Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]

The Classics and Redbrick

page 9

The Classics and Redbrick

"The true value of a tradition, I believe, is its power to enrich the present, not its power to drag us back to the past, or to keep in being survivals which have lost their meaning."

Baldry, The Classics and the Modern World

The Study of The Classics is nowadays a target for pretty heavy and continuous fire. But at the same time our own educational authorities have stated that it is a subject of supreme value for those who sincerely desire to take it. The main practical problem seems to be to find a place for it in a crowded curriculum. I hope that this review of some of the more serious arguments in favour of the study of the Classics may show that those who should be, or are, considering these problems need not be deterred or dismayed by considerations of social cachet, or irrelevance, or stagnation, or the inertia of tradition, or even by the allegation that ancient Greek and Latin are dead languages"—although, as a Sitwell once wrote, it is possible to teach the "dead" languages as if they are extinct. The two main needs, as I see it, are to ensure that those who sincerely desire to study the Classics in the original tongue should not be prevented from doing so if they have the aptitude for this study, and that an appreciation of the value of the civilisation of Greece and Rome should be as full as possible for the greatest possible number.

The number of those who study systematically the literature of ancient Greece and Rome in the original tongues still grows less, but more and more of the ancient authors find a ready sale in readable translations into modern English. There may be more than a single compensation in this. The Penguin translation of the Odyssey is a "best-seller"; outside the schools and universities there are probably more readers than ever there have been in modern times who want to know something of the Greeks and Romans, but who have not the time for the rather extended and usually arduous study normally needed for a rewarding mastery of the ancient tongues. In the modern university the main demand now is for specialised training of a more or less vocational kind. The content of disciplines has expanded. The importance of the Sciences, both pure and social, has grown. There is no longer leisure or opportunity for a fairly profound study of the ancient literatures mainly for their own sake; such study has no immediately obvious vocational or practical value. Nor is this state of affairs entirely unprecedented. In a form not altogether foreign to the Redbrick University the phenomenon was being discussed by Roman professional men in the first century of our own era. Work in the courts of law then as in later times in Latin countries was a traditional step towards a page 10 distinguished career in the service of the state. There were two schools of thought among the pleaders. There were those who thought that the pleading of a case should have a value and use beyond the immediate circumstances. It should have a permanent and lively interest by illustrating general principles. To promote this it was argued that a sound and broad liberal education was essential. It would include the study of the ancient Greek Classics, philosophy, history, psychology and science, and a clear grasp of the perennially useful "commonplaces" round which a case or argument could be constructed. The other school argued that the most important thing was after all to win cases. They put the stress on a purely vocational training. Let the young men learn the techniques of expression and pleading in the schools of rhetoric, and apply them to the facts of the case. Life is short. There is really no need for any more equipment than this. Still the preliminary education at school and in early manhood had been mainly in literature. The trouble really was that the force of tradition in educational systems is usually strong, and for that reason, among others, which we can see now, but which we can hardly expect the Romans of the time to have seen so clearly, education in literature and rhetoric remained unchanged in times which cried out for technologists, statisticians and economists. But in the atomic age, the Petrarchan ideal of the preeminent place and influence of the man of letters has become a little hard to understand. And yet the atomic age is bringing with it increased possibility of leisure for all, and of an increasingly active share in public life, but this time a leisure made possible not by the drudgery of less fortunate fellowmen, but by inanimate machines. In a complex civilisation in which more and more men and women are "executives" in specialised jobs there is experiment in cultural correctives"—doses of Beethoven or Eastern philosophy, for instance"—to foster better work by making the mind on the job more humane. There are "General Education" courses at universities, and there is some acceptance of the claim that the fuller the appreciation of the achievements of the civilisation of ancient Greece and Rome, the deeper and more satisfying is the appreciation of the achievements of Western European civilisation. It must surely be a matter for some regret that at the present time, when the number of those who study the Classics as their main intellectual discipline is growing so small, the advances in knowledge in the special fields of the subject has been quite spectacular. The understanding of the ancient civilisation is probably deeper and truer now than it has ever been. But what real value for our times does it have? Has it any relevance to the "motivations of our age"?

If we begin with utilitarian arguments, it is worth noting that within the last few years there have been five translations into English of the Republic of Plato, and that this work provides subject-matter for study and discussion in not a few university departments. Together with the increased reading of translations of other ancient authors this interest may be the sign of a return to some extent of what once was the normal attitude towards the Classics. There existed a fruitful synthesis of contemporary thought and the experience of an old and mature civilisation which had lasted for centuries. We are now informed that the loss of ancient literature in the West after the collapse of the imperial power of Rome was not so extensive as has often been supposed: it seems more likely that each generation drew from the surviving stock of ancient literature the information and guidance that it needed for its own particular problems. But at the Renaissance, when there was a search for more and more texts, and a new interest in Greek studies, there was an attempt to revive as completely as possible the ancient attitude to life. The page 11 ancient authors thus became more than a standard of reference and a source of information; they were now made the basis for a new education. One aspect of this new altitude was the tendency towards a rather rigid form of classicism which came very new to completing the circle and reviving the attitude which gave rise to the first use of the expression claasici auctores. It was first used by a retired Roman judge, Aulus Gellius, in the second century A.D., to describe a group of authors whom he regarded as models of good grammar. In the end this attitude stressed not so much the value of the literature, but the merits claimed "for the study" of "classics" as a mental discipline. The "classics" were often taken to be the unalterable standards of excellence, and this assumption applied to a considerable quantity of ancient literature. That so many of them have survived the reaction to such a restrictive altitude says much for their value as true classics with a universal and permanent appeal.

