Great Books: Pillars of Classical Education

…haec studia adulescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.

These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity, they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside.

-Cicero, Pro Archia

By: Mr. Cutrer

At the heart of classical education lies great books – a collection of timeless literary works that have shaped human thought and culture for centuries. These works, often referred to as the “canon,” include classics like Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s plays, and Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Studying these texts allows students to engage with the most profound ideas and the most influential voices in human history. Cicero’s insight into the transformative power of literature is as relevant today as it was in ancient Rome.

Great books serve as a rich tapestry of knowledge, touching on philosophy, history, science, and the arts. Students grapple with complex ideas and ethical dilemmas, cultivating critical thinking, empathy, and an appreciation for the diversity of human experiences. These books foster a deep understanding of the human condition and teach valuable lessons about virtue, morality, and the pursuit of wisdom.

Characters embody a range of virtues and vices. Whether it’s the anger of Achilles in The Iliad or the wisdom of Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, these characters serve as archetypes that readers can learn from. Additionally, by immersing themselves in these narratives, readers are exposed to the consequences of different choices, allowing them to reflect on the principles that guide ethical decision-making. Witnessing characters grapple with their own moral quandaries encourages readers to contemplate and refine their own values.

Furthermore, Optima Classical Academy teaches the great books alongside contemporary history to help students contextualize what events are influencing literature and what prominent ideas are influencing history. As C.S. Lewis notes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” When students study Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria, they read the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi. They read Shakespeare alongside their study of Jacobethan history. The zeitgeist of the age is opened up to them, deepening their understanding and appreciation of history and literature.

Classical education nurtures the minds and characters of students through these works, equipping them with the tools to become critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and virtuous individuals. Great books, woven into the fabric of classical education, serve as guides on this transformative journey. As students engage with the

timeless wisdom encapsulated in these literary treasures alongside the history that produced them, they not only grapple with profound ideas but also absorb the values and virtues that have shaped human civilization.