Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Laymen and Professional Scholars

H.R. Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), History Professional and Lay: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford on 12 November 1957 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), pp. 15-16:
Consider the case of classical studies. A century ago our ancestors knew far less than we can know (if we want to know) about the civilization of Greece and Rome; and yet somehow, in spite of the more copious fountains which now break out before our feet, we seem strangely exempt from thirst. The study of the classics is now described as 'too narrow'. I do not believe that a study which was wide enough to educate Gladstone and Derby and Asquith and Curzon is too narrow for us. What has happened is not that the subject has lost its value but that a humane subject has been treated as an exact science: professional classical scholars have assumed that they are teaching only other professional classical scholars; consequently they have killed the classics. When I see a Greek tragedy, one of the greatest works of human literature, a tragedy no longer than a single book of Paradise Lost, put out into the world with a commentary of three large octavo volumes round its neck, weighing in all nearly half a stone, I fear the poor thing will not get far: it will languish and die, die of strangulation and neglect in some corner of a forgotten bookshelf. If an interest in the classics survives today, apart from the subsidies which they enjoy from the past, that may well be due rather to the enterprise of Sir Allen Lane and his Pelican Books, where they appear, purged of otiose learning, reanimated by lay interest, than to the heavy cossetting of professional scholars. Similarly, unless we take heed, there is a danger that philosophers may kill philosophy, philologists literature, and historians history. Armies of research students, organised by a general staff of professors, may in time have mapped out the entire history of the world. We may know, or be able to know, what every unimportant minor official in a government office did every hour of his day, what every peasant paid for his plot in a long extinct village, how every backbencher voted on a private bill in an eighteenth-century parliament. Our libraries may groan beneath volumes on medieval chamber administration and bed-chamber administration. But to what end? Just as the layman now turns aside from the great civilised nations of antiquity whose living literature has been stifled with dead learning, and goes a-whoring after the barbarous despotisms of ancient Assyria or the savage empires of pre-Columbian America—peoples of bloody history and no literature at all—so he will turn aside from us and seek interest and enlightenment elsewhere. He may not seek it in such edifying sources; but it will not be for us to complain, who will have driven him away.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson, who adds: "The 3-vol. commentary can only be [Eduard] Fraenkel's Agamemnon. C.F. Russo said that Giorgio Pasquali used to tell his pupils (Russo was one of them) 'If you have lost your handkerchief, try looking in Fraenkel's Agamemnon. Everything is there!'"

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