Saturday, March 24, 2007


So Much Greek

On June 27, 1813 Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) prefaced a letter to John Adams (1735-1826) with three lines of Greek from Theocritus 17.9-11 (which I can't find on the World Wide Web and am too lazy to transcribe). Here is Andrew Lang's translation, slightly altered:
When the wood-cutter hath come up to tree-filled Ida, he glances around, so many are the trees, to see whence he should begin his labour. Where first shall I begin the tale, for there are countless things ready for the telling?
Adams replied to Jefferson in a letter dated July 19, 1813:
Lord! Lord! What can I do with so much Greek? When I was of your age, young man, i.e, seven, or eight, or nine years ago, I felt a kind of pang of affection for one of the flames of my youth, and again paid my addresses to Isocrates, and Dionysius Hallicarnassensis, &c., &c. I collected all my Lexicons and Grammars, and sat down to περὶ συνθέσεως ὀνομάτων, &c. In this way I amused myself for some time; but I found, that if I looked up a word to-day, in less than a week I had to look it up again. It was to little better purpose than writing letters on a pail of water.
Adams was being modest. He was a good classical scholar. In the catalog of Adams' personal library I find Dionysius of Halicarnassus but not Isocrates. Another United States president, James Garfield, once taught Greek and Latin at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College).

You can still study classics at Hiram College, but American presidents of late haven't been too interested in Greek or Latin. Tracy Lee Simmons, "Greek Ruins," National Review (Sept. 14, 1998) told this anecdote about Yale-educated Bush XLI:
A speechwriter for Vice President George Bush once prepared a stump speech peppered with a bit of Thucydides, a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C. But after the Vice President tripped over the name one time too many, another staffer decided to avoid further embarrassment by drawing a line through the word and writing in "Plato." One dead Greek was as good as another, and who would know the difference?

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