Essays and Addresses/An Address Delivered at the Mason College

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An Address Delivered at the Mason College  (1893) 
by Richard Claverhouse Jebb
From Essays and Addresses. Delivered at the Annual Meeting for the Distribution of Prizes, Oct. 9, 1893.


When the Council of this College did me the honour of inviting me to give the Inaugural Address to-day, I understood that, as on similar occasions in recent years attention has been directed to those studies in Science which justly hold so great a place here, in the present instance it might be considered appropriate to touch upon the literary side of educational work, and in particular on the study of the classics. It is, indeed, only on such a view that I could have any claim to the indulgence of this distinguished audience, and it affords an opportunity which is all the more welcome, because I am well aware how sound and excellent is the teaching enjoyed by the students of that subject at Mason College.

I propose to consider how classical studies have been affected by the general tendencies of the nineteenth century in literature and art; and what is their present position.

At the beginning of the century those studies, as pursued in our Schools and Universities, rested on a tradition, dating from the sixteenth century, which had never been effectively challenged, even by those whom it failed to satisfy. And yet the humanities, salutary as their influence had been in the higher education, powerful as they had been in helping to shape individual minds and characters, did not then possess much hold on the literary and intellectual life of the country at large. Even among those who had profited most by them, there were perhaps few who, if they had been called upon to defend the humanistic tradition, could have done so in a manner which we should now regard as adequate. At the present day, on the other hand, the classics share the domain of liberal culture with a large number of other subjects whose importance is universally recognised; controversies have raged around them; but at any rate, wherever classical studies are carried to an advanced point, the students can now give good reasons for their faith. That spirit which the classics embody now animates the higher literature of the country to a greater extent than at any previous time in the history of English letters. Moreover, an intelligent interest in the great masterpieces of ancient literature and art is far more widely diffused than it ever was before in England.

It is worth while to trace, however briefly, the process by which this change has been effected. The latter part of the eighteenth century was the time at which the distinctive qualities of the old Greek genius began to be truly appreciated by moderns: this was due chiefly to such men as Lessing and Winckelmann in the province of art, to Goethe and Schiller in literature. Meanwhile the Romantic school had arisen, seeking an ideal, but recoiling from the Latin classicism hitherto prevalent, and seeking refuge in the middle ages. The Romanticists had little sympathy with the Greek desire for light and clearness; they were more inclined to be mystical; mediaeval art as inspired by Catholicism, and national legend with its chivalrous or magical lore, gave them their favourite material. With us in England, at the beginning of the century, the Romantic school was dominant. Walter Scott's mighty genius showed from the first its native affinity with romance: when he was a youth at the University of Edinburgh, he could not be induced to learn Greek; but he learned Italian, and maintained that Ariosto was better than Homer. Towards the end of his life, when he went to Italy, he showed no interest in the classical antiquities; but delighted in Malta as associated with the Knights of St John. Scott remains the most signal embodiment in our literature of the romantic, as contrasted with the classical, tendency. Then came Byron, a force too individual and too volcanic to be described under the name of a school, but making, on the whole, for romanticism; identified, in his last years, with Greece, and masterly in his description of its natural beauties, but not in harmony with the mind of its ancient people:

          "He taught us little; but our soul
          Had felt him like the thunder's roll."

The most gifted Englishmen of that period who were really in sympathy with the old Greek genius had no influence in England. Shelley, as might have been expected, was keenly alive to the beauty of Greek literature; he translated Plato's Symposium and a blending of Plato with Dante may be felt in his Epipsychidion; though, when he followed the outlines of Greek form, as in the Prometheus Unbound and the Adonais, he wholly transmuted the spirit of his models. Keats, again, was in much a Greek by instinct, though his style was usually less classical than romantic. Walter Savage Landor, born seventeen years before Shelley and twenty before Keats, continued to be active long after those short lives were closed; in his exquisite prose he is a conscious artist, working in the spirit of the classical masters. But these men, and such as these, appealed in their own day only to a few. In the earlier part of this century there arose no new popular force in English literature tending to diffuse a recognition of those merits and charms which belong to the classical ideal. Take, for instance, two great writers who present a sufficiently strong contrast to each other, Carlyle and Macaulay; Carlyle, both in cast of thought and in form, is anti-classical; while Macaulay, with his intimate knowledge of the classics, his ardent love of them, and his mastery of a brilliant style, does not exhibit those particular qualities and charms which are distinctive of the best classical prose. John Henry Newman, whose scholarship, in Greek at least, was not equal to Macaulay's, exhibits them in an eminent degree; reminding us that for their happy manifestation a certain spiritual element is requisite, a certain tone of the whole mind and character.

