1800 - 2000

The Gains and the Losses

Some elucidation and re-definition of the term "Classic" is needed in a world where the word is used for a canned cat food, for a statue in a museum, for anything old and presumed valuable like a Model T but interestingly outmoded. But the "Classics" as a field of human knowledge has had a varied history, changing style and direction a number of times, while still keeping its identity as a field in our higher education. But as it moved from intimate study of ancient Greek and Latin literature in the original, progressing toward a wider audience which reads text in translation only, a great deal of the intimate touch of the original writings has been lost. Translation is a very loose and approximate art, it ignores the craftsmanship of artistic wording coupled with shifting moods of thought, it misses much of the thrust of the original meanings. As we move these days into our modern field of "Classics In Translation" in our teaching, we break the chain of direct meanings drawn from an ancient source. Unless we can intrigue some ten percent of our classics in translation students into a serious study of the original languages, we run the danger of shifting the field of Classics into a corner of the University Library where it is studied by a few specialists working by themselves in comfortable isolation.

If a person could be imagined as standing intellectually poised in the year l800, somewhere in the international territory of what is now called The Western World, there would be little question about the overriding importance of the ancient Greek and Latin texts which were the firm basis of a universal education. Looking back over a four hundred year tradition to the discovery days of the Renaissance, one could say that the modern world was building on a substructure which went back two thousand years to the Empire of the often Hellenizing Romans. In fact their Latin language had persisted as a simplified and non-literary code throughout the ages as an international vehicle for information of all sorts, and it was this common linguistic exchange which bound together the various elements of the West.

There were two educational threads which persisted into the nineteenth century. On the one hand there were the texts of the ancient Latin writers, the orations and stern histories and magnificent examples of high poetic imagination and craft, which were the stuff of universal education from the level of the schoolroom to the carrels of university scholars. On the other hand there was the common-use Latin which was the vehicle for a volumes of explication and commentary superposed onto the corpus of the ancient writings. The Delphine Classics once designed for the education of a princely dauphin, contained volumes of critical comment on the slim texts they were elucidating, and the multi-lingual world of Europe could pursue commentary about details in a written Latin which was readable anywhere. The first level of any education was instruction in enough Latin to read the common usage fluently, while next step for the 'educated' was a close perusal of the authentic texts themselves, to be read not only for their ideas and historical worth, but for the sheer quality of their language, the craft and finish of the words themselves.

Education meant first of all entering through the portals of the schoolroom into the realm of Latin writing. In the years after l800 there were many new things springing to life in the West, there was a new spirit of scientific quest and acumen, there were new machines to do a new kind of mass work, and at the same time there was a reviving interest in the vernacular languages of the countries which now felt they should speak in their own tongue. Latin was after all a foreign language to be learned after your own tongue, and by l800 the erosion of Latin as a lingua franca had already begun.

But throughout the l9th century Latin still stood at the core of all education. There were different levels in this learning escalator, it would be schoolroom Latin first, then University Latin as a mandated step, with Greek literature on the highest level for the educated scholars to glimpse the glint of Hellenic imagination beyond the palisade of the more staid Roman literary territory.

In those years of the mid century high standards were set for close reading of every subtlety in the ancient writers. Excellence meant sure promise of a career in country, church or college, while failure to excel was a mark of dismissal to a business or a trade based world. So the agonizingly careful reading of every line of a complex text like Vergil's Aeneid became a part of the study of any educated person, and the result of brilliant performance in the classics examinations led the victor into the political and post-industrial world. There was still for the graduated scholar a lifetime residue of appreciation for the art of words and fine writing. It is true, this was not in French or English or German, but in Latin as an obsolete language from a distant past, but it's impression was cultivated and firmly planted and became a part of the educated person's literary personality.

The growing interesting and awareness of the new science studies which appeared before l9th mid-century produced a formidable scientific literature in the various languages, with Germany often in the scientific lead. Following the style and spirit of the scientific literature, a new technology of Linguistics soon sprang up, originally stemming from Sir William Jones' earlier hypothesis about the historical connections between the ancient Mediterranean languages and the Sanskrit which he had studied in India. From this came the enthusiastic birth of comparative-historical linguistics, now studied and documented in the most strict and rigorous neo-scientific manner, with Laws of Sound Change admitting no more exceptions than Boyle's Law on the compressibility of gases. Beside this a discipline of historical scholarship investigating the ancient world arose, again often documented in the most precise and formal pseudo-scientific language. From the study of ancient knowledge now embodied in a fresh and 'modern' field, various associations like the American Philological Association were formed in the mid l9th century. A new Classical Professionalism was borne, the shadow of which persists to the present time in A.P.A. studies oriented to the professor as researcher and scholar rather than as teacher of students in the humanistic tradition. The unreadability of this new scholarship, whether scientific or classical, by the educated reading public, is famous.

