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SB 17 7fiM

The School of Hellas

An Address

Before the Virginia Classical Association
Richmond, Va., November 27, 1914


President, Southern Railway Company


"To sum up: I say that Athens is the School of Hellas."
Pericles' Funeral Speech in THUCYDIDES, II, 41.

In the last quarter of the Seventeenth Century there arose in
France a polite literary controversy which soon crossed the channel
into England and there propagated in bitterness. After more than
two hundred years the toxin of this discussion is still virulent and
fairly promises to be immortal. Essentially the same arguments
make debate today wherever conflicting theories of education are pro-
pounded. To give to a principle of discord the names of its protag-
onists, as the lawyers do in the law reports, we might style this
controversy the leading case of Fontenelle v. Temple. It is the Battle
of the Books, the war a I'outrance between the ancients and the

Fontenelle was a disciple of Descartes and the author of the first
book of "popular" science, a book in which an amorous philosopher,
philandering under the trees of a park and a starry firmament, inter-
preted to a belle marquise the physical systems of the universe in
words of one syllable, punctuated with gallantries which might have
astonished both Pythagoras and Copernicus. Encouraged by the suc-
cess of this venture in the new knowledge, Fontenelle assumed to
contemn the ancients who then held the strongholds of learning. He
put forth his Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes, and, having
proved faithfully enough that the modern physical science of his time
was superior to that of the ancients, went a step further and laid down
the assertion that the modern literature of the fancy and the imagina-
tion was altogether superior to that precious collection then and still
known as the classics. Fontenelle's intentions were of the best and
he should certainly have the sympathy of American opinion because,
in rehearsing the superstition with which the literature of Greece was
held in his day, and taking some comfort in the thought that
his contemporaries might in time also come to be regarded as classics,


<f God knows," he said, "with what disdain the critics of those days
will compare to us their beaux-esprits who very possibly may be
Americans." When Fontenelle so extended his advocacy of the
moderns to poetry and eloquence he made the mistake of writing
about something of which he had no understanding. In this respect
he wrote, as Saint Beuve says, as a blind man might write a treatise
on colours. His book was provocative, and, of course, it was an-
swered. Perhaps the most interesting answer was that of "the orna-
ment of his age" the urbane ambassador of Charles II, Sir William
Temple. His famous defense of the ancients was open, as it proved,
to Bentley's acute criticism, but it fairly joined the issue of a cause
which has never since been decided. The Sicilian tyrant Phalaris
may not have written the letters attributed to him, Aesop may not
have written the Fables, as Sir William Temple maintained, but no
one has ever yet gainsaid the charm of Sir William Temple's style as
an essayist, and in that was his strongest argument, for that style
was the product of classical studies. It could have come from noth-
ing else in the world, and justifies the immortal words which Swift,
hurrying to Temple's defense, puts into Aesop's mouth :

"As for us, the Ancients, we are content with the bee to
pretend to nothing of our own beyond our wings and our
voice, that is to say our flights and our language. For the
rest, whatever we have got has been by infinite labour and
search and ranging through every corner of nature: the dif-
ference is that, instead of dirt and poison, we have rather
chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing
mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness
and light."

It must be admitted that whatever was the result of the first
skirmish, the advantage of this long protracted contest has been with
the moderns, certainly during the past two generations. We must
now all say with Kepler "vicisti Galileo/' If God is on the side of the

