Saturday, August 16, 2008


The Ancient Classics

Andrew Lang, Adventures among Books:
The true scholar is one whom I envy, almost as much as I respect him; but there is a kind of mental short-sightedness, where accents and verbal niceties are concerned, which cannot be sharpened into true scholarship. Yet, even for those afflicted in this way, and with the malady of being "idle, careless little boys," the ancient classics have a value for which there is no substitute. There is a charm in finding ourselves—our common humanity, our puzzles, our cares, our joys, in the writings of men severed from us by race, religion, speech, and half the gulf of historical time—which no other literary pleasure can equal. Then there is to be added, as the university preacher observed, "the pleasure of despising our fellow-creatures who do not know Greek." Doubtless in that there is great consolation.
The university preacher was Thomas Gaisford (1779-1855). According to Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 82, what Gaisford really said in a sermon was:
And in conclusion, let me urge upon you the study of the ancient tongues, which not only refines the intellect and elevates above the common herd, but also leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument.
For an opposing view, see William Hazlitt, On the Conduct of Life; or, Advice to a School-Boy:
Because, however, you have learnt Latin and Greek, and can speak a different language, do not fancy yourself of a different order of beings from those you ordinarily converse with. They perhaps know and can do more things than you, though you have learnt a greater variety of names to express the same thing by. The great object indeed of these studies is to be "a cure for a narrow and selfish spirit," and to carry the mind out of its petty and local prejudices to the idea of a more general humanity. Do not fancy, because you are intimate with Homer and Virgil, that your neighbours who can never attain the same posthumous fame are to be despised, like those impudent valets who live in noble families and look down upon every one else. Though you are master of Cicero's Orations, think it possible for a cobbler at a stall to be more eloquent than you. "But you are a scholar, and he is not." Well, then, you have that advantage over him, but it does not follow that you are to have every other.
As for "positions of considerable emolument," Richard Porson thought differently. See Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, to which is added Porsoniana (New York, 1856), p. 300:
At the house of the same gentleman I introduced Cogan to Porson, saying, "This is Mr. Cogan, who is passionately fond of what you have devoted yourself to, — Greek."

Porson replied, "If Mr. Cogan is passionately fond of Greek, he must be content to dine on bread and cheese for the rest of his life."

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?