Greek in the Machine Shop

ONE of the most interesting men I have ever met, interesting because exponential of a class that is making itself felt in our social mechanism, was a machinist, a Russian by birth, by choice an American. During the lull that comes over the shop at midnight, when for a brief half-hour the belts cease to slap and the wheels to whirl, when your mind is so benumbed by the blare of brass and steel that you touch your tools to see if they and you actually belong to the real world, I noticed this man lying under his lathe, reading. His elbows were protected from the grimy brick floor by a bit of burlap, while the bulb half-hitched from the bed of the lathe flooded his book with a rich cone of light.

The occasional kick of a passing comrade, answered by an equally friendly curse, did not distract him from the book, which proved to be, as I found on lounging over to where he lay, a portion of Thucydides. I was curious, because when a workingman reads, in the real sense of the word, he generally reads with a definite purpose.

Unconscious of any decline in the influence of the classics, or even that he was reading a classic, my friend answered my inquiry straight to the point:

‘I read him because he makes me think. He helps me to understand what is happening to-day.’

‘What good will that do you?’

He had risen to his feet by now, and said, tapping his lathe: ‘I can shape steel with this; and with this,’ holding out the small chunky volume, 4I can shape men.’

The whistle blew, the wheels whirled, the belts slapped, and the steel spirals curled and dropped from the lathe as the tool traveled along. I wondered, as I watched him there, burly almost to brutality, heavy-lipped, with dark eyes that never faltered as they followed the tool — wondered if he would become a shaper of more untractable material than metal.

During walks to the trolley I learned more about his thoughts, for of his life he was silent. Other books that he read and reread were the Prince of Machiavelli and the Republic of Plato. Thrown into the thick of the laboring world, this mechanic’s mind was filled with his own dreams of how to advance himself, and, being a practical machinist, his mind was also filled with schemes for turning the blueprints of these dreams into realities, just as he shaped bronze and steel.

Why had this man — and there are many like him — selected on his own initiative these books, which certainly do not bulk large in our curriculum? Why had he gone back unconsciously to ideals that obtained when the humanities were the corner stone of education ? And what were those ideals ? Let us see.

The philosopher, Hobbes, recommended his translation of Thucydides to the Earl of Devonshire, as having ‘profitable instruction for such as may have the management of great and weighty actions.’ Neither is this a mere rhetorical flourish to pluck perquisites from a patron, for in the foreword to his readers he insists that, ‘the principle and proper work of history being to instruct and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently for the future, there is not extant any other, merely human, that doth more naturally and fully perform it than this my author’; and finally, comparing the majority of readers to the spectators at gladiator shows, he says: ‘They be far more in number that delight in bloody battles and many thousands slain at once than that mind the art whereby the affairs of cities and armies be conducted to their ends.’ It was strange to find this machinist reading his Thucydides for a parallel reason.

Let us look for an appraisement of the Florentine politician, a man steeped in the humanities with all the ardor of the Renaissance, and as skilled in the conduct of affairs as many a man of his day.

‘We find him,’ writes Lord Acton, ‘near our common level, and perceive that he is not a vanishing type, but a constant and contemporary influence.’

And again: ‘He is the earliest conscious and articulate exponent of certain living forces in the present world.’

The conclusion was forced home to me that my machinist, even if he were drinking draughts of doubtful wisdom, was drinking in good company; and further that ‘the visionary calm of Plato and the intricate strength of Thucydides’ are not beyond the grasp of the common man who is trying to raise himself and seeking a fulcrum whereby to do so.

This man had mastered his trade and made good, but. he felt and said that he felt the need of certain higher knowledge that would help him to understand other men, unite him to them, and give him influence in the larger world beyond the four walls of his shop. A great scholar once published some of his essays as Chips from a Work-Shop. Here we have an educational formula from an actual worker in an actual shop, which I felt would have found favor in the eyes of that scholar; and I have known others similarly situated putting their problem in precisely similar terms for very practical reasons. Having successfully solved the problem of making a living in their own narrow field, they reach out for influence among their associates and test out their ideas in the laboratory of real life, where every day brings its competitive examination and where, as a consequence, what are called academic questions have no place.

These men know what they are after. For instance, I was once discussing the merits of two machines with a skilled workman. ‘They’re all very fine,’ he concluded, ‘but I’d rather be the dynamo that drives both.’