big battalions, then God is today with the advocates of so-called
scientific as distinguished from classical education. It is probably
fair to attribute this largely to the influence of Auguste Comte, for
his enunciation of the philosophy of positive studies and their abso-
lute necessity for an industrial people in the modern world as con-
trasted with a merely literary education, is as much a vital force now
as when it inspired Herbert Spencer. Any one engaged in industry
today with the belief that it is the most powerful constructive force
of his time, who has chosen to tend that engine in the belief that
thereby he can put his equipment to the largest use in the present day
and generation, who seeks the most potential environment for his
talents in the spirit of that witty Italian of the middle ages who would
fain spend his human existence as "a woman until he was twenty,
then as a soldier until he was fifty, and a monk the rest of his life,"
such an one I say who believes that industry is and can be made a
noble career for the well-being and betterment of mankind must be
profoundly grateful to Comte for his eloquent and reasoned assertion
of the dignity of the place of industry in modern life. While he may
not entirely accept the length to which Comte's logic carried his philo-
sophy, he must recognize that in Comte's analysis of the three pro-
gressive and incompatible states of human progress theological, meta-
physical and positive and his appreciation of the survival of all three
of these antagonistic philosophies in vital contemporary power, there
is reason enough abundantly to account for the existing disorder of
society. In this illuminating thought, Comte suggested also an ex-
planation of the inherent difficulty of every attempt to compose the
controversy between our two systems of education, which to the un-
prejudiced mind, should be, it would seem, complementary and not
antagonistic. It is, however, a regrettable fact that those who today
advocate classical studies are generally intolerant of the claims of
positive education, while the triumphant armies of science, having
battered down most of the strongholds of the ancients, are in posses-
sion of the field with an arrogance and a disregard of the amenities

which the English would have us believe is characteristic of a German

My own view of the reason for the decay of classical studies is
that the insistence upon them has been too purely literary. One who
feels the thrill of conquest of nature by experimental science and the
methods of the laboratory is too apt to regard those who face life
clad in the ancient armor of the Greeks and the Romans as Mahomet
termed the Jews "asses burdened with books." This is the senti-
ment which found expression this last summer at the trial of Mme.
Caillaux when the presiding judge dismissed an impassioned state-
ment by the dramatist Bernstein with the contemptuous remark "That
is mere literature." It is the target of the shrewd criticism of the
Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, "Take care of the sound and the
sense will take care of itself." The truth is that subservience to
merely literary standards accomplished through centuries a tyranny
of taste in education which has been carried so far that the spirit
which gives vitality to all literature, be it ancient or modern, has, in
the practical experience of many educators, been forgotten, and only
the dry husk has remained. This is particularly true in the classical
schools. Weeks and months are devoted to a painful process of turn-
ing a few pages of Greek and Latin into halting and stereotyped
English. An American boy who has been through college has in
consequence very little perspective of classical literature. He has had
a myopic view of a few of the mountain tops, but he knows nothing
of the pleasant valleys. He has usually read some Caesar and Cicero,
some Virgil and Horace; perhaps a play of Plautus; perhaps a dip
into Tacitus. He has read Xenophon's Anabasis, and several books
of Homer, an oration of Demosthenes, a play of Aeschylus and one
of Sophocles, and perhaps also one of Euripides if his teacher is not
too bigoted a Sophoclean ; and, if he is fortunate, also a comedy of
Aristophanes. With these he is allowed scraps of Herodotus and
Thucydides, usually "selected" and served cold and separate from

their context in an uninviting volume larded with uninspired notes
and, most degrading of all, equipped with a vocabulary.

This is called a classical education, which, in practice, does not
often make enough impression, although precious years of youth are
devoted to it, to enable an intelligent man later in life to read the
familiar chapters of the Bible in the version of the Septuagint, or the
bits of Latin verse which illustrate the older polite English literature.

But despite all this, there is nothing but custom to prevent a real
teacher who has vision and enthusiasm (and, praise be, the tribe is
not yet extinct) from making for a boy of imagination the experience
of classical studies one to broaden and deepen and affect his entire
life. He can lift the veil before his scholar and reveal the classic
spirit. He can show him the whole surviving body of Greek and
Latin texts, say in such an edition as that of Firmin-Didot, and en-
courage him to nibble a little here and there until at least he knows
what all the books are about. I once heard the beloved Dr. Oliver
Wendell Holmes say that every child should be allowed the liberty
of a large library that from mere handling of the books some-
thing would rub off, beside the bindings! How many American
college boys have ever dipped into the pungent pages of Lucian ; have
ever idled with the pleasant gossip of Valerius Maximus or Macro-
bius ; have read Xenophon's sporting books, and tasted of the Moralia
of Plutarch, or have known anything of the surviving body of
Greek literary criticism, of the so-called Longinus, of Demetrius and
of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, to say nothing of such thorough
schooling as the English universities still give in Plato and Aris-
totle. These are considered "hard" books, but nothing is really hard
if curiosity is awakened and stimulated, and I hold that the awaken-
ing of intellectual curiosity is the real object of education.

