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Using Classical Reception to Teach Classical Epic: Part 1

By: Dr. Nicholas Newman

While sitting with the other faculty members of Northeast Catholic College (now the Magdalen College of Liberal Arts) at the 2018 convocation, I was treated to a speech by the president emeritus, Dr. Peter Sampo. He brought up a point that struck a chord with me, that our students are some of the luckiest people in history. Our students are given the freedom and the opportunity to read and discuss the greatest works of literature ever to be written. Such a choice was not always the case. My grandfather was chosen by his village in Italian Switzerland to attend university in Zurich, but despite his wish to study literature, his village decided chemistry was more useful. So he was sent to study chemistry, and a chemist he became. The decision that chemistry is more useful is one that does not appreciate the importance of the liberal arts education. As Aristotle points out “πάντες ἄνθρωποιτοῦεἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει."All humans, following their nature, desire to know.” By studying the liberal arts, then, a student, as much as the student who pursues chemistry, fulfills what it means to be truly human - to know.

In pursuit of such a lofty goal, however, the liberal arts create well-rounded and prepared persons. In this modern age, which seems to be moving so quickly, in which so much of history is ignored or thought irrelevant, our students understand the context in which our society has developed and have grounding in the permanent rather than the fleeting, giving our students insight into complex topics and the ability to think critically. In this modern age in which so many are consumed by social media and technology, so much so that they are unable to create and maintain fulfilling relationships with other humans (cf. Why Millenials Need to Reduce Social Media’s Impact on Their Relationships by Andrew Arnold Forbes Magazine March 21st 2018.), our students can discuss nuanced points of philosophy and theology and intelligently make themselves understood in person and in writing. It is, perhaps, their service to our society that makes our students so valuable. If the United States is indeed to be the “land of the free and home of the brave,” then it is necessary not only to sacrifice for and defend that freedom, but to know what it means to be free and what the nature of bravery is. How can successive generations act as free men and women, if they cannot ever come to an understanding of what it means to be free? It is easy to have concepts like freedom, bravery, truth, justice, etc… perverted. One need only look at the dark future conjured by George Orwell in 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” In this we see these noble concepts put to evil use: the idea of freedom in a twisted form used to enslave.

The Classical Student as a Scholastic Athlete

Dealing with perennial human issues like freedom, justice, and truth involves a great deal of complex discussion and nuanced thinking. Fortunately, it is not up to our students to come up with answers to these questions on their own, and it is in this context that the true joy and good fortune of being a student in a Classical education school shine through. Our classes are taught, not by us ourselves, pontificating on these questions, but by those great figures of history who have dealt with them as well. It is in dialogue with these figures, with Plato and Homer, with Thomas Aquinas and Dante, with Chaucer and Shakespeare, that our students come to grips with these ideas and progress in their own intellectual growth.

Progressing through the reading regimen in a Classical school is a rigorous process and requires a great deal of intense work, concentration, and thought from students. My students at Veritas Classical Academy, in their first semester of Ancient Literature, read, among other texts, The Odyssey, The Agammemnon, The Antigone, The Medea and The Bacchae. This type of an education is so rigorous, in fact, that Lucian of Samosata, a second century A.D. author, compares the training of the mind to the training undergone by athletes.  

Ωσπερ τοῖς ἀθλητικοῖς καὶ περὶ τὴν τῶν σωμάτων ἐπιμέλειαν ἀσχολουμένοις οὐ τῆς εὐεξίας μόνον οὐδὲ τῶν γυμνασίων φροντίς ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς κατὰ καιρὸν γινομένης ἀνέσεως μέρος γοῦν τῆς ἀσκήσεως τὸ μέγιστον αὐτὴν ὑπολαμβάνουσινοὕτω δὴ καὶ τοῖς περὶ τοὺς λόγους ἐσπουδακόσιν ἡγοῦμαι προσήκειν μετὰ τὴν πολλὴν τῶν σπουδαιοτέρων ἀνάγνωσιν ἀνιέναι τε τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἔπειτα κάματον ἀκμαιοτέραν παρασκευάζειν.
Just as athletes and those who labor for the health of the body think not only of good habits of the body and excersize, but also of relaxation at the proper time. In fact, they understand this to be the most important part of training. This same is true, I believe, for those who pay serious attention to reading, that after much weighty reading it is useful to relax the mind and so to prepare for future labor better.

If a sprinter were to do nothing but run full tilt during a practice, it would be counterproductive, spoiling him for upcoming matches and even running the risk of injury. If a weightlifter were to do nothing but lift at his maximum weight, he would not create the desired muscle tone and again would run the risk of injury. Instead, these athletes incorporate periods of stretching to warm up and cool down, periods of lesser intensity during their training, and even variations in their exercise: runners lifting weights and weight trainers doing periods of cardiovascular exercise. Holding to Lucian’s analogy, students too must vary their mental exercise by varying their reading, relaxing the intensity of their study.

In keeping with the comparison to athletes, students should incorporate this “relaxing” into the course itself, as athletes incorporate stretching and such into their exercise regimen. While this understanding may seem to contain the threat of a reduction in rigor, it is by no means an invitation for students to spend their time in idleness in the classroom or their time out of class procrastinating and playing Fortnite or Minecraft instead of reading the required texts. It would be a poor athlete who just merely sits around instead of stretching and then begins immediately with his exercise, nor would an athlete spend free time scarfing down cheeseburgers, instead, even while “relaxing,” either periodically within the period of exercise itself or during free time, the athlete still works toward the strengthening of his body. In the same way, a student should be constantly working toward the strengthening of the mind, using these periods of “relaxing” to further this purpose.

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