James Bryce Bryce.

University and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain online

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 18 of 24)
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not to speak of English, the grammar of which is
perhaps better left untaught altogether. Nevertheless,
the advantages of learning Greek and Latin grammar
have been exaggerated, and it has absorbed an undue
share of the learner's time and toil.

It used also to be argued that a knowledge of Latin
was serviceable because it explained the etymology of
many English words, and because it was a gateway lead-
ing into the modern Romance languages. Both con-


siderations have a certain weight, but in education there
are now so many subjects competing for the student's
time that a stronger case must be made for each sub-
ject than was thought necessary two centuries ago.
More importance may perhaps be allowed to the
argument that the learning of any language besides
one's own is of value to the mind, because the mere
process of turning thought expressed in one set of
words into another set of words is in itself a training in
thought, and tends to enlarge the range of a man's
ideas by suggesting different ways of expressing them.
But there again, though the argument is a sound one,
it has not proved sufficient to carry conviction to any
minds except those who have given serious thought to
educational subjects. Most people say that the result
is not adequate to the tune spent hi learning an ancient
language, and that if it is desirable to possess some
language besides one's own, why not learn French or
German or Spanish, in which there is a prospect of an
immediate return of profit upon the capital of the tune
invested by the learner.

You have got to face the fact that to the large major-
ity of men nowadays, whatever relates to the past
seems obsolete and useless "What difference can it
make to us now," they say, "what men did or wrote or
thought twenty centuries ago ? Their ideas may have
been good when first expressed, but we have got far
beyond them. They supposed that the sun went round
the earth. They did not use steam or electricity, and


did not even know the composition of air and of water.
Of what value can their writings be to us ? "

Even those of your antagonists who admit the value
and charm of good literature will tell you that there is
in our own language literature more than sufficient
to occupy all the time that the learner can spare for
that side of education. "If few persons know more
than three or four plays of Shakespeare, if few edu-
cated men of this generation have read through
Paradise Lost, why send us to Homer or ^Eschylus
when we can get what is just as good in our own
tongue and yet do not generally care to get it ? "

These are the views, this is the attitude of mind
which confronts you hi your efforts to advocate the
study of the ancient classics. Your difficulty is that
there is very little common ground between you and
them. Your conception of education differs from that
which is now popular, and your sense of the value of the
ancient classics is incommunicable, because it springs
from a personal knowledge which nowadays com-
paratively few possess.

Accordingly, in suggesting to you what seem to me
the strongest considerations by which your contention
can be supported, I must make two preliminary

One is that I submit these considerations in no belief
that they will prove effective with those you seek to
convince. They are given only in the hope that they
may confirm you in your own convictions, and possi-


bly make clearer to you the grounds of those convic-

The other remark is that it is too late to attempt to
restore to Greek and Latin the place they held in the
scheme of liberal education seventy years ago. It is
not to be desired that they should recover it, because
the percentage of pupils who derived substantial
and permanent profit was a small percentage. You
may say that this was largely due to the unintelligent
character of the old teaching, which dwelt upon gram-
mar and neglected literature. Still the fact remains
that under any system of teaching more than a half of
the boys in schools and undergraduates in colleges
who may be taught Latin, and five-sixths of those
who may be taught Greek, will not get far enough to
enjoy the literature and give it a permanent hold on
their minds. Your efforts must, therefore, be directed
towards securing that there shall always be a provision
of classical teaching sufficient to enable those who
show aptitude for these studies to pursue them, and
that the universities shall, by their degree regulations,
or otherwise, impress upon the student the high value
attaching to such a mastery of the two languages as
will open to him the enjoyment of the literatures they
contain. How many thousands of students annually
graduate in the faculty of arts from all the universities
of the United States I do not know doubtless more
than ten thousand. What you desire is, I assume,
that of these thousands of graduates there should always


be some hundreds (besides those who intend to be
clergymen or university teachers) who can read Herod-
otus and Plato with pleasure, and when they wish to
be sure of the meaning of a passage in the New Testa-
ment will go to the original Greek for help.

Now can we find grounds to show that it is in the
interest of the nation that there should always be, say,
this five per cent or upwards. You probably agree in the
view that it is in the literature of the ancient languages
that their real value lies, not in a knowledge of their
grammar, nor in the help they can afford to the lawyer
or physician or clergyman in his profession, consider-
able as that help may be. What then is the special
value of these ancient literatures? Do they give us
anything, and if so, what, that we cannot equally well
obtain from modern literature ?