In Milner's Life of Isaac Watts there is a letter from Thomas
Seeker, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, written in 1711 from
a school kept at Tewkesbury by one Samuel Jones, the son of a
Welsh minister who had emigrated to America but had sent his son to

Leyden University. There were then sixteen students under Jones'
care, including, besides Seeker, Joseph Butler who became the author
of the most famous volume of English theology, and five others who
attained distinction. Making all allowance for the natural parts of
these boys, it is evident that they had the advantage of a real educa-
tion and that this counted in their careers. According to Seeker's
letter, the students rose at five o'clock; they spoke Latin "except
when below-stairs amongst the family" ; every day they turned two
verses of the Hebrew Bible into Greek; twice a week they read Isoc-
rates and Terence; for logic they went over "the far greater part of
Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding" In the afternoon,
after a lecture on Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, "we read a chapter
in the Greek Testament, and after that Mathematics." Seeker's ad-
miration for his master is emphatic. He had "real piety, great learn-
ing and an agreeable temper." His library "composed for the most
part of foreign books is of great advantage to the students." The
mere suggestion of such a course of study would appall a boy today.
He simply could not face it. The explanation is not altogether the
comparative incapacity of the modern boy, but it must be admitted
that there are few such teachers now available as this Samuel Jones.
Doubtless we could find men quite as learned but they are trained to
methods of imparting their learning which make them like one of
those non-refillable bottles, which are used in commerce today the
contents of the bottle may perhaps be drawn out by diligent effort,
but it comes in a jerky, spasmodic and discouraging way. To catch
the imagination and hold the attention of a boy, learning must be
made to flow from his teacher in a steady and copious stream; to
change the simile, it must be infectious, not a painful process of

I can not prescribe how this may be accomplished, but I do ven-
ture by illustration to suggest how it can not be accomplished.

I had a teacher (God bless his memory!) with whom I read Vir-
gil and Homer. His method was somewhat after the order of teach-

ing a boy to swim by throwing him into deep water. He led me far
beyond my immediate comprehension of detail. He did not teach me
to construe but to understand the poet. He did for me in a measure
what an educated man does for himself in taking up a new study
he created an atmosphere. He showed me his subject in the round.
We drove through, not a few lines a day but many pages. We did
not read straight ahead, but we skipped joyously and read what our
discussion suggested would be of interest, and we made many excur-
sions by the way which led far afield. At the end of the term I
could not have passed a college examination in either poet, but I did
know what Tennyson meant when he wrote that Virgil sang

"All the charm of all the Muses often flowering in a
lonely word,"

and from that day to this my ears have not ceased to reverberate with
"The surge and thunder of the Odyssey."

As I was to go to college and so had to pass examinations, I was
sent on to a drill sergeant to be crammed. This was not education.
I was not educed; nothing was evoked, but everything was invoked;
I was treated like an old fashioned muzzle-loading gun I was quali-
fied to shoot when the time came. I learned to pass examinations
but I learned nothing else. Talking on this subject recently with a
Bishop of my acquaintance he told me that he did not find out that
Cicero was an orator until he had been out of college ten years ; that
one day he took down his old college text book idly and opening it
began to translate without enthusiasm. Suddenly he was caught by
the passion of it and stood there reading page after page without
translating a word. I asked him what they had done with him in
college. He said that the texts had been used as quarries in which
to dig for jewels of grammar; that he thought of Cicero more as a
subjunctive than as a man. I was reminded of the old story of the

school boy who amended the thrilling passage in Xenophon, where
the way-worn Greeks, righting to the coast through a hostile country,
suddenly from a mountain top caught sight of the far distant sea.
And Xenophon, alarmed by the commotion which he could not yet
understand, galloped up from the rear with the cavalry, when soon
"they could hear the soldiers shouting and passing on the joyful word
'Thalatta, Thalatta!' ' Whereupon, according to this school boy dia-
skeuast, Xenophon remarked "TJwlatta or Thalassa, either is cor-

