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Educating Men with Chests: Climbing Parnassus

Mount Parnassus…hovering over the ancient shrine of Delphi, has stood as a…symbol of poetic inspiration and perfection since the dawn of the West…over time it came to embody those things which man, at his best, wishes—and ought to wish—to achieve. It became a sign of his better, divinely inspired self…the civilizing, cultivating boon of excellence, of right and beautiful expression…Throughout the centuries to come, this forbidding image got lifted from its geographical and mythological settings to be transposed…as an emblem of linguistic flair. “Climbing Parnassus” eventually became a code for the painfully glorious exertions of Greek and Latin (Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Mount Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007. pp. 15-16).


Education today focuses on vocational training to prepare citizens for jobs—work that is productive with respect to community, personally beneficial, and financially rewarding. We live, however, in a time in which these expectations are being bitterly disappointed: There are so many people today who are trained and for whom there are fewer jobs to be had. Education is so expensive, while returning to its recipients less gain. Our society appears so heatedly contentious, though sometimes apathetic, in seeking solutions to the problems we face. And the news on the education front is grim. Students are less literate in basic reading, writing, and arithmetic and they appear to lack the critical thinking skills to comprehend and solve the increasingly complex problems we face. As Simmons puts it in Climbing Parnassus:



Never have so many people earned so many academic degrees and known so little. Yet never have so many thought they knew so much…We repeat the thought-clichés we hear without realizing that we’re not thinking our own thoughts but the thoughts of others (p. 233).


Climbing Parnassus is a response to this situation, and Simmons identifies the reason for it: We have abandoned classical education and we have paid a high price for doing so. We no longer know what past civilizations valued; we educate our students not knowing what ‘ideal’ human beings we hope will be the result of that education; we have assumed that the transfer of cultural ideals—civilization—will be automatic; we have forgotten that education involves the cultivation of individuals (as Andrew Kern sets forth in his talk The Contemplation of Nature, that children are souls to be nurtured, not products to be measured); and rather than educating our students well in select areas, strengthening their skills and deepening their maturity, we have tried to cover too many subjects and we have covered them poorly. In fact, we have formed students whom C.S. Lewis describes in The Abolition of Man as ‘men without chests.’ Even though published in the mid 1940s, Lewis identifies a result of modern education which Simmons recognizes has come to fruition. Lewis writes:


[W]e continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or…self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue… (Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1974 p. 26. Note: spelling and punctuation from the edition cited).


What is the solution? Simmons argues that, contrary to our postmodern impulse to continually embrace change, we do not need a revolution. What is required, instead, is a restoration of something ancient: We need to recommit to the rich heritage of classical education, particularly through the dedicated study of Latin and Greek. “The hard precipitous path of classical education ideally led not to knowledge alone, but to the cultivation of the mind and spirit” (p. 16). Thus Climbing Parnassus is a defense of studying Latin and Greek that provides a historical overview of classical education. It is also an encouragement to re-embrace the classical model that forms and molds, rather than simply fills, the student.


In Climbing Parnassus, Simmons considers a string of interconnected questions in order to examine how important Latin and Greek have been in classical education. Here are some of the questions he addresses:


  • *What is classical education? It has traditionally been a course of study based upon the Greek and Latin languages that deeply mined the history, literature, philosophy, and art of the Greek and Roman worlds.
  • *What is culture? It should be given a high definition as ‘the conscious ideal of human perfection’ allowing individuals to live the “‘good life’ worthy of a free man, a man unfettered by servile obligations to other masters, one who had been trained to use his mind by ordering his affections, and by learning to ask the right questions of the world around him. This man [was] at once independent and civilized…” (p. 68).
  • *What is liberal education? It is education that reminds us “of human excellence” and invites us to listen “’to the conversation among the greatest minds’ as heard through the channel of great books…’Such education occurs when you pursue knowledge because you are motivated to experience and absorb what comes of thinking… in order to create new knowledge that others will then explore’…Liberal education…aim[s] not just at furnishing the mind with serviceable knowledge and information, nor even at habituating the mind to rational methods, but at leading it to wisdom, to a quality of knowledge tempered by experience and imbued with understanding. It should, in a word, humanize. Unguided by such an aim, education loses its true character and finds itself degraded to servile training for the world’s daily drudgeries” (pp. 29-30). 
  • *What is paideia? Liberal education seeks virtuous values: It bequeathes paideia, the word the Greeks used for education. “Paideia was about instilling core values, enunciating standards, and setting moral precepts” the object of which was to “educate autonomous men and women: citizens, not robots” (pp. 40-41). Paideia encourages the love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. It produces men who, unlike C.S. Lewis’ ‘men without chests,’ are fully human, having achieved a temper of mind that both “forms and informs” and that “makes for breadth, tolerance, equilibrium, and sanity” (p. 243).

