Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for the Greek and Latin. Delaware: ISI Books, 2012.
Reviewed by James Booker www.bookerbookreview.com
Tracy Lee Simmons’s book, Climbing Parnassus, is a tour-de-force. Simmons addresses the current state of education, which is dismal, to a classical education. The classical education was not strictly about conveying information, but more so about developing the student’s mind and soul. At the turn of the twentieth century, schools and universities turned their backs away from hundreds of years of what worked. By doing so; students have been truncated from their past, from over two-thousand years of culture, and left adrift – to be propagandized. The “mob” controls what has come to be deemed “education.” Today, we are left with parochial-history and cultural courses that only feeds weak-mindedness, and despair for those who yearn for something deeper. No wonder students stay away from such courses and many are taking up “useful” courses. Simmons holds up the classical education as a paragon, to emulate. The Humanities were once an area of discipline and rigor. Every student had to climb mount Parnassus, to be considered educated. In other words, to gain an education is hard work. Ostensibly, Simmons’s book is a scathing rebuke and an indictment of today’s educational system.
Parnassus is a mountain in Greece, overlooking the town of Delphi. In ancient Greece, Parnassus was a holy place. It was a sacred site to Dionysus and Apollo and home to the Muses. Hence, it was both literal and metaphorical in the minds of the ancients. Greeks believed an education was to reach the sublime and witness beauty and good. But to reach such a place, one must climb the mountain. Hard work went into developing the mind. Both Greeks and Romans alike understood education was to convey culture. Culture is lost when not educated. Education, as Simmons brings out, is never neutral. This is why literary giants such as T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and others, warned American institutions, at the turn of the twentieth century, against a shift away from a classical education. The warnings were dire. Now the West has, and is, reaping what it has sowed.
A classical education did not allow the student freedom to choose. It formed the student’s mind. It shaped it. Like a garden, it takes work to shape it and keep out weeds and cultivate roses and other flowers. To use another analogy, the classical education built the room and placed the furniture in for the mind to function properly and have a purpose. Anyone can obtain knowledge. But a quality of mind and life is hard to obtain. But this is what a classical education does. And what is a classical education? – learning Latin and Greek. Latin and Greek gave the mind the ability to learn anything. It also bequeathed to students a treasure-trove of knowledge, wisdom, and culture. Instead of reinventing the wheel, others before us have traversed the same grounds, asked the same questions. Simmons does not shy away from opponent’s questions such as, “why learn Latin and Greek, they are dead languages?” Or, “What is all this knowledge good for?” With stunning detail he chips away at pejoratives and the hoi polloi’s demands to level education. Today’s education is student centered. Students are to explore how to learn and what to learn. If there is one motif in Simmons’s book, is that a classical education is hard work, but the rewards are resplendent.
Simmons discusses what education was like in classical Greek and Rome. He then explains how monks and religious institutions saved these classical works throughout the middle-ages, only to be revived in the Renaissance. Classical education was reborn. That held together until the late ninetieth century. Simmons highlighted the great minds schooled in classical learning. In fact, his book answers some historical gaps. For instance, many today do not understand the Founders of the United States. Hence, they are prone to anachronistic interpretations. But Simmons helps shed light where there has been much obfuscation. Most of us today read about the founding generation, but very few of us read what they read. They were all classically educated. Without having read Homer, Plato, Cicero, and many others, we are at a huge disadvantage. Moreover, their minds and hearts were shaped by both the classical education and the pulpit.
In conclusion, Simmons’s work is seminal. His prose is elegant, yet tight. At times he could be florid, but never strays to far from his objective. His historiography is firm and solid. No one can ever go wrong quoting T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and many other twentieth century giants. I have only one small caveat that the book lacks; he has no foot or end notes. But often this is due to the publishing company and does not reflect on the author’s deft. However, he has a bibliography. Without question I recommend this book to be read by anyone. In fact, anyone who is anyone ought to read this book. Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked a rhetorical question: ‘“that the adoption of the test ‘what is it good for’ would abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage’” (213). Indeed, we have now arrived at that point in our society where Emerson’s rancid test is aggrandized: “what is it good for?” We have settled for frame-less homes. The furniture is not safe to sit on. The weed is exalted above the rose. The humanities have taken a big hit. Much of its rigor have given way to shallowness and petty courses that add no value to student’s minds and souls. Mount Parnassus – or any other mountain for that matter – is not on the horizon, it has been leveled. But Simmons believes the classical education is there, just waiting to be rediscovered – to save humanity from itself.
June 25, 2015