I maintain that while the present arid state of classical studies
in many of our schools and colleges is largely responsible for the
decay in interest in the classics, yet there is ground for hope in the
recognition of this fact, as it has been recognized in the English uni-
versities and in some of our own may I say, without discrimination,
notably at Dartmouth. There is earnest too of a just appreciation of
the eternal hold of those great minds upon human conduct in the
contemporary restudy and restatement of the old texts in the light
of modern science. I refer to such books as must interest every in-
telligent man whether or not he is a classical scholar. To mention only
a few which come to my mind at the moment I may cite Zimmern's
Greek Commonwealth, Berard's Les Pheniciens et L'Odyssee, Walter
Leaf's Troy, Sir Gilbert Murray's Rise of the Greek Epic, Cornford's
Thucydides Mythistoricus, The Common People of Ancient Rome of
Professor Abbott of Princeton, and last, those charming papers which
have doubtless inspired you all, Boissier's Promenades Archeologiques.

There is another claim for study of the classics upon which I
never lose an opportunity to insist, and that is its magisterial position
in any scheme of education for leadership, a kind of education which
there is danger may be neglected in the social democracy to which we
are tending. It can never be expected that all men shall have an equal
equipment of education; our highest ideal is that all shall have an
equal opportunity for the highest education. Renan has well ex-


pressed my thought on this point when he said that "it is not the aim
of nature, we must needs believe, that all men should see the truth,
but that the truth shall be seen by some and that by tradition it shall
be conserved."

One who believes that, whatever may be the spread of the ideals
of democracy, there must still be leaders of men, that though we can
perhaps all submit to the domination of the State even in matters of
education, we should still enjoy that Lern-und Lehr-Freiheit which
can alone produce men of power, real super-men, very different from
the brand with suggestion of which Nietzsche has poisoned the com-
monplace to aspiration beyond their capacity, men who can by their
words, by their example, by their acts instill throughout an entire
people that thing which the Greeks called aidos as well as that nar-
rower quality equally necessary to true greatness in a people as in a
man, which is implied in the word sittlichkeit.

This is what the intelligent study of the classics can give to a
young mind which has inherited principles such as we in the South
understand to be implied in one "born a gentleman." It begins with
the influence of the mother, who, with us, supplies what the Greeks
knew as mousike. Plato has expressed this in words which can not
be improved upon in their suggest! veness. The reason why such
training is so powerful is, he says (Republic III, 401) :

"because rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret
places of the soul on which they mightily fasten, bearing grace
in their movements and making the soul graceful of him who
is rightly educated, or ungraceful if ill-educated ; and also be-
cause he who has received this true education of the inner
being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art or
nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices
over and receives into his soul the good and becomes noble and
good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days
of his youth even before he is able to know the reason of the
thing; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute
her as a friend with whom his education has made him long


Here is the primary grade of the School of Hellas, the Athenian
principle of education as contrasted with that of Lacedaemon, the
freedom of the intellect under inspiration of the best, producing in-
dividuality in character and diversity of intelligent opinion, as op-
posed to the strict law of Lycurgus prescribing all standards by the
authority of the State; a just and balanced Epicureanism as opposed
to a tyrannical Stoicism ; in a word, instead of making the prime and
essential demand of education one for discipline, the School of Hellas
depends upon influence. Does not the heart beat with high emotion
when one thinks what that influence is, what it has been, what it has
done in the world? The stirring eloquence of Pericles which has
been preserved for us in the amber of Thucydides' prose is a noble
expression of it, and in fair contest carries away the palm from the
Spartan (and we may add also the Roman and the modern social
democratic) ideal of training the individual for the purposes of the
community, to which the historian has given powerful and cogent ex-
pression through the lips of Archidamus.