The education that produces paideia is classical education, instilling a depth of love for seeking the good to such a degree that self-examination and self-correction become second nature and are combined with sound judgment. Thus the idea of a liberal education, aimed at producing free men and focused on paideia, calls us back to Greece and Rome, the ancient civilizations which gave birth to our own. Through them, we come to the reason for studying Greek and Latin—to the question of why studying these foreign, so-called ‘dead,’ languages creates ‘men with chests.’ Quite simply, paideia happens through learning Latin and Greek. The transmission of high culture through Greek and Roman poetry, literature, history, and philosophy comes packaged in these languages, and studying these languages will, therefore, build character: Through the hard, disciplined work of learning them, through the practice of precision in acquiring the grammar and in translating, and through making judgments about what is correct and what is best—ultimately resulting in the acquisition of critical thinking skills and the possession of both excellent taste and superior style.


To paraphrase Simmons’ beautifully written apology, to climb Parnassus is to grasp hold of Greek and Latin and to grapple intimately with words and language. In doing this, the mind is better stocked with information. It explores the family trees of words. The brain muscle is stretched. The mind embraces new ideas and judges old ones. It analyzes and synthesizes information on demand, and can see through ‘double-talk.’ The study of these languages not only opens the doors to reading the classics in the original languages of their authors, but produces good observation habits, discernment, and caution in drawing conclusions. Fluency in Latin and Greek creates confidence in clear and elegant communication. It instills a yearning for precision—a desire to really say what one really means. It fixes the orderliness of grammar and syntax in our minds, and forces us to write in complete sentences, committing us to whole—as opposed to fragmented—thoughts. It helps us to structure the things we have to say before we say them, and gives us the ability to ‘turn a phrase’ well. It ultimately makes us feel responsible for the words we use, and the thoughts we cast out into the world. It tightens our expression, makes us attentive to correct definitions and standards, gives us the habit of easy expression, and encourages integrity in our writing. In the end, our minds form and direct our own thoughts. What a refreshing contrast to individuals who “repeat the thought-clichés we hear without realizing that we’re not thinking our own thoughts but the thoughts of others”!


The icing on the cake is when Greek or Latin are mastered, the process of reading the classics in the languages in which they were originally written can begin, and there, in works held in high esteem for centuries—such as The Iliad, by Homer, or The Aeneidby Virgil—we find the greatest and best that Western civilization has offered, including nobility, restraint, balance, harmony, proportion, generosity, and grace. Some practical hints also offered in Climbing Parnassus include choosing Latin over Greek if the option of working with both is not available (considering, for one thing, that 60% of English words derive from Latin), beginning instruction as early as possible, and resisting the desire to coddle, humor, or entertain our students as they take on the demanding—and sometimes tedious—task of mastering language through memorization, drill, and hard work. We do well to heed Chuck Norris when he writers in the foreward to the book Do Hard Things:


Today we live in a culture that promotes comfort, not challenges. Everything is about finding ways to escape hardship, pain, and dodge duty…Today, our culture expects very little…A sad consequence of such low expectations is that life-changing lessons go unlearned (Harris, Alex and Brett. Do Hard Things, Colorado Springs, CO: Multinomah Books, 2001. p. xiii).


In his finale, Simmons discusses America’s Founding Fathers, many of whom were steeped in the classics and fluently familiar with Latin and Greek. Ultimately, Simmons urges us, in order to resuscitate not only the education of our citizens but our very civilization itself, we must re-commit to climbing Parnassus:


[H]ow exactly are citizens to be ennobled? … we must know what makes a people civilized. Is it merely the sum of their “information,” their ability to convert effort into cash, their hunger to make more gadgets to perform functions they’ve yet to question, their bottomless yen for amusement? Or does civilization require something else, something greater and higher—and something harder?...Good intentions aren’t enough. Nor is uncritical, flag-waving patriotism sufficient to keep the ship of state afloat and sailing to safe havens…We Americans will need heartier fare if our great experiment is to prove successful…If we wish to understand the Founding Fathers from within, we should heed one simple axiom. Don’t merely read about them; read what they read—as they read it (209-210).

CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education

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