Sunday, June 25, 2017


Preoccupation with the Classics

John Buchan (1875-1940), Pilgrim's Way: An Essay in Recollection (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940), pp. 26-27:
This preoccupation with the classics was the happiest thing that could have befallen me. It gave me a standard of values. To live for a time close to great minds is the best kind of education. That is why the Oxford school of classical 'Greats' seems to me so fruitful, for it compels a close study of one or two masters like Plato and Thucydides. The classics enjoined humility. The spectacle of such magnificence was a corrective to youthful immodesty, and, like Doctor Johnson, I lived 'entirely without my own approbation.' Again, they corrected a young man's passion for rhetoric. This was in the nineties, when the Corinthian manner was more in vogue than the Attic. Faulty though my own practice has always been, I learned sound doctrine — the virtue of a clean, bare style, of simplicity, of a hard substance and an austere pattern. Above all the Calvinism of my boyhood was broadened, mellowed, and also confirmed. For if the classics widened my sense of the joy of life they also taught its littleness and transience; if they exalted the dignity of human nature they insisted upon its frailties and the aidos with which the temporal must regard the eternal. I lost then any chance of being a rebel, for I became profoundly conscious of the dominion of unalterable law. Prometheus might be a fine fellow in his way, but Zeus was king of gods and men.

Indeed, I cannot imagine a more precious viaticum than the classics of Greece and Rome, or a happier fate than that one's youth should be intertwined with their world of clear, mellow lights, gracious images, and fruitful thoughts. They are especially valuable to those who believe that Time enshrines and does not destroy, and who do what I am attempting to do in these pages, and go back upon and interpret the past. No science or philosophy can give that colouring, for such provide a schematic, and not a living, breathing universe. And I do not think that the mastery of other literatures can give it in a like degree, for they do not furnish the same totality of life — a complete world recognisable as such, a humane world, yet one untouchable by decay and death —
                   Based on the crystalline sea
                   Of truth and its eternity.

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