In the School of Hellas the end of education is plenitude.
It has been well phrased by a modern writer, "its endeavor is to
complete what each man lacks; and the appetite it professes to satisfy
is the human demand for proportion. For proportion is the expres-
sion of ultimate reality."

It is fair to contrast with this the ideals of art which have fol-
lowed, if they have not been introduced by, those systems of education
which have abandoned the influence of the School of Hellas. The
modern world tells us that Hellenic art leaves one cold, that one al-
ways knows what to expect of it and always finds what one expects;
that, in order to be lifted out of dreary depths of a commonplace ex-
istence, the soul of the average man demands a filip. It is not enough
to purify him;, as Aristotle proposes, he must be mechanically lifted
out of himself. He demands, therefore, novelty, violence, excite-
ment, sensation. He is willing to dip his soul into the bath of an-


other's experience, calling it the love of adventure, the romantic spirit,
but in doing so he does not want to be cleansed of his 'own person-
ality; he wants to be over-laid with some new sensation; his bath
must be of electricity; it must prick. He wants to hear at the play-
house not Sophocles, but Ibsen; he comes in time to prefer to the
pure, serene lines of the Hermes of Praxiteles the futurist obscurity
of a "Nude descending a staircase." Is it fair criticism to assert that
this education tends at best rather to temporary release from the
commonplace than to any permanent elevation of the soul; that the
men it produces are prisoners whose minds are confined in the cav-
erns of their own bodies; that they realize in their experience Bacon's
idols of the den? Is it not fair then to claim that even in a modern
environment of pessimism the man whose education is imbued with the
classic spirit may experience not only the salt and sapid flavour that
comes from active contact with the world, but may find also peace?
In the words of the most masculine of our modern poets his quest may
be, even in the

"small experiences of every day
Concerns of the particular hearth and home,
To learn not only by a comet's rush,
But a rose's birth not by the grandeur, God
But the comfort, Christ."

I may be permitted to illustrate my point by an experience of our
own commonwealth of Virginia, which emphasizes the effect of de-
parture from the influence of the School of Hellas, even when it is
unconscious, of an unperceived conversion of the quantitative into the
qualitative, of attempted adherence to the thing but with neglect of
the spirit, which is like too much of our present day teaching of the
classics in schools and colleges:

Jefferson maintained that the architecture of Virginia in his
time was the worst in any part of America he had seen. He urged
that there was, therefore, a peculiar responsibility in the construc-


tion of public buildings because they would be either an education
or a further degredation of public taste, as a good public building
furnishes a model whereon to form the taste of our youth. When it
came to the construction of a capitol at Richmond in 1785, Jefferson
was Minister to France, and the commission appointed by Virginia
to prepare a plan wrote to him for suggestions. Jefferson says in
his autobiography that ' 'thinking it a favourable opportunity of in-
troducing into the state an example of architecture in the classic
style of antiquity, and the Maison quarree of Nismes, an antient
Roman temple, being considered as the most perfect model existing
of what may be called Cubic architecture," he had a model of it pre-
pared and sent to Virginia. In 1787 he wrote to Mme. de Tesse from
Nismes : "Here I am gazing whole hours at the Maison quarree like
a lover at his mistress." He had planned to change the order from
Corinthian to Ionic on account of the difficulty of the Corinthian
capitals, but was persuaded against his instinct to substitute a modern
capital. This model, which is that also of the temple of Erectheus at
Athens and of that at Baalbec, at last prevailed at Richmond, but of
necessity the scale of the Maison carree was changed, and we have
since witnessed the addition of wings. These changes and the me-
chanical use of a scale have resulted in a degradation of the model,


Online LibraryFairfax HarrisonThe school of Hellas; an address before the Virginia Classical Association, Richmond, Va., November 27, 1914 → online text (page 1 of 2)