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CLASSICAL CONFERENCE

SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE VALUE OF THE CLASSICS.

PROFESSOR MORITZ LEVI, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN.

A book entitled “Les Caractèeres” was written by a Frenchman in the seventeenth century. That book begins with a statement which reads somewhat as follows: Everything has been said and he who comes today in order to say something new, arrives too late by more than seven thousand years in which men have lived and thought. Having made that statement, the author proceeds to write a book-a whole book.

On the ancient classics also everything has been said and he who attempts to say something new must be bold indeed. With this brief introductory remark I proceed to repeat some of the old truths with which every schoolboy is or should be acquainted.

But before touching upon my subject proper I wish to say a word regarding the educational ideals which prevail very generally in this country at present. It is that we are passing through a 'stubbly, thistlebearing' epoch. The atmosphere in which we live instead of stimulating that which is greatest and noblest in us seems to choke and stifle us. Every effort of ours is directed towards material prosperity and well-being. Whatever does not somehow or other bring us worldly success is sometimes gently, sometimes rudely, put aside. Such an attitude towards life must necessarily result in neglect of what may be called ideal studies not only by those whose avowed aim it is to seek worldly fortune but also by those, who with the intention of preparing for life, frequent our institutions of learning. And here one may well ask: What does it mean to prepare for life? Surely I do not attempt a new definition when I say that education rightly understood means an all-round development of the human being-a development therefore that deals with the body and mind but one that ought to deal no less with the culture of the heart. It means a development which will make its possessor a valuable and efficient citizen as well as a wise and responsible head of a family. From all this it follows that special education should be put off until the foundation of a general education has been laid. It was Montaigne, I believe, who was the first to lay down what by this time should have become a universal truth, namely that before engaging upon special studies the student should receive a general education which will make him a man. In this connection the writer just quoted relates the following anecdote: "Being once on my journey towards Orléans it was my chance to meet with two masters of arts travelling toward Bordeaux about fifty paces, one from another. Far off behind them, I descried a troop of horsemen, their master riding foremost, who was the Earl of Rochefoucault. One of my servants inquiring of the first of those masters of arts, what gentleman he was that followed him. Supposing my servant had meant his fellow scholar, for he had not yet seen the Earl's train, answered pleasantly, He is no gentleman, sir, but a grammarian, and I am a logician.

To form a specialist at the earliest moment possible means to narrow the outlook of the young mind instead of widening it. But there are other evil effects following in the train of specialization. Such education forms a nation of individualists, that is, men and women who consider themselves sufficient unto themselves and who cannot enter with any degree of warmth and sympathy into the work of their fellowmen who are engaged in lines other than their own. Now what are the best means toward this all-round education or development? How can we raise the present low standard of general education which obtains in this country? There are certain branches of study upon which the world has practically agreed as being indispensable for a liberal education, such as history and geography, art and literature, science and philosophy. Among these branches literature and art seem to suffer most from neglect. It is said that in 1904 Cornell University had but one student in its Dante course. At the University of Michigan there was one such student in 1911-1912. As to literature, unfortunately, it is too often looked upon as a mere pastime, an amusement, something that vaguely affects the emotions and may be taken up at odd moments and dropped again like a journal with its sensational and motley news. The truth of the matter is that the study of literature is a study of life itself and as such requires the utmost application. A careful reading of a play by Shakespeare, Molière, or Gæthe reveals to us the motives, the passions, the intrigues, the nobility as well as the baseness of human nature. By looking about him the student of literature is surprised at the resemblance of what actually happens in life and what he sees reflected, as in a mirror in every great work of literature. It is a truism that unless a work of literature reveals life, such work had better remain forever on the dusty shelves of our libraries. If such then are the advantages to be derived from great literary works the inference is obvious, namely that the study of literary masterpieces constitutes a most valuable preparation for life. Another advantage to be derived from literature will be seen from what follows: Unless one enters sympathetically upon the study of every character in a play or novel, one finds it impossible to fully understand such work. But this exercise of human sympathy is what is greatly needed by those who are preparing for life. By sympathizing with imaginary characters we learn to enter into sympathy with living beings. As President Wilson has said in his inaugural address: "There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been “Let every man look out for himself, let every generation look out for itself,' while we reared giant machinery which made it impossible that any but those who stood at the levers of control should have a chance to look out for themselves.”

Moreover the proper study of literature cultivates the judgment. Thus for instance the careful analysis of even a single page of a masterpiece is not the task of a child. To pronounce an aesthetic or ethical opinion of value on a literary work is in the highest degree conducive to that mental training which is one of the great aims of all education. To show this latter point somewhat more fully let me recall that some of the greatest minds have been engaged in the business of literary criticism. Is it necessary to mention Aristotle, Horace, the critics of the Renaissance, Goethe, SainteBeuve, Brunetière, Faguet, Matthew Arnold? The mental powers displayed by these men in dissecting for the benefit of the student the masterpieces of literature are different, it is true, but they are not inferior to the genius of the men whose work they analyze. The study of literature thus understood then means the training of the mind as well as the education of the heart. We are in need of all kinds of culture, religious, moral, artistic, technical, scientific, economic. Of the cultures mentioned it is that of science which overshadows all the rest. Science makes us acquainted with our surroundings and the world in which we live. We do not complain, therefore, of the devotion to science—what we regret is the neglect of literature which deals with the human soul. Do you realize that when we talk about art and literature-ancient as well as modern-we touch upon some of the vital questions of our own day? We have accomplished the most marvelous material development, but much hard labor and great suffering are still the lot of the multitude. How can some of these burdens be lifted ? How can some of the world's wrongs be righted ? I have no hesitation in answering, through the cultivation of the feelings, thro' religion, thro' literature and art. Without that education we must forever retain a touch of barbarism and vulgarity. In addition to their aesthetic and ethical value the force of literature has been so great in the past, it has exercised so powerful an influence upon the general evolution of ideas that to neglect it today seems nothing less than sheer madness. It is through literature that some of the greatest revolutions have been brought about in all civilized countries. It is through literature and religion, and art that we have become human.

