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Hans Gruber and Classical Education

It’s been a topic of debate for almost four decades. This issue, whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, would actually make an excellent Lost Tools of Writing essay if it weren’t for two important factors. For starters, Die Hard is not a movie for kids. I recently forgot this (as it had been a year since I’d seen it) and so I asked one of my 8th grade students if he thought it was or not. He responded saying, “Isn’t that movie rated R Mrs. Ralls?” Oops. And secondly, the issue itself is no longer debatable; since Amazon solved it for us. To my surprise this year, after typing in “Christmas Movies” into the Amazon search bar, Die Hard popped up right there next to Miracle on 34th Street and The Santa Clause. Alas, the mystery has been solved.  

 My husband and I watch Die Hard every year at Christmas. I think it began as a bit of a joke, but at some point over the years it has become a tradition of sorts. A few years back this line from Hans Gruber (the primary villain of the movie) stood out to me, as I’m sure it has for others of you who are both reading this blog and have watched the film: 

 “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept. For there were no more worlds to conquer…  The benefits of a classical education.” 

 If you haven’t seen the film, Hans is really not a great guy. He ruins a Christmas party (remember, Christmas movie) by taking everyone hostage. A few good people end up dying and it’s all because he wants (a lot of) money. How disappointing that Hans, a horrible excuse for a human being, was classically educated!  

 This year, though, I did some digging. It turns out that the statement that Hans “quotes” was never actually written anywhere. He’s not quoting some well known historian as I had originally just assumed.  

 There are accounts (from Plutarch) in which Alexander was known to be upset when hearing of his father taking a city or winning a battle because he was afraid there would be nothing left for himself to conquer (Plutarch’s Life of Alexander). 

 This sentiment, in all likelihood, is where Hans got his idea for his “quote”. Yet, the two statements couldn’t be further from each other. Plutarch’s quote reveals Alexander’s desire to be something and to do something. Every battle that is won by his father means he wasn’t able to win it himself. He wants a piece of the action and the ability to prove himself; and his greatest fear is not being able to do just that. Hans’ ‘quote’ on the other hand, is set in a world where Alexander has already conquered everything. His greatest fear is that he’s accomplished it all and there’s nothing left to do. But, as we know (and hopefully our classically educated students do as well), Alexander never did this; and so the quote doesn’t make sense.  

 I don’t know what kind of classical education Hans was receiving; but it wasn’t great. A classical education isn’t accomplished simply by reading the great books; which Hans clearly did. A stronger classical education would have Hans memorizing the (correct) quote from Plutarch while he was young; recognizing where it fit into the greater story of history. During the dialectic years, he would have spent time comparing and contrasting Plutarch’s quote in Life of Alexander with his quote in Life of Julius Caesar, where Julius Caesar feels dismayed when he sees all that Alexander had accomplished at such a young age. And finally, during the rhetoric years, he might have had a chance to write a persuasive essay on whether those before us who have accomplished great things motivate us or dissuade us. Reading great books alone does not result in a classical education. Also, Die Hard is definitely a Christmas movie.  

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