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Classics and Education Part II

In part I, I introduced five points that I believed were a crucial part of education for the development of the individual. I copy them here.

1. To realise their own unique potential.

2. To be able to be aware of the bigger issues affecting their and all our lives.

3. To reflect upon and think critically about what matters in life (as many have found they were able to do in lockdown).

4. To become confident about choosing the right path for them.

5. To become confident about entering the world as adults and what their place in that is.

In this section, I shall deal with points 2 and 3. 4 and 5 will form part of the conclusion.

2 and 3) Classics, in my opinion, is one of the richest subjects for provoking discussion about wider issues, bigger questions from ethics, social values, to what our world is really like. It is not only Classics’ sheer variety in scope (subject matter, time, geographical spread), but the fact that those bigger questions preoccupied the ancients as much as us now. We meet these questions in school, but their relevance extends far beyond school: education itself, what it should be, ow the world works, science, human beings, their nature, relationships, friendship, understanding of and respect for other cultures, human beings’ impact on each other and the world, what is means to be a citizen, religion, lifestyle, finance, resources. And I could go on. This article is the first in a series that will explore how Classics not only explores all these areas, but also offers some of the most fantastic material to stimulate and furnish our own reflections upon them. Through contemplation of the bigger questions, we find what really matters in life, hence why I have put 2 and 3 together.

Greek philosophers often occupied themselves with the question of what the most important things in life were. What were the true ‘goods’? Here, I do not mean goods in the sense of supplies, wares, but things such as health, wealth, courage, bravery, happiness, friendship, sex.

Aristotle believed relationships between human beings were an essential part of human existence and defined us. He once said that man was a ‘politikon’ animal. This has been translated as ‘political’. I find this too narrow, at least in the sense we immediately think of nowadays. In the previous sentence (Politics, 1253a), Aristotle declared that men needed to dwell in a community to achieve self-sufficiency. The word used is ‘polis’, which referred principally to the city-state, which undoubtedly Aristotle believed to be the best form of community equipped for achieving the aims he sets out in the Politics and politikon is a cognate of polis. However, when Aristotle says that man is ‘by nature a politikon animal’, I believe his meaning was something closer to ‘community dwelling animal’, or ‘social animal’, meaning that man cannot live without other human beings and human relationships. How best to achieve a community in which these could flourish effectively for the good of the citizens. Our relations with others is a core part of school subject PSHE, and fact of life in being together whether in a school community, city, or village.

From there, I move to the debate about what constitutes the supreme ‘goods’ of life. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses pleasures and their different degrees of importance. He distinguishes them by their ‘moral value’, or ‘external goods’ such as health and sufficient possessions, necessary for the well-being of the ‘good man’, who seeks to contemplate and practice virtues, such as prudence or courage. Aristotle was hardly alone in his preoccupation with such matters. Many of Plato’s dialogues are devoted to exploring the ‘true nature’ of values. It is a topic that in a form is on the National Curriculum. I would argue that Classics could greatly enrich such a discussion. It is also important to realise that we are not debating ‘new’ questions. Surely, it is also important to aske, ‘why have we been debating these same issues for over 2,000 years and why are we still debating them.

I would like to end this section, before I conclude, I should like to give an example relating to friendship and its nature. The example comes from Homer’s Iliad. In the sixth book of the great epic, warriors Diomedes and Glaucus, warriors on opposing sides (Greek and Trojan respectively) recognise each other and refrain from attacking one another. Respecting the connection of friendship between their families, they do not fight each other, but exchange their armour as a token of that friendship. Despite, the fiercely fought Trojan War, their respect for that bond trumps the hostilities that have placed them on opposing sides. What can this tell us? That is a subject I would dearly love to put to a class.


I argued above that points 4 and 5, confidence to choose the right path for one and confidence to enter the world, flowed naturally from the skills and approach of 1, 2, and 3. Some might say ‘how, when this critical approach seems to open up more questions than answers?’ The ability to question, think, reflect, and reassess are essential not only for knowing oneself and working out ones path, it is also vital for entering the world with conviction, but with an open mind that can respond to new observations, challenges, and extreme changes of circumstance. The pleasure of contemplating what is truly important in life and savouring it should be an important part of education, and one I very much believe Classics can serve, enrich, and enable.

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