Recently, I picked up the novel St. Elmo by Augusta Jane Evans. Part of me wonders whether it stands as the first harlequin romance-style novel, since it certainly has the woman-who-tames-savage-man plot. You might call it The Fifty Shades of Grey of the 19th century: this novel was the third bestselling novel of 19th century America behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. However, St. Elmo has a deeper understanding of tragedy and sorrow and is far more elevated than Fifty Shades of Grey.
So elevated, in fact, that most modern Americans can’t enjoy the book. The reviews on Goodreads revealed a common note of frustration with the Ciceronian periods, les belles lettres, and Classical and Medieval allusions. They put down the book rather than subject themselves to being tortured by someone with a Classical education for over 450 pages. That Americans are not given the same education as their ancestors places a barrier to enjoying the works of Western Civilization. And so, fewer and fewer people read Classic novels.
I find myself in a similar situation when it comes to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Any educated Catholic worth their salt ought to read this before they turn twenty-five. Yours truly needed to make three separate attempts before I made it through The Inferno. While I understood the Classical allusions, The Inferno includes a heap of allusions to Medieval personages completely unknown to me. The language can become esoteric and confusing as well. On my last try, I found a very lucid translation by Allen Mandelbaum, who–like Virgil in The Divine Comedy–guided me through hell and purgatory and onto the brink of heaven. The Purgatory, dealing as it does with practical morality, is the easiest and most pleasant of the three parts. Conversely, The Paradiso deals with speculative theology and is hence still out of my league.
To most modern Americans, The Divine Comedy is more of a closed book than the Bible. All of the familial, ecclesiastical, Sunday School, CCD, and seminary or collegiate helps–to say nothing of the aid of God’s grace–all exist to give one a basis for understanding everything from Genesis to the Apocalypse. The Divine Comedy incorporates everything from Homer’s Iliad (c. 762 B.C.) to fourteenth century Thomistic theology. Years of study dedicated to Greco-Roman culture, Biblical study, medieval history, ecclesiastical history, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and Catholic theology are necessary to have a firm grasp of Dante! It is possible to shortcut this through using a trusty annotated tradition, and I highly recommend this shortcut. Yours truly was introduced to Western civilization essentially by reading annotated Oxford Worlds’ Classics editions of Alexandre Dumas’s novels. Through his annotations, the translator, David Coward, introduced a vast, complex world, which compelled me to seek out my heritage as a Western man. For which, I am most grateful.
Still, without efforts on the part of the education system to pass on the vast heritage of the West, twenty-eight centuries of humane achievement risk being lost to the sands of time. Many college professors have an openly hostile attitude towards passing on this heritage. Thus, it is left to the common citizen to educate himself, to encourage fellow citizens to learn, and to pass on this knowledge to his own children. If this does not happen, a great treasury of human wisdom will sit forgotten and dust-covered. Disconnected from the wisdom and folly of past centuries, Western men will roam the earth without context, meaning, or purpose–i.e. purpose beyond gaining the necessities for life and pleasure. O tempus! O mores! What a terrible and nihilistic world awaits us in the future! What a terrible and nihilistic world in which we already live!
To the reader who is spending or has spent his formative years trying to drink from the dry fount of public education, it is not too late to retake your rightful inheritance. Below, I’m including the start of a little program of reading so that you can read any work of fiction from the modern era which still places itself in the context of the past–whether St. Elmo or Don Quixote. Follow this order of reading, and you will not find yourself frustrated by allusions you don’t understand or so frequently looking up people, places, and events.
One cannot value this anthology of Greek myth and literature enough. Schwab synthesizes much of Ancient Greek literature and myth into a chronological page-turner–a true literary achievement! The names of very few mythological characters will be unknown to you after reading this book.
Homer is the most important epic poet of the Classical age. Every other author knows him and frequently alludes to his works. Richard Lattimore’s translations are some of the most accurate, while Robert Fagles was praised for the beauty of his translations. Alexander Pope is another option if you prefer a more archaic translation. Hesiod might be seen as less important; but, allusions to his work do pop up from time to time, and Hesiod is the next oldest major Greek poet.
The Three Athenian Tragedians are a must for any serious student of literature. These three playwrights take the ancient myths, but make them more complex–perhaps the most complex being Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which Aristotle considered the greatest tragic play. The Athenians only kept seven plays for each of these three playwrights, but we have more for Euripides because the Egyptians loved his plays but preserved a different set from the Athenians.
4) The philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle
These two men wrote down what would become the twin basis for Western philosophical thought. You don’t necessarily have to read all of their books (though, you can: Aristotle Complete and Plato Complete)–as I recommend for the tragedians above, but here is a list of their greatest hits:
- “The Last Days of Socrates” (Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo)
- The Republic
- The Laws (a critique of The Republic which too few read)
- The Nicomachean Ethics
- The Organon (Aristotle’s six books on logic)
You need a break from all that philosophy? Sit down a while with Aristophanes’ comedy–the only surviving example of Greek Old Comedy, which included a lot of ridiculous low brown humor.
You’ll be happy to have read all of that Greek myth when you get to Herodotus. He’s the Father of History, but no historian has ever included so much myth, weird rumors, and crazy fables into his book. Herodotus covers as much early history as he can and ends with the Persian Wars. Thucydides is far more scientific and systematic and only covers the causes and the course of the Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately, he died before he could describe the end of the war.
7) Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans
This is the last major author from Greek antiquity you must familiarize yourself with. Plutarch was especially famous around the time of the Founding Fathers of the U.S.A. His Parallel Lives forms a bridge between Greek and Roman culture while emphasizing those virtues Classical culture loved best.
Phew! That’s a lot of reading! But, that forms the basis for a solid grasp of the Ancient Greek part of Western Civilization. Mark Twain remarked once, “A classic is a book everyone wants to say that they have read, but no one wants to read.” This is not necessarily true! With the list I gave you above, the most troublesome works are Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Organon. (Feel free to skip those if you are not up for some heavy philosophizing.) The rest are fascinating, and you will find them easier to understand and enjoy the further along you go. I include links to various translations, but feel free to look around for better or cheaper versions. Also, if your county has a library worth its bricks, you will find all of these books there.
Stay tuned for five more lists of important authors in the Western tradition: 1) Classical Latin Literature; 2) Early Christian Literature; 3) Medieval Literature; 4) Renaissance & Enlightenment Literature; and 5) Modern Literature.