I was thinking two thoughts. One was that, “I study nothing short of mankind itself,” is kind of lofty. The other was that, if that which was important to us could be measured by how we spend our free time, most of us in our culture would come out as epicureans or hedonists–or at least people who want nothing more than to entertain ourselves.
And the study of mankind isn’t really necessarily entertaining. Nor is it epicurean, as epicureans teach that since the world of humans is so full of sorrow, suffering, and pain, the gods–if they exist–don’t really concern themselves with the affairs of humanity and instead live lives of self-indulgent bliss. Olympus is a big party.
Nonetheless, the study of the Classics and the classical era is interesting and, therefore, at a certain level, “entertaining.” It does more than challenge our minds, our perceptions of ourselves and the universe, our ideas of history; it does more than teach philosophy, rhetoric, myth, morality. It can also draw us in. It can captivate us. It can amuse us.
Thus, Classics can also be accessible.
Take The Golden Ass, for example. This is a Latin novel by Lucius Apuleius, based, to a degree, on a Greek one, as the whole genre was dominated by the Greek novel. For the “serious” scholar, it is only useful insofar as it gives us the only surviving account of Cupid & Psyche as well as the most detailed and closest glimpse of the cult of Isis. The Isis business also gives fodder to people who are fond of “The Goddess”. Nonetheless, it’s also a bawdy, raucous tale about a guy who gets turned into a donkey and has various adventures, great and small, throughout Greece — largely Thessaly, I think. It’s entertaining for the adventures he gets into as well as the tales he hears people tell along the way. Read it. You’ll like it, I’m sure.
Anything by Ovid is interesting, with its force of skillful poetry, cynicism, and unique insight. I think I also like Ovid for the scandal — not because I would ever do some of the things he recommends in The Art of Love, such as, “When women say no, they really mean yes, because all women like to be conquered by force.” It’s horribly, horribly wrong, but it’s also interesting to read as literature, but not as a guide to being a lover. I like elegy — which is mostly what Ovid wrote — because it is mostly Roman love poetry. While I’m no Roman and have different ideas about love, it’s interesting to see how these poems are executed, some of the ideas Romans had about love, but also the places where we can find parallels.
But even the classics of the Classics are entertaining and interesting. Generations of human beings love The Odyssey by Homer. What’s not to love? It’s an adventure story about a man who just wants to get home, but who has a god against him as well as plain old bad circumstance. It’s about a father and husband who longs to be with his wife and son. Timeless ideals, that. It’s about a wife who wishes to remain faithful to her missing husband, even though everyone says he’s dead and she has a multitude of suitors trying to get her hand in marriage. It has a cyclops, sea monsters, athletic contests, battle, the underworld, sirens, all manner of things exciting and mythological.
Or Roman history. How a city became an empire. The Second Punic War, when Hannibal Barca crosses the Alps to gain revenge and marches to the very gates of Rome herself. C. Julius Caesar, a man who has captured our imaginations forever. Augustus, the man who established a monarchy in Rome without letting anyone know it, who found Rome a city of brick and left her a city of marble. Nero, the madman who played his violin while the city burned then blamed it all on the Christians and used them as torches and lion burritos. All of the intrigues of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Or one could read Greek philosophy. Socrates isn’t always annoying. The Timaeus gives an interesting view of the cosmos and its development. Euthyphro takes one through some important questions about holiness and morality. How do we know something is holy?
Give Classics a chance. You won’t be disappointed.