Thursday, May 26, 2005
Dead and Living Languages
James Russell Lowell, In Defense of the Study of Greek
Only those languages can properly be called dead in which nothing living has been written. If the classic languages are dead, they yet speak to us, and with a clearer voice than that of any living tongue.
Graiis ingenium, Graiis dedit ore rotundo
Musa loqui, praeter laudem nullius avaris.
[Horace, Ars Poetica 323-324 (tr. John Conington:
To Greece, fair Greece, ambitious but of praise,
The Muse gave ready wit, and rounded phrase.]
If their language is dead, yet the literature it enshrines is rammed with life as perhaps no other writing, except Shakespeare's, ever was or will be. It is as contemporary with to-day as with the ears it first enraptured, for it appeals not to the man of then or now, but to the entire round of human nature itself. Men are ephemeral or evanescent, but whatever page the authentic soul of man has touched with her immortalizing finger, no matter how long ago, is still young and fair as it was to the world's gray fathers. Oblivion looks in the face of the Grecian Muse only to forget her errand. Plato and Aristotle are not names but things. On a chart that should represent the firm earth and wavering oceans of the human mind, they would be marked as mountain-ranges, forever modifying the temperature, the currents, and the atmosphere of thought, astronomical stations whence the movements of the lamps of heaven might best be observed and predicted.