The shrinkage in the numbers of those who study Latin and Greek in the schools has brought some popularity to "Classical Background" courses in the study of English literature. But if this laudable and necessary kind of course is to do its job properly enough knowledge on the student's side to pick his way through ancient and medieval Latin authors must be a decided advantage. If, as must happen to a large extent in such background courses, it is the vernacular that is of vital importance, there is a distinct loss in losing sight of the fact that Latin literature may be a subject worthy of study in its own right; the real cultural life of the early Middle Ages is ignored, and the effects of the new attitude to the classics that came with the Renaissance may be studied out of focus. Furthermore, though this point may not be altogether relevant, it is doubtful if the ancient literatures would have survived to influence the new if the only synthesis that could be effected was in literary form. And it may be rash to say that the Classics no longer have their traditional value of providing illumination, and that there remains for them only the value of perspective, which is in itself of great importance and obviously needs no discussion. But surely it is not altogether unreasonable to suggest that the study of this ancient, mature, but not too complex civilisation of Greece and Rome, which, in a sense worked itself out, might be of advantage to sociologists and anthropologists as a standard of reference equally with the cultures of far more primitive peoples.

But if the synthesis has any value, if the perspective is real, if as literature the writings of Greece and Rome are to have the chance to continue to exercise their appeal, each generation will need its own translations, and will re-interpret what it reads under the influence of its own climate of thought. The originals will have to be studied by some at least, and that means that time must be spent in learning two "dead" languages. But for this task some would claim practical advantages which go beyond the immediate aim of mastery. It has been said that in certain linguistic situations a knowledge of Latin is an advantage. But even stronger claims have been made if the mastery of Latin and Greek is achieved by acquiring, as part of the learning process, some skill in the translation of modern languages into the ancient. I am pretty sure that this skill leads to a fuller appreciation of the powers and subleties of expression of the ancient writers, but a further claim of some importance has been succinctly re-stated recently in a book entitled Some Oxford Compositions. In quoting Professor Gilbert Murray, who wrote, "Looking back, I sometimes wonder whether the most educative . . . subject I was ever taught may not have been the writing of Greek Prose. It taught me to get beyond the word to page 12 the thought behind it." One of the writers comments, "This is certainly a great virtue, shared on fairly equal terms by Latin prose, but less fully by compositions in the modern languages, because of their very modernity. . . . The argument is one which psychologists and others, who have assaulted the doctrine of `Formal Training' at various points have not been able to impugn."

If we turn to considerations that are not so obviously utilitarian, we have one point of considerable interest that was first made in recent years by Professor Baldry in his lecture "The Classics and the Modern World." He stresses the value of synthesis in the modern world. In a scientific age which is occupied with analysis there is a need for perspective, an awareness of the inter-relationship of the sciences and other forms of thought and culture. He suggests that there may be a considerable value in the study of an ancient civilisation before specialisation was an accepted rule of life, and where the understanding of the literature needs a clear perception of the whole as well as of the parts. But beyond this, and beyond the common bond of culture that belongs to the civilisation from which the Western European nations have grown, there is a broader generalisation which will need to be considered seriously in an atomic age which is also an age of leisure, when the sciences and the humanities will both have their place. And this generalisation is simply "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" This, it is claimed, is the essential message of antiquity. In an extreme humanist form it appears in the credo, "The real duty of man is not to extend his power or multiply his wealth beyond his needs, but to enrich and enjoy his only imperishable possession: his soul." But probably the Greek tragedians who (from a definite point of view) stress man's weakness as well as his greatness, might not have left it at just that. Plato certainly would not, nor perhaps Virgil. In any case, these writings called "classics" have stood the test of centuries. The bulk of them are not jetsam of the accidents of time but works deliberately selected and preserved because of their universal appeal, their high standard of broad humanity and their form disciplined by tradition and capable of expressing thoughts on deeper issues in a manner adequate to the needs of a mature civilisation. Perhaps then there is something in the claim that as one of the main inspirations of the values of Western European civilisation is just these Classics, they ought not to be merely a subject among other subjects, nor yet merely the concern of specialists only. Surely it should not be an insuperably difficult administrative task to see that in all these aspects the Classics should have the chance to live and be heard.

H. A. Murray