Why you would wish to speak Greek

Crossing boundaries of time: a dialogue between Robert Edward Turner and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus on studying Classics

Why you would wish to speak Greek

Crossing boundaries of time: a dialogue between Robert Edward Turner and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus on studying Classics


‘My dear son,
I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home today. (…)’

These are the first few lines of a letter Robert Edward Turner II, an American billboard tycoon, wrote to his 18 year old son in 1957. Although Mr. Turner’s way of expression may appear rather extreme, his letter does reflect a gut feeling still quite wide-spread today: why would anyone want to devote time sometimes even a lifetime – to the study of ancient languages, especially since ‘everything has already been translated’? In spite of the fact that this last truism is actually not quite true, the scepticism towards humanities in general and Classics in particular is indeed increasing. This has led to a rising stream of publications defending education and research in the humanities in all kinds of ways, such as Stephan Collini’s ‘What are universities for?’ to which the title of Martha Nussbaum’s pamflet ‘Not for profit’ may be read as a very concise answer.
These and other books have provided thorough and high quality philosophical discussions on the value of the humanities, in which a few different strains of thought are being followed, such as the ideal of Bildung or the preservation of culture as an ultimate goal, or even the idea that humanities are an end in itself and therefore do not need to be useful.

Although arguments of this sort may appear strong and valid to a classicist as myself, I doubt that they would impress a self-declared ‘practical man’ as Robert Turner. Perhaps some would reply that there is no hope persuading Mr. Turner and the like-minded, and they may be right. Nonetheless, I do believe that the ‘practical side’ to studying Classics is somewhat under-exposed and deserves more attention, without downplaying the importance of ideological or aesthetic reasons for studying Classics.
In this essay, I will attempt to show that in truth Classics is not as impractical as Mr. Turner thinks, by allowing the classical education to speak for itself in the person of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus.

To begin with, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, an elaborate rhetorical handbook on the education of the perfect orator, has in mind a goal of education strikingly similar to the purpose Robert Turner formulates:

‘(…) the purpose of an education is to enable one to develop a community of interest with his fellow men, to learn to know them, and to learn how to get along with them. In order to do this, of course, he must learn what motivates them, and how to impel them to be pleased with his objectives and desires.’

Turner clearly states that the final goal of education is the attainment of communicative excellence – hardly a surprising view for a man working in the advertisement branche with the ultimate goal to persuade people of your own ‘objectives and desires’; Quintilian’s education is all about rhetoric, also known as ‘the art of persuasion’. However, Quintilian operates a wider definition of rhetoric, as he states that ‘rhetoric is the science of speaking well’ (Institutio Oratoria II.14.5, own translation). His book aims to produce the perfect orator, who also needs to be a good man (I.O. I, introduction 9): rhetoric is not just about persuasion, but, for Quintilian, has a strong social-ethical dimension. Interestingly enough, the same element can be found in Turner’s description, in which creating a community of interest with other people and ‘to learn how to get along with them’ is more important than persuasion in itself.
Quintilian also argues that ‘the man who can really play his part as a citizen, who is fit for the management of public and private business, and who can guide cities by his counsel, give them a firm basis by his laws and put them right by his judgements, is surely no other than our orator.’ (I.O. I, introduction 10). And, when dismissing home schooling in favour of public schools, Quintilian inquires:

‘Where will he [the student] learn what we call common feeling if he shuts himself off from society, which is natural not only to humans but to the dumb animals?’ (I.O. I.2.20)

We can safely conclude that both men have in mind broadly the same purpose of education: to equip a student with all skills needed for public life and interaction with other people, whether this is on a private level ‘to get along with them’ (Turner) and to obtain ‘common feeling’ (Quintilian), or on a more political one, ‘to impel them to be pleased with his objectives and desires’ (Turner) and ‘to play his part as a citizen’ (Quintilian).

