Classical Literature Is Still Timely and Powerful
Since history regularly repeats itself, sensible people must mine the ideas of the past.
M.Tullius Cicero was a Roman philosopher, statesman, and ora- tor. He lived during a
time in history in which unscrupulous
politicians had found legal loopholes to
unravel Rome’s careful system of checks
and balances. Cicero battled fiercely for
Rome while unscrupulous men like Julius
Caesar and Marcus Antony bought themselves top spots and ascended to tyranny.
His willingness to call a spade a spade put
his neck on the line, and Antony was happy to find an ax. Cicero went to the chopping block advocating the value of liberty.
Cicero’s head and hands were put on
display as a warning for anyone who
might risk speaking against the changing
tide of Roman power because the despotic
Empire had been born. Cicero was a vocal witness to the lessons unfolding before
him, saying, “Historia vero testis tempo-rum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra
vitae, nuntia vetustatis”: “Indeed history is
the witness of the times, the light of truth,
the survival of memory, the teacher of life,
the message of antiquity.”
The words of the past are still potent to-
day. Since history regularly repeats itself,
sensible people must mine the ideas of
the past. Our ancestors already fought the
battles we fight today. We can find gold
nuggets of wisdom and warning signs
that all is not well. Take a few moments to
look. If you are new to Classical literature
you might think the focus is far-fetched
cautionary tales of horses, heroes, cen-
taurs and Cyclops. On the contrary, there’s
much worth thinking about here.
mended: Iliad and Odyssey
These are the first two works of liter-
ature in Western civilization. It is best
to start your study of Classical litera-
ture with these. Homer set the basis for
heroism and honorable behavior that
still influences our culture still today.
wright; Recommended: The Oresteia
trilogy (for upper high school level)
The only surviving tragic trilogy
shows the destructive nature of revenge and retribution. The rule of law
prevails in the end, making these plays
a great platform with which to discuss
the merits of justice over retribution.
• Sophocles, 496–406 B.C., tragic playwright; Recommended: Oedipus the King
The plot line is a worst-case scenario
of family disasters with no happy endings or easy answers. This tragedy inspires thoughts about fate vs. free will
and how hubris can cloud the judgment
of otherwise good-hearted people.
• Herodotus, 484–425 B.C., historian;
Recommended: The History (regarding
the Persian Wars), first work of history
in Western literature
Herodotus invented the term his-
tory (lit. inquiry) and systematically
tested his historical resources. The
struggle between the Greeks and the
massive Persian Empire would become
a watershed David and Goliath story
about how tiny Greek groups prevailed
against all odds.