English education, with its long process from school to University and its high competitive standards as an index of assiduity, did incidentally produce a certain literary awareness in the mind of future writers. Wordsworth in his early work made an effort to break from the classical molds, but his sense of words was already formed and there is a film of linguistic memories from his classical education which shadows all his later work. Hardy had intended at first to be a poet, but when he left poetry for the novel, he retained a well-schooled sense of getting the right word with its special semantic overlays. Expressions drawn from his memory of the shimmering light of Vergil's subtle wording are often evident in his mysterious prose. Carlyle had a certain hard edge of word mastery which must have glanced off his reading of Tacitus, and when the Prime Minister Gladstone wrote a book on Homer, it was with a sense of being as familiar with ancient literature as with politics.

I speak of these things as a special kind of integration, by which a person can be so heavily versed in the world of classical writing, that it becomes a part of his personality and his verbal awareness. Christian Fundamentalists have gone a similar route in their close and lifelong reading of a biblical text, as have generations of Indians in the school study of their Sanskrit literature. These things when learned early in fine detail, have a way of sticking close to the bone.


As the l9th century progressed, Latin as the study of a great ancient literature changed into an extensive academic pursuit, with a changing core of essential texts as favored at that time. Vergil was the favored poetic text, it would be years before he was eclipsed by a new perception of the oral poet Homer. In America the study of Cicero was essential, it provided a model for the all-important political language of the senate and the electorate, and some of its formal tri-partite resonance has remained with us to the present day. Latin had its role demonstrating useful models for English use, but our former study of writing essays and speeches in a perfectly manicured version of the classical Latin language was without reason or purpose. A quick look at the standard Latin grammars used in school and college around the year 1900 shows that they were aimed specifically at the writing of Latin, performed only in a 'correct' or Ciceronian style. Documentation of how the best classical authors of the early period had written was used to provide a library of Rules for the language, which became now a schoolroom exercise with no practical social relevance, since Latin no longer had a function as a lingua franca.

For the Latin poets it was a somewhat different case. Close reading of Vergil conferred an awareness of hidden inner meanings, of double senses and of an infinite subtlety as practiced by this rare and remarkable poetical mind. Pursuing multi-colored threads of meaning in Horace's Odes showed the extent of subtle meanings, coupled word by word with a palette of beautifully arranged metrical acoustics. If one got to read some Lucretius, there would be a memory of a rare strain of philosophical majesty which could inspire a young writer not to fear hard thinking as unsuitable to the modern pen. Here in the classics were impressions of high achievement in word and phrase, which would later mark as special the talent of writers brought up in the atmosphere of the Latin poets. If Cicero made his students longwinded and tendentious, Vergil on the other hand of the equation made them bright and subtle.

When Dean Briggs of Harvard's Department of English offered in l895 a startling new Freshman Writing Course entitled English-A, everything began to change. The course was a first-ever college course in the art of Writing English, it introduced English essay-writing for thoughtful students and aimed to produce well manicured short pieces of elegantly written English. Within five years the idea had spread to almost every college in the U.S. We now think of such a Freshman course as a natural basis for a college experience. We can hardly imagine the old system in which writing polished Latin was the absolute requirement for college work, while the writing of good English seemed peripheral and not in the college's interests.

Of course the 20th century was from its very first years a time for massive change, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the field of Education. A wave of long-due Dewey pragmatics made it clear that there were new areas to be investigated, and the fields of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and their various offshoots quickly came to fill the pages of college Catalogs. But the old guard was still there and if you wanted a B. A in l925 in a good college, you had to have years of Latin to apply and a series of Latin courses in college unless you wanted to do science with a B.S. on your parchment. Slowly the new and interesting areas of the Social Studies encroached on the classics , but a strong Latin background was still a requirement for college entrance until the middle of the century.

After WW II things changed rapidly. The G.I. bill for veterans verged by its general nature toward new interests and new directions. After the flush of the veterans had graduated from college there was a lapse in enrollments and the Classics Departments were being regularly reviewed and often dropped throughout the l950's. Their old close-reading and virtually tutorial methods, with just a half dozen students in a college class, were seen as too expensive, and there was question as to whether it was worth teaching a few to read Vergil when a hundred could listen to a brilliant lecture on Roman Literature.

Classes in the classics had been small in the depression ridden 'thirties, although school Latin was still a formal requirement for college admission. It was in l942 when the historian Paul Buck then Dean at Harvard and the brilliant young teacher John H. Finley commenced working on plans toward a new concept, which they called General Education. The notion was to bring the thought and literature of the ancient Greek and Roman world to a wide range of students in evocative lectures, coupled with a new series of well written translations, so the long road of studying a language thorough years of patient reading could be cut short as inapplicable to modern students. Couldn't they get the ideas and the storylines and social importance of ancient texts just as well if read carefully in English?

