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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Classical Literature

Classical Literature.

Sir,—I cordially agree with your correspondent "Quilibet" as to the value of classical literature, but think he takes up more than one position from which he would not unwillingly withdraw; as, for instance, when he says, "Perhaps to teach little, but to teach that little well—to put into the page 85 hands of each scholar, after ascertaining the bent of his mind, one popular Greek and Latin author, and make him keep to it, is our best course of action." But as a test, let us ask, how would such a plan succeed if English, not Latin or Greek, was the dead language taught in some foreign university, say about the time Macaulay's New Zealander is (if ever) to stand on London bridge moralising on the ruins around. The success, would, I fancy, be quite infinitesimal. Hardly any book, however well thumbed, would furnish a more complete idea of the language, taking an Englishman's knowledge as the standard of comparison, than the brick brought to the market did of the building its owner wanted to sell. On the same plan one could hardly achieve more in Latin or Greek. The something would be nothing. Surely we ought to exact far better results than this. Our schools and colleges ought to ensure us—not indeed an absolute proficiency in one or two books, but the key to the whole classical literature—the power at least of reading all the classical authors as readily as one would read corresponding works in the English language; and this, not as an ultimate result, but as a preliminary basis on which the science, the grammar and the philosophy of language would be founded, although none but the elite would carry their studies so far.

That a mighty change, amounting, in fact, to a complete revolution, impends over our whole educational system, I firmly believe—a change, too, that will prove far more beneficial than injurious to classical literature. For the manifest destiny of all the colonies of the southern hemisphere is clearly to be commercial, agricultural, manufacturing and industrial to an extraordinary degree, and consequently the cultivation of the physical sciences must come to the front. It is in fact a question of life or death, so far as the material prosperity of the colonies are concerned. But the rise of science does not mean the setting of classical literature. Far otherwise, as "Quilibet" holds. For as the tendencies of science are essentially religious, it cannot subserve the myriad wants of a materialistic civilisation, without rising into higher and nobler spheres of usefulness. Physical facts lead to intellectual science, intellectual science to moral science, and so will expand our knowledge of the universe, unfold for us a grander conception of the Deity than would otherwise be possible, show that all the forms of living things are but the letters, words, sentences, chapters and symbols of a divine revelation addressed not more to the intellect than the heart of man, and throw a flood of light upon that grand confederation of interests in which all the nations of the earth are indissolubly linked; and which, whether working spiritually, politically, artistically, or materially, are but doing God's will. See how the growth of this view exalts and enhances the value of classical literature. In his recent work, "Juventus Mundi," the Right Honorable W. E. Gladstone has penned the following significant passage :—"It (the Olympian religion) incorporated itself in schemes of notable discipline for mind and body; indeed of a life-long education; and these habits of mind and action had their marked results (to omit many other greatnesses) in a philosophy, literature and art, which remain to this day unrivalled, or unsurpassed. The sacred fire indeed that was to touch the mind and heart of man from above was in preparation elsewhere. Within the shelter of the hills that stand about Jerusalem the great archetype of the spiritual excellence and purification of man was to be produced and matured. But a body as it were was to be made ready for this angelic soul. And as when some splendid edifice is to be reared, its diversified materials are brought from this quarter and from that, according as nature and man favor their production, so did the wisdom of God with slow but ever sure device cause to ripen amid the several races best adapted for the work, the several component parts of the noble fabric of a Christian manhood and a Christian civilisation. 'The Kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall give presents. The Kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts.' Every worker was with or without his knowledge and his will to contribute to the work; and among them an appropriate part was page 86 thus assigned both to the Greek people and to what I have termed the Olympian religion."

Here are noble words embodying the results of science—the voice of an enlightened rationalism, but instinct with the spirit of universal love—recognising the fatherhood of God—the solidarity of the human family—and consequently assigning to classical literature a momentous importance—a wondrously facinating significance, to which the narrow theology of the past, with its superannuated dogmas of "the Jew as the chosen people," and "the Gentile" as reprobate and God forsaken Heathendom could never comprehend or justly estimate.

The most extreme popularisations of science, then—a popularisation rendered inevitable by the exigencies of modern life—is but the advent of a more glorious destiny for classical literature. For men are waking up to see in its entirety the brave deliverances, the noble services which the great pioneer nations of antiquity have wrought for them; just as we of the nineteenth century know what was hidden from contemporaneous and even subsequent generations—that Shakespeare was not a mere play-house hack, nor Dante the author of a malicious libel; but poets of all time—representatives and exponents of the outer and inner life—the secular and religious activities of the middle ages.

