Jim and the Classics
“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”
Marcus Tullius cicero
Hampden-Sydney College is a quiet place – a small collection of grey-roofed, red-brick buildings with old names and mostly empty streets. It’s green with grass that flows over gentle hills lined with gravel paths on which walk students, men only, famously, and teachers who come to this place from many backgrounds. Some professors come from desire and others from necessity, for not every modern-day academic’s dream is to teach at a school that admits no women. Whatever reason brings them to Hampden-Sydney, no doubt soon after their arrival they hear about Jim, for the legends only multiply with time…
That he convinced a student he was a cheeseburger
That he gave a lecture at which the audience was told precisely when to clap
That he writes his own teacher evaluations for his best students
That he has graduation ceremonies at the conclusion of his most difficult classes
That he has a secret collection of priceless art given to him by famous friends
That he designed the football stadium at Stanford
That his father won the Nobel prize for medicine
That he once debated a fellow professor in Latin (and won)
Whether the tales are true or not, what is true is that Jim has devoted his life to the great works of the Greek and Roman cultures. In 2021, when the movement to eradicate both all-male education and an academic discipline that is seen as old-fashioned at best and racist at worst finds ever more adherents, we may ask what Jim’s vocation, scholarship, and life mean in our modern world.
To answer that question, let’s first consider the subject of Jim’s teaching, which is the Classics, a subject that many people think should no longer be a part of the academic curriculum. This field’s foundation is the belief that some works, be they history or poetry or philosophy, speak universal truths – truths that exist independent of any time, place, civilization, or race. Classics posits that these timeless ideas, analyses, and stories explain the human condition, both individually and collectively, and that these truths need to be understood by every generation in order to live the good life and maintain the good state.
Setting aside the sources of these works for a moment, let’s examine whether the fundamental claim of the Classics – that some ideas endure and transcend time – is true. A glance across history would indeed support this position, for there have been good people and bad ones from the beginnings of time. In every age and place, some people have sacrificed for others, while others have murdered for wealth or power. In all known major civilizations, thinkers have wondered about the nature of divine forces and what constitutes the citizen’s duty to a monarch or state. Wherever there has been war, people have wondered about its purpose and price, as they have wondered about the proper punishment for specific crimes. Likewise, in every significant civilization about which we know, men and women have told stories about themselves and their past, and they have crafted works of art to celebrate those things in which they find beauty, pleasure, or meaning.
In this world, then, it seems self-evident that for as long as the nature of human beings stays the same, the questions they must answer and the forces they must endure also remain the same. If this is so, then great works do not lose their relevance over time. On the contrary, time only reinforces their essential truth and value to every person who must complete the course of human life. For if the terrain never changes, then a well-drawn map is forever a useful guide.
Turning to the sources, the critics of the Classics find more significant ammunition for their assault. Written almost exclusively by men, in the Classical canon critics see everything they claim to hate: misogyny, slavery, elitism, colonialism, and all those beliefs they associate with cultures that they, unable to destroy, long to forget. Prima facie, their case may persuade, for there are certain aspects of the ancient world that are abhorrent to us. But does that mean that the works an age produces must be judged in concert with the age that produces them? Must we abandon Shakespeare because Elizabethan England was the height of English colonialism? Must we despise Beethoven because of Napoleon? Should we reject Austen because she was the product of a wealthy family and her work deals exclusively with a stratum of society that was racist, misogynist and obsessed with wealth? If so, then must we hate Baldwin because he lived at America’s colonial apex? Lastly, must future civilizations despise us because we are of an age that poisons the planet and murders living beings for food? It seems absurd to erase artists’ great works for the accident of the years they lived on earth. After all, no one chooses the age to which they belong, and what is more laudable than creating a work of universal humanity in a supposedly inhuman age.
All of the above brings us back to Jim, who, by choice or destiny, has devoted his life to the preservation of the Classical tradition and to the enhancement of our individual and collective understanding of its greatest achievements. What do we make of this lifetime teaching a body of knowledge that many would now declare useless at best and oppressive at worst? Should we agree with those who would silence the ancient voices Jim has so elegantly kept alive and lament his love for a field that should no longer have a place in our educational system?
While it would be easy to flow with the current of the moment, that would be wrong. Jim’s dedication to the teaching and preservation of Western civilization’s first, and therefore most fundamental, great ideas has been a noble undertaking. Born within those Greek and Latin texts were concepts such as logic, political discourse, personal liberty, the value of a single human being, the road to the good life, and the purpose and value of democracy. These powerful ideas were not inevitabilities – they were the inspired offerings to posterity of restless and brilliant minds who, like many of their present-day critics, longed for a greater humanity and a world far better than the one in which they, by chance, existed. These often perfect creations of imperfect creators are the intellectual foundation on which we have built our own societies, which, however flawed, still strive to reach the ideals set out by those whose legacy he has labored to preserve.
Jim has passed this timeless Humanistic tradition to his students with infinite patience, humor, and wisdom. He has kept alive a flame that has burned for two-and-a-half millenia and shared its light with the thousands of young people (for not all were men) who have sat in his presence. Along the way, he has, admittedly, annoyed some friends, vexed more than a few bureaucrats, perplexed many an undergraduate, and infuriated the occasional colleague. Yet all this time his one principal aim was to share with all of us who walked into his classroom or office his unshakable belief that human happiness is based on doing what is natural and right. This is a principle he not only teaches but lives, for in that living the lessons of the classroom are reinforced by the example of a life marked by devotion to family, to learning, and to those who would walk the narrow path of excellence with him. Whoever or whatever you may be, if you love truth and wisdom, Jim is forever your friend.
So it is that as his teaching days come to a close, let us wish Professor James Alexander Arieti well on the next journey he will take. Speaking for many others I am sure, I can write the words that follow.
Because he taught us how to read, we can be richer. Because he taught us how to think, we can be wiser. Because he taught us how to forgive, we can be kinder. Because he taught us how to wonder, we can never be bored. And because he taught us what is right, we can forever strive to be – for ourselves, our families and our fellow human beings – good people and good citizens.
Ave atque vale.
Carlos A. Alvarenga
April 13th, 2021