It was of course of interest to the classical teaching profession, that a packed course of a hundred hearing a brilliant lecture on Greek Drama, or the epics of Homer or the history of Latin Literature, might be a way of saving the Classics as a field in college education. Whitney Oakes from Princeton, having already prepared sets of new translations from the Greek dramatists, stated that a ratio of one to seven would be ideal, with ten students doing the classical language, as compared to a class of seventy reading Classics in Translation. Some felt that such a ratio could save the study of the classical languages in college, by retaining some work in the original even if a General Education project were to take hold and dominate the field. But the ratio was too optimistic and it turned out fifty years later that it would be one or two students in a lecture class of seventy who were studying Greek or Latin in the original. The Classics in Translation program was successful, it did eventually come to dominate the classical field, and the earnest wish that it would revive the study of the ancient languages has in fact not been realized.

General Education was successful, it was led by Harvard after l950 and it was quickly copied everywhere. It was attractive and appealed to a huge college audience, either by their own interests of by the college's area and distribution requirements. Soon the "Classics" came to mean reading the translations in a course where the Professor, although generally skilled in Greek and Latin, was performing his duties much in the manner of a professor of English literature. Students were expected to understand and unravel storylines, to discuss such improbable things as an ancient hero's psychological motivation, and to consider the range of ancient thought as an intellectual and generic human Universal. Such coursework was popular, it was of course interesting and not too difficult since there were no special time-consuming techniques like understanding grammar or learning vocabulary. These hard things were now not needed any longer .

By the l990's new avenues of approach to the ancient world were becoming available with the wide spread of Internet knowledge, and a new focus developed dealing with the Classics as carriers of information interesting to feminists, to students of homosexuality, or political economics, or geography and long term changes in the environment. It was a good time to mine all sorts of information from the Classics, there were new uses for data about in entirely novel interests in the history of the ancient world.

These new investigative directions were interesting and some were useful in developing new scholarly directions. They greatly extended the range of social information, but they did things at a second hand level through a web of studies, researches and texts based on the ubiquitous translations appearing everywhere on the electronic internet. A student doing 'research' for a term paper could find abundant classical references quickly, he could digest and paraphrase pages on pages of ancient texts with ease for his thesis or term paper. Now everything became available, in fact it was too much to grasp without a dose of intelligent restraint, and many students fell into the trap of plagiarism by inattention or default. How different this was from close deciphering of a page from Cicero or Lysias, as the needed documentation for a fine detail of a political event!

Everyone who has worked intimately with a language knows that translation are always liable to error. At best they are partial as bearers of fact, and they never represent much of the linguistic and artistic "feel" of an original text. Amateur theologians have long faced a similar problem in fundamentalist America, failing to realize that the KJ Bible is just a translation, and a very dated translation at that; while serious bible scholars returning to the ancient texts behind the bible face the problem of their researches becoming inaccessible to the thoughtful public. Just so classical scholars often become so involved with the techniques and the minutiae of their scholarly technique, that they can also become isolated from the humanistic literary tradition. The Bible in translation, along with the Bhagavad Gita in translation and Sophocles in translation, all face similar problems of loss of significant parts of original meanings of the texts, in one degree or another.

Straussian Analysis of Latin poetry in terms of historical and political nuancing has been pursued now for thirty years or more as a special approach to classical writing. But we now find a wider range of concerns with original documents, and any mention of Sappho brings forth discussions of lesbian interests. Now we find Catullus studied in terms of the configuration of Roman homosexuality, while Martial and Juvenal when carefully sifted for reliability, are thought to extend our sense of what Romans were thinking of at least in their less grave moments. Can we extrapolate from Petronius a sketch of slave and freedman society and document this from the myriad social inscriptions from the later Empire? Does the silver-rich wealth of ancient Athens connect with the burning of wood hearths to remove lead which is fed into the atmosphere, presaging agricultural decline centuries later?

Of course these are good questions, and some of them are worth serious consideration. But this is a far world from the literary concerns of previous age when language-based students were imbibing the feeling of what a really great poem is about, what the meaning of specially contrived word and thought sequences can mean as part of the art and the craft of writing. Gaining as we have done, a wide grasp on the world of human society both ancient and modern, we have indeed widened our scope of interests. But we have done this at a cost, losing track of the literary and artistic craft of the ancient writers whose words do not permit easy access, with a stroke of the keyboard, to the global web of information. Ideas coded in a written language do require attention and effort to explicate fully, worthwhile writing does not yield quick returns automatically.

I believe that we have lost the touch of intimacy with the words of the ancient literatures. Without serious and protracted study of our artistic originals, we lose the availability of something read long ago but now half stored as a valuable "spot in time" in our memory. We miss the chance recollections of an afternoon in the library when a passage from long ago turns up unexpectedly, to remind us that we too have a long history in our life of slow learning, and that the remembered coefficient is what furnishes the cache of personal experience in the art and techné of our classical Humanities.


William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College