There has never been an era in the history of the
civilized peoples when they were all so entirely and
almost exclusively occupied with the present as they are
to-day. The Romano-Hellenic world lived upon the
Greek literature of the times from Homer downwards
and based education upon it. In the Dark Ages and
Middle Ages men were constantly looking back to
the ancient world as a sort of golden age and were
cherishing every fragment that had come down to
them therefrom. The scholars and thinkers of the
Renaissance who obtained those Greek books for
which their predecessors had vainly sighed, drew from
those books their inspiration. It was they that lit


up the fires of new literary effort in Italy, France,
Spain, Germany, Britain; and thereafter two cen-
turies were spent in commenting on and imitating the
classical authors. The Bible and the Fathers of the
Church had been the intellectual food of the clergy
down to the age of the Reformation, and from that
tune Protestants as well as Roman Catholics were
employed till the middle of the eighteenth century
in expounding and arguing about the doctrines of
Christianity. All through those centuries, past events
and past writings occupied the minds of men (though
history was not much taught as history) and were
a large part of the instruction given in schools and
universities. Many ancient books continued to be
treated as models of excellence long after some better
books on similar subjects had been produced in a
modern tongue. Even in this new country, the edu-
cated men of your Revolutionary period were brought
up on Greek and Latin authors and learnt a great
deal about the ancient world. You had not then made
history for yourselves. In our time, however, we see
phenomena altogether different. Theology engages
much less of the average man's thoughts, while persons
of a specially religious cast of mind are occupied far
more with good works and what are called social ques-
tions than with the Bible or Christian history.

Natural science has filled the void left by the dimin-
ished interest in the things of the past. It concerns
itself entirely with the present, or rather with a world


in which time does not exist and in which therefore
there is no past. Even among those who know little
or nothing about any branch of science the impression
prevails that science and its applications are the form
of knowledge that now counts for success in life.

The social and political changes in progress since 1789,
and most evidently during the last thirty years both
here and hi Europe, have raised in the social scale, and
have provided instruction for, classes which had been
previously illiterate, so that the standard in literature,
and especially in ephemeral literature, is no longer
fixed by a small, highly educated class, but is the result-
ant of the tastes and notions of various classes, some
of them on a low level of knowledge. Newspapers, in
particular, are written primarily with a view to circu-
lation, and to the income from advertisements which
circulation insures; that is, they are written for the
masses of the people. Now for the masses, the past,
with its heroes, its achievements, its literature, has
little meaning. Their education has not given them
the opportunity of knowing or caring about it. Their
rise has increased the already overmastering impulse
towards elements of practical utility in education.

There used to be one fountain whence the whole
body of the people drew ideas that carried them back
into the past and touched their imagination by pre-
senting figures and scenes very unlike their own daily
life. That was the Bible. It is now unhappily less
familiar than formerly to every class in the community.


A smaller proportion of both the richer and the poorer
classes attend church than was the case a century ago,
and whoever has been in the habit, in public addresses,
of referring or alluding to Biblical incidents or of using
Biblical phrases, perceives that he cannot now assume,
as he could have done forty years ago, that a large pro-
portion of his audience would recognize the reference
or the phrase.

Thus in many ways and through divers influences,
men of to-day are now more purely children of the
present than was any previous generation. This is
even more true of North America than of Europe, for
here there are far fewer things to recall the past, fewer
links binding the present to it. Among the mass of
the people interest in the past goes back hardly farther
than to the Revolutionary War, and it is only the ex-
cellent society of Colonial Dames who exert themselves
to recall to the public events of earlier date. Only the
best educated men seem to duly realize the continuity
of American history with European history, and to feel
that all that happened in Europe before the middle of
the seventeenth century, as well as a good deal that has
happened since, is a part of your American history
and has gone to the making you what you are.

Now although the world may be weary of the past, as
Shelley said a hundred years ago, it cannot shake itself
clear of the past. You here and we in Europe may be
eagerly bent on the future, resolved to make it better for
the bulk of mankind than the past has been. But we


can conjecture the future only from what we know of
the past, that is to say, from what we know of human
nature and the processes by which it and human
institutions change. One who knows only his own
country and people does not really know them, because
it is only by knowing something of other countries
and their peoples that he can tell which characteristics
of his own people are normal, generally present in all
peoples, and which are peculiar to his own. So, likewise,
he who knows only his own time does not really know it,
for he cannot distinguish between the characteristics that
are transient and those that are permanent. This is the
main use of history, besides of course the pleasure which
all knowledge gives. To know what we are, we must
know how we came to be what we are, and must realize
that we shall before long pass into something different.

A profitable knowledge of history consists not so
much in remembering events, wars and treaties, and
the making of constitutions and the reigns and charac-
ters of kings or presidents, as in knowing what men
were like in the days that are gone. What were their
aims and hopes and pleasures and beliefs? How did
they think and feel ?