This man too was a student in his way. That is, he read books for the ideas he could find in them, had an intimate acquaintance with the manyheaded monster of the Polity, and very little sympathy for the philosopher who stuck to the shelter of the walk

If it be true that the man with the hoe is now in the saddle, personal observation seems to show that he is there by no chance vault, and that many young men who enjoy vastly superior opportunities for general culture might study his formula, if only to understand the success of their own gifted associates; for these more gifted associates owe their success, not merely to their special training, but to their power to concentrate on a purpose and to the ideas and ideals that give them a grip on life and the conduct of affairs.

How largely the humanities once figured in the education of the people who have best understood and practised ‘the art whereby the affairs of cities and armies be conducted to their ends,’ is no secret. Some of their statesmen have advocated their study in what may seem extreme language, as when Gladstone recommended Greek as the best instrument that could be applied to the minds of the young; others are content to drive home a point by a citation, as when Sir Arthur Helps instances the man in Aristophanes who draws up a personal peace-treaty with the enemy of his city, the statesman’s object being to show the naive absurdity of a type much in evidence in recent times.

Overemphasis of values is, however, always retroactive, and the fact is that in the broadening of the curriculum many other studies have been introduced that fulfill with felicity the function once exclusively enjoyed by the humanities simply because, at the time, such other studies and sciences had not been developed.

Again, much of the enduring culture of antiquity, both intellectual and aesthetic, has been unconsciously absorbed into our modern world, and the lifeblood of those master spirits has been so thoroughly transfused that it throbs in our own veins as vitally as our own lifeblood. If it be true that other men have labored and we are entered into their labors, it is equally true that their labors have entered into us; and so there is much to be learned about the evils affecting the modern national State from the study of the evils that destroyed the CityState of antiquity. The clash of classes so evident in the remorseless march of democracy is no new phenomenon.

‘And many and terrible calamities fell on the cities through the conflict of classes, calamities that occur and will always occur as long as man’s nature remains the same, however varying in intensity and appearance with changing circumstances. . . . Thus iniquity in every form became established, owing to class conflict, while honesty, which is the mainstay of an ingenuous nature, was laughed out of life, and man met man with hostility and mistrust everywhere.’

Written two thousand years ago, these words are as true now as then, and will enjoy a lasting appositeness.

Now if Hobbes be right in his estimate of the humanities, are we right in suffering young men to neglect them or their equivalent, and in leaving such learning to become tools in the hands of those who are reshaping the State under our very eyes?

In short, our universities ought to be clearing-houses and repositories for the sciences that conserve society and impart ‘the art whereby the affairs of cities and armies be conducted to their ends’; and that they are so, with an ever-increasing efficacy, recent developments amply prove. The battlefield and the voting-booth may register victory or defeat, but the real struggle behind all this is the conflict of thought; and in this unceasing conflict the higher educational institutions have not been, and will not be, found wanting.1

After all, it is not dynamite but ideas that disrupt and reconstruct society, and the abiding value of any literature consists in the value and artistic expression of ideas. We are worried if a neighboring nation possesses a gun of wider range and higher elevation than our own, but we are indifferent if a neighboring nat ion possesses an idea of wider range or loftier elevation than our own. Ideas, in short, are our most vital wealth. It is to defend these that cannon are cast and legions are lined up, and much wealth of this sort we have inherited from Hellas. Precisely because the Greeks had more creative power than any other people of the Old World, does their thought possess the magic property of begetting thought — that is, in the words of Aristophanes, it is spermatikos.

As in the sphere of matter, so in the sphere of thought we find centrifugal and centripetal forces, the one binding men together and the other driving them apart. Just as higher education consists in the study of general knowledge of which each specific profession is some special application, so there is a higher education still in the study of those forces that vitalize the State and bind it together indissolubly, conserving our inherited ideals of liberty and loyalty, justice and generosity, unity and multiplicity — in short, all that America means and without which it would die.

If one man may be fed on thoughts ‘ that voluntary move harmonious numbers,’ so a people may be fed on thoughts that voluntary move harmonious actions, and in so doing produce a perfect State, humanly speaking, where the creative force comes unconsciously and from within. It is such thoughts, then, that constitute the wealth of a people, and of those who possess this divine gold and silver in their souls for everlasting it is written in the Polity that ‘they need no money minted by man. Neither otherwise than impiously may they mingle the gathering of the gold of God with the getting of the mortal metal, for infinite and unholy are the deeds done by the multitude, but their coinage abides forever unpolluted and unalloyed.’

  1. One of the latest developments in this field is the proposal to establish at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore a School of Research in International Relations, in memory of Walter Hines Page. Curiously enough, the formal training which Page received at Johns Hopkins was as Fellow in Greek, and the greatest force that tended to shape him in those two formative years is said to have been his contact with the great classical scholar, Basil L. Gildersleeve.