The Benefits of a Classical Education

Asked by Forbes about his Classical education, Tim O’Reilly discusses at length lessons learnt from the classics that have influenced both his personal and business life. A great post looking at how the classics not only influence culture, but the adoption and adaptation of technology.

The unconscious often knows more than the conscious mind. I believe this is behind what Socrates referred to as his inner “daimon” or guiding spirit. He had developed the skill of listening to that inner spirit. I have tried to develop that same skill. It often means not getting stuck in your fixed ideas, but recognizing when you need more information, and putting yourself into a receptive mode so that you can see the world afresh.

This skill has helped me to reframe big ideas in the computer industry, including creating the first advertising on the world wide web, bringing the group together that gave open source software its name, and framing the idea that “Web 2.0” or the “internet as platform” is really about building systems that harness collective intelligence, and get better the more people use them.

The comments on this post are also definitely worth your perusal, especially Tim’s response to someone asking him if he’s influenced by Marcus Aurelius.



3 responses to “The Benefits of a Classical Education”

  1. Paul

    Tim O’Reilly, born in the magical computer industry’s magical 1954-1955 couple of years (Gladwell Alert), tells us that a classical education is a great thing to have and he’s right, it is.

    This reminds me though of a newly constructed bench in my local park with a plaque containing a quote from its recently deceased donors saying

    “Don’t worry and don’t hurry”

    That’s nice, but it leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling that the advice will sound very hollow nowadays to younger people. A bit like a wealthy inheritor advising people not to obssess about money.

    I know of at least two classics graduates (from good universities) who work behind the counter in bookshops (as opposed to owning a publishing empire).

    So by all means, take his advice and learn classics at university. It’s a great and interesting discipline I’m sure. It’ll certainly influence your personal and business life, but probably not how you’d want it to.

    Just saying n’all …

  2. Indeed.

    I think it takes a person with deep insight to interpret the classics in a way like O’Reilly–and especially so to purposefully integrate classical teachings into your life.

    However, even with my very shallow understanding of Latin (3 years’ study), I feel to this day that it is one of my most worthwhile undertakings. Why this is, O’Reilly elucidated in a comment on the post:

    I also find that knowledge of Latin and Greek provide a great boost for vocabulary. Knowing the origins of words helps you to see the layers of meaning. And in addition, I find I can often make out written inscriptions (say in museums) in any of the Romance languages.

    As you say, the classics will only take you so far. Without taking into consideration how they have influenced my personal philosophy (which some would no doubt argue is the only purpose of the classics), this is as far as they have taken me.

    It’s like any subject: studying it not because you deeply want to but because you think it’s a path to glory and riches is a sure-fire way of not attaining either.

  3. Paul

    That’s quite true Lloyd.

    I’m more thinking of the sad fact that nowadays choosing a subject at university so often has to be clouded by practical issues of how you’re going to earn a living at the end of it, which was almost certainly less of an issue in Tim O’Reilly’s time and space.

    A classical education is usually regarded nowadays as a remnant of a bygone era when colonial administrators who could quip in latin were needed to keep Asia British etc. Nowadays, if you didn’t do at least one buiness studies module (or whatever they’re called these days) at university, there’s a danger that people will to think of your relationship with education as self-indulgent and abstruse rather than thinking of how your knowledge can be applied to help others (or make other lots of money, sadly)*.

    It is a terrible shame, but it is a fact of the world we live in.

    (* the caveat being unless you studied classics at Oxford, in which case your tutor should be able to secure you a position in an investment bank without too much fuss, regardless of your subject’s appicability.)