Friday, April 30, 2021


What is the Good of Greek?

John William Mackail (1859-1945), "What is the Good of Greek?" Studies in Humanism (1938; rpt. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), pp. 44-59 (at 45-46):
Times change; fashions vary; beliefs alter. In Scotland fifty years ago, when I was a schoolboy there, the question we are considering was seldom if ever asked. The value of Greek was taken for granted. Partly, this was a matter of old tradition in a proud and conservative race. Partly, it was due to the rooted belief in education, the national respect for learning for its own sake. Partly, it was the result of a more intangible prestige, towards which these and other elements combined. Education was prized, no doubt, for its results in market value. But it was prized higher, and more widely, for itself. It was recognized as enabling human beings, not perhaps to be successful in the ordinary sense, but to realize their moral powers and intellectual capacities; thus giving its possessors self-respect and entitling them to respect from others, furnishing them with a surer hold on life, with sources of lasting strength and inward happiness.

In education as thus viewed, as given and received in this spirit, the classics, and Greek in particular, held a prominent and an unchallenged place. With most pupils, the classical teaching received did not go beyond the elements; and it was, of course, only a small minority of the population who received even that. But to be entered on Latin was a source of great satisfaction; it was a distinction and a privilege. To be entered on Greek was a higher and rarer distinction still. Greek was regarded not as a useless luxury or an idle accomplishment, but as a prize for the aptest and most forward, who were a little envied, and a good deal looked up to, by their less fortunate schoolfellows. Nor was it a privilege in the lower sense of the term, the appanage of superior birth or wealth or social standing. That age was in a way more democratic than the present, because it was so by a common instinct rather than by contentious theory or abstract dogma. There were classes, and they were clearly defined; but they were organic. The artificial growth of class-consciousness was yet to come. Class-consciousness, and the sectionalism which it implies, are the antithesis of democracy, and they only hamper the life of a nation.

Such was the educational practice—it was rather practice or habit than theory—which produced a corresponding type of citizen: hard workers, clear reasoners, with developed capacities for acting and producing and thinking; with intelligence and character; people to whom life was a serious thing, and learning was perhaps the most precious thing in life.
Id. (at 47):
Now the use of Greek is this, that it lies at the base of humanism. It was through the Greek genius that man became fully human; and without Greek the humanistic mastery of life remains incomplete. And there is this further point to be added—it is of scarcely inferior importance—that the Greek achievement, more particularly in literature, both prose and poetry, is unequalled in quality. In the great Greek writers there is an excellence never reached before or since. They supply us, and this is as true now as it ever was, not only with an unfailing source of the highest human pleasure, but with a permanent model and standard for our own utmost effort.

Greek is not a quack specific. It can be badly taught and badly learned. It can be so handled (as all the best things can) that it becomes useless or worse than useless. But, even after all allowance is made for this, it is a gate opening into an enlarged and ennobled life. Education without Greek may be, and often is, very good; but with Greek it is better.
Id. (at 51):
Another point may be made here. The Greek masterpieces teach us the lesson, never more needed than now, of humility. They make us feel that we have to go to school to the Greeks. Goethe said of himself in the art of which he was so great a master, "Beside the Greek poets I am absolutely nothing." In a confused Babel of tongues, in the torrent of cleverness which spouts and foams round us in endless volume from journalists, novelists, poets, propagandists, it is through Greek that we can keep our feet on solid ground; can realize the virtue of direct truth to nature, of economy in language, of simplicity. Crystalline simplicity—what tells and what lasts—is the final quality of Greek work whether in prose or in poetry. In translations, even the best, it evaporates or becomes turbid.
Id. (at 59):
There is an old story, familiar no doubt to many here, of the question which I took for the title of this address being asked of a Dean of Christ Church a century ago or more, and of his reply that knowledge of Greek not only enabled those who possessed it to feel conscious superiority over others, but also led to positions of great dignity and emolument. The latter of these motives cannot be offered now; but there remains as a reward the dignity of human nature, and the spiritual emolument which cannot depreciate, cannot be lost or confiscated. For the former, the claim which holds good is that Greek makes us consciously superior not to others, but to ourselves. The good of Greek, in the last resort, is that it gives, in a way that nothing else quite does, the highest kind of joy; and such joys are not so common that we can afford to cast them away.

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