English and the Classics

In his 1915 collection of essays on Aristocracy and Justice, Paul Elmer More argues that “the classics, with the accompaniment of philosophy and the mathematical sciences” should form the core of a college curriculum. The simultaneous orderliness and difficulty of Latin and Greek, he writes, make these languages the perfect backbone to a “disciplinary education,” an education which produces orderly and intelligent minds. “It almost inevitably happens that a course in English literature,” or in the literature of any other modern language, he argues, “either degenerates into the dull memorizing of dates and names or, rising into the O Altitudo, evaporates in romantic gush over beautiful passages.” As a result, these languages and the literatures written in them are unfit to be placed at the center of a system of education. While it seems clear that there is a great deal of benefit to be derived from the study of the Greek and Latin languages as well as the literatures written in them, More’s dismissal of the study of English literature as inevitably consisting only of rote memorization of trivia on the one hand or mindless emotionalism on the other is an unnecessary exaggeration that serves as an opening to find fault with his position.

More’s assertion that the difficulty of Latin and Greek qualifies them for a place of preeminence in a “disciplinary education, for example, falls short of reason. There are, after all, much more difficult languages to learn than either Latin or Greek. A language in which meaning is invested in tone, such as Mandarin Chinese, is decidedly more difficult for native speakers of European languages to learn, for example, than their own language’s European antecedents in Greek and Latin. More himself taught Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language of great difficulty, at Harvard University for several years. Furthermore, the implication that a language, or anything else at all, is better because it is more difficult is unwarranted. There is no inevitable connection between the difficulty of an activity and its qualitative effect upon the person performing it.

If what More intends is that Latin and Greek, because of their difficulty in conjunction with their orderliness, serve to develop the reasoning skills of those who learn them, this is certainly to be admitted. Yet the same could surely be asserted about the mastery of the English language and the reading of English literature, contrary to More’s assertion that these inevitably degrade into memorization and emotion. Memorizing the declensions of Latin nouns and Greek verb forms no doubt builds discipline and memory. Studying the sonnets of Shakespeare or, for that matter, the striving of Ernest Hemingway after perfectly succinct sentences is, however, certain to produce the same sorts of results.

If it is the content of the works to be found in Latin and Greek that is of the greatest concern, it can hardly be asserted that the works of authors writing in Latin and Greek is more universal or humane than those writing in English. Shakespeare’s tragedies are as much a school of virtue, for example, as are the works of Homer or any of the Greek playwrights. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are as much, and perhaps more, a celebration and elaboration of the panoply of human possibilities as are Plutarch’s biographies. It cannot be asserted with any truth that the authors of Greek and Latin literature have outstripped the authors of English literature in their appeal to the universally and humanly true.

When Greek and Latin are considered side-by-side with English, the observation and prescription of Winston Churchill, a superb writer and speaker of English who was never able to fully master either Latin or Greek, seems closer to the mark than More’s thought. “Naturally I am biassed in favour of boys learning English,” he wrote in his biography, “I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.”

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