Why classics in particular?
OK, you're convinced: you want to major in the liberal arts. Cool. But why classics rather than, say, French, or history or philosophy? I'll break this down into two questions covering the broad aspects of the study of classics, language study and study of classical culture.
On foreign language study in general
We could first make a case for foreign language study that would apply to any foreign language. Study of any foreign language will improve your understanding of English, for thinking about a foreign language forces you to think about English. Many foreign language students report that they only began to understand English grammar once they studied a foreign language.
Foreign languages divide things up in different ways: Greek, for example, has at least three words for our English love. They also put things together in different ways: Latin and Greek word order are much less constrained by grammar than is word order in English, leading to wonderful possibilities impossible in English. Here's a sense in which studying a foreign language is liberating in the true liberal arts way, for if you know only one language you are in some sense a slave to it: if it can't be said in English, or thought in English, you can't say it or think it.
But why Greek or Latin?
After all, if you learn a modern language you can go there and speak it, and perhaps even get a job where speaking a foreign language is a bonus.
- Greek and Latin have played a tremendous role in shaping the English language. Your English vocabulary is bound to improve, and your training in the ancient languages will give you the ability to appreciate the history of English words. Many technical terms in English are derived from Greek and Latin phrases, especially in areas like medicine and law: if you know the original Latin or Greek roots these fancy terms will be much easier to pick up.
- Ancient grammarians came up with the grammatical terms we still use today. Study of Latin and/or Greek grammar, and of the similarities and differences between the grammar of the ancient languages and English grammar, will teach you much about how English works and about how language works. For despite the similar grammatical terms, Latin and Greek are sufficiently different from English to require you to think in a rather different way about language and grammar.
- Latin and Greek authors used rhetorical and poetical tools English authors (other than Milton, who knew too much Latin) can only dream of. Given the flexibility of word order in Latin and Greek, Roman and Greek authors could produce all sorts of rhetorical or poetic effects impossible in English. You can experience things in Greek and Latin that you'll never experience in English.
- It's only through knowledge of the originals that you'll be able to read the New Testament, Homer, Julius Caesar, Vergil, Sophocles, Plato, and many other great authors in their own words. Translations always distort things, and are never as good as the original (at least when the original is any good).
- Study of Latin is of great use if you are to study any Romance language (including Spanish, French, or Italian). Many graduate programs in Romance languages require some knowledge of Latin.
- The languages aren't easy, but they're not as tough as they're cracked up to be. Many people are frightened of the Greek alphabet, for example. But you'll learn it in a couple of hours. We know you are only human, but so were the Greeks and Romans. If you are willing to make the effort, you can learn the languages.
On studying a foreign culture
I begin by noting the value of learning about any other culture. Just as the study of a foreign language is liberating, so is study of any other culture. It was a discovery of the ancient Greeks that different peoples have different cultural norms. The Greek Herodotus was intrigued by the fact that some people bury their dead, others cremate them, and still others eat their dead. These different peoples evidently had different views about the meaning of life and death--different views you can have access to only if you step outside of your own culture. There are more mundane cultural norms: it has been customary in Greece (as in other Mediterranean countries) to take a siesta in the middle of the afternoon. Traditionally, Greeks sleep from 2-6, twice. This practice that has trickled into American culture in the peculiarly Type-A American form of the "power nap." And we all know about foreign foods. But there is more to foreign culture than what you can learn at a Mexican, or Greek, restaurant. Greeks eat differently, more socially, later in the evening, and outside: what does this say about what they value in life? And should we value the same things?
Okay, so much for the study of any foreign culture--though I've already snuck in some stuff about the Greeks. Why ancient Greece and Rome rather than some other time and place?
The Greeks and Romans (especially the Greeks) did many things first.
OK, I here reveal something of my bias as a Hellenist (a student of the Greeks) rather than a Latinist (fan of the Romans), as the Romans are more often credited with adopting Greek ideas than with coming up with new ideas of their own. But the Romans were also innovators: it has been argued that in some sense the Roman love poets invented romantic love (see Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love for a take on this). And the Greeks didn't invent everything--far from it. They didn't develop the first civilization (credit for that apparently goes to ancient Iraq, with Egypt a close second), the first legal code, the first writing system, or agriculture, or religion, or many other essential elements of human culture.
But the Greeks were arguable first in many fields, including democracy, science (albeit largely without experimentation), mathematics, philosophy, drama,and the study of history. In fact all of these items are named by Greek words--save for science, which comes from the Latin. Now some of these claims about who was first are controversial, in large part because there is room for debate about what we mean with such general terms. And most of these fields have seen revolutionary change since the time of ancient Greece. But, to venture a dangerous generalization, most subjects studied by college students were first developed by the Greeks.
Why does being first matter? It ought not to be a matter of pride, or of some competition for cultural supremacy. None of us are ancient Greeks or Romans; almost all of our ancestors would have been considered barbarians by the Greeks and Romans. For me it matters most that the Greeks and Romans were first in some things because in studying them we can study the earliest phases of these things, see them coming into being. We can thus understand, for example, why people would begin to dress up and put on plays, or why people would begin to write history, or why they would begin to govern themselves through democracy.
The Greeks and the Romans (especially the Romans) have been tremendously influential--for better and for worse.
