by the Rev. Sydney Smith
Classical education in the West has
taken a different face in every century since the fall of Rome.
Sometimes these faces were astonishingly singular. Who would
believe that in Germany in 1810, after being a poet, the most romantic
thing one could be was a comparative philologist? (Or better, to
be a poet and comparative philologist at once, like the Brothers
Latin was a living language long after Rome ceased to matter. It
was the international language of the church, and of diplomacy,
government, scholarship, science, and, to a greater or lesser extent,
of literature and trade. Education centered on teaching young
people both to speak and write Latin fluently and
correctly. Greek literature held a fund of genuine
knowledge and grace that Europe hungered for.
This approach held until the early 18th century. Educators such
as Erasmus, and countless others, such as the author of the Orbis Pictabilis
, made strenuous
humane efforts to ease the way for their young pupils. In the
17th c. the first texts students read were the comedies of Plautus and
Terence, with the aim of accustoming them to colloquial Latin, a Latin
that could be spoken familiarly.
As the usefulness of Latin and Greek waned to next to nothing by the
end of the 18th c., so the snob-value of the classics was insanely
inflated. The study of Latin and Greek has never recovered from
the damage inflicted on it by those who from then on made it into a
badge of "worth" and a stick with which to beat the "un-learned,"
meaning anybody whose specialty was anything else. The
intellectual arrogance of the English classical scholars of the latter
half of the 19th c. is hard to conceive, and if conceived, to
stomach. My advisor at Yale, John Herington (an Oxford man)
recited to me a rhyme from that era which says much:
name is Benjamin Jowett.
If it is Knowledge, then I know it.
I am the Master of this College;
What I don't know isn't knowledge.
Benjamin Jowett was Master of Bailliol College at Oxford during the
last years of the 19th c., and translated Plato, making Socrates sound
like a high-church Anglican.
(Another anecdote from John Herington. Some tourists were being
led around Oxford by a guide. He said, "Would you like to see Mr.
Jowett?" and when they said yes he hurled a stone into Jowett's
window. The scholar appeared. "That usually brings him
out," said the guide.)
Candidates for the Indian Civil Service were examined in writing Greek
hexameters. Perhaps, as Rev. Smith suggests, the knowing among
the products of the English public school regimen gave up writing verse
in dead languages as soon as they passed that last exam, then turned
their minds to other more productive things. I, who retired to
Borneo, can well understand that a public school product would embrace
India with joy. Nonetheless, I do
enjoy writing verses in Latin and Greek. That makes me an anomaly
among my generation of classical scholars!
The foolish system that Rev. Smith attacked back in 1809 is gone
forever. In the past sixty years other evils have been eating at
the classics. Housman was a modest man who did not claim much for
himself or his discipline except to vindicate the text of the
poet. His disciples have absorbed and practise his method, but
have made far too free with Housman's freedom with invective. I
name no names. The New Criticism found little to work with in the
classics—the critics were ignorant of the languages and the context—and
therefore whatever little it could touch it desiccated. French
philosophy dragooned into American academia as dogma wanted to destroy
the ancient literature. Again, these so-called critics knew
nothing of the languages.
I offer Rev. Smith's review on the Net as a corrective to
fashions. Smith simply wanted his contemporaries to read
the classics, not make them
into a fetish. Reading the classics is the only good thing to do
For the life of the remarkable Rev. Sydney Smith (1771-1845), I refer
the reader to his entry
in Wikipedia. Smith was a wonderfully humane man, and through his
polemical writings accomplished much good in early 19th c. Britain's
push towards reform. Smith was also very funny and gifted with
words. When we say, "a square peg in a round hole," we are all
unconsciously quoting him.
My copy-text has been Selected
Writings of Sydney Smith
. edited and with an introduction
by W. H. Auden. Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy; New York,
1956. pp. 258-271. I am aware that I am probably violating
copyright. However, there is no monetary gain involved.
Otto Steinmayer's Home Page
Too Much Latin and Greek