In Further Defense of the Classics

Andrew Sullivan expansively responds to Rush Limbaugh’s studied ignorance. Rush:

Tell me, any of you at random listening all across the fruited plain, what the hell is Classical Studies?  What classics are studied?  Or, is it learning how to study in a classical way?  Or is it learning how to study in a classy as opposed to unclassy way?  And what about unClassical Studies?  Why does nobody care about the unclassics?  What are the classics?  And how are the classics studied?  Oh, cause you’re gonna become an expert in Dickens?  You’re assuming it’s literature.  See, you’re assuming we’re talking classical literature here.  What if it’s classical women’s studies?  What if it’s classical feminism?  Who the hell knows what it is?  One thing I do know is that she, the brain-dead student, doesn’t know what it is, after she’s got a major in it.  Because all she knows to do with it is go down to Occupy Wall Street and complain and write a note for the cameras.


But the main reason for a classical education is precisely its uselessness. True learning is practically useless; and it should be. It is not about deploying knowledge to master the world, it is about the pursuit of truth for the sake of nothing else. It is about the highest things. How is a life worth living if it ignores them?

And me: there certainly is an enjoyable and beneficial uselessness to the classical education. It’s “impractical,” in that it doesn’t translate quickly to a professional career track, or to an applied science. But not until recently have we conceived of the world of higher education so narrowly. It was the British who, at the height of their empire, most recently viewed the classics as an ideal training platform for their colonial officers and functionaries, both because impractical, non-manual degrees were seen as mark of status — consider John Adams, to his wife:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain

— And because a healthy background in the rise and fall of other Western empires provides a sense of the impermanence of power. Lessons on the transience of empire are precisely those that any hegemon should hope to impart to its statesmen. Better that than a concept of imperial “exceptionalism,” translated as “infallibility,” deployed to excuse even the possibility of international misconduct. Fagles, again, on the Aeneid:

The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.

Further, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 — what is organized religion but a very specific classical education?). New problems can often by answered by old solutions. Our separation of powers theory, for example, descends from Locke, who descended from Montesquieu, who in turn claimed descent from Rome:

A fifth error in policy hath been this, viz. A permitting of the legislative and executive powers of a state, to rest in one and the same hands and persons. By the legislative power, we understand the power of making, altering, or repealing laws, which in all well-ordered governments, hath ever been lodged in a succession of the supreme councils of assemblies of a nation.

In many cases, we’ve built ourselves on the errors, rather than the examples of Rome, which are not without serious instructive value. If we’re to approach government as anything like a science (cf. this terrible article from the abysmal Post), the foundation of that approach must lie in consideration of the trials and errors of the past, not in reliance on “feckless know-nothings” like Limbaugh and his increasingly depressing slate of candidates. And that starts with a respect for earned knowledge, in all its forms. Except perhaps for puppetry.



  1. It is almost depressing that the most listened to man in a country that modelled itself on the Roman Republic would hold the idea of studying it in such little regard.

  2. Damn right, Rush. Just look at that guy George Washington. Should have focused on something useful, like his surveying, instead of wasting his time reading all that fancy-pants “Cicero” and “Titus Livius” and what not. Then maybe the slacker could have made something of himself.

    And don’t even get me started on James Madison…

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