Why Study Greek?

I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.
— Winston Churchill (somewhat out of context).

A few years ago I wrote an entry on this blog entitled “Why Study Latin?” It was a distillation of my own thoughts about the actual benefits of learning Latin — and the benefits one ought legitimately to expect from doing so. I tried to distinguish the real benefits from other phantom benefits that might not be, in and of themselves, fully valid reasons for undertaking the study. Not everyone agreed, but in general I stand by what I said there. From my point of view, the chief reason to learn Latin is to be able to read Latin; a significant second is to gain that unique way of looking at the world that attends that ability. One has access to a number of great works of Latin literature in their original forms, therefore, and one has also an enhanced ability to think in Latinate terms.

Of course other collateral benefits might reasonably accrue, but they are neither absolutely guaranteed to the student of Latin, nor are they benefits that attend Latin study exclusively. Dr. Karl Maurer of the University of Dallas suggested that I didn’t sufficiently credit the advantages a trained Latinist would have in reading older English — and he’s definitely right that this kind of textural depth of English poetry and prose will probably elude anyone who isn’t familiar with Latin, and the way Latin education was a cornerstone of English education from about 1500 to at least 1900. I certainly don’t disagree with his claims there; I don’t think they rank as matters of linguistics as much as matters of literary development and style. They’re still not trivial, however.

Be that as it may, for a variety of reasons, some of them right and some of them wrong, learning Latin has its champions, and I hope it gains a lot more. While I don’t agree with all the reasons one might advance for Latin study, I will enthusiastically concur that it’s a terrific thing to learn and to know.

Far fewer, however, champion learning Greek so loudly. For a variety of reasons, Greek is seen as far less significant. Some of those reasons are sound: Greek does not directly stand behind a broad range of modern Western European languages the way Latin does. Many of our ideas of statecraft and polity come from Greece, but most of them came through Latin in the process. Other reasons people shy away from Greek are fairly trivial. It has an odd-looking alphabet. Its literature seems to depend on a lot of odder assumptions. Realistic, though rather defeatist, is the fact that, in general, Greek is just considered tougher to learn. Many mainstream churches no longer even require their clergy to be able to read Greek (which seems preposterous to me, but that’s another matter).

For whatever reasons, Greek is certainly studied far less at the high school level than it once was. I read a statistic a few years ago suggesting that maybe a thousand students were actually studying ancient Greek in modern American high schools at any one time. The numbers may be as high as two thousand, but surely no higher than that. I don’t know whether those numbers have risen or fallen since I read it, but I certainly see no evidence that they have skyrocketed. I do occasionally run into a Latin teacher at the American Classical League Summer Institutes who teaches some Greek, but it’s most often a sideline, and often a completely optional “extra” for before or after school. Most of those students are being exposed to the Greek alphabet and some vocabulary, but fairly few of them are receiving a rigorous exposure to the grammar of Greek as a whole. If one narrows that to those who have studied real Classical Greek, as opposed to New Testament Greek, the numbers are probably smaller still.

For me most of the reasons for learning to read Greek are similar to those for reading Latin. The chief benefit, I would still insist, is to be able to read Greek literature in its original terms. Lucie Buisson wrote an eloquent defense of Homer in Greek not long ago in this blog. You cannot acquire a perspective on the Homeric poems like Lucie’s without reading them in Greek. It’s a huge deal: something snaps into view in a way that just cannot be explained to someone who hasn’t experienced it. No translation, no matter how good, can capture it for you. Though Keats memorably thanked Chapman for something like this eye-opening experience, the fact remains that Keats didn’t have the real thing as a comparandum. Chapman’s Homer is terrific — but Homer’s Homer is better.

Beyond the immediate experience of the literary objects themselves there is the fact that Greek provides its students with what I can only (metaphorically) call another set of eyes — that is, a different way of seeing the world, with different categories of thought that run deeper than mere changes in vocabulary. Virtually any new language one learns will provide that kind of new perspective: French, Spanish, or German will do so; Latin certainly does. I would suggest that Greek provides a uniquely valuable set precisely because it is further removed from English in its basic terms.

A reasonable command of multiple languages gives us what might be likened to stereoscopic vision. One eye, or one point of view, may be able to see a great deal — but it’s still limited because it’s looking from one position. A second eye, set some distance from the first, may allow us to see a somewhat enlarged field of view, but its real benefit is that it allows us, by the uncannily accurate trigonometric processor resident in our brains, to apprehend things in three dimensions. Images that are flat to one eye achieve depth with two, and we perceive their solidity as we never could do otherwise. Something similar goes on with an array of telescope dishes spread out over a distance on the earth — they allow, by exploiting even relatively slight amount of parallax in cosmic terms, an enhanced apprehension of depth in space. (Yes, there are also some other advantages having to do with resolution — all analogies have their limits.)

I would argue that every new language one learns will thus provide another point of view, enhancing and enriching, by a kind of analogical stereoscopy, a deeper and more penetrating view of the world. And like the more widely spaced eyes, or the telescopes strung out in a very large array, the further apart they are, the more powerfully their “parallax” (to speak purely analogically) will work upon us. This, I would argue, is one of the chief reasons for learning Greek. In some of its most fundamental assumptions, Greek is more sharply distinct from English than is Latin. A few examples will have to suffice.

