I confess, I’m a latecomer to the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome. I loved the Greek (and Norse) myths as a kid, but I’d not really read any original work until maybe 10 or 15 years ago.
By pure chance, I started with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There was no better place to start; relevant, accessible and blessedly short. I’m still pitifully under-read, but I’ve since enjoyed Aristotle, Homer, Seneca and Epictetus.
Suitably “born-again”, I now think everyone should read some ancient classics. But, why bother? The Art of Manliness blog has a persuasive essay, here.
To that, I would just add my own three reasons.
Those books written 1,800 to 2,500 years ago can often feel strangely contemporary. The world the ancients describe, the human condition, the challenges, even the values feel familiar. Why? Because we evolve slowly. Strip away our BMWs and iPhones and not much has changed. When Aristotle tells you that the essence of storytelling is “pity, fear, catharsis”, he is still correct. As Marcus Aurelius observes,
To see the things of the present moment is to see all that is now, all that has been since time began, and all that shall be unto the world’s end; for all things are of one kind and one form. [Meditations, 6.37]
Because those millenia-old texts are still relevant, they help put things in perspective. Brexit, Trump or the idiot on the end of the phone are probably not going to bring the end of days.
Equally, some things are old, and go deeper, than we think. For example, many (though not all) of the values we believe to be Christian you’ll find in Homer, eight centuries earlier.
The classics put things in perspective.
Why are the classics classic? It’s not because they were ordained as such centuries ago. Each generation visits them anew and deems them worthy of passing on to the next generation. As with Aristotle or Aurelius, so with Sun Tsu, Machiavelli or Shakespeare – you have the distilled wisdom of the ages.
From all of human history, the classics bring you the best bits. It’s like a greatest hits of history.
There is, after all, a good reason why we don’t still celebrate the sitcoms of Shakespeare’s neighbour, Bert.
Where to start?
I find Meditations pithy and accessible. Another great place to start is T.E. Lawrence’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Lawrence (that is Lawrence of Arabia) rendered his translation in prose form, like a novel, rather than in verse which makes for an easier read. Along the way, you’ll meet the cyclops, the sirens and the witch Circe.
The Art of Manliness article has a great reading list to get started with and, as it points out, many of these are now available free online.
So, cheaper than Netflix, curl up with a classic for January.