A new current set in soon after the middle of the century, when a more living interest in classical antiquity began to be felt, outside of scholastic and academic circles, by the cultivated portion of the English public generally. It was in the province of history, I think, rather than of literature, that this new current first became perceptible. Dr Arnold, in his teaching at Rugby, had already prepared it among a select few; but if one were to specify any single book as marking the commencement of its wider influence, one might perhaps name Grote's History of Greece. Grote had the advantage, not a small one for this purpose, of being not only a scholar, but a man of affairs; the British public was the better inclined to him on that account; and one of his achievements, due especially to his treatment of Athens, was to invest ancient Greece with a modern interest. That good work was carried on by the lamented Mr Freeman, ever insisting, as he did, on the unity of history, and emphasising the fact that the story begun by Herodotus and Thucydides should be followed up in Polybius and Finlay.

Meanwhile purely literary forces were tending to create a more appreciative sympathy with classical literature. Among these the foremost place must be given to the influence of Tennyson; not only when it is direct, in the series of his poems on classical themes, but as it operates generally by his artistic perfection of form, which is always, in spirit, classical. In this large sense he has been, for our age, the most powerful poetical mediator between the antique masters and the English-speaking world. And there is another poet, one whom those who love him will not fear to call great, whose effectiveness in this way can be deemed second only to the late Laureate's,—I mean Matthew Arnold. His influence, inevitably less popular, quickened the perceptions of a comparatively limited public, yet one which included not a few of those by whom literary opinion is gradually moulded. This is not the time to estimate all that Matthew Arnold did for Hellenism; but, as we know, he wrought in two ways; by example, in his own exquisite poetry; and by precept, as in his lectures on translating Homer, and generally in his critical essays. Robert Browning had less of native sympathy with the classical spirit than is shown by his gifted wife; his normal style is far from classical; but his marvellous wealth of poetical thought is seen in "Balaustion's Adventure," the new garb in which he has clothed the "Alcestis" of Euripides; and in that "Apology," so instinct with modern subtlety, which he puts into the mouth of Aristophanes. Nor should it be overlooked that all Browning's work has one element of kinship, unconscious but important, with the Greek; pervaded, as it is, by an intense vitality, it is always a voice of life; it has more affinity with the spoken word than with the written. There are living poets and prose-writers who have also contributed, by various gifts, to the comprehension of ancient thought and beauty; but I am compelled to be brief; and the names of some of them will at once occur to you. I need only add that, within the last thirty or forty years, we have seen the growth of a literature tending to popularise, without vulgarising, the classics; addressed, that is, not only to scholars, but to cultivated readers generally; such books, for instance, as those of the late Mr J, A. Symonds, and the late Professor Sellar. We have had, too, a number of good English translations; in the forefront of which stands that beautiful work, a memorial of one whom so many pupils and friends are mourning, through which Professor Jowett has made Plato an English classic.

