How to get a classical education at 40 years old?
January 3, 2019 3:56 AM   Subscribe

I realize this is broadly framed, but: If I wanted to acquire a classical education as an adult, what would be the best way to do so? What are the key texts, tools, etc.?

I've always been curious about the nuts and bolts of the classical education, especially that which was consumed by elite European society prior to the 20th century. As I understand, it involves study of classic languages (Greek and Latin), art, philosophy, theology and music, among other core subjects.

If I wanted to replicate this type of education, how would I go about doing so?

DIFFICULTY: I don't want to spend any money on this. All resources must be freely available, in the public domain, etc.
posted by azzurra to Education (22 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
A good place to start would be the St. John’s College great books reading list. You should be able to get all of these at your local library.
posted by rockindata at 4:13 AM on January 3 [17 favorites]

I remember this being touched on a lot in Wes Cecil's The Humane Arts lecture series, as well as his lecture on Cicero. They might be good places to jump off from.
posted by Polychrome at 4:53 AM on January 3

If you want to dip your toes into Greek, you can enjoy this free resource, which accompanies a textbook, which would not of course be free. But there is enough there to get started.
posted by thelonius at 4:53 AM on January 3

This won’t direct you to current learning resources, but in case it helps inspire you in terms of structure...

The liberal arts were once divided into seven parts, grouped into the trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) and then the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy (or astrology)). In 1947 Dorothy L. Sayers proposed using this structure for modern education in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning.
posted by fabius at 5:32 AM on January 3 [7 favorites]

You could start doing it with a language textbook-- there are free ones at The Perseus Project and other places. But you're not an 8-year-old kid in an English boarding school and you're not getting caned for not learning conjugations with no real payoff in sight. If I were you, I would find a Greek or Roman text to be passionate about, start reading it in translation and then start studying the language. For me, it would definitely be Homer and maybe Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek for a textbook. People will say that Homeric Greek is gnarly as an entry point, but in my opinion the payback on time investment is quick to come versus some other dialects or indeed Latin. But that will be largely a matter of your taste. (It's easier to kind of get on the board in Latin, but as I went on in college classics I found Latin harder and harder, in a weird way. And I wrote a thesis on a Roman author!)

Find your local college classics departments and go to lectures, not just about literature but about classical art and archaeology. Read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.

Try to find some sort of group to do this with at some point. Extension school may be out of your budget, but keep your eyes open.

Congratulations! I think studying the Greek and Roman classics is one of the most enjoyable things you can do for yourself.
posted by BibiRose at 6:28 AM on January 3 [11 favorites]

If you live in a reasonably large city, check the library for audio-books such as The Rise of Rome and The Foundations of Western Civilization. They are perfect for listening while driving, but can also be enjoyed any time you have the leisure to listen. At our library (Baltimore) there are enough of these in various subjects to almost get one a complete classical education.
posted by ubiquity at 6:57 AM on January 3 [4 favorites]

Many universities still offer a degree in Classics. Go to the source, and find others. Their curriculum will be a good guide. Have you read Homer? Good place to start. If you can find or start an online or local discussion group, that would help a lot; there's so much you miss when you do this on your own. Great books reading groups exist, esp. among seniors.
posted by theora55 at 6:59 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]

You could look at Classical Homeschooling materials, such as the book The Well-Trained Mind, to get an accessible overview of what kind of thing is covered.
posted by Orlop at 8:10 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]

You can get older translations of many of the source texts from Project Gutenberg, if you don't feel like visiting the library.
posted by clawsoon at 11:01 AM on January 3

I don't want to deter you from an admirable goal, but a decent part of an education is teachers. When you're going the autodidact route with complex texts, it is very easy to accidentally get off course based on perfectly normal misunderstandings resulting from bringing to bear on ancient materials a modern mindset. I would try to make some kind of provision for enhancing your reading with discussions with people who have a strong grasp of the material.

I know there are a few folks on here who disagree, but I think Attic Greek is a very, very challenging language to learn on your own--magnitudes harder than, e.g., any modern Romance language you may have studied in school. Part of the problem is that there are very few surviving Attic Greek texts written for early readers--once you start moving to actual texts, you're jumping straight into fairly complex history and philosophy. (However, some work has been done in recent textbooks to provide more scaffolding beyond just glosses.) BibiRose is completely right that the best incentive is a text you want to read. In my opinion, ancient Greek has way more of these than Latin--but from a practical point of view, Latin is less difficult to learn on your own, so...any chance you're burning up to read some Ovid or something?

