Are the classics really “the noblest recorded thoughts of man”? (Walden 66)

“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…”

We have begun a brief chapter entitled “Reading,” and here we find that Thoreau, the man who said he’d never received worthy advice from older people in Concord, has considerably higher regard for certain old-timers from Greece and Rome.

Henry lived at a time in which well-bred students still studied the classics — and not in translation, either, but in the original languages. This was the core of higher education. But he was wrong that such a practice would endure. Most people have more to gain from acquiring living languages than studying dead ones.

I also disagree with the notion that the classics represent the “noblest recorded thoughts of man.” Certainly that’s true in many cases (and Walden itself is in that sense a classic of American literature), but how many times have you read some venerated classic only to be appalled by its glorification of war, or its easy acceptance of slavery, royalty, sexism, racism, superstition, or tribalism/nationalism?

Noble? At times, yes. Or noble within their historical contexts. But as a species we’ve learned some valuable things over the centuries. Classic literature shows us something of the process, and how even our greatest minds have promoted flawed ideas. At its best it shows the questions and insights that led to an increase in our collective wisdom.

And by the way, happy Thoreau’s birthday! He was born this day in 1817.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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