why we should all learn from the ancient Greeks

Edith Hall in The Guardian:

JudeIn 1748, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his son: “Classical knowledge, that is, Greek and Latin, is absolutely necessary for everybody … the word illiterate, in its common acceptance, means a man who is ignorant of these two languages.” Classical knowledge is here limited to linguistic knowledge, education to men, and literacy to reading competence in Greek and Latin. Greek was also handy when white people wanted to deride the intellectual abilities of black ones. In 1833-4, American pro-slavery thinkers were on the defensive. The senator for South Carolina, John C Calhoun, declared at a Washington dinner party that only when he could “find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax” could he be brought to “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man”. This snipe motivated a free black errand boy, Alexander Crummell, to head for Cambridge University in England. There he indeed learned Greek as part of his studies, financed by abolitionist campaigners, in theology at Queens’ College (1851–3).

The best-known example is the hero of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Jude Fawley, a poor stonemason living in a Victorian village, is desperate to study Latin and Greek at university. He gazes on the spires and domes of the University of Christminster – they “gleamed” like topaz. The lustrous topaz shares its golden colour with the stone used to build Oxbridge colleges, but is one of the hardest minerals in nature. Jude’s fragile psyche and health inevitably collapse when he discovers just how unbreakable are the social barriers that exclude him from elite culture. Hardy was writing from personal experience: as the son of a stonemason himself, and apprenticed to an architect’s firm, he had been denied a public school and university education; like Fawley, he had struggled to learn enough Greek to read the Iliad as a teenager. Unlike Jude, Hardy rose through the social ranks to become a prosperous member of the literary establishment. But he never resolved his internal conflict between admiration for Greek and Latin authors and resentment of the supercilious attitude of some members of the upper classes who had been formally trained in them.

More here.