(The Iliad is, of course, an amazing read, and syntactically it is generally simpler than most Attic Greek prose, but beginning readers are bedeviled by two problems: (a) a ton of archaic vocabulary, a decent chunk of which is only used ONCE in the whole text (meaning no efficiency gains from memorizing); and (b) constraint by the rules of meter in its genre, which means that words are often rather randomly altered so that they scan right, even though that means the word diverges from the form you would expect. There are a couple of really good student versions of some of the books, but it's still more challenging than you would expect.)
posted by praemunire at 12:10 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]

Also, please try to be cautious as you go along, as briefly in the 80s and 90s "the classics" were the hobbyhorse of the conservatives--before they decided they'd rather go with the ideal of illiterate submission to the fanciful narratives of Der Fuhrer. Even now, there are a decent number of red-pillers who have read three books and reached the conclusion that the height of freedom was the Roman Republic or some such nonsense (and, of course, all those statutes were white on purpose!). So, in addition to the normal, quite extensive biases of an old-fashioned "classical education" (very real, but what you might expect to see looking at some nineteenth-century writer), you may find more recent writers making very shaky ideologically-driven claims.
posted by praemunire at 12:15 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

For me, self-education is not only about reading, but very much about trying to produce something. Sometimes it barely matters what I'm reading -- I am more concerned about my ability to take something away from it and critically analyze it. I like to write 1-2 papers a year on whatever topics I like and I feel that that process gets me more involved than reading from any syllabus. Having some people review my arguments can also be a helpful process. I know it's an arduous process and I could see it being harder to produce something when you have real life responsibilities and other things going on, but for me that is how I build a deeper level of knowledge and keep things more clear in my mind.
I have found a good number of things to read from googling college syllabi.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 12:16 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

David Denby, a writer for the New Yorker, did what you're intending to do. He wrote a great book about it called Great Books. Unlike you, he did it by auditing the "classics of western civilization" course for freshmen at Columbia University in NYC, but since he writes about the books and the ideas, it'll still be useful for you to read.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:44 PM on January 3

You're going to spend enough time on this that spending a small amount of money on it is probably entirely reasonable; it's thousands of hours of work. (I wouldn't optimize for zero-dollars, as that might cost you more time than it's worth.)
posted by talldean at 4:26 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

Please use your local library for more modern translations of classical texts, as the free ones online are usually very old. The goals of and methods of translation have changed over time, and modern translations really are different.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 4:35 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]

'Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans' makes a good starting text for a project like this.
posted by ovvl at 4:53 PM on January 3

DIFFICULTY: I don't want to spend any money on this. All resources must be freely available, in the public domain, etc.

This is going to be tough because public domain texts are decades old and historians have been reevaluating classical history *hard* the last 50 years. To quote a glaring example, the concept of Spartan society historians had 75 years ago and now is extremely different -- the older view followed Plutarch's hype (centuries after spartans were militarily relevant) while modern historians have reevaluated their artistic accomplishments (Spartans were very good at fluffy poetry and dances and had lyrical contests before they became flanderized to ALL HOPLITES ALL THE TIME) and driven far far down the military hype.

So, well, you can find plenty of classical translations from the 19th and early 20th century online, but for history I would rather read more modern books, even if you have to get Mary Beard's SPQR from the library (It's a very good book! It also downgrades Rome's early campaigns to cattle raids). I would also read around Reddit's /r/AskHistorians, particularly their FAQs and recommended reading lists.
posted by sukeban at 11:27 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

the best incentive is a text you want to read. In my opinion, ancient Greek has way more of these than Latin

A random posh dude from 100 years ago would have read the Aeneid and Caesar's Gallic Wars first and foremost, but classical Latin gives you everything from Christian theology to theater (Terence, Plautus) to raunchy poetry (Ovid, Catullus or Martial).

Which is another area where public domain books aren't ideal: these older translations tended to bowdlerize all the best bits and Roman humor was really, really earthy going on compost. Martial's epigram 3.98 ("Sit culus tibi quam macer, requiris,/ Paedicare potes, Sabelle, culo." "Want to know how skinny your arse is, Sabellus?/ It’s so skinny you can fuck people in the arse with it") gets a succint "not translated" in this tight-laced edition from 1897 and remains in Latin in this other one, for example.
posted by sukeban at 2:55 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]

Thank you everyone! I started marking best answers, but there were too many. This is a great head start with lots of resources to explore.
posted by azzurra at 4:29 AM on January 4

A random posh dude from 100 years ago would have read the Aeneid and Caesar's Gallic Wars first and foremost

And I feel sorry for that dude. Everyone's tastes vary, but if I was trying to recommend a text to read that would really motivate language learning, it would not be "Gaul is divided into three parts."

(I am, in fact, familiar with the basics of Latin literature, having, in addition to my own old-fashioned education, TAed a class on Roman imperial culture. I just regard it as essentially inferior, for enjoyment, to classic Greek literature.)

Anyway, good luck, OP! There's a lot of difficulties involved in such a plan, but also a lot of fun and stimulation.
posted by praemunire at 7:42 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

but if I was trying to recommend a text to read that would really motivate language learning, it would not be "Gaul is divided into three parts."

I did a miser one year of Latin in high school in the 1990s and after we got out of the phase of declining "pirata bonum" it was the kind of real text that they would pick easy sentences from and we would have to analyze and translate. No, for real. I got tired of translating random sentences about Caesar sending Labienus here and there.
posted by sukeban at 9:48 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

If you want that Victorian era schoolboy experience, I'd highly recommend: Edward Gibbon's 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. It's rather elegant, droll, & witty. Fun reading! Sure, it's biased & dated, just take it in context. Modern scholars hate on, but hey.

My fave Classics (in translation): Homer (of course), Herodotus, Xenophon, Thucydides, Ovid, & Plutarch (he's great). (Plato is often required reading, but I'm not a fan).
posted by ovvl at 5:54 PM on January 4

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