Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Reasons to Study Classics

From Woodrow WIlson's, Commemorative Address at Princeton, October 1896 (Entitled "Princeton in the Nation’s Service”):

This, it seems to me, is the real, the prevalent argument for holding every man we can to the intimate study of the ancient classics. Latin and Greek no doubt have a grammatical and syntactical habit which challenges the mind that would master it to a severer exercise of analytical power than the easy-going synthesis of any modern tongue demands; but substitutes in kind may be found for that drill. What you cannot find a substitute for is the classics as literature; and there can be no first-hand contact with that literature if you will not master the grammar and the syntax which convey its subtle power. Your enlightenment depends on the company you keep. You do not know the world until you know the men who have possessed it and tried its ways before ever you were given your brief run upon it. And there is no sanity comparable with that which is schooled in the thoughts that will keep. It is such a schooling that we get from the world's literature. The books have disappeared which were not genuine, -which spoke things which, if they were worth saying at all, were not worth hearing more than once, as well as the books which spoke permanent things clumsily and without the gift of interpretation. The kind air which blows from age to age has disposed of them like vagrant leaves. There was sap in them for a little, but now they are gone, we do not know where. All literature that has lasted has this claim upon us: that it is not dead; but we cannot be quite so sure of any as we are of the ancient literature that still lives, because none has lived so long. It holds a sort of leadership in the aristocracy of natural selection.

Read it, moreover, and you shall find another proof of vitality in it, more significant still. You shall recognize its thoughts, and even its fancies, as your long-time familiars, -shall recognize them as the thoughts that have begotten a vast deal of your own literature. We read the classics and exclaim in our vanity: "How modern! It might have been written yesterday." Would it not be more true, as well as more instructive, to exclaim concerning our own ideas: "How ancient! They have been true these thousand years"? It is the general air of the world a man gets when he reads the classics, the thinking which depends upon no time but only upon human nature, which seems full of the voices of the human spirit, quick with the power which moves ever upon the face of affairs. "What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand.” There is the spirit of a race in Greek literature, the spirit of quite another people in the books of Virgil and Horace and Tacitus, but in all a mirror of the world, the old passion of the soul, the old hope that keeps so new, the informing memory, the persistent forecast.

It has always seemed to me an odd thing, and a thing against nature, that the literary man, the man whose citizenship and freedom are of the world of thought, should ever have been deemed an unsafe man in affairs; and yet I suppose there is not always injustice in the judgment. It is a peculiarly pleasant and beguiling comradeship, the company of authors. Not many men when once they are deep in it will leave its engaging talk of things gone by to find their practical duties in the present. But you are not making an undergraduate a man of letters when you keep him four short years, at odd, or even at stated hours in the company of authors. You shall have done much if you make him feel free among them.

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