a revolution, but a restoration: In this context, then, Mr. Simmons' book serves the cause of classical education in somewhat the same manner the essay collection "I'll Take My Stand" by John Crowe Ransom and others served the cause of agrarianism some 70 years ago: To ask the rising generation and their teachers,
What are you about to cast aside that has served your ancestors so well? Are you sure you want to leave it behind, or is there (on the other hand) something here that can serve us well in an increasingly hostile and rootless world?
"Gratitude, according to Chesterton, is the truest sign of happiness in individuals," Mr. Simmons writes. "A safe corollary seems then to be that a happier society would feel a debt to the past and its treasures, and this debt would be paid gladly by those taught in the ways of respect and humility… . Such respect (if not always such humility) classical education fostered for centuries.
It lent an anchoring to intellectual life and provided all educated people, as we now say, with a common set of references. Or, to switch metaphors, it placed a true north on our cultural compass. It maintained a horizon. We could see where we were."
To move us to a position where we can see where we are, Mr. Simmons carefully performs the preliminary spadework of defining his terms early on, tackling the question of what is meant by the term "culture," and what makes for a liberal education, for example, and then building his case from there, issuing what amounts to a challenge for volunteers to step forward and participate in the ascent of Parnassus. "Climbing Parnassus once helped to form the unformed mind," he writes.
Just so. In a rhetorical flourish that concludes his book, he cites the Virgilian dictum, Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causuas. ("Happy the man who can understand the causes of things.") Happy also, writes Mr. Simmons, is "the man who can also utter and enshrine these causes and origins with fitting words. He plays the guardian. We must be Arcadians, not Utopians. The tablets must be kept. Much there is to preserve, and we must shoulder the burden of preserving and safeguarding. We become both civilized and cultivated through the high act of preservation. We raise ourselves above the commonplace, breathing fresher air than that breathed by those chained to the four walls of their little worlds."
Mr. Simmons's essay is a well crafted plea not so much for buckling on the armor of the classics, but a return to humility (a recurrent concept in this work). He concludes by stating that our "clever and ingenious world must find within itself once more the humility to learn, and to teach, those noble arts if any semblance of civilization, any shard of inner greatness, is to survive the havoc wrought by generations of aphasia and well-meaning neglect."
In words from a gracefully written foreword with which this reviewer strongly concurs, William F. Buckley Jr. asserts, "Simmons does not play the pedant in this graceful testimonial to the classical languages. He is the eager and eloquent reporter giving us some idea of what lies in those great repositories, so inexplicably neglected in modern schooling, and what pleasures await those whose curiosity he succeeds in awakening and how gratefully the mind repays itself when flexed on languages which are not dead because, as he quotes another author, they are no longer mortal."

James E. Person is the author of "Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind" (1999).

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