brevis apologia (a brief defence)

First, the following from John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912, d. on Titanic, not to be confused with his great-grandfather John Jacob Astor the fur-trader):

The protracted struggle between science and the classics appears to be drawing to a close, with victory about to perch on the banner of science, as a perusal of almost any university or college catalogue shows. While a limited knowledge of both Greek and Latin is important for the correct use of our own language, the amount till recently required, in my judgment, has been absurdly out of proportion to the intrinsic value of these branches, or perhaps more correctly roots, of study. The classics have been thoroughly and painfully threshed out, and it seems impossible that anything new can be unearthed. We may equal the performances of the past, but there is no opportunity to surpass them or produce anything original. Even the much-vaunted “mental training” argument is beginning to pall; for would not anything equally difficult give as good developing results, while by learning a live matter we kill two birds with one stone? There can be no question that there are many forces and influences in Nature whose existence we as yet little more than suspect. How much more interesting it would be if, instead of reiterating our past achievements, the magazines and literature of the period should devote their consideration to what we do NOT know! It is only through investigation and research that inventions come; we may not find what we are in search of, but may discover something of perhaps greater moment. It is probable that the principal glories of the future will be found in as yet but little trodden paths, and as Prof. Cortlandt justly says at the close of his history, “Next to religion, we have most to hope from science.” (From his Preface to his book A Journey into Other Worlds, (1894) which seems to be of that fairly wooden type of SF that is more into S and less into F — but I haven’t read much because the initial Preface gave me a strong prejudice against the book.)

So dry. And pragmatic. The funny thing with these pragmatic people who favour maths and sciences over arts is that high school math and science aren’t exactly necessary. My learning of these subjects was not pragmatic in terms of having any practical value for the living of my life — I do not use calculus and I do not remember Grade 10 science.

But even if one is (unfortunately) a pragmatist, the Classics are highly useful. An ability to read and appreciate the foundations of one’s own culture, I think, is immensely helpful for survival. Being able to see beyond your own space and vision, as Astor would undoubtedly recommend, is of inestimable value. If we are merely physical beings, I can see science being the only necessary thing. But we are metaphysical, we have spirits and souls, minds and hearts! Classics enable us to do this!

But I think I’ve already articulated my thoughts on this.

As regards Mr. Astor, though, let us note the following:

A knowledge of Latin and Greek is only useful in understanding English in that both languages are sufficiently foreign to English that we are forced to learn our own grammar and syntax in order that* we may learn theirs as well. Now, this seems like I am arguing against myself, saying that Latin and Greek aren’t intrinsically useful for English, as Mr. Astor implies. This may be true. It may also be true, however, that knowing Latin and Greek unlocks the doors of knowledge for anyone. To quote Harry Mount again:

Knowing a bit of Latin is an invitation to the biggest room in the building, with a view down the corridor to all the succeeding ages. And you can get your hands on that invitation at any age. Alfred the Great, who knew how crucial it was to learn Latin to become a civilised man, took it up in his 30s. (Amo, Amas, Amat . . . and All That, 16)

The really useful thing about Latin is not so much that it will help you understand English as that it will help you understand Latin, in which some of the most stirring prose and poetry ever was written. Know Latin, and you will know world literature from the third century BC, when writers got going in Rome, through the so-called Golden Age of Latin — Lucretius, Catullus, Sallust, Cicero and Caesar — the Augustan Age — Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Livy — down to the end of the Silver Age in 120 AD — Martial, Juvenal, Lucan, Seneca, Pliny and Tacitus. (27)

Moving along, then. “The classics have been thoroughly and painfully threshed out, and it seems impossible that anything new can be unearthed.” Absurd. There is much to be discussed. At the time he wrote that, the excavations at Knossos by Sir Arthur were still six years away. And the decipherment of Linear B, an ancient way of writing Greek, was not for almost 60 years after the writing of this book. Many myths we once believed about the ancient world have been worked against in the past century. And many myths propagated by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remain to be firmly dislodged from popular understanding.

In fact, now that I think of it, much important research into Homeric epic, that most “thoroughly . . . threshed out” of Classical writings, has been conducted since 1894. Perhaps Astor imagined that history is not living, that the study of it does not move and undulate like a spirited beast — by calling science “a live matter” he certainly seems to think Classics “dead”. The study of literature and history will ever be fluid, as we seek to understand anew as we ourselves gain different perspectives. Even if the perspectives of past centuries are correct, they may not be comprehensible to us — nor, most certainly, are they comprehensive.

His faith in science says that with our inventions we may someday perhaps find something of “greater moment”. As a student of the Classics, I ask: What is of greater moment than “γνῶθι σεαυτὸν” (“know thyself”, carved on the Temple of Delphi)? And as a student of St. Teresa of Avila, I know that knowing myself is the way to know God, as well as the way to know my weakness and rely on Him. What is of greater moment than the betterment of the human spirit? What is more important than making the world better?

A knowledge of the Classics, I think, improves a person. There is much value and worth to be found in them.

I know that a case could be made for the sciences. I do not argue against maths, engineering, sciences — I argue against those who deem them of greater value than the Classics. There ought not to be a war between the Classics and science. Sadly, though, there is.

To close, in reference to classics in a broader sense — the sense of enduring literature as a whole — G. K. Chesterton says the following:

The highest use of the great masters of literature is not literary; it is apart from their superb style and even from their emotional inspiration. The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns. Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas which we might for a moment be prone. (“On Reading”, from The Common Man [1950])

*And sometimes we pick up a phrase or two along the way . . . (fellow students of Hansen & Quinn understand)


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