The best source of that knowledge is, for any period
of the past, to be found in the literature it produced,
for that was the natural expression of its life, given
forth through its more gifted spirits, and that is a record
which, being contemporary and spontaneous, cannot
have been perverted, as narratives of fact sometimes


are, by those who come after. Thus the periods which
we can study with most profit are those which have left
us not only a record of events, but also a rich and
noble literature contemporaneous with the events
through which the soul of the people, its ideas and its
impulses, revealed itself hi action. History is the study
of human nature and is best studied when one has the
means of interpreting men's acts by their thoughts and
their thoughts by their acts. Literature gives a picture
which is in so far imperfect that it tells us less than we
desire to know about the ordinary man because it
proceeds from the more powerful minds who have the
faculty of expression. But it speaks with a compensat-
ing vividity.

Nobody can hope to comprehend many historical
periods through their literature as well as by familiarity
with their events. We must select a few for study.
Now there is one period which has three recommenda-
tions making it more instructive than any other. It is
the best general introduction to all historical study and
to all literary study. This is the classical age of Greece
and Rome, and the three things that recommend it
are the following:

I. It is the beginning of literature and practically
the beginning of history, its first great product, the
Homeric poems, antedating even the earliest prophets
of Israel whose utterances have come down to us in the
Old Testament. As the most beautiful hour of the
day is the Dawn, though city dwellers seldom see it,


and as the most winning time of the year is the Spring,
so there is a peculiar charm in the first efforts man
made in the supreme art of poetry. Simplicity and
directness, sometimes joined to exuberant imagination,
delight us in most of the earlier literature of all nations.
We find them in the old Celtic poetry and the old
Arabian poetry, in the Eddaic poems and the Sagas of
Iceland, in the Lay of the Nibelungs, in the Vedas, in
the ballads of our own race, from the song of the battle
of Brunanburh, down to the ballads of Chevy Chase
and Flodden. But in the early poetry of Greece these
qualities are united to a constructive power and an
artistic sense which can be found nowhere else. Even
in the Attic dramatists and the later Greek lyrists
something of the primal simplicity remains.

II. The literature and institutions and civilization of
Greece and Rome are for all the modern nations the
first fountain heads of that European civilization
which has swept down to us in a widened current.
Art, the drama, philosophy, geometry, speculations in
the field of politics as well as hi the fields of physical
enquiry, all begin with the Greeks : there is hardly a
branch of intellectual achievement that is not traceable
to them. So from Rome descend the institutions of
law and government under which the modern world
lives, though modified in Great Britain and America
by Teutonic ideas and traditions. In the history of
the ancients we see our own beginnings and compre-
hend them better. We see also the environment into


which Christianity was born and the influences that
affected its growth, moulded its forms of worship, gave
it a dogmatic system and a hierarchy. No later period
has therefore the same importance for modern peoples as
that of Romano-Hellenic civilization, for out of it there
sprang that which is common to all the nations of the
modern world and which they possess as a joint heritage.
III. The literature of these two languages better
illustrates their history, and the history stands in closer
relation to the literature, than is the case with any
other of the more recent national literatures. It is,
moreover, all the fitter to be studied, because while it
is as a whole scanty, compared with modern literature,
it contains an unusually large proportion of work of ex-
traordinary merit. We are accustomed to deplore the
loss of many works of great ancient authors. Some
have specially mourned over the lost books of Livy and
Tacitus, some over Lucilius and Varro, some over what
has perished of ^schylus, but perhaps the greatest loss
has been that of nearly all the Greek lyric poetry except
the Odes of Pindar. Still we may console ourselves with
the reflection that so much that has reached us came
from the pens of the best writers, and that so much of
what has survived is first-rate. No people, not even
the Italian, has produced so large a body of poetry of
the highest order as the Greeks did, except our own
English or British stock. It is the union of the histor-
ical interest which the Greek republics inspire with the
splendour of the literature they produced that gives to


both of them their unique charm. Works quite as
great have been produced since. Modern literature is
not only far wider in its range but richer in the variety
of its content. It is dangerous to speak of ancient
literature as a whole, for great is the diversity be-
tween the earliest Greek poets and the later writers,
either Greek or Roman. But nearly all, as compared
with the modern, have that special flavour and charm,
and also that special value for this old and complex
civilization of ours which the efforts of a joyous, vigor-
ous, and sensitive race possess.

III. Just as the political ideas of Greece and the
political institutions of Rome were a point of departure
for the modern world, so Greek and Latin authors, and
especially the poets, have become the common stock of
the learned men, the thinkers and the writers, of all
modern countries. They formed the mind of Europe
from the fifteenth till the eighteenth century. Their
ideas, their literary forms, their canons of taste, are
the foundation of that general modern culture which
educated men are still assumed to possess. No other
literature, except the Bible and a very few of what may
be called the classic books of Christianity, is in the
same sense a link between different nations and has
become equally the property of all.