Greek, for example, invites us to think about time differently. Greek verb tenses are not as much about absolute time as English verb tenses are; they are more about what linguists call aspect (or aspect of action in older writings). That is, they have more to do with the shape of an action — not its intrinsic shape, but how we’re talking about it — than merely locating it in the past, present, or future. Greek has a tense — the aorist — that English and Latin are missing. The aorist is used in the indicative mood to denote simple action in the past, but in other moods to express other encapsulation of simple verb action. Greek aorist verbs in the indicative will certainly locate events in the temporal continuum, and certainly English also has ways to express aspect — things such as the progressive or emphatic verb forms: e.g., “I run” vs. “I am running” or “I do run”. But whereas the English verb is chiefly centered in the idea of when something happened or is happening or will happen, with aspect being somewhat secondary, in Greek it’s the other way around. What exactly that does to the way Greek speakers and thinkers see the world is probably impossible to nail down exactly — but it’s not trivial.

Attic and earlier Greek has a whole mood of the verb that isn’t present in English or Latin — the optative. Students of New Testament Greek won’t see this on its own as a rule. There are a few examples such as Paul’s repeated μὴ γένοιτο in Romans (sometimes translated as “by no means”, but intrinsically meaning something more like “may it not come about”). But Attic and older dialects (like Homeric Greek) are loaded with it. It’s not just an arbitrary extension of a subjunctive idea: it runs alongside the subjunctive and plays parallel games with it in ways that defy simple classification.

Greek has a voice that neither English nor Latin knows, properly speaking — what is called the middle voice. It is neither active nor passive; but tends to refer to things acting on or on behalf of themselves, either reflexively or in a more convoluted way that defies any kind of classification in English language categories.

The Greek conditional sentence has a range of subtlety and nuance that dwarfs almost anything we have in English. Expressing a condition in Greek, or translating a condition from Greek, requires a very particular degree of attention to how the condition is doing what it is doing. In the present and the past, one may have either contrary to fact conditions (“If I were a rich man, I would have more staircases,” or “If I had brought an umbrella I would not have become so wet,”) general conditions (“If you push that button, a light goes on,”), and particular conditions (“If you have the older edition of the book, this paragraph is different”); in the future there are three other kinds of conditions, one of them nearly (but not quite) contrary to fact (“If you were to steal my diamonds, I’d be sad,”) called the future less vivid, and then a future more vivid and a future most vivid, representing increasing degrees of urgency in the future. All of these can be tweaked and modified and, in some rather athletic situations, mixed. If you study Greek, you will never think about conditions in quite the same way again.

Greek has what are called conditional temporal clauses that model themselves on conditions in terms of their verb usage, though they don’t actually take the form of a condition. There is something like this in English, but because we don’t use such a precise and distinct range of verbs for these clauses, they don’t show their similarities nearly as well.

The Greek participle is a powerhouse unlike any in any other Western language. Whole clauses and ideas for which we would require entire sentences can be packaged up with nuance and dexterity in participles and participial phrases. Because Greek participles have vastly more forms than English (which has only a perfect passive and a present active — “broken” and “breaking”) or than Latin (which has a perfect passive and a present active, and future active and passive forms), it can do vastly more. Greek participles have a variety of tenses, they can appear in active, middle, and passive voices, and they are inflected for all cases, numbers, and genders. All of these will affect the way one apprehends these nuggets of meaning in the language.

Those are only some examples of how a Greek sentence enforces a subtly different pattern of thought upon people who are dealing with it. As I said, however, for me the real treasure is in seeing these things in action, and seeing the ideas that arise through and in these expressions. So what’s so special as to require to be read in Greek?

Lucie already has written thoroughly enough about the joys of Homer; much the same could be said of almost any of the other classical authors. Plato’s dialogues come alive with a witty, edgy repartee that mostly gets flattened in translation. The dazzling wordplay and terrifying rhythms of Euripidean choruses cannot be emulated in meaningful English. Herodotus’s meandering storytelling in his slightly twisted Ionic dialect is a piece of wayfaring all on its own. The list goes on.

For a Christian, of course, being able to read the New Testament in its original form is a very significant advantage. Those who have spent any time investigating what we do at Scholars Online will realize that this is perhaps an odd thing to bring up, since we don’t teach New Testament Greek as such. My rationale there is really quite simple: the marginal cost of learning classical Attic Greek is small enough, compared with its advantages, that there seems no point in learning merely the New Testament (koine) version of the language. Anyone who can read Attic Greek can handle the New Testament with virtually no trouble. Yes, there are a few different forms: some internal consonants are lost, so that γίγνομαι (gignomai) becomes γίνομαι (ginomai), and the like. Yes, some of the more elaborate constructions go away, and one has to get used to a range of conditions (for example) that is significantly diminished from the Attic models I talked about above. But none of this will really throw a student of Attic into a tailspin; the converse is not true. Someone trained in New Testament Greek can read only New Testament Greek. Homer, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides — all the treasures of the classical Greek tradition remain inaccessible. But the important contents of the New Testament and the early Greek church fathers is open even with this restricted subset of Greek — and they are very well worth reading.

Greek is not, as mentioned earlier, a very popular subject to take at the high school level, and it’s obvious that it’s one of those things that requires a real investment of time and effort. Nevertheless, it is one of the most rewarding things one can study, both for the intrinsic delights of reading Greek texts and for some of the new categories of thought it will open up. For the truly exceptional student it can go alongside Latin to create a much richer apprehension of the way language and literary art can work, and to provide a set of age-old eyes with which to look all that more precisely at the modern world.

One Response to “Why Study Greek?”

  1. [...] was not as a stepping-stone to something else, but really to know Latin and Greek, see here and here. On allowing the student freedom to fail, see here. On grades, see here.) Education should be — [...]

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