Wednesday, July 13, 2016


The Golden Key

John Herington (1924-1997), "Possessing the Golden Key," in Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, edd., The Future of the European Past (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997), pp. 109-125 (at 118-119):
In the sixty-sixth chapter of his Decline and Fall, as he approached the reign of the last Emperor of the East and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Edward Gibbon at long last rendered his judgement on the Greek language. He did so in a majestic sentence whose incantatory, almost psalmlike quality is best brought out if it is transcribed as verse:
In their lowest servitude and depression,
the subjects of the Byzantine throne
      were still possessed
of a golden key that could unlock the treasures of antiquity;
of a musical and prolific language,
      that gives
a soul to the objects of sense
and a body to the abstractions of philosophy.
Everyone who has managed to read even a little ancient Greek philosophy or poetry in the original will, I think, feel the complete justice of this description. But it also serves as a most powerful reminder that in the last resort it is language that lies nearest to the heart, whatever society, whatever literature, is under study. The future integrity of classical studies, if not their survival, depends ultimately on the future of Greek and Latin learning. Only if such learning continues can we look forward to genuine, firsthand research, or count on the honesty of future translations. Much the same, of course, will apply to the study of any of the other great national literatures that have arisen on the European continent; the future of the European past generally seems to be bound up with the future of language studies.

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