These are some of the reasons which give its incom-
parable value and stimulative power to the history, and
still more to the literature, of classical antiquity. It
can never grow old, for it has the vivacity and


vitality of youth. Its ideas retain their charm, partly
because they are simple, partly because they are ex-
pressed with unrivalled felicity. They light up the
history of their times because the life and mind of the
people speak so directly through them. This undying
freshness gives them that strange quality of seeming at
once so far off and so near, just as our own earliest boy-
hood often seems nearer to us than do the years of middle
life because it has the vividness of first impressions.
Here, however, let me stop to answer an objection
that will be made to the arguments I have been trying
to present. "Assuming" so the objector will say
" the value of ancient literature for historical purposes
to be all that you represent, cannot that value be
secured by reading the books in translations? Why
take out of the few student years, already overcrowded
by the claims of other and more obviously necessary
studies, the time needed to master two languages
which are confessedly of little practical utility to-day.
Literature can be enjoyed in translations. The Ger-
mans who read Shakespeare in a translation appreciate
him quite as much as we do, in fact some of them think
he must have been a German. Goethe's criticisms
on his plays are the best that have ever been made.
We read and enjoy in English versions the Icelandic
Sagas, and Don Quixote, and many another great work.
The Bible itself formed the mind of mediaeval Europe
in a Latin version and thereafter formed the mind
of post-mediaeval Britain and America in an English


version, and that version is admittedly equal in beauty
to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, and superior
to the Greek text of the New."

Our answer to this is that no translation gives, or
comes near giving, the effect which the ancient classics
produce when read hi the original. The charm of
that form is incommunicable, for the magic of words
rests largely in their associations, and in what may be
called the sympathy of sense and sound. The delicate
fragrance of the ideas in their native form evaporates
in the attempt to pour thought from the vessel of one
language into that of another. This is especially true
of poetry, and more true of philosophy, in which so
much turns upon the use of precise terms, than it is of
history or of oratory. In stating and arguing about
facts, less depends upon the suggestive quality of the
words and upon their rhythm than when feeling as well
as reason is addressed, either in verse or in imaginative
prose. To estimate exactly how much is lost in trans-
lation is not easy, because whoever having read a great
book first in its original language reads it thereafter in
a translation is so struck by the loss as to undervalue
the latter : and it rarely happens that anyone who reads
such a book first hi a translation afterwards reads it in
the original. Many of you may have had with Dante
the experience which was mine, that little pleasure
can be derived from any translation and less from
verse than from prose translations and that the
splendour and power of the poet are not realized till he


is studied in the difficult Italian of his time. A trans-
lation, if fairly literal, is of course better than nothing.
But nobody can feel the true charm of the Greek
writers, nor of Virgil, nor perhaps even of Lucretius and
Catullus, except in the original. The original is the
only door through which we can enter into the life and
thought of the ancient world, near us because it is
simple, yet mysterious because it is remote.

The teachings of the ancients are precious, although
they come from afar, since we obtain from them a
picture of a sphere of thought and emotion unlike our
own, and therefore fitted to correct the narrowness
which rests content in its own modernity, and which
cannot feel after the future because it does not compre-
hend the variety of experiences that have moulded
man in the past.

It is in this sense of a long and rich past and in the
fuller and finer appreciation of poetic beauty which
ancient literature gives that its true worth lies, not in
grammar, not in quarries of etymological or philological
enquiry, not in any professional uses to which scholar-
ship can be turned. The practical use to be held out,
the fair guerdon to be won, is Enjoyment, a unique kind
of enjoyment. Sometimes one feels as if it were worth
while to learn Greek merely in order to appreciate the
melody and majesty of Homer. Think of such a
line as this,

Ovped re (TKLoevra OaXacrcra ri iJ
1 Iliad, I, 157.


or of the infinite pathos of the words which tell the death
of the youthful hero,

apa fjnv eiTToira reXos Bavdroio
* IK peQcav TrrajaeifTj "AtSotrSe
A Ov Trorpov -yooolcra, XITTOVCT* avbpoTTJTa Kal

Or remember that other famous passage which ends
with words that have fired the hearts and nerved
the arms of a hundred generations of patriots,

'Ets oiaivbs a/Horos a^vvf.(j6a.i irepl irarpTj?. 2

Is it not worth while to have in the background of
one's mind the vision of a far-off romantic world to
which we can turn back in thought and feel refreshed
as it refreshes us to descry, beyond the busy streets of
a city, the blue peak of a distant mountain range.

You will not suppose me to be arguing that these

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 18 of 24)