So far, the two men seem to agree upon the final destination, but not quite on the way to get there. Mr. Turner does not see any way in which studying ancient literature could possible contribute to contemporary times, not even in studying the influence on modern literature, for ‘it is not necessary for you to know how to make a gun in order to know how to use it’.
However, Quintilian’s perfect orator should ‘not only be perfect in morals (…) but also in knowledge and his general capacity for speaking’ (I.O. I, introduction 18). Although the ideal of perfect morals and knowledge may be dismissed as unrealistic by the practical Mr. Turner, Quintilian already anticipates this objection with an intuitively appealing and inspiring metaphor:

‘(…) even if we fail, those who make an effort to get to the top will climb higher than those who from the start despair of emerging where they want to be, and stop right at the foot of the hill.’ (I.O. I, introduction 20)

Quintilian’s perfect knowledge does also include acquaintance with ancient literature, not only for the sake of attaining perfect knowledge, but also because of a more specific asset. Ancient literature can be used to criticize both style and argumentation and hence to sharpen the mind of the student:

‘I would venture to say that this kind of effort will contribute more to learners than all the textbooks of all the writers on rhetoric (…) although some general principles are traditionally taught, it will be more useful to know the methods employed, whether wisely or not (…) precept is less important than experience in almost every field.’ (I.O. II.5.14-6)

Studying the history of classical ideas can thus be seen as a very efficient educational training method, since it makes optimal use of the pre-existing body of texts, which has throughout time already proven its merits:

‘I believe that there are few, indeed scarcely a single one of those authors who have stood the test of time who will not be of some use or other to judicious students, since even Cicero himself admits that he owes a great debt even to the earliest writers, who for all their talent were totally devoid of art.’ (I.O. X.1.28, translation by Harold Butler: 1920-22)

Still, Mr. Turner is seriously worried about the social separation his son will suffer, as an inevitable consequence of studying Classics:

‘I cannot possibly understand why you should wish to speak Greek. With whom will you communicate in Greek? (…)

Mr. Turner claims that, through education, ‘what you wish to do is to establish a community of interest with as many people as you possibly can’, while Classics on the other hand ‘might give you a community of interest with an isolated few impractical dreamers, and a select group of college professors’. He dwells upon this point even further:

I suppose everybody has to be a snob of some sort, and I suppose you will feel that you are distinguishing yourself from the herd by becoming a classical snob.

Mr. Turner is not so much troubled by the fact that his son wants to become a snob as this is a very common wish – but he just thinks the particular choice to become a classical snob an unfortunate one, since this choice will dramatically reduce the number of people with the same interest.
In fact, Mr. Turner here does touch a sore spot: life as a classical scholar in modern society may indeed be perceived as lonely, ‘contemplating (…) the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner’. However, the objection of narrowness applies to almost every specialized field of academia and moreover, it is debatable whether it is such a bad thing to be part of a small community of interest.

But irrespective of all this, engaging in the study of classical texts for a period of time in college or, as Quintilian describes, rhetorical education does not even come close yet to chaining yourself to the ‘ivory tower’ of the university forever. Quintilian also acknowledges the need to swap the safe surroundings of school at some point for the real society:

‘And, indeed, however much private study may contribute to success, there is still a peculiar proficiency that the courts alone can give: for there the atmosphere is changed and the reality of the peril puts a different complexion on things, while, if it is impossible to combine the two, practice without theory is more useful than theory without practice.’ (I.O. XII.6.4, translation by Harold Butler: 1920-22)

Although this last statement is coming from Quintilian, a typical ‘oddball professor’ of rhetoric, to speak with Robert E. Turner, I cannot imagine that any practical man would disagree.

The son in question, Ted Turner, switched his major to Economics, but was expelled from university before obtaining a degree. He later went on to become the founder of cable news network, better known as CNN. The network is still viewed by half a million people every day and therefore may, by some people, be considered one of the largest communities of interest in the world.

Translations of Quintilian are by Donald Russell (2002), unless indicated otherwise.
Robert Turner’s letter is to be found online on lettersofnote.com and in Ted Turner’s autobiography Call me Ted.


Butler, H. E., The Insitutio Oratoria of Quintilian. Cambridge Mass, 1969 (first printed 1920-22).

Collini, S., What Are Universities For, London, 2012.

Nussbaum, M. C., Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton, 2011.

Russell, D. A., Quintilian, The orator’s education, Cambridge Mass, 2002.

Turner, T., Call me Ted, New York, 2009.

Rosa van Gool is momenteel eerstejaars student in de Research Master Klassieke Talen aan de Universiteit Leiden. Zij heeft een Bachelor in Griekse en Latijnse Taal en Cultuur van de Universiteit van Amsterdam.

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