The key to seeing how practical Greek can be is how we frame the question of its value. Asking ‘how can knowledge of Ancient Greek increase my chances of landing a job or furthering a career’ leads only to an answer that reflects the purely material worldview of our times, ignoring things of eternal value. On the other hand, asking ‘how can learning Greek form my character, help me acquire virtue, and deepen my love of God and neighbor’ leads us to an entirely different kind of answer.
If you will forgive me a little foolishness, I will, as St. Paul says, speak “as a fool, that I also may boast a little.” Greek was the first class that was hard for me. I was able to get through all of high school and most of college on my ability to BS. Of course you can’t fake your way through math, but math always came easily for me and I slept through both Calculus 1 and 2 while still getting As. This may seem like an enviable situation, but it made me lazy and arrogant. During parent-teacher conferences my high school teachers complained so much about my attitude that my mom refused to go to them anymore. In nearly everything, I put in the absolute minimal effort.
My college Greek courses forced me to change. We had small classes and had to come ready to translate a passage. There was no hiding if you weren’t prepared. In my fourth semester of Greek, doing my normal minimum earned me a C, the only C I’ve ever received. Faking it had reached its limits and I was humbled. Being at a loss for what to do, I asked my professor for help. He said, “If you really want to learn the text, translate each passage five times.” That sounded so unreasonable and exaggerated, that I was left speechless. After a few days, I decided to swallow my pride and try his advice. Even still, I had my grammar continually corrected on simple passages of Aeshylus’ Eumenides while my classmates made beautifully poetic translations.
This new dedication to my Greek work began to spill into all my other subjects. One professor so enjoyed a paper I wrote on Plato’s Symposium that he offered to do an independent study with me the following semester so I could continue to flesh out my ideas and then try to get them published in a Philosophy journal.
But Greek also had an even deeper impact on me. Starting in middle school, I began realizing how empty our culture’s pursuit of money, prestige, and influence was. Discovering punk music, I found others who were actively rejecting these values while attending shows in Minneapolis’ thriving underground music scene. I started playing in bands that eschewed any type of worldly success. We played angry, ugly music at house shows, and to thank the host, we wrote expletive-filled songs insulting him or her. At times my behavior and appearance got so wild that even innocent activities, like sledding in a park with my friends, would make mothers so uncomfortable that they would tell their children that they had to leave immediately.
Despite rejecting the values of our culture, punk doesn’t offer anything beyond the same material vision of this world. As we started reading Greek texts, I realized how utterly different the Greeks saw things: the gods moved among them, everything had a religious significance, they yearned for ideals like the Good and the Beautiful, and they knew what it meant to be virtuous. The ancient Greeks were by no means Christian, but in the context of an enchanted world, where the divine could permeate the material, Christianity began to take on a deeper meaning for me. In understanding the assumptions of Greek culture, I came to recognize how many of the “truths” of our age are just assumptions as well, ones that past cultures would never entertain. Exhausted from angry rejection, I was desperate for something positive to embrace. Greek offered me a vision of a culture that not only rejected a material worldview, but offered a positive vision for humanity.
But what of you, my reader? I doubt for many of you returning to a university to get a degree in Greek is very realistic. What can you learn from all of this? I would like to offer the advice of two savants.
St. Paul, in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans, writes, “we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint.” Of what value are tribulations, even ones as trivial as learning another language? If our climate-controlled, same-day shipping life teaches us anything, it is that we want to be comfortable. St. Paul on the other hand sees so much value in difficulties that he urges us to glory in them for they lead to something eternal: hope. Our unwillingness to embrace these temporary trials make us miss out on things that matter most. Let us embrace our tribulations, be thankful for them, and be willing to be humbled by them.
C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to St. Athanasius the Great’s On the Incarnation, an outstanding Greek text from the 4th century AD, tells us the value of old texts. Here is a short passage from Lewis’ introduction: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” If you don’t know which old books to read, our school is full of them. Come and take a look. On the Incarnation is a great place to start.
And if those bits of advice don’t work for you, then maybe you should try to take my Greek class.