A classical education—by any worthwhile definition—emphasizes the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome in its curriculum. Their histories, literature, and ideas get more airtime than anyone else’s. That emphasis precipitates a persistent question in the minds of many present-day parents and educators who, being drawn to classical education through its recent resurgence, find they like some of the trimmings but struggle when their nine-year-olds start telling them of gorgons, furies, and the sometimes surly deeds of the Greco-Roman pantheon. The question can be variously articulated, but the crux is this: won’t concentrated study of these ancient pagan cultures prove detrimental to the young minds in my charge?
Justification for the pagans’ place in education is not hard to find (see here or here for starters). The question has been repeatedly asked, and thus the answer has been amply supplied. Yet it seems to me that the most common answers—rightly enough—have tended to focus on the ways in which the value of studying the ancient pagan cultures outweighs any potential harm. In this piece, I’d like to explore a slightly different tact. For while it’s true that the value of studying the pagans outweighs the potential harm, it’s also the case that the potential harm is less potentially harming than the harm that surrounds our children and students in the here and now. In response to the question posed above, I often want to respond with a question of my own: won’t unremitted imbibing of the present secular culture be worse?
The basic idea that, in certain ways, the errors of the ancient pagans are preferable to our own errors could be expanded in several different directions, and no doubt should be caveated in a few ways too. As a start, however, let’s simply consider two ways in which the pagans got it wrong, and yet in so doing managed to be nearer to truth and goodness than the men and women of our own age.
1. Deification of Nature
Anyone who knows the basics of Greek mythology knows that, for the ancient pagans, all of the most important aspects of the natural world around them were associated with the divine. Zeus is the god of the sky, Poseidon the god of the sea, Helios the god of the sun, Selene the goddess of the moon. This association extends to the most important byproducts of the natural world too, with Demeter being the goddess of grain, and Dionysus the god of wine. And indeed the association is so pervasive that the more time one spends in the ancients’ books the more he realizes that every river, island, and tree is home to one of the lesser—though still revered—deities.
In a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world, deifying the natural world is wrong—terribly, idolatrously wrong. And yet I daresay it approximates the truth more nearly and evinces a more nearly virtuous impulse of the heart than what we’ve managed to come up with in our own time. For the average non-reflective modern materialist, nothing is deified to be sure, but then again nothing is deifiable either. Nothing compels the modern man to associate anything with the divine, for there is no divinity.
And this isn’t to say that modern man doesn’t worship, for in fact he does and even cannot escape doing so. But the objects of his worship have had every scrap of the transcendent annihilated from the outset. He practices idolatry alright, but unlike the ancient pagans his idolatry doesn’t reach outward and upward even the slightest bit. Instead it pathetically terminates precisely where it started, on the man himself. Whereas the ancients would visit a place like the Grand Canyon and offer a sacrifice to the god of the place, the moderns visit to take selfies and garner praise for themselves.
2. Deification of Ancestors
Newcomers to the histories of ancient Greece and Rome soon make a slightly amusing discovery: all of the ancestors who are farthest back in the family tree are either immortals, offspring of immortals, or immortalized for their monumental deeds in life. Everyone knows that if you dig a deep enough hole in the earth, you’ll find water. And, as it turns out, if you dig far enough back in the ancients’ lineage, you’ll find deity. The Greeks have Jason, Perseus, Heracles, and Theseus. The Romans have Aeneas and Romulus. This observation is indicative of a sweeping inclination on the part of the ancient pagans to esteem the past and pay homage to their forebears. Those from whose loins they proceeded and by whose deeds they possessed land and livelihood were always to be held in reverence and remembered in worship.
Now again, deifying one’s ancestors—no matter how pivotal their place in history nor how storied their deeds—is wrong. Worship belongs to God alone, the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, in whom all men of every age have lived and moved and had their being, and before whom all the nations of mankind are but a drop in the bucket. It is never okay to misallocate the glory that is due the Almighty, and so treat the distance between him and mere men as something rather minute.
And yet, I don’t think it’s especially hard to see why the ancient pagans’ error at this point remains an improvement in comparison with our own. After all, while God forbids worship of father and mother, he commands their honor. To cross the line between honoring and worshiping is undoubtedly to err, but to belittle, denigrate, or flout those whom you ought to honor is worse. I fear that my generation—shaped as we were by TV show after TV show with either absent, imbecilic, or well-meaning but nevertheless misguided parents—has completely forgotten that their children owe them anything approximating honor. And the generation that has never known what it is to honor another is the generation that will find no authority tolerable and no tradition indisposable.
So there it is. In these two ways—the deification of nature and the deification of ancestors—I contend that the pagans’ errors are better than the errors of our own time. Sure, there will always be some danger when exploring unfamiliar terrain, but that doesn’t make staying in the air-polluted city any safer.