But what has all this to do with the ancient classics ? That is what I shall attempt to bring out in what follows. I have spoken of the value of literature as one of the branches of study that contributes towards developing certain qualities that have been and are still greatly neglected in most schemes of education, I mean the aesthetic sense, the finer sensibilities, including the moral conscience. Now the ancient classics are literature and

. since by the common consent of those who know whereof they speak that literature is among the best the world has produced, it follows that their omission in a scheme of an all-round education cannot but be a serious error. In a discussion of the more particular value of the classics emphasis has been laid upon their numerous uses in the various professions, the disci

pline to be derived from their study, their aid for a thorough acquisition of the English language thro' derivation and the difficulties to be overcome in translation.

I do not know whether sufficient emphasis has been laid upon the fact that without a knowledge of the ancient classics it is impossible to understand the background of our modern civilization.

As for understanding the great modern English poets without a knowledge of the classics let us hear the opinion of Matthew Arnold. When speaking of the relation of classical to modern poetry he says: “The modern literatures have so grown up under the influence of the literature of Greece and Rome, that the forms, fashions, notions, workings, allusions of that literature have gone deeply into them, and are an indispensable preparation for understanding them ;. ...". And a little further on, the same author continues: “The people are without that preparation; and how much of English literature is, therefore, almost unintelligible to the people

... we can hardly perhaps enough convince ourselves.” As a student of Romance languages I have no hesitation in adding this, namely that for the most intelligent study of those languages the ancient classics are indispensible. This holds true more especially with reference to Latin which is the mother of them all. But it often happens that the contents of a literary work written in a Romance language deals with a Greek subject. when, for the full understanding of such work, the study of the original becomes essential. As a notable instance of such necessity I should like to point out that for a thorough study and comprehension of the works of Racine, one of the greatest of French writers, the careful perusal of the Greek tragedies is absolutely necessary. In fact if we are to judge by the opinion of that eminent French critic, Emile Faguet, not any one Greek tragedy in particular but all of them must be studied by him who would fully grasp the tragedies of the French dramatist mentioned.

After all that has been said there is still to be considered the purely intrinsic value of the classics—that something which we template without a thought of self-interest or gain. This value of the classics may be very far from what is ordinarily styled practical, but in reality there cannot be anything more practical than that of which we are most in need in our daily life in order to enable us to lead that ideal life for which we were created by our maker. "I put the poetic and emotional side of literature,” says Frederic Harrison, “as the most needed for daily use. I take the books that seek to rouse the imagination, and stir up feeling, touch the heart—the books of art, of fancy, of ideals, such as reflect the delight and aroma of life. And here how does the trivial provided it is the new, that which stares at us in the advertising columns of the day, crowd out the immortal poetry and pathos of the human race, vitiating our taste for those exquisite pieces which are a household word and weakening our mental relish for the eternal works of genius!"

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Thus the ideal value of the classics as well of all great literature and art may be considered as the most practical value of all. It is that by which the mind becomes humanized.

A word about the nations whose literature are styled the ancient classics. Carlyle when speaking of the Greeks and Romans says: “There you have the most remarkable race of men in the world set before you to say nothing of the languages which.... I believe, are admitted to be the most perfect orders of speech we have yet found to exist among men. And you will find, if you read well, a pair of extremely remarkable nations shining in the records left by themselves as a kind of pillar to light up life in the darkness of the past ages; and it will be well worth your while if you can get into the understanding of what these people were and what they did.”

Now if I had sufficient time at my disposal I should mention all the great names that adorn the roll of honor of the Greeks and Romans. I should, moreover, select striking passages from their authors in order to give concrete examples of the thought and sentiment to which they gave expression. I should quote passages like the following: “Old Homer,” says Frederic Harrison, "is the very fountain head of pure poetic enjoyment, of all that is spontaneous, simple, native, and dignified in life. He takes us into the ambrosial world of heroes, of human vigor, of purity, of grace, he is the eternal type of the poet In him, alone of the poets, a national life is transfigured, wholly beautiful, complete and happy: where care, doubt, decay are as yet unborn.”

I should recall to you the little masterpiece entitled “Oath of the Athenian Youth.” “We will never bring disgrace to this, our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks. We will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the city's laws and do our best to incite a like respect and reverence to those above us who are prone to annul or to set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

And finally I should read to you that splendid tribute paid by Dante to Virgil in his Divine Comedy: “Art thou then that Virgil, and that fountain which pours forth so rich a stream of speech?”....O glory, and light of other poets! May the long zeal avail me, and the great love, that made me search thy volume.

Thou art my master and my author; thou alone art he from whom I took that fair style that has done me honor.”

But since I have already taken more time than rightly belongs to me I shall close with one of the most eloquent passages ever penned in praise of the classics. It is by D'Arcy W. Thompson in his Day Dreams of a Schoolmaster: “A Dead language: what a sad and solemn expression! Trite

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