That the diffusion of classical literature would be a mighty boon to any country, and especially to a young, energetic and matter-of-fact one, I entirely believe. Therefore I have the greatest sympathy, if not with the specific plans, at all events with the motives of Professor Badham. But I have long been led to think that the great obstacles in the way of such diffusion are artificial rather than natural. I find, in fact, that the method of nature and the systems in vogue in our schools and colleges are diametrically opposed. Under the method of nature languages are learned prior to the study of grammar, and their laws are infallibly, yet unconsciously, conformed to. Under our scholastic and collegiate system, the structure and laws of language are consciously taught; yet the difficulties of conforming to them and of even reading the literature are something enormous. I hold the fundamental error to be both the excessive predominance of grammatical studies, and especially their employment in the earlier stages of study. Now, there is a time for all things, and the time for the study of grammar is after you have learned the language living or dead, and not at the commencement or at any of the intermediate stages. Non-observance of this principle of order is fatal to the acquisition of languages in any reasonable time, or with any reasonable facility.

I do not know what Professor Badham's opinion is, but the late Dr. Woolley often said that for one youth who had a talent for learning languages, there were three who had a talent for mathematics. It may be so. Yet it ought not to be so, because naturally it is the very reverse.

There are, let us say, 900,000,000 of people on the face of the earth, and these 900,000,000 not only learn all the languages of the world, but learn them as children and conform to the laws of language as surely, yet as unconsciously, as bees fulfil the laws of geometry in building their cells. Why should learning languages be the vast difficulty it is said to be? Surely what all the world does cannot be difficult. Is it not strange then that when one goes to schools and colleges but one linguist is to be found for three mathematicians: whereas in the ample university of nature for one mathematician you will meet a million linguists?

The child is the model linguist. But why? Because in him the emotional, imaginative and initiative faculties predominate—and these are the faculties not merely by which all languages are learned, but by which, as in the case of the poets, all languages are created. The child then must learn because he has in a preponderating degree those faculties best fitted to the task. And he has no others. For the reasoning powers are but in the germ, and too uninfluential to warp or divert him from his path. But the man is a more page 87 complex being. He is all the child is and more. In him the reasoning powers are active, developed and dominant. Hence there are, as regards learning languages, two courses open to him. Either he may study with his imagination like the child, and thus learn to speak or read a language with facility, without consciously knowing its laws; or he may study with his reason like the critic or the philosopher, and then without being able to speak with any facility, he will construct grammars, unfold the laws of language, and build up the science of comparative philology.

No doubt both methods are necessary to attain a perfect knowledge of language—that is to say, the imaginative method of nature and the rational method of the schools. But the misfortune is that the rational method is exclusively, or almost exclusively, used, as the multitude of grammars and critical works abundantly proves; and the consequence of this one-sided and inharmonious method of study is—first, a general deficiency in that large and wide familiarity with the facts of language which the imaginative method alone can give; and, secondly, for want of such wide familiarity with the facts, an inability to master the science, grammar or laws of language without such an undue expenditure of toil and time, as serves to disgust parents and students, and as the necessities of our commercial and industrial circumstances imperatively forbid.

That grammatical and critical studies are of infinitely less importance, to make a certain progress in the knowledge of language, than is dreamt of in our existing rational system is proved by the fact that grammar is inevitably subsequent to the formation of language. Must not the language exist before the grammar can be written? And where do grammarians find the choicest specimens of style, but in the works of those poets and prose writers who wrote before the grammar was, or could be, composed, and who unerringly conformed to laws of which they were profoundly ignorant. For instance, the first grammar of the Hebrew tongue was written about the time of William the Conqueror. How was it then that all the masterpieces of Hebrew literature—such as the Psalms and the prophetical writings—were produced without any knowledge of, and yet in accordance with, grammatical rules? And how was it that generation after generation of Hebrew children for centuries learned the language and spoke it grammatically without having any formal or conscious knowledge of grammar? And what does all this prove, but that there is a method of acquiring language completely opposed to that of our schools and colleges; and that in fact the grand secret is to become again as a little child, and study the new language in the order it is learned by him; but that is in direct opposition to the existing method.

As it is impossible within the limits of a letter to do any justice to so great a subject; I can only throw out some general hints. Let those who would wish to study languages, but fancy from sore experience of the delays and difficulties of the rational method, that they have not the gift, be very sure that the gift they certainly have. It should also be some encouragement to think that all great linguists, like Sir William Jones and Cardinal Mezzofanti, invariably learned like the child. There is no instance on record of a great linguist having learned after the rational method. And these men were great linguists, not from the presence of any extraordinary gift, but from the adoption of right method. They learned as children learn; but working with the industry, power and concentration of men they achieved results proportionately great. Indeed, the case of Mezzofanti is peculiarly pertinent. He was strikingly deficient in philosophical ability or reasoning power. But the child faculties were developed in him as the sensation of feeling is in the blind; and so he had no difficulty in learning sixty languages, and could have acted, as Byron said, as interpreter at the Tower of Babel had he lived at that mythological era. He would corner off a Yorkshireman, a Swiss, or a Basque native, and in a fortnight be able to outslang any of them in their native patois.

W. B.