Why Study the Pagans?
by Cheryl Lowe
A classical education involves two things primarily: the study of the classical languages, Latin and/or Greek, and the study of the classical civilization of Greece and Rome.
In the last few years, there have been a number of articles critical of the classical Christian education movement. The objection goes something like this: Since all truth comes from God and the Bible, what can Christians learn from the pagans, who had neither? We should read the Bible and books written by Christians and avoid the unsanctified pagan mind and its temptations.
This objection to classical education reveals some confusion about the nature and purpose of Scripture. The Bible is the book about God. Its purpose is to reveal the nature of God to man, a knowledge that man cannot discover for himself.
But most things man can discover for himself – geometry, logic, the principles of history, government, literature, the sciences, etc. These things were first discovered by the Greeks. God did not reveal to man what he could discover for himself through reason and experience. To do so would have confused human reason with divine revelation.
But even if our Christian objector acknowledges that the Greeks learned some things that are useful and true, is that a good reason to focus on Greek and Roman culture? Why can’t we just take what they discovered and use it for our own purposes and not waste too much time on a dead, pagan culture? This is often expressed by the idea of “spoiling the Egyptians.” The Children of Israel took some loot from the Egyptians on their journey to the Promised Land, so we Christians can take some things we need from the pagans, too.
But the Greeks did not just discover some useful things that we can lift out of their writings, hopefully without contaminating ourselves in the process. Amazingly, the Greeks discovered the foundations for almost all of human knowledge and wisdom. Historians call this explosion of learning the “Greek miracle.” This term expresses the wonder we feel when we come to understand this sudden, extraordinary, and unexplainable outpouring of philosophy, literature, art, and science by this small number of people living in the poor, rocky land of Greece. It’s difficult to overstate the genius of the Greek accomplishment. For me, John Cardinal Newman explained it best in his great book on education, The Idea of a University.
The world was to have certain intellectual teachers and no others; Homer and Aristotle, and the poets and philosophers who circle round them, were to be the schoolmasters of all generations, and therefore the Latins (Romans), falling into the law on which the world’s education was to be carried, so added to the classical library as not to reverse or interfere with what had already been determined.
So, classical civilization is more than just a good place to pick up some useful information on our trip to the Holy Land. The Greek and Roman classics are the basic “textbooks” of human wisdom and knowledge. In His providence, God so ordained the world that divine knowledge should come through the Hebrews and human knowledge through the Greeks. The greater light of revelation orders and commands the lesser light of human wisdom, but it does not obliterate it. As for human wisdom, we begin with the Greeks–the world’s first schoolmasters.
Cheryl Lowe is a former homeschool mother and public school teacher who has taught hundreds of students in different educational environments. Cheryl started Memoria Press to serve parents and schools, who seek excellence in education, by publishing classical educational materials developed in the classroom. She is the co-author (with Leigh Lowe) of Memoria Press’ Christian Studies program, as well as the author of the Latina Christiana program.
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes only, with the permission of Memoria Press, who retains all copyright to this work. Many thanks to Memoria Press for sharing this article from The Classical Teacher, their classical magazine and catalog; it was originally posted on their website.