Thus the literary development of the century has been such as to draw Greek and Latin studies more and more out of scholastic isolation, and to bring them more and more into the general current of intellectual interests. A change, not less significant, has meanwhile been passing over the English appreciation of classical art. This has been, in its larger aspect, merely one branch of a movement dating from about the middle of the century, and tending to raise the level of English education in regard to art of every kind. But special causes have favoured the diffusion of an interest in ancient art, and more particularly in that of Greece. Everywhere in the Hellenic lands the soil has been giving up its buried treasures, and revealing monuments hitherto unknown, or known only through books. Athens, Olympia, Mycenae, Delos, the Troad, Ephesus, Halicarnassus are only a few of the sites where pregnant discoveries have rewarded the spade. Increased facilities of travel have enabled thousands to become familiar with the scenes of Greek and Roman history, and so to follow with a keener interest the progress of such explorations, England, which had sent forth many of the earlier explorers, among whom Colonel Leake will always hold a place of honour, had for some time fallen behind other nations in such enterprise. Within the first half of this century, both France and Germany had established at Athens permanent centres for the promotion of research. It was not till 1883 that a British School of Archaeology was established there; but already it has done a considerable amount of good work; as, for instance, in its most recent undertaking, the excavations at Megalopolis in Arcadia. Again, the means of studying ancient art in this country have been enormously increased. The British Museum, which acquired the Elgin marbles in 1816, has throughout the century been receiving a series of invaluable additions, and was never before either so attractive or so highly organised as a place for the study of classical antiquities. Then at several centres in different parts of the country there now exist good collections of casts from the antique, permitting a systematic survey of Greek and Roman sculpture. We see, then, how in art, as in literature, the course of the century has tended to enrich and to enlarge classical studies. Let us now look a little more closely at those studies themselves, and observe how far their scope and method have been altered during the same period. But, in order to understand this, we must throw our glance further back.

For a long time after the revival of ancient literature men were occupied chiefly with the beauty of its form; this is the period to which Erasmus belongs, though he himself was much more than a stylist. Next, study was attracted by the wealth of the subject-matter contained in the classics, and we have the labours of such men as Casaubon. The third stage is that of textual criticism, in which Bentley was a vigorous pioneer. So far, the general characteristic had been the predominance of individual genius. A strong personality arose, a man like one of those just named, and made an epoch. His work was emphatically his own; and he was bound by no rules except such as he might lay down for his own guidance. But, as generations went on, and the literature of these studies grew in volume, students began to feel the need of more agreement on general principles. In the present century the scientific spirit has added the domain of these old studies to its conquests. Within the last fifty years the comparative method has created a science of language. The study of manuscripts, as such, has become the science of palaeography; textual criticism is, within certain limits, a science; so is archaeology; or rather it is a group of kindred sciences. All this is excellent; though there are certain tendencies, incidental to this progress, which it is desirable to keep within due bounds. There is some danger, perhaps, lest, under the influence of high specialising, the various departments or sub-departments of classical study should become too much isolated from each other, and the larger view of the humanities should be lost. The other danger is lest the zeal for scientific precision should obscure the nature of the material with which all scholarship has to deal, viz., the creations of the human mind, in language, in literature, or in art. No study, concerned with such material, can attain its highest aim, unless the purely intellectual spirit of science is controlled by the literary and artistic sense, which is partly moral. To hold the balance between them must always be difficult, and is peculiarly difficult in an age like our own. But the rising generation of scholars, the future guardians of the classical tradition, will perhaps do well to heed these things.

Meanwhile, it is a matter for unqualified rejoicing that the study of antiquity has become wider and more real, and is now capable of satisfying a greater diversity of intellectual appetites. The gain here might be illustrated by a typical case,—that of Thackeray, who in his charming "Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo," records his first visit to Athens. He imagines the Greek Muse coming to him in a dream, and asking him if he is not charmed to be there; and he replies to her, "Madam, your company in youth was made so laboriously disagreeable to me that I can't at present reconcile myself to you in age." After an admirable description of the view from the Acropolis, he adds:—"Musing over this wonderful scene, perhaps I get some feeble glimpse or idea of that ancient Greek spirit which peopled it with sublime races of heroes and gods; and which I never could get out of a Greek book." Yet Thackeray had been at the famous school which, a little earlier, sent forth Thirlwall and Grote. Under the present methods, there is less danger that a boy of such gifts should have a like experience. Not only are the Greek books made more attractive, but there is an easier access to glimpses of Greek art. It may fairly be said that classical studies are now, on the whole, more efficient in this country than they ever were; they are at many points deeper; they are more comprehensive; and they are more in touch with the literary and artistic interests of the day.

