Ancient Greek is intrinsically beautiful in structure and sound, and it offers a unique portal to cultures and literatures that lie at the very heart of our own. It is, as Mr. Jefferson wrote, a “sublime pleasure” to read in their own language Homer and Hesiod, the first epic poets, Pindar and Sappho, the first lyric poets, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the first tragedians, Aristophanes and Menander, the first writers of comedy, Herodotus and Thucydides, the first historians, Plato and Aristotle who shaped the philosophical and political traditions for millennia to come, and, of course, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul in the New Testament. Reading these authors in Greek is not only an aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, but it is the best way, in fact the only way, to come to a deep understanding of what they have to say to us.
Approaching these and other authors in their own Greek brings entirely new and different dimensions to our understanding and appreciation of their poetry, of their moral and philosophical views, of their innovative political theories and systems (including that of democracy), and of their conceptions of history, all of which have shaped the Western world and continue to shape our culture and values in the 21st century. It allows us better to recognize in what ways they were like us, and in what ways they were unlike us.
Mr. Jefferson learned Greek as a student and read it throughout he life. When he wished to understand Plato’s Republic, he read it in Greek. On the facade of Old Cabell Hall, facing the Rotunda, is inscribed:
ΓΝΩΣΕΣΘΕ ΤΗΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑΝ ΚΑΙ Η ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Only by knowing ancient Greek can we fully comprehend what this “knowledge” really is, what this “truth” really is, and what this “freedom” really is, both in the traditions of its time in the first century A.D. when it was written, in the late nineteenth century when it was inscribed on Cabell Hall, and in our own time.