Climbing Parnassus – An Unqualified Reivew

Were you classically educated? Me neither! I have so much to learn! and I’ve been doing it through my readings about classical education.  I finished reading Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin by Tracy Lee Simmons today. Yay! This book was handed out at my local Classical Conversations practicum.  Was it at yours too? Have you started reading it?  

I’ll start by telling you two things – 1) I am absolutely not qualified to write a meaningful book review and 2) I really enjoyed and was challenged by this book!  So, in spite of thing 1, I want to share with you some of my thoughts and I hope, in the comments, you’ll share your thoughts as well. 

Without a doubt, Simmons makes the case for classical education and its relevance to this or any time period. He also builds a strong case for learning Greek and/or Latin languages as necessary training instruments of a sound mind. If you were considering classically educating your children without a strong emphasis on the languages, this might change your mind or, at the least, cause you to rethink your reasons. 

Some of my favorite thoughts from the book — 

“It may be telling that we do not find many instances in the ancient world of pupils set to writing their own poems: their task was not to express themselves, but to bow humbly at the feet of others.  They were apprentices.  They were to know, not to be known.” (p.80) 

“When aims are pitched high, even a partial failure may lead to ultimate success.  The climb itself builds muscles, even if we don’t reach the top. Out of this disposition of mind classical education arose.” (p.81)

“Underlying its method is, first, certain belief that learning is a hard, intractable affair…and second,…its fruits ought to serve more than the individual – while never doing less.” (p.81)

“The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity…Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage-point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit’s operations.” (Albert Jay Nock on p.156)

“Erasmus once wrote that there exist two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of ‘words’ and knowledge of ‘truths.’ While knowledge of truths may come first in the pecking order, one cannot get at those truths without the knowledge of words.  Classical education sought to provide a training in words so as to grant an entree to those truths. And the training began with Grammar, Usage, and Composition. Notice we say ‘training’ here, not ‘education.’ For education, rightly understood, is launched with training and drill. The educated mind must first know how to do, how to form and build, something.  Education is the result; training is the method.” (p.161-162)

“Latin composition encourages us to structure the things that we have to say before we say them. …helps to eradicate loose thinking and feeling. …tightens expression. …strive toward economy and flair with our words.” (p.170)

“We strain through an intellectual exercise; we’re sweatier for wear, but stronger.” (p.176) 

“A classical training, thoroughly conducted along humanistic lines, changes the shape of the mind for the better. It stays with us.” (p.184)

“Schools of the best kind have always aimed high while keeping feet to the ground. They didn’t try to do too much; they tried to do the most important things. Those who ran them know that we educate ourselves with the tools imparted by good teachers. All else was up to us.  The old schoolmasters didn’t profess to teach everything worth knowing.  Indeed they professed the opposite.  They shaped their curricula narrowly and wisely.  Information alone is not knowledge, as they knew.  Still less it is wisdom.  Schools can accomplish much more when they recognize squarely how little they can do.  Yet how much more can be done when our gaze remains steady, our head sober, our aims high.  No results are guaranteed.  But the effort pays off.  Formed minds and tempered souls are no small gifts fo the world.” (p.186)

“Classics pulled citizens our of the innate parochialism to which all are born, helping those blinded by their own times – and this is most of us – to see those times without blinders, affording a broad view of history and of their place within it….we are not alone, men and women have faced like predicaments before. Classical literature showed that the thirst for the New for the sake of New is often a mark of both personal and social immaturity.  We are not to be, in one real sense, children of our time: we are to be children of all time, men for all seasons.” (p.211)

“The best education, the highest and most bracing education, does not scorn the ground; without the ground we cannot spot the horizon. Yet it doesn’t disdain the stars. It bids us, as Pope once inscribed, ‘to trace the Muses upward to their spring.'” (p.247)

Okay, that looks like a lot of quotes, but really I’m sharing far less than half of what I underlined while reading the book.  I did not agree with everything Simmons said and for our purposes, as believers, I wanted to take the goals of classical education a few steps beyond humanistic goals.  Climbing Parn
, as well as some previous readings, helped me to formulate my thoughts on why our family is classically educating our children.  

In no certain order, they are as follows:

– to know our own language from the inside out

– to view ourselves, our world, and our God in larger scope of time/experience/civilization 

– to experience the best God has created

– to form our minds through training for their best and fullest potential

– to steer us towards and expose us to the best man can offer which points us, as image bearers, to the Creator and His greatness, and in light of which our innate depravity and our great need for a savior is revealed

– to honor Jesus as followers by bringing Him glory through our lives

– for the cultivation of wisdom through the work of the Holy Spirit

That’s to say nothing of specific goals on grammar and composition, fine arts and literature, etc.  Our overarching goal is to “know Him and make Him known” and I believe these expectations fit nicely into that larger goal as a subset. 

What about you? Why have you decided to classically educate your child(ren)? Have you read or are you reading Climbing Parnassus? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book, other books (even books from the opposing perspective) and your goals for classically educating at home. Do share!


    • says

      thanks, Brandy! I’m so excited you’re including this post in the CC round-up & I’m eager to hear your thoughts once you read Climbing Parnassus. : )

  1. says

    I have perused Climbing Parnassus in the past, many years ago. I was very encouraged and inspired to keep my hand in the Greek and Latin basket with it. Perhaps one day I will add it to my bookshelves. It is a most worthy book.

  2. says

    Sounds like a great book, and I agree with your Christian response.

    We’re learning the Greek alphabet and phonics this year using resources from Trivium Pursuit, and it promises to be an effective way to start Greek. We’ve dabbled in Latin but have never gotten serious about it.


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