THE chief task of education is to make human beings, to develop the aptitudes and attitudes necessary for successful living. How can a classical education develop them? That is the subject of this article. “Of course it cannot,” is the obvious and, I would add, unthinking reply. “Why, these peoples are antiquated. Their problems were different. Their civilization, compared to ours, was primitive. They had no airplanes, automobiles, railroads, no atomic power or electricity, not even steam.” All these things can also be said of the New Testament, of Shakespeare, of Molière, even of Goethe. But are they for that reason antiquated? The criticism of the classics which I have mentioned is due to a failure to distinguish knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge gets out-of-date — often very quickly — especially scientific knowledge. But wisdom does not. Like gold, it keeps its value, however long ago some human mind dug it up.
“Still,” it may be said, “a classical education is no equipment for the modern world. Perhaps it is suitable for a life of thought, of literature, of teaching; but not for politics, for a public career, and still less for business.” Let me appeal to illustrations taken from my own country. At the annual meeting of the English Classical Association the presidential speech is given in alternate years by a scholar and by some public figure whose education was in the classics and who in his later life can give an address on them which will be suitable to a gathering of scholars. Among the presidents of the last fifty years have been two prime ministers, eight cabinet ministers, a lord chancellor, a lord chief justice, two masters of the rolls, a president of the Royal Society of Science, a president of the Royal Academy of Arts, the chairman of one of the five great British banks; and, to come to recent times, the education of Sir Oliver Franks, lately British ambassador in America and now chairman of Lloyds Bank, was in the classics both at school and university. No, one cannot argue that a good classical education is in fact a bad preparation for life in the world.
But what is the explanation of this paradox? How can the study of two long-dead peoples be