The Classics Again: A Dialogue Concerning the Loeb Classical Library

BROWN, a historian.

JONES, a clergyman.

ROBINSON, a dilettante.

Scene, Brown’s apartment.


Brown. — How d’ do, Jones, delighted to see you. I hope that you are very well.

Jones. — Very well, my dear boy, and you? How are you getting on with your work? Have you the German microscope under your eye? Are you putting the atomic theory to use in history?


Robinson. —How d’ do, how d’ do? How are you, parson? And how are you, Mommsen Gregorovius Macaulay?

Brown. — I have been loafing lately. I felt the need of contrast, of looking about me a little at the actual world. If one does not turn away from dead records occasionally, one is in danger of forgetting that history professes to be a record of life.

Jones. — Does it? If the histories chat I see record life, the world has been horribly dull. All past generations of Germans must have been delighted to die. I dare say that history should be a record of life; it certainly should record enough of human experience to teach us, the living, what to do and what to let alone. History ought to be of service; that is its justification.

Robinson. — Yes, service in a broad sense, that whatever adds an interest to life is serviceable. I don’t mean to correct you, mon vieux, but I am afraid you are tarred with the notion of a moral interpretation of history.

Jones. — You can’t avoid the moral interpretation of history, mon cher, unless you are walling to eliminate from our lives metaphysics, ethics, relig —

Robinson. — Gladly, gladly!

Brown. — Have a cigar ?

[They take cigars and light them]

Jones [picking up a book], —Hullo! You, too, have got the Loeb Classical Library. Have you looked at it ?

Brown. — Yes, a little, at the first volumes that have come out.

Robinson. — I subscribed the other day. I have an empty shelf at the top of my bookcase that needs to be filled up. I call it my Via Appia, because I bury the classics there.

Jones. — Do you frequent it?

Robinson. — I read them on Sunday mornings as an excuse for not attending your church.

Jones. — I’m more than glad to have you listen to louder preachers of piety than I am.

Brown. — Seriously, how do you like them? I mean do you think it worth while to republish the classics? This publication sounds like a challenge.

Robinson. — It is a challenge, a serious challenge. It raises the question of the worth of the classics in its broadest form.

Jones. — You mean the value of the classics in education as opposed to the value of science?

Robinson.—No, although that question is included. This is a challenge, not from a man of science, but from one of ourselves, — I mean from a man who is interested in literature and professes a belief in the classics,—demanding to know what we honestly, not professionally, not conventionally, but what, honor-bright, we think of the classics. The Loeb Classical Library says as distinctly as a dozen or twenty published volumes, with ten-score-odd to follow, can say: ‘Come, you are no longer able to take refuge in the inadequacy of your school and college; you can no longer say that if you had but the necessary time to polish up your Greek, to practice your Latin, you would have Euripides in one pocket and Lucretius in the other, and in odd moments be gratifying your natural appetite for the classics. You have no further excuses. Do you or do you not care a rap about us?’ Here is, indeed, an embarrassing question for us who have always upheld the classics with our lips, for it does not come from the camp of the men of science, but from our own friends. So long as the classics were safely locked up in their Greek and Latin cupboards, we were always able to defend ourselves with an ‘if.' This hypothetical, and, it is to be feared, sometimes hypocritical, defense, is no longer open to us, now that, the cupboards are unlocked; we have but to turn the handle and we shall be able to satisfy our hunger. Mr. Loeb has done the cause of honesty a good turn. We can no longer shuffle and evade, we must confront the question, What do the classics mean to us?

Brown. — Well, if this is a challenge, it is a fair challenge. Mr. Loeb has taken a generous view of the classics. His library, according to the announcement, will contain not merely the literatures of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, but also the literature of early Christianity, as well as whatever there is of value and interest in later Greek and Latin literature until the fall of Constantinople. So wide a range, shelf upon shelf, eliminates whatever objections individual taste might have raised to a narrower selection.

Jones. — Suppose that we were to take up the challenge and endeavor to frame an answer to this question. Should we not first have to face the preliminary question, what does literature in general do for us? Must not that question be answered before we say just what the classical literatures mean to us?

Brown. — Well, let’s see if we do not agree on the value of literature in general. In the first place we all agree that life is a marvelous happening. We find ourselves here in the midst of a vast flux of forces. Men of science bid us fit ourselves for this wonderful experience by studying matter and energy, the earth and its materials, the air, gases, electricity, chemical activities, germs, all the phenomena that touch our senses. This is sound advice; we human beings are frail creatures, sensitive to the play of this infinite variety of forces. We feel, we suffer, we enjoy. In fact our intelligence is a contrivance of nature to protect and guard our sensitiveness. Yet these forces of nature, these mysterious gods, so potent in sky, air, and earth, noble and terrible in lightning and tempest, in comet and earthquake, in the very great and the very little, manifest themselves still more terribly and still more nobly in human form. Our fellow men are the forces that make our life a pleasure or a pain, a happiness or a vain thing. From them come love, affection, sympathy, approbation, distrust, disapproval, hate. They are the forms of energy that we need chiefly to study, and as it is difficult to learn lessons from actual life, it is important to study these human energies in the past, where at our leisure we can go over and over the record; there the results of causes are chronicled as well as the causes themselves.