For better and for worse, Western civilization is dominant in the world today, and when it comes to the influences on Western civilization, only the Judeo-Christian tradition can rival the classical tradition in importance. For most of Western history, the classical tradition meant the Roman tradition, although often the Romans were transmitting Greek ideas in Roman form.
For centuries study of the Greeks and Romans dominated education in the West. It thus was a fundamental framework through which people viewed their contemporary world. The leaders of the American revolution made great use of the classical tradition, for example, viewing George the III as a evil emperor in the Roman mode, and the Roman Republic as a constitutional ideal. Many of of the American founders thought that Athenian democracy was an example of mob rule, by the way, and so preferred the "mixed government" they saw in the Roman ideal. Today people tend to be much more positive about the direct form of democracy the Athenians practiced, and Athenian democracy has even lent some support to various ideas to reform American democracy. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, today tends to be viewed as a narrow oligarchy ruled by a few influential families. Each age finds something different in the classical tradition.
Classical influence on our culture has not always been of a positive sort. Sometimes study of the classics was made too large a part of education, to the detriment of more modern subjects. Other, more negative aspects of classical culture have also taken their part in preventing positive change. The Greeks and Romans believed that women were inferior to men, and allowed women almost no political, social, or economic rights. The Greeks and Romans also practiced slavery. Slavery in the classical world differed in some important aspects from the later Western version--it was not based on race in the same way. But it was still a horrible practice, as all slavery is, and the Greeks and Romans were made to serve as supporters of slavery by later defenders of slavery. One might note in defense of the Greeks and Romans that slavery and sexism were nearly universal in the ancient world, and that some Greeks and Romans questioned the role of women and the justice of slavery. But the Greeks and Romans didn't change their ways: to the extent that they saw the injustice of their own practices, then, they were hypocrites.
But we can perhaps learn just as much from the Greeks and Romans when they were wrong as when they were right. Sexism in classical culture, for example, is much easier to spot than it is in our own, because it strikes us as far more blatant. But it also has striking similarities to more subtle forms of sexism today. By studying gender relations among the ancients, then, we both better understand our current views of such issues and see how we've gotten into the mess we're in.
The Greeks and Romans were often different.
For all their impact on us, the Greeks and Roman remain very different from us, and in interesting ways.
Our Olympics are inspired by Greek athletics, but in Greece only men competed, for the most part, and they competed in the nude (gymnos is Greek for naked, so a gymnasium is a place for naked people). Nudity was a sort of uniform or costume for atheletes.
The Romans considered their emperors to be gods--especially after they were dead. We think of Greek and Roman temples as being brilliant white--but the originals were colored in a way we would find gaudy.
The Greeks (and, to some extent, the Romans) were democrats, but their democracy was very different from ours. At Athens, elected officials had very little power: voters didn't vote for politicians but on individual issues (it was a direct democracy).
Even in such seemingly unchanging areas like personal identity the Greeks and Romans seem to have had very different ideas from ours. Take the phrase "straight white male": male was meaningful enough to the very sexist Greeks and Romans, but they didn't divide the world into gay and straight or black and white. Greeks and Romans thought of themselves in fundamentally different ways.
Or take philosophy. The Athenian Socrates famously "brought philosophy down from the heavens to the earth," as the Roman Cicero put it. That is, Socrates encouraged people to think about the best way to lead their lives, rather than to think about the makeup of the universe. For Socrates, and for the Greeks and Romans in general, the most important thing was making sure that one was the right sort of person: if one had the right sort of character, if one was virtuous, then one would lead a good & happy life. The key thing was whether one is courageous, just, self-controlled, pious, and wise. But a later philosophical tradition (associated with Kant, and influenced by Christianity) tends to emphasize duty and obligation. One is supposed to concentrate on determining the right thing to do, and then do it, even if this ruins one's life. In this later view, much Greek ethical thinking seems selfish.
But a number of contemporary philosophers have returned to Greek style "virtue-ethics," arguing that the more modern conception is fundamentally incoherent (just why should I do something that doesn't benefit me?) and that the Greek ideal is not selfish in a simplistic way. After all, the Greeks and Romans, like most of us, thought in some circumstances the courageous and therefore virtuous thing to do was to die for what one believed in. So here a different way of thinking about the most important of questions, how to live one's life, has been left to us by the classical world. Ignore it at your peril.
So we don't only study the classical world to understand what we owe to our classical roots: we study it to learn how much we've changed, and whether those changes are for the better.
The Greeks and Romans often did it best.
Well, this is a rather subjective matter, but if the Greeks and Romans were interesting because they were original and influential and different, but produced mediocre literature, art, and the like, I doubt I'd be a classicist. Much Greek and Latin literature is of the very highest quality and has never been surpassed. Now to some extent this is a circular argument: as the Greeks and Romans have done much to define what we mean by greatness, it is hardly surprising that their work is considered great. But surely there is some reason that people still read Homer and Virgil, and still argue about what Plato and Aristotle mean--even after the classics have been dethroned from their central place in the educational curriculum. Here you'll have to take my word for it--or, better, try classics out for yourself, and see whether you think the classics are all they're cracked up to be.
For the last (phew!) question, what you'll do with a degree in classics, follow this link.