I believe, too, that the classics will keep their place in our system of liberal education. This belief rests on the fact that their true claims are now more generally understood. Critical studies in history, in law, in language and in various branches of archaeology, have brought out the number and complexity of the threads by which modern civilisation is interwoven with the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. The Greek mind stands out clearly as the great originating mind of Europe; it has given us not only standards of literature, not only models of art, but ideas which have been fruitful in every field of human thought and life. As Renan says, "Progress will eternally consist in developing what Greece conceived." The positive results of antiquity in special branches of knowledge, such as medicine or natural science, have indeed been absorbed into modern books. But if we desire to study antiquity itself, to see how ideas have been evolved, to understand, in short, the earlier chapters of our own history, then we must needs go to the mental records of our European ancestors. This constitutes the historical claim of the classics. On literary grounds their claim is two-fold; first, their intrinsic beauty, and their unexhausted wealth of suggestive thought. As to the latter, let us remember what is so well said by John Stuart Mill: "The discoveries of the ancients in science have been greatly surpassed, and as much of them as is still valuable loses nothing by being incorporated in modern treatises; but what does not so well admit of being transferred bodily, and has been very imperfectly carried off even piecemeal, is the treasure which they accumulated of what may be called the wisdom of life; the rich store of experience of human nature and conduct which the acute and observing minds of those ages, aided in their observations by the greater simplicity of manners and life, consigned to their writings, and most of which retains all its value." Secondly, there is the fact that, either directly or indirectly, they have moulded, or at least helped to inspire, almost all the best writing of the modern world. Modern literature can be appreciated and enjoyed without their help. But the light which they can give adds zest to the enjoyment, and depth to the appreciation; and they alone can explain the process of development. On the third claim of the classics, the linguistic, it must suffice barely to touch. It is not necessary to dwell on the cardinal importance of Greek and Latin for the study of Comparative Philology and of general grammar. As instruments of mental training, again, they have the advantage of a structure organically distinct from the modern. The very freedom with which the order of words can be varied in a Greek or Latin sentence—a freedom unparalleled in any modern language—increases the value of the exercise in analysis. And when the classical languages are rhetorically, though not quite accurately, described as "dead," that very epithet suggests one of their chief recommendations. In a modern language, living authority can decide questions of usage or idiom; Greek and Latin, in which there is no such resource, make a more exacting demand on the learner's nicety of judgment. And this consideration applies not only in the province of language, but in the whole domain of classical study. It is good to have in our literary education at least one large subject rich in problems which excite curiosity but do not admit of any certain solution. "Probability," as Bishop Butler says, "is the very guide of life"; and for probable reasoning, as distinguished from demonstrative, it would be hard to find a more varied field than is afforded by the classics.

Nearly three centuries ago Bacon spoke of those who "call upon men to sell their books and buy furnaces, forsaking Minerva and the Muses as barren virgins, and relying upon Vulcan." He further expresses his opinion that the progress of knowledge has been retarded by a tendency to neglect the general training of the mind—"philosophy and universality," as he terms it—in favour of professional studies. It is no new thing, the question how far, and how best, we can combine education, the bringing out of the faculties, with instruction, the imparting of valuable knowledge. Modern life, so complex, so restless, and so competitive, naturally tends to insist first upon instruction; but, as no progress of science can enable men to think faster, a sound economy of educational time depends on the same principles as ever. Classical studies serve to inform the mind, in the proper sense of that word; they serve to mould and to train it: but they also instruct; and the uses of the knowledge which they can give are manifold. They cannot, indeed, create the literary faculty, though they seldom fail to improve it where it exists; nor can they humanise characters that resist their charm, though, where that power finds entrance, they vindicate their title to be called the humanities. In any, reasonable scheme of liberal education, studies such as these deserve to retain their place. As Mr Freeman, one of their staunchest defenders, once said, let them be "the objects of a reasonable homage," not "of an exclusive superstition." Nothing, I believe, would tend more to confirm the position of classical studies in this country than a deeper and more systematic study of modern languages and literatures. Every addition to the clearness with which we see the continuity of literary tradition in Europe must add force to the words which Dante addresses to the shade of Virgil, Tu se' lo mio maestro e'l mio autore; for the relation of modern to ancient literature is that of a disciple who renounces no part of his originality or his independence when he acknowledges his debt to a master and a guide.


  1. At the Annual Meeting for the Distribution of Prizes, Oct. 9, 1893.