Robinson. — But you are talking of history, not literature.

Brown. — Literature is the only real history. The main records of the past are not contained in Gibbon, in Guizot, in Egyptian tombs, or in the fossils of the Wind River beds, but in the books of men who have recounted their experience of life. From their experience we learn how best to fulfil the duty of self-preservation.

Robinson. — You give literature a terribly utilitarian twist. You present the obverse of the Delphic motto, Know Thyself; you say, Know Other Men.

Jones. — Brown is right so far as he goes; but he stops short. Brown is too eager to meet the men of science on their own ground; he forgets what we of the cloth regard as more important than the body. The primary function of literature is to feed the soul.

Robinson. — The soul is a matter of metaphysics; but literature is a part of our earth, it grows in the ground like an oak. Define what you mean.

Jones. — I can’t; the soul won’t submit to definition. It is illimitable. It is as much a yearning as anything else. On the one hand it comes into relation with God, on the other to matter. It’s relation to material things is to take what they have to give, to nourish itself by that taking, to feed on love, on self-purification, to grow strong by detaching itself from hate, from vulgarity, from grossness. The preservation of the sold is quite as important as the preservation of the body, and it needs not only the robust food offered by daily life, but the daintier food, often more nourishing, more invigorating, of literature. For in literature the souls of men express themselves with more freedom and greater clearness than they do in actual life. It is hard to express the soul in deeds; for life offers many hindrances, and the deeds of the soul are often blurred by the trivial or gross happenings of life, so that they no longer exhibit the qualities of the soul, whereas in literature the soul has been able to reveal itself most completely. So I value literature chiefly as the record of human souls. A knowledge of spiritual life in others helps my own spiritual life.

Robinson. — That may apply to Thomas-à-Kempis or the Vita Nuova, but how about Madame Bovary, or Il Fuoco ?

Jones. — The records of a sick soul, of a dying soul, teach lessons as well as the records of a healthy soul. The pathology of the soul is a necessary part of spiritual knowledge.

Robinson. — You fellows take professional views. Your wits have been subdued to your callings. Life is not an endeavor to attain or to ward off, it is a matter of entertainment; it is neither a school nor a chapel, it is a theatre. Melancholy Jacques said the last word on that subject. Men and women are players, endlessly playing tragedy, comedy, farce, or more commonly a piece composed of all three. We must look at life objectively. The spectator’s business is to interest himself in the plot, to welcome the thrill of tragedy, to smile at the comic, to laugh at the farcical, and all the time to take his presence at the play as a privilege, to value the lighted theatre far higher than the unknown without, where there is neither light nor sound. Literature is the record of past life. It is a play within the play and to be taken at the same estimate as life, as an opportunity for a most varied entertainment.

Brown. — If our views are professional, your view is the most professional of all. This universe as we see it, the result of toil, patience, energy, beyond the reach of man’s imagination —

Robinson. — Exists for the sake of the dilettante. Precisely; there is no other possible hypothesis.

Jones. — Well, let us not wander too far from the subject. How does all this apply to the three literatures that Mr. Loeb has gathered together for the sake of challenging us?


Brown. — Our opinions of literature are, as I understand them, of this general purport. Literature, according to me, shows us the nature of our fellow men; that is, it portrays those manifestations of force which most affect us during our pilgrimage through life, and therefore enables us to use those forces to our advantage or to prevent them from doing us hurt. According to Jones, literature, being in its deepest sense the tale of the spiritual experiences of men, of the success or failure of the human soul, teaches us how to educate our own souls. Or, if we follow Robinson, and regard life primarily as a spectacle, then literature adds immensely to the richness of the show by supplementing the incompleteness of the present with the greater completeness of the past, and so adds to the value of life.

If we commit ourselves to these principles, how do we apply them to the three literatures which the first volumes of the Loeb Classical Library present to our attention; how, to begin with, to the literature of early Christianity? That seems to fall rather more in your province, Jones, than in ours. What do you think of the volumes of the Apostolic Fathers and of St. Augustine?

Jones. — I fear I shall have to begin, as I used to begin my lectures at the theological school, with some general statements. Will you please bear with me, Robinson?

Robinson. — Reverie, if not sleep, is always open to me.

Jones. — Christianity is the fruit of the maternal tenderness in humanity; it was born of the great throbs of compassion for mortal sorrows, and at birth dedicated itself to the ennoblement of mankind, for in ennoblement, as it believed, lies our only hope of happiness. The first disciples were sensitive men, ignorant of, or indifferent to, the pleasures of the world, who rejoiced in the belief that self-sacrifice for an ideal is the solution of life’s enigma. The history of the beginning of Christianity is the most famous literature in our western world, and, I suppose, fulfills Robinson’s requirements as well as Brown’s and mine.

In that first period of Christian history the sacred fire was lighted. In the second period the task was of a different order; that second task was to keep the sacred fire alive, and so, in order to protect it from the winds and rain, the disciples of the first disciples built about it the great edifice of the Church. In the book of the Apostolic Fathers, which contains the Epistles of Clement, of Ignatius, and of Polycarp, this devout process is plainly at work. [Jones goes to the table and picks up ‘The Apostolic Fathers.’] The scene is in the Roman Empire, the time is at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century, and yet we are at once aware that we have left the precincts of the ancient world and have entered the purlieus of the Middle Ages. There, before us, crowned with light or darkness, as you may please to think, rises the mighty fabric of the Holy Roman Church. Certainly, my dear Robinson, by this event the theatre of history was greatly enriched.

Robinson. — The early Christians make a most interesting episode. But you must not exaggerate their piety. The Emperor Hadrian, who was inclined, like me, to look upon life as a theatre, wrote to his friend Servian us a few words about the Christians in Egypt. ‘Egypt, which you praised to me so warmly, my dear Servianus, I found altogether frivolous, unstable, and shifting with every breath of rumor. Their one god is money, him Christians, Jews, and Gentiles alike adore.’

Jones. — The emperor was looking for diversion and failed to get anything more than diversion; and so when he wished to satisfy his longing for beauty, for an element of poetry in life, he could rise no higher than the gaze at Antinöus. The Christians of Egypt may have adored Mammon, but there were Christians in Syria and Asia Minor who did not. Here in this book is proof. It contains poetry, exquisite poetry; it asserts that poetry is the order of the universe, that poetry is truth. It is worth while, in our search after nourishment for the soul, to come upon men who believe this. In actual life there may be many such people, but they are hard to find; those who live poetry are, in my experience, very shamefaced about it. Let me read you this. [Reads from Clement.] ‘The heavens moving at his appointment are subject to Him in peace ’; — but no, that is too long, I will merely read you his prayer.

‘Grant us to hope on thy name, the source of all creation, open the eyes of our heart to know thee, that thou alone art the highest in the highest, and remainest holy among the holy. Thou dost humble the pride of the haughty, thou dost destroy the imaginings of nations, thou dost raise up the humble and abase the lofty, thou makest rich and makest poor, thou dost slay and make alive, thou alone art the finder of spirits and art God of all flesh, thou dost look on the abysses, thou seest into the works of man, thou art the helper of those in danger, the saviour of those in despair, the creator and watcher over every spirit . . . Save those of us who are in affliction, have mercy on the lowly, raise the fallen, show thyself to those in need, heal the sick, turn again the wanderers of thy people, feed the hungry, ransom our prisoners, raise up the weak, comfort the faint-hearted; let all “nations know thee, that thou art God alone,” and that Jesus Christ is thy child, and that we are thy people, and the sheep of thy pasture.’

Is there not something to be learned from people whose life is centred in poetry? Does not their idea of what is worth while teach us something, which we, looking about us, would not be able to find for ourselves? Do we not need, in a world preoccupied with chemistry, physics, biology, to remember that many men have found extraordinary help in prayer? Listen to this: ‘Love of joy and of gladness,’ says the epistle of Barnabas, ’is the testimony of the works of righteousness.’ ‘None of these things [sundry duties to be done] are unknown to you if you possess perfect faith towards Jesus Christ, and love, which are the beginning and end of life; for the beginning is faith and the end is love, and when the two are joined together in unity, it is God, and all other noble things follow after them.

No man who professes faith sins, nor does he hate who has obtained love.’ On these wings the early Christians flew high above poverty, sickness, oppression, envy, and meanness; they found the key that unlocked for them the riches of life; they discovered what we are all seeking; they became, as Barnabas says, τϵ́κνɑ ϵν̓ϕροσν́νης, Children of Mirth. If a knowledge of early Christian literature will help us to learn from them, there is something to be said for it.

Robinson. — I agree that the picture of these men dragging their chains from Antioch to Rome, merely fearful lest some untoward chance should deprive them of the joy of being devoured by wild beasts, is highly melodramatic. The Roman amphitheatre has claims on the gratitude of posterity.

Brown. — The interest really lies in the singular power that these men displayed. Here is a belief-engendered energy that shames the dynamo. Polycarp had a countless line of ancestors, stretching immeasurably back to the beginnings of organic life on this globe, and each parent in that countless line transmitted to his child one great duty, to shun death; and for unnumbered generations every child obeyed, until there in Antioch, Polycarp, under the influence of a fantastic belief, broke that primal law as if it had been a dry twig. In fact, these Christians claimed to control a very potent form of energy, and their method of exercising that control was by prayer. This is a matter of psychological interest; we cannot study this power too closely, nor can we make too many experiments in the hope of becoming able to draw upon it at will. I think that Jones is making out a good case for his view of the value of literature.

Jones. — As I seem to have the floor, I will go ahead with this other book, these two red volumes, ‘The Confes-sions of St. Augustine, which, in point of history constitutes another stage in the development of Christianity. The pages, it is true, contain a great mist of rhetorical piety (if that phrase is not too unsympathetic); but out of this mist every now and again emerge some human details, with the peculiar charm that bits of landscape have when a fog lifts and the greens of field and wood shine in summer sunlight. St. Augustine certainly has not neglected to gratify Robinson’s taste for the theatre. But the real significance of the Confessions lies in its contribution to our understanding of the soul. Will you bear with me while I read a little more?

Brown. — Fire away.

Jones. — The twelfth chapter of the eighth book recounts Augustine’s retreat to a garden after a struggle between the Spirit and the Flesh. It tells how a rush of emotion overcame him, how he flung himself down under a fig tree and cried out between his sobs [reads]: ‘And then, O Lord, how long, how long, Lord, wilt thou be angry? for ever? Remember not our former iniquities (for I found myself to be still enthralled by them). Yea, I sent up these miserable exclamations, How long? how long still, “to-morrow and to-morrow”? Why not now? Wherefore even this very hour is there not an end put to my uncleanness?’ Then he heard a young voice, like a boy’s or girl’s, say in a sort of chant, ‘Tolle, lege, — Take up, and read.’ So he went back to the apostle’s book and read, ‘Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.’ He needed to read no further, ‘ for instantly . . . all the darkness of doubting vanished away.’ His friend, Alypius, hearing of Augustine’s experience, shares in its effect. They go to Monica, — Inde ad matrem ingredimur, indicamus: gaudet. There is a simplicity and directness in the Latin that is ill-rendered by ‘From that place we went to my mother and told her. She was overjoyed.’

And if any one is impatient to learn, in the space of a single page, the cause of the triumph of Christianity, let him turn to the tenth chapter of the ninth book, where Augustine and Monica, while they wait at Ostia for a ship to carry them home to Carthage, commune with one another on their religion, leaning out of the window that looked into the garden. They are considering what the Gospel means by the words, ‘Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’ I use my own translation in part. Saint Augustine says [reads]:

‘Suppose that the tumult of the flesh be still, that the phantasm of the earth, the waters, the air, and the heavens be silent, that the soul itself be silent, and by not thinking of itself transcend itself, that dreams be silent and all the revelations of the imagination, and every tongue and every sign; suppose that every moving thing be silent altogether (for, if any one listen, all things say, we have not made ourselves, but He that is everlasting made us). Suppose, after they have said this, that they keep silent, since they have lifted up our ears to Him that made them, and that He speak alone, not by them but of Himself, so that we hear his voice, not by tongue of flesh, neither by voice of angel, nor by sound of thunder, nor by the riddle of allegory, but that we hear Him, whom in his creatures we love, that we hear Him without them — just as we now reach out and by swift thought touch the eternal wisdom that overspreads all things. Suppose that this exaltation of soul continue, and that all visions that are not in keeping be taken away, but this vision ravish the seer, swallow him up, and immerse him in inward joy, so that his life forever shall be such as was his moment of understanding, for which we have yearned. Is not this: Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord? ’

Brown. — You are right. Such lives are lessons in the largest sense. What you have read is not merely the meditation of a philosopher, pondering over an hypothesis that the mind might entertain, but a vital, creative energy sprung from a particular, definite belief. Such a life as his gives significance to metaphysics. Here is a force as little understood as radium or the magnetic pole, and it seems to have a greater power than they; Augustine’s belief dominated his life, and through him dominated a world, bringing nobleness and joy. I quite agree with you, Jones.

Robinson. — As a spectator, I applaud. Had Augustine not lived, my seat in this singular playhouse would have been of less value.


Brown. — After all, the classics of Rome and Greece constitute the bulk of the Loeb Library. It is they that ask, ‘What do we mean to you?’

Jones. — I suppose that you have in mind their direct influence upon us; for indirectly, we all admit, they have affected us enormously.

Brown. — Yes, their direct effect upon us.

Robinson. — Unfortunately, they have no direct effect upon us.

Jones. —Because we neglect them?

Robinson. — No; but because with our inheritance, we cannot, or at least do not, look upon the classics with our own eyes.

Brown. — Explain yourself.

Robinson. — We are children of the Italian Renaissance. That movement, so far as it concerns the classical world, was an interpretation; and the interpretation that the Renaissance adopted has been handed down to us. This tradition has determined how we shall look, how we shall see, what, in short, our conception of the Greek and Latin classics shall be.

Jones. — You are not speaking of scholars, are you?

Robinson. — No; I speak of the conventional conception of the classics entertained by persons who are not scholars. Scholars have their own academic conventions concerning the classics, contrived by Selden, Porson, Jebb, and their coadjutors of Paris, Leipsic, and Berlin; with that I have nothing to do. I refer to the definite, conventional conception of the classics that has become a part of our western culture. This conception was shaped for us by the Italians of the Renaissance. To them the great world of Rome, of law, of culture, of civilization, that lifted its distant head above the coarse, inane happenings of the Middle Ages, was a golden time — Saturnia regna; it appeared to them as the Alps first appeared to young Ruskin, rising in snow-capp’d, inaccessible glory. In this matter, we are disciples of the Renaissance. We dress our minds in clothes of its fashioning. Dante’s invocation to Virgil, in the wild wood in which he had lost his way,

Or se’ tu quel Virgilio?

is, as it were, the first modern cry of greeting to the great figures of the ancient world. Then follows Petrarch’s adoration of Cicero, and Boccaccio’s eulogy of Rome. All the stirrings of the Italian mind turned toward the mighty past of Rome. From Italy this Italian conception of the classics spread to the north. France took fire. On and on the admiration of the achievements of antiquity proceeded, invading England and Germany; and finally in the eighteenth century it burst out again with renewed power.

But, as you know, Brown, far better than I, of all this multitude of admirers, imitators, and eulogists of the classical world, they who have had most effect in fashioning our popular idea of what that world means, are the great Germans, Winckelmann, Lessing, and Goethe. They, more than the others, justified the tradition and imposed upon us the conception that the antique world was compact of sobriety, poise, measure and proportion, qualities that we find crammed into our word ‘classical.’ Lessing says, somewhere, ‘It was the happy privilege of the ancients never to pass beyond or stop short of the proper limit.’ Winckelmann expressed the same idea, and Goethe spent a lifetime seeking to impress this same conception upon conduct. ‘A man,’ he says, ‘may accomplish much through directing individual abilities to one goal; he may accomplish the unusual through the union of several capacities; but the wholly unpredictable, the Unique, he achieves only if all his powers unite together in even measure. The last was the happy lot of the Ancients, especially the Greeks of the best time.’

Brown. — Nevertheless, in spite of Goethe’s reference to the Greeks, in spite of Winckelmann’s and Lessing’s belief that they were holding up Greek models to the world, in spite of the French classical tragedy, or the universal admiration of Homer, the meaning of the word ‘classical’ for them was Latin, not Greek.

Jones. — That is true, of course.

Brown.—Therefore, although sobriety, measure, repose, are contained in our word classical, there is a definiteness, a circumscription, a conventionality, a practicality, in the phrase, that could only have come from Latin influence. Our conception of the classics is Latin or at best Græco-Latin. If the shapers of the classical tradition had been bred upon Greece instead of upon Rome, they never could have attempted to cram the meaning of ancient Greece into a conception which could be represented by a single phrase, even when that phrase — sobriety, measure, repose — has so much convenience to recommend it. You agree to this, Robinson, don’t you?

Robinson.—Oh, yes; you are perfectly right. My point was that we accept the classics upon a wholly traditional valuation; and I was going to add that one of the great services which Mr. Loeb’s classical library renders is that we are morally obliged to look at the classics, so far as it is possible, with our own eyes and make up our own minds about them. We must take the word classical down from its pedestal and see what it really means.

Jones.—You were quite right, Robinson, to call our attention to this tradition, but you have digressed from the point. Let us get back to the subject we started with: What do these Greek and Latin classics mean to us?

Robinson. — Excuse me, parson, but I meant to remove an obstacle from our path.

Jones. — It is for me, sir, to apologize; you were wholly right. Unluckily the clock warns me that we have gone past half our time.


Brown. — We all agree, I suppose, that the study of poise, measure, sobriety, self-control, would be of great advantage to us. And if tradition, no matter how it originated, ascribes to the literature of Greece and Rome those qualities, it is worth while to consider the matter and find out if there be any truth in that tradition.

I think that a hasty glance at Greek literature will contradict tradition very flatly, and show that these traits were no more characteristic of the Greeks as human beings, than of ourselves. [Goes to bookcase and takes down one or two books.] Take Homer, and you see that the Greeks acted under the push of passion with the energy of their southern temperament. When Achilles is angry with Agamemnon he says: ‘Thou heavy with wine, thou with face of dog and heart of deer.’ And when he has struck down Hector of the glancing plume, he spurns his entreaties: ‘Entreat me not, dog, by knees or parents. Would that my heart’s desire could so bid me myself to carve and eat raw thy flesh, for the evil thou hast wrought me, as surely there is none that shall keep the dogs from thee, not even should they bring ten or twentyfold ransom and here weigh it out, and promise even more; not even were Priam, Dardano’s son, to bid pay thy weight in gold, not even so shall thy lady mother lay thee on a bed to mourn her son, but dogs and birds shall devour thee utterly.’ And after Hector is dead, ‘Other sons of the Achaians ran up around, who gazed upon the stature and marvelous goodliness of Hector. Nor did any stand by but wounded him, and thus would many a man say looking toward his neighbor: “Go to, of a truth far easier to handle is Hector now than when he burnt the ships with blazing fire.” Thus would many a man say, and wound him as he stood hard by.'

Achilles is a passionate child, and the Homeric Greeks an emotional, excitable people. In Sophocles, you remember how the mad Ajax is described as mistaking sheep for his enemies. ‘Of part, he cut the throats on the floor within; some, hewing their sides, he rent asunder. Then he caught up two white-footed rams; he sheared off the head of one, and the tongue-tip, and flung them away; the other he bound upright to a pillar, and seized a heavy thong of horse-gear, and flogged with shrill, doubled lash, while he uttered revilings which a god, and no mortal, had taught.’

The Trojan Women is one long wail, and Philoctetes is almost as full of self-pity as Obermann. Even the aphorisms of Sophocles are often as intemperate as the utterances of the Hebrew prophets: —

‘Searching out all things, thou in most men’s acts wilt find but baseness.’

‘A woman’s oaths I write upon the waves.’

‘ Man is but breath and shadow, nothing more.’

Jones. — How about the lyric poets?

Brown. — From Archilochus to Bion there is passionate intensity. Passion can never be temperate, it forgets all else and concentrates itself on its own piercing sensation; that was true of the Greeks as of all hot-blooded human beings —

Robinson. — I suppose that those early Italians really based their classical formula on architecture, on the Greek temple and the Roman arch, and on sculpture, much more than on literature.

Jones. — Critics have always confounded the arts; they apply terms of painting to music, of music to architecture, of architecture to literature, and call their confusion criticism.

Brown. —Poor fellows! Perhaps you need not put them all into one category. But Robinson is right, I think, in assuming that the traditional idea of Greek literature has been taken from Greek sculpture and architecture. The makers of the tradition did not know Greek literature. You cannot compress the Greeks’ expression of their experience of life into a single formula. Professor Wheeler says that. Æschylus is ‘ mystic and transcendental’; Professor Shorey that ‘ the antithesis of classical and realistic is as false as the opposition of classic and romantic.’ Mr. Gilbert Murray speaks of the ‘terrible emotional’ power possessed by Thucydides; and in another passage he warns us of the danger of serious misapprehension that lies in inferences based upon the judgment of the scribes who selected but a small portion of the great mass of Greek literature for preservation. [Takes up magazine and reads]: ‘When one reads accounts in textbooks of the characteristics of the Greek mind: its statuesque quality, its love of proportion and order and common-sense, its correct rhetoric and correct taste, its anthropomorphism and care for form, and all those other virtues which sometimes seem, when added together, to approach so dangerously near the total of dull correctness and spiritual vacuity, it is well to remember that the description applies not to what the ancient Greeks wrote, but to what the late Roman and Byzantine scholars preserved.’

Robinson. —How about Latin literature? You stated that the tradition of classical sobriety, so far as it is based on literature at all, is based much more on the Latin classics than on the Greek? Perhaps Latin will justify, at least to some extent, the traditional view.

Brown. — I can see no better ground for the tradition with regard to Latin than to Greek. Italian tradition having assumed that the ancient Roman character was like the masonry of the Colosseum. went further and assumed that Latin literature must have depicted it as such. But if we go behind the tradition and look directly at the Latin literature which depicts Roman character, we find that the ancient Romans were very much like ourselves, with no more poise, measure, sobriety, or repose than we Americans of to-day possess, if indeed as much. They were men like ourselves. Terence’s famous line, —

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto,—

sums up, as well as is possible in a single line, our two modern characteristics, human curiosity and human sympathy. Terence’s dramatis personœ have no suggestion of brick, travertine, or mortar.

Take the familiar lines of Catullus,—

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
Rumoresque senum severiorum
Omnes unius æstimemus assis.
Let us live, my Lesbia, and love,
And all the carping of stern old men
Let us rate at a penny’s worth.

Read the verses in which Propertius bids his fellow-poet Gallus beware of falling in love with Cynthia, —

Non ego tum potero solacia ferre roganti.
Were you to come, I could not console you.

And again, take his complaint, —

Me mediæ noctes, me sidera prona jacentem,
Frigidaque Eoo me dolet aura gelu.
I lie prostrate, pitied by midnight, by the setting stars
And the air cold with the frost of morning.

Or, since Propertius fills one of the first volumes in the Loeb Classical Library, read the beautiful last farewell of Cornelia, daughter of Cornelius Scipio, to her husband Paullus, —

Fungere maternis vicibus, pater.
You, Father, must fill a mother’s place;

Evidently the Romans had the same affections and passions as we moderns. The verses of Tibullus to Delia tell the same tale: —

Te videam suprema mihi cum venerit hora:
Te teneam moriens deficiente manu!
Thee shall I look at when my last hour comes;
Thee, as I die, my failing hand shall hold.

Robinson. — But, if you disregard the meaning and listen only to the words, you find a dignity, a massiveness, in the Latin syllables that modern literature seldom or never has.

Brown. — There you come close to the cause of the tradition. Compare Italian with Latin and you perceive why the humanists of the Renaissance found poise, measure, sobriety, and repose in classical literature.

Jones. — I am a little confused. Am I to understand that you wholly reject the tradition of poise, measure, sobriety and self-control, as having no affinity with classical literature?

Brown. — Not at all. The tradition, begun by the Italians of the Renaissance, is based on a false analogy to sculpture and architecture, and on the contrast between our modern Romance languages and Latin; but I believe that those qualities, though they do not lie in the character or disposition of the ancients, are qualities of their method of expression.


Robinson. — Translation is the work of a hod-carrier. It carries from one language to another only the grosser parts that can be loaded and ferried across; it leaves behind both form and color. Mathematics are the same in German, Italian, and English; but the simplest word has an individuality as marked as that of a human child. To the ears of familiarity and affection no other sequence of syllables can reproduce the tenderness of the mother tongue. By means of the Loeb Classical Library the reader of little Latin and less Greek has an opportunity to turn from the English and pick up a phrase or two, a word, perhaps, here and there; merely to do so puts him in the spiritual presence of the original. He is then, as it were, reading about a person’s experiences, with the privilege at any moment of looking up to see that person’s face.

Jones. — That is true; but our question is, how do the classics themselves help us?

Robinson. — The answer lies in one little word, art. The classics, more than any modern literature, teach us art, and art is the conscious purpose of man to make this world more beautiful. Philip Sidney says that the object of poetry is to make this too-much-loved world more lovely; I should extend his definition a little further and say that the object of art is to make this world more lovely, more lovable, and more loved.

Modern literature, compared with ancient literature, is careless, slipshod, not wholly grown-up; it has little sense of responsibility. The chief duty it sets before itself is to hold the mirror up to nature and reflect the unintelligible happenings of life, in all their confusion, their inconsistency, their inanity. Ancient, literature was dominated by a very different purpose, it had a profound sentiment of high duty. The creation, so it seemed to the ancients, had been left incomplete, and man, as the creature most divine, was charged with the labor of carrying on the uncompleted task. With bold hearts the Greeks set to work to piece out the incompleteness with literature, especially with poetry, to make up for the neglect of the gods by human achievement. I look on those ancient Greeks and Romans as I do on workmen who fill in the marshy shallows of our river fronts, put earth upon the spongy ooze, sow grass, set out trees, plant flowers, and create a garden where before was merely mud and slime.

Brown. — Life, as Wordsworth said, and I am glad to see that Robinson supports him, requires an art, and of all the arts the art of living is the most useful, the most admirable. All conscious art is an attempt to transfer emotion or thought from him who feels or thinks it to other human beings. Art is the necessary consequence of human sympathy. Men are not happy in isolation; they undergo the experience of emotion, of thought, and they are impelled to impart this wonderful experience to others. Some men make use of marble or bronze, some of pencil and paint, some of written signs. But more primitive, more fundamental, incomparably more wide reaching, as means to impart emotion and thought, are manners and speech. I hardly know which of the two is more important. By manners I mean the bearing of the body, in every part, from head to foot, the whole outward man. Our human instinct, the inner impulse, the will to live, insists, for one purpose or another, upon our imparting emotion and thought; to do so well requires art, to do so excellently is a fine art. To pass on emotion and thought unimpaired in their first vigor, in their first freshness, adds the life of each to the lives of all; it increases, intensifies, and expands all life. Feelings, thoughts, are seeds, shaken from the parent stalk, that lodge and fructify in new soil. Each feeling, each thought, should pass on as free as light from mind to mind. This art — the human art I may call it — lies in the choice of words, in putting them in sequence, in laying stress, in what Petrarch calls il bel tacere, the art of silence, and in holding and moving the body, — eyes, lips, arms, hands — so that mind shall communicate with mind, free from obscurity or blur, as through an open window.

Art is all one. We talk of the fine arts; but that is an arbitrary distinction. Our abilities and our time are limited, and naturally we give ourselves up to that form of art which seems most suited to our purposes; but one thing we are all bound to do, and that is to remain staunchly loyal to all art. The Greeks were the supreme artists, and we must go to them as to the fountain head of the waters which alone can quench the human thirst for human sympathy. They teach us how best to live. By studying delicacy, beauty, power, clarity, in their written speech, we learn how much those qualities add to the fullness of life, and we take away a humble desire to do our best to render our own lives, and the lives of our friends, fuller, more complete, more in accord with the possibilities of life.

Robinson. — Yes. As Brown was saying, the special qualities, sobriety, self-control, repose, which tradition assigns to the classics, although not true of Greek or Latin feelings, are in great measure true of the form in which those feelings are expressed in Greek and Latin literature. Tradition is wrong to attribute those utterly nonsouthern qualities to living Greeks and Romans, but it is right to recognize that they are the chief qualities in classical form. Form is the legacy of antiquity to us. Life is movement, it does not concern itself with form. Life at its best, at its highest, is passion. Passion is the one sacred quality that exists, so far as man can see, in the universe. The chief duty of art is to perpetuate passion by putting it in such form that all who behold shall be quickened and take away more life and fuller. The ancients learned that the only way to represent passion is through restraint; that sobriety and measure offer the least imperfect means to depict life in its intensity.

That is the lesson of art for the theatre, as Hamlet knew before me. That is the lesson that Brown clamors for, the lesson of conduct. To learn it we must go to school to the classics. If the Loeb Classical Library helps us to comprehend the immense significance of restraint in the delineation of life, it has achieved a great thing.

Jones. — I have much in common with both of you, but, probably because I am a clergyman, my point of view is a little different. I advocate the classics because they constitute a retreat, in which the spirit may commune with the high thoughts of the past. Modern literature is modern; it concerns itself with actual life, with our distractions, our trivialities, our romance, our getting on in the world, with all our coarser appetites; but in the remote classics, in that cool, tranquil, distant world, we can surrender ourselves to contemplation, to meditation, to the high influences that always stoop to the soul’s call.

This remoteness of the classics affects me as my remembrance of gracious figures in my childhood. The people there seem to have a nobler aspect, a more goodly presence, larger sympathies, a wiser and a kinder attitude. We do not apply the lessons we learned from them directly to life, but we know that somehow the most valuable lessons in our lives came from them; we cannot say just what we learned, but we possess a memory of quietness, of ripeness, of wisdom, of qualities that lie near the centre of life, and we feel that to them is due whatever gain we have made in grace and moral stature. Greek literature has a like effect upon us.

We need, profoundly, times of seclusion, of withdrawal from the outer world, from the domination of the senses; we need to escape from the current notion that life lies in motion, in rush, in physical activity. We need a contradictory force, an opposing experience. We can no longer betake ourselves to a Carthusian monastery or a Benedictine abbey: the East is too strange, too little akin to us; but the classics of Greece and Rome offer us a retreat, a refuge for the tired spirit, a home for the unquiet mind. I, for one, long to put on from time to time cowl, cord, and sandals, and dwell in the sequestered and cloistered classics, far from the senseless noises of the world.

As to art, I agree that the classics teach it, that we need it, that self-expression is or should be an art; and for me the function of this art of selfexpression is to reveal the more delicate, the more subtle, the more spiritual elements of the soul. Many people, I believe, possess fine qualities, but because of inability to master their medium of expression, whether act, word or silence, those qualities, as Shakespeare says, ‘die to themselves.' To preserve these tender blossoms of the soul, and to transmit their sweetness, is one of the problems of religion, a problem that needs the help of art. Without great art, conscious or unconscious, the self-revelation of all great spiritual souls would have been impossible. David, if the psalms are his, St. Augustine, Thomas-à-Kempis, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, are great artists. More than all other people the Greeks possessed the art of portraying the finer qualities of the soul, as well as the ‘deep and dazzling darkness’ that encompasses humanity.

Robinson. — The business of art — I merely add this in order to define my own position—is not merely to quicken all life, to heighten its pulse, by means of a fuller and freer intercommunication of thought and feeling. Art must always be up and at work, refashioning the things of the earth for the good of man. Architecture can make a city beautiful, sculpture and painting can add their loveliness; but those arts merely concern things material. Literature has a greater duty. Literature must take the stuff that human experience is made of, work upon it, and convert it into nobler, more beautiful, more stimulating shapes. Literature must tear away the curtain of familiarity that hides the beauty in common things. Or, as Parson Jones would put it, literature is the angel, the æon, the demiurge, that redeems this gross life and helps wipe out its shame. Would you rather see the England in which Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth lived, or that England as they have pictured it ? Would you rather have lived in France under Louis Philippe, in Russia under Alexander II, or as Balzac and Tolstoï described the one and the other? I find all life chaotic until it has passed through the mind of an artist.

Jones. — Robinson grows lyrical. That means that it is very late, and time to go to bed. Good night, Brown.

Robinson. — Who cares for what the isles of Greece were to the common men who lived in them? But the realms of gold, which Æschylus, Sappho, Theocritus created, are still the home of beauty.

Jones. — Come on, Robinson. You are a literary Niobe, all words.

Brawn. — Good night. Come again.

Robinson. — Good night. My last word is Greece.

  1. The Loeb Classical Library. Edited by T. F. PAGE and W. H. D. ROUSE. The Macmillan Co.