Monday, July 17, 2017


Reading and Knowing Great Books

Joseph Fontenrose (1903-1986), Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869-1970 (Berkeley: Department of Classics, History Fund, 1982), pp. 40-41:
A staunch defender of the traditional curriculum was Arthur W. Ryder, who came to Berkeley as Instructor in Sanskrit and German in January, 1906. He was in this respect even more conservative than Merrill: Ryder would have pretty much limited the university curriculum to Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Study of history, philosophy, physics, for example, and of languages such as Sanskrit, Hebrew, German, and French would be entered upon only after thorough grounding in the basics as a sort of reward for serious study. As for psychology, sociology, and the like, he dismissed them out of hand as not worth damning. Ryder especially loved Latin ("a man's language," he said), and once said that he had loved Caesar's Gallic Wars from the very first sentence. In later years he limited his reading in ancient languages mostly to Sanskrit and Latin (and in modern to English and French). It was not that he disliked Greek; he was glad to see young men go into Greek studies (he did much to help and encourage Harold Cherniss and me); but he had decided that he could not perfect himself in all three ancient languages, and so he limited himself to the two that he liked most. Certainly he read little Greek in later years, and yet he could recite long passages from Greek tragedy.
Id., p. 43:
Ryder graduated from Harvard and took his Ph.D. in Germany, and then worked with C.R. Lanman on Sanskrit texts for the Harvard Oriental Series before coming to Berkeley. Perhaps it was this experience that turned him against scholarly writing. He did none after 1906. As he told it, he had observed a feature of Sanskrit drama and had mentioned it to a Sanskritist (perhaps Lanman), who was impressed and urged him to write it up in an article. Ryder set out to do so and then reflected that to anyone who knows Sanskrit the point is obvious, and to anyone who does not, it would be meaningless; hence he never wrote the article. To him most scholarship was concerned with trivialities, and so he especially enjoyed translating an epigram in the Panchatantra in these words:
Scholarship is less than sense;
    Therefore seek intelligence.
For him reading and knowing great books were what Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek are all about.
Id., p. 44:
Ryder loved the civilization of India, its literature, religions, philosophies; he even had good words for the caste system—but he never went to India. As a young man he wanted very much to go there; but, when older, he apparently no longer wanted to make the effort. One could say that his life rippled inwards: he limited himself more and more, dropping one interest after another. If a new book on war by Liddell Hart came out, he would buy it and read it—but otherwise he would say, citing Emerson (whom he admired), "Whenever a new book is published, I read an old one." And so Ryder read Dickens's novels, Boswell's Johnson, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall over and over again. Death came to him, as he would have wished, suddenly as he was teaching Sanskrit (an advanced class of just one student, on March 21, 1938), when he was just sixty-one years old. An Italian Sanskritist said after a conversation with him, "Ten men like that would make a civilization."
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