Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/June 1880/The Classics That Educate Us

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 17 June 1880  (1880) 
The Classics That Educate Us
By Paul R. Shipman




JUNE, 1880.


I HAVE great respect for the classics, and would do anything within reason to spread the knowledge of them; but a preliminary-question must first be answered. What the classics are is not a matter of dispute, all agreeing that they are literary masterpieces, the study of which serves above all other studies to refine and liberalize the mind. But where are they? As to this, opinions differ.

"The Greeks, madam," replied John Randolph, when Mrs. Jellyby asked him to contribute aid to that suffering people—"the Greeks are at your door." And some people think the classics are in the same vicinity; dwelling, that is to say, in our mother-tongue in the sense in which the needy are at hand—not exclusively, but in such wise as to deserve our first attention. The President of Harvard College is one of these people. "I may avow," says President Eliot, "as the result of my reading and observation in the matter of education, that I recognize but one mental acquisition as an essential part of the education of a lady or a gentleman—namely, an accurate and refined use of the mother-tongue. Greek, Latin, French, German, mathematics, natural and physical science, metaphysics, history, and aesthetics are all profitable and delightful, both as training and as acquisitions, to him who studies them with intelligence and love, but not one of them has the least claim to be called an acquisition essential to a liberal education, or an essential part of a sound training." He adds: "The fruit of liberal education is not learning, but the capacity and desire to learn; not knowledge but power." This is explicit enough. For my own part, I agree to it.

But some people do not—affirming, contrariwise, that a knowledge of Latin and Greek is essential to a liberal education. Among these people is Mr. W. T. Harris, a distinguished educator of St. Louis, and one of the most acceptable of the lecturers, if not the most acceptable, in Mr. Alcott's Summer School of Philosophy at Concord. "Mr. Harris," writes one describing this New England reproduction of the Academy of Plato, "is the star of the school, it would appear, since every one agrees that he is extremely interesting to hear, though few pretend to understand him, and those who do find their profession treated with incredulity." I confess myself a little surprised to learn that he proves unintelligible to any of the men and maidens of the new Academy, especially the maidens, for it is an article of faith in the "provinces" that the average maiden of New England, whatever may be the limitations of her father and big brothers, can understand anything, from the calculus of quaternions to the metaphysics of transcendentalism. Rufus Choate, it is told, once met Jeremiah Mason, with a daughter on each arm, returning from a lecture of Emerson's. "Well, Mr. Mason," said Choate, "you have been to hear Mr. Emerson!" "Yes!" sighed the venerable jurist. "And did you understand him?" continued Choate. "No," he replied, arching his eyebrows, and dropping a glance on either damsel, "but my daughters did!" I sincerely hope that the average maiden of New England has suffered no decline in these latter days. And yet a horrible suspicion intrudes itself. Can it be that much Greek has made her soft at last? However this may be, it can hardly excite surprise that Mr. Harris, teaching in the grove of Alcott, as Plato taught in that of Academus, and teaching, it would seem, with quite as many bees in his bonnet, if not on his lips, differs with President Eliot as to the special whereabout of the classics, or, what comes to the same thing, the essential part of a liberal education. It is not to be expected that one who comes forward to revive the Academy would go back on the Greeks. Yet he is none the less entitled to a fair hearing.

"The settlement of this old dispute," Mr. Harris says in a recent lecture, "lies involved in the question, What are insight-giving studies?" And the general principle that determines what are insight giving studies, he insists, is this: "They must be of such a character that they lead the individual out of his immediate and familiar surroundings, and cause him to breathe the atmosphere and become familiar with the accessory conditions of an earlier historical stage of the people from whom he derives his culture and forms of civilization." This general principle he afterward compresses into the following paradox: "Self-alienation is necessary to self-knowledge." Under this principle he in conclusion thus sums up his position concerning the classics: "Not only for English-speaking nations, but for all modern Europeans, for the reason that they have derived their culture from Greece and Rome, the special culture-studies are Latin and Greek. The embryology of modern civilization is to be found in the literature and institutions of these wonderful peoples." "Mathematics," he declares in the course of the lecture, "as the science of the general relations of time and space, the conditions under which existence in nature is possible, has the same relation to the insight of man into the physical world that classic study has to his insight into the world of institutions." These extracts, if I mistake not, fairly represent Mr. Harris's argument. Seeing that he is a very able and accomplished man, I take it for granted that his argument, as it is the last that has been delivered, is the best that can be made.

What Mr. Harris says of mathematics appears to me in itself to reduce his conclusion to something inconsistent with reason; not that he claims too much for mathematics in the sphere of physics, but that, in claiming as much for Latin and Greek outside of that sphere, he puts a contingent manifestation of mind on a level with the laws of mental processes, coördinating an artificial product with a formal science, two things of wholly different orders, and making the former a key to life as the latter is a key to nature. This at least betrays confusion of thought. If what Mr. Harris wants is a study that has the same relation to "the world of institutions" that mathematics has to "the physical world," he should take not Latin and Greek but logic, a science of the same order as mathematics, and dealing with thought precisely as mathematics deals with quantity. If he does not want a study of this kind, he should not represent what he does want as being such a study, and commend it on the strength of this fallacious representation. Latin and Greek certainly do not form such a study.

But "self-alienation is necessary to self-knowledge," says Mr. Harris; and the study of Latin and Greek, he maintains, is the surest way to bring about "self-alienation," which we may presume to have been the notion passing in the mind of Festus when he made that famous exclamation in the hall of audience at Cæsarea: "Paul thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad." And, truly, if a man has made up his mind to inflict "self-alienation" on himself, Latin and Greek will answer the purpose; but, before he drains the fatal cup, he should find out, if possible, exactly what he will make by it. A wise man considers the article before he decides to pay the price. Mr. Harris concedes that the "higher abstract elements" of the ancient civilizations can be reached through translation, but not, or at any rate not adequately, he says, the "earlier stages of growth— those of feeling and phantasy." These, as he contends, translation loses "in a large measure"; so that how the Greeks and Latins felt, and what they fancied, can be adequately seized only by "learning to think in their idioms, and to give our thoughts their forms and words." Here we have the article, with the price marked on it: a "large measure" of the "feelings and phantasies" of the Greeks and Latins, in return for learning to think in their idioms. Is not the price a little steep, considering the flatness of the article? Admitting that a full knowledge of the "feelings and phantasies" in question can not be got by translation, and can be got by "self-alienation," is not "self-alienation," as defined by Mr. Harris, too much to pay for it? Whatever the value of the knowledge, who, for the sake of getting it, could reasonably spend the best years of his life, or any of his years, in trying to make himself a Roman and a Greek rolled into one? And who of all this breathing: world has tried it and succeeded? Has Mr. Harris? Can he himself think in the idioms of the Greeks and Latins, and give his thoughts their forms and words? I do him the credit to believe that he can not, but, if he could, the fact, I venture to suggest; would rather explain his alleged obscurity in the use of his own language than prove the necessity of mastering theirs; for it would be only natural that one who had carried "self-alienation" to this length should not be at home in his vernacular. He who travels out of himself so far will be apt never to get back again. In his case there would be no "Return of the Native." The "grand tour" would finish his education, no doubt, in the primary sense of the word. A kind of culture such a man might have, but it would not be liberal culture, to which, on the contrary, it would bear scarcely more resemblance than a Strasburg goose to the noble fowl apostrophized in the lines of Bryant. It would be an intellectual monstrosity. But "self-alienation" to this degree is happily out of the question. For all, except one in a myriad, it is simply impossible. This explodes the argument as put by Mr. Harris. If the study of Latin and Greek to the only pitch adequate is not a possibility, what is the use of studying them at all? Mr. Harris can have no answer, unless he recasts his argument, which he can hardly do, I think, to any better purpose.

For, is there a modicum of truth in his paradox? In what sense is "self-alienation" in any degree "necessary to self-knowledge," or, which is more to the purpose, self-culture, because the end of liberal education, as President Eliot says, is "not knowledge but power"? The true condition of culture is self-activity, and how far is this determined by that "self-alienation" which consists in projecting one's self into the idioms of a dead language? Nearly as far, perhaps, as would be the corporal activity of one who should take a "header" into the Dead Sea, and essay to cleave its dense waves, beating against his breast like sledge-hammers. A dead language is the Dead Sea of thought, if it may not be more aptly likened to the Sea of Tranquillity in the moon. We think in our mother-tongue only, through which only, therefore, our self-activity is determined, and by which only, for that reason, we cultivate our minds. Our mother-tongue is the sole medium of our mental development. Only by means of it can we even self-alienate ourselves. A dead language is a counteractive instrumentality; for which reason we can no more develop our minds freely in Greek or Latin than we can develop our muscles in "twisted gyves." Studying to think in a dead language is shackling the mind, instead of liberating it, and must lead not to a free but to an arrested development. "Self-alienation," if I may be allowed to aphorize a little, too, is self-repression, which will stunt the developing intellect, though it may stimulate the developed one. Culture, be it observed, is not capacity but the growth of capacity, and that which might energize the one would paralyze the other, the full-formed organ deriving strength from what may deaden the rudiment. The study of foreign languages, in place of being the means of culture, is simply a means of knowledge, and the study of the dead languages is not a necessary or convenient means to that. Our mother-tongue alone, as the instrument of our thinking, is the instrument of our culture. It is hence the thing of all things that we should master first and master thoroughly. In this philosophy and common sense are at one.

But the obvious way to master our mother-tongue is to study that, and not the mother-tongue of somebody else—to study it in its own masterpieces, not excluding indeed its adopted ones, whether from the Greek or Latin or any other original, but studying these in 'its own idioms, forms, and words, not in theirs. If there is to be any alienation in the matter, let the Greeks and Latins suffer it; they are dead, and it will not hurt them. Us it will hurt of necessity, since it will hinder our mastery of the tongue whereby we think, and by which, consequently, we master our faculties. Here, doubtless, I shall be confronted with the necessity of "self-alienation" as a means of knowing our mother-tongue itself, and not unlikely be reminded of Goethe's aphorism, of which Mr. Harris's is a tolerable equivalent: "He who is acquainted with no foreign tongue knows nothing of his own." To this there are two answers: it is irrational, and imposing facts contradict it. Strictly speaking, the converse of the proposition is true: he who knows nothing of his own tongue knows nothing of any. other, for it is through his own that he becomes acquainted with another. The literal aphorism is literally preposterous. Assuming that it means in reality, what is the least admissible meaning, that he who is acquainted with no foreign tongue is not a master of his own, it is still irrational. What constitutes the mastery of a tongue? The "accurate and refined use" of it. And what, by common consent, is the criterion of this use? The established practice of the best writers and speakers of the tongue. Then how can the use be acquired better than by the study of these writers and speakers? Nay, how otherwise can it be acquired at all? And why is the study of any other tongue necessary? We can conform to the use of the best writers and speakers only by studying their works, and, when we have done this effectually, we have nothing else to do; the habit of conformity is established—the use is acquired. One does not learn to employ the brush by handling the chisel, or to shoot a rifle by throwing a boomerang; yet he could do either about as well as learn to use his native tongue by studying a foreign one, from which the incidental gain to his vocabulary would be offset by the loss to his syntax, while the linguistic learning that he might gather would be likely to cramp his expression as much as it enlarged his knowledge, leaving him, so far as the use of his own tongue is concerned, where he started, if not considerably behind that point. On the other hand, the study of his own tongue in its masterpieces would enrich his vocabulary, without corrupting his syntax, and perfect his expression, as well as enlarge his knowledge. In short, the study of it would make him a master of it. Respecting the descent of the tongue, as respecting the "embryology of modern civilization," he has no call to trouble himself till he has achieved this mastery, if ever. The one belongs to the philosophy of language, as the other to the philosophy of history. Neither has anything special to do with the use of English, which either would help him to master not less possibly and surely not much more than ontology or ontogeny or any other recondite study, that he may find it profitable or agreeable to pursue after (but not before) he has equipped himself for anything and everything by mastering his faculties, through the mastery of his native tongue. If for this, however, the study of the tongue in its sources were essential, he would have to go back not to Latin and Greek, which have only multiplied its words and modified some of its forms, but to Anglo-Saxon and the cognate languages, whence come the bulk of its working vocabulary and all its grammatical principles; but this study, as I have intimated, is not essential to culture. A scientific knowledge of our mother-tongue is no more essential to the accurate and refined use of it than a knowledge of anatomy is essential to the graceful and effective use of our limbs; for what Bacon says of commonwealths and virtue is far more true of linguistics and culture—they nourish culture grown, but do not much mend the seeds. If I had my way in the halls of education, I would not only dismiss Latin and Greek, but send off packing along with them the historical and comparative study of English itself, and, bringing to the front, say, mathematics, chemistry, physiology, and philosophy, natural, moral, and mental, put the whole training squad under the immediate command of Captain English—not the fossil infant of the Cædmon age, but the living man of the nineteenth century, with whom we all have a speaking acquaintance at least. Glossology is important in its place, but it has no proper place in a scheme of education. Putting English glossology into such a scheme, after putting out the dead languages, has the appearance of giving a sop to the classical Cerberus— a weak concession to the enemy. Erudition, it should never be forgotten, is not education, nor the means to it; on the contrary, education is the means to erudition, as to every other spoil of intellect. And education, it can not be too often repeated, is essentially and preeminently the mastery of one's own language; for which the masterpieces of the language are not merely indispensable but enough. Sufficient for the mastery of English is the study thereof. The aphorism of Goethe is as false in spirit as it is absurd in letter.

Small wonder that imposing facts contradict it. The Greeks themselves were acquainted with no foreign tongue. Did they know nothing of their own? They declined to seek culture in "self-alienation," as they might have done, by studying to think in the idioms and to give their thoughts the forms and words of the Pelasgians, Egyptians, Phœnicians, or Persians, although some of them, it is true, when already cultivated, picked up what they thought worth taking among the intellectual possessions of these people, as was sensible; but their own language was the exclusive instrument of their culture, as the study of it was their exclusive means of knowing it. The "special-culture study" of the Greeks was their mother-tongue; and the method that sufficed for them—which trained Homer, Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Demosthenes will suffice for us. It has sufficed for us. Shakespeare, the greatest master of expression that the race has produced, knew no tongue but his own; and from the solar splendor of this supreme instance the argument, as no English scholar need be told, shades downward through one radiant name after another in the firmament of our literature. And the method is vindicated by not less significant products in other tongues, as witness, notably, the Icelandic "Njála," a biographical work at once of surpassing excellence in style and of purely native culture. Witness, furthermore, the Chinese, who, though the Chinese language consists of upward of forty thousand characters, and is in other respects amazingly cumbrous, have made of their vernacular, by dint of studying it exclusively, and in spite of the pernicious extreme to which they have carried exclusiveness in other directions, an instrument of culture that turns out, in the department of affairs at all events, some of the most highly developed intellects of the time. Sir Frederick Bruce, who represented the British Government at Washington after having represented it at Peking, avowed when in this country that the ablest statesman he had ever met was a mandarin. The Chinese, by the way, make dwarf trees, of which they are very proud, by cutting off the tap-roots, and resting the mutilated ends against stones, thereby striking at the seat of vigorous growth; but, taking no pride in dwarf intellects, their plan of education goes on the opposite principle—the tap-root of the mother-tongue being carefully preserved, never cramped, and continually nourished, the upshot of which is that, while they keep dwarfs in their flower-pots, they have giants in their councils. The facts of which these are examples admit of no answer. They make short work of Goethe's aphorism, and its pretty offspring, the paradox of Harris, breaking down their letter, cutting up their spirit, and sweeping them away to a common limbo. Nor do they leave any solid ground in a course of English for the Anglo-Saxon and its Teutonic congeners. What knew Demosthenes, for instance, of the lineage and affinities of Greek? Before they were fixed he was dead, and, for that matter, Greek itself was dying, although Plato, Aristotle, and some others, to be sure, had touched upon certain aspects of the subject. And what did Shakespeare know of the philology of English? It is a common saying that Shakespeare knew everything, and indeed he knew the human mind so well that he easily divined its possibilities, not simply beyond his own positive knowledge, but beyond the positive attainments of the race, the head-light of his genius having thrown a blaze along the track of human progress to the other side of stations that the imperial train has been generations in approaching and which it has not yet passed; but intuition, though divine, can not do much % with the hidden roots of a language, which call for the grub-axe of the grammarian rather than for the scimetar of the poet, and it is not too much to say that the man who knew everything knew next to nothing of philology. Other instances need not be adduced. To back these would be to gild refined gold.

Not only is our mother-tongue, then, the instrument of our culture, but the way to master it is to study it, in lieu of any foreign tongue, living or dead. For English-speaking people the "special-culture study" is not Latin and Greek or either, but English. The mother tongue, if I may recur to the botanical figure, is the tap-root of the tree of mind, whereof no other tongue can be more than a rootlet. Neglect it, and you dwarf the intellect; cherish it, and the intellect shoots up into full stature. Our mother-tongue is the source of our mental growth. The time-worn notion opposed to this not only is false, but its falsity is susceptible of demonstration in the strict sense of the term.

A curious question remains: How is it that a notion so contrary to reason and experience has dominated the world for century after century? Of course, there is a cause for this effect. What is it? At the bottom or near the bottom of our mental nature lies a propensity which, as related to the intellect, is called imitativeness, and, as related to the will, may be called sequaciousness. It is, we all have reason to know, an active agent in the formation of whatever we become—the shuttle, if I may so call it, of the loom of man, shooting its double thread back and forth through the warp of his existence. If some order of superior beings, capable by hypothesis of anything, should take it into their heads to strike a medal expressive in a general way of their sense of human character, and drop it from the clouds, it would probably bear the image of a monkey on the obverse face, and on the reverse that of a sheep; and we should all have to acknowledge, with such grace as we could muster, the palpable hit of our celestial satirists. Certain it is that, when we see a thing done by somebody else in the line of our aspirations, we incline to do it ourselves, and to keep on doing it, until some other body, of higher skill or greater force, does some other thing in the same line. The flock follows the first sheep that jumps, and jumps to bis jumps, till he jumps no more, or is overjumped by another. This is the general movement, subject to diversions, checks, stops, reversals, renewals—all, indeed, proceeding according to the self-same tendency as the general movement, but out of which, together with that movement, comes in the long run true advancement—the cloth of gold of civilization; for it would be a grave mistake, as I have implied, to suppose that this propensity is not of capital importance to the development of man. Without imitativeness, the first and most fruitful years of life would be a blank, to say nothing of the loss to every later year; and without sequaciousness society would run to anarchy, and leap into ruin. The bell-wether, principle, it must be admitted, is a large factor in human progress; but, like every other factor, it may be taken too often, making the product not what it should be.

And this undoubtedly is what has happened in the case of education. In the infancy of our tongue, when the learning of the past was locked up in Greek and Latin, and the key to these languages, as well as the care of education, was in the hands of ecclesiastics, the study of the ancient classics became in some sort a necessity, the teachers being unable or unwilling to move in any other direction, and the learners having no choice but to follow. The jump of the ecclesiastical bell-wether drew on the herd, which, having once got under way, has kept on jumping in the same path, and is jumping in it now, when our tongue has grown up into a rich and glorious maturity, when the learning of the past not only has been transfused into it but is a drop in the ocean of its own acquisitions, and when the care of education, in common with other vital interests, is in the hands of the people. For this egregious persistence, however, the propensity I have mentioned is not alone responsible. Many things have coöperated with it. The dead languages, for one thing, have been put on guard at the gate of the professions, obstructing the admission of all to whom they were unknown; and, in case that obstruction fell short of exclusion, spreading the tables inside with their scraps, which haply might cause the bold intruder to repent that he had staid away from the feast of languages, or had not staid away from the feast of reason also. The flower of the youth of successive generations has thus been put under the classic screw. Then, again, many of the masterpieces of our language have been produced by men of classical training, and, pursuant to a familiar fallacy, the production is inferred to have come from the training because it came after it; whereas, it would be nearer the truth to infer that the production was not on account of the training, but in despite of it the fruit of English training in the face of classical. Nevertheless, the classical has appropriated the credit. Something, likewise, must be imputed to the splendid renown of the Greeks and Latins, as also to the vague but strong attraction of the unknown, which, if we may believe a saying of the Latins themselves, is always thought to be magnificent. Finally, the victims of the dead languages, prompted by a natural pride, have for the most part kept their sacrifice to themselves, either saying nothing of it, or representing it, with half-unconscious guile, as the cream of intellectual sweetness. The inquisitive man who went into a side-show on the invitation of the showman, to see a wagon with one wheel, and saw a wheelbarrow, came out, Mr. Joe Miller avers, with such enthusiasm in his eyes and such laudation on his lips that the bystanders rushed pell-mell to view the marvel, from which they, too, returned in a state of misleading effusiveness. Something must be pardoned to the spirit of getting even; but more, I should own in candor, to an honest belief in the marvel extolled. Nothing in fact can be more natural than to exaggerate the value of that which has cost us dear, particularly when it is avouched to be invaluable by the practice of venerable institutions, and the authority of illustrious names, not to mention the prescription of centuries. Such, I think, are the chief things which have conspired with the bell-wether bias, to keep up the long, and senseless, and injurious pursuit of free development in the fetters of the ancients.

Be this explanation as it may, it is high time, and past high time, that the pursuit under these conditions were abandoned. It has been continued ages too long. If not abandoned, I am strongly tempted to predict that man, handicapped by the conditions, will be passed by woman, now almost abreast of him, and that before the end of the next century, unless woman gets handicapped herself, our great poets, novelists, historians, scientists, and philosophers—the leaders of thought and masters of style—will wear petticoats or Turkish trousers, and the lords of the creation, sent to the rear, will become hewers of words and drawers of grammar to the weaker vessels—their better-halves in very truth—the real architects of mind and acknowledged captains of civilization. Let the paragon of animals look to his supremacy. If he sticks to the dead languages, I see but one hope for him; and that is to persuade woman to accept for herself the chains that have been fastened on him, and which he has not had the wit or the manliness to break. This is his only hope, and the fortune of the tailless fox in Æsop admonishes him not to put his trust in this; although it must be acknowledged, in view of the course of study at such institutions as Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Girton, that the modern Reynard seems to be crying up his mutilated extremity with somewhat greater effect than his prototype of old was able to reach. But this, I hope, is more in appearance than in reality. When he of the fable opened his speech against tails, and proceeded with his ingenious reasoning, there were present in the assembly doubtless a few silly foxes who exchanged approving nods, hastily agreed that tails were inconvenient appendages, and perhaps went so far as to cut off their own on the spot, and range themselves ostentatiously under the countenance of the Great Tailless; but when the speech, clever yet extremely thin, was finished, and the settled sense of the meeting found a fitting voice, there was an end of all that nonsense. And so will probably disappear the folly that breaks out in the curriculum of the institutions above mentioned. If not, and woman, in a vain wish to vindicate her equality with man by claiming the same weight that he foolishly carries, straps on her shoulders the dead languages, one thing is certain: she will never fulfill the proud prediction that I have ventured to make for her, but hereafter, as heretofore, will lag, instead of leading. However, I am not anxious that woman should lead. Nor yet would I have her lag. The best thing for both sexes, and for all rational interests, would be to drop the dead languages out of the scheme of education altogether, and stick to our mother-tongue until we are educated, when the study of foreign languages, dead and living, or any other outlying study that we like, will be in order. In acquiring the use of our faculties through the use of our vernacular, we acquire the key of universal knowledge, with which we may at pleasure unlock any door in that many-mansioned house. But, first, we should possess ourselves of this key. Education, like charity, begins at home. To-day, if we would have fruitful minds, we must cultivate our lingual birthright; tomorrow, if we please, to fresh woods and pastures new. Meantime, let Greek and Latin wait; and when Mr. Harris, or any other representative of those renowned tongues on the Stygian shore, asks us to contribute aid to the suffering classics, let our response be, in the spirit of Randolph's reply to Mrs. Jellyby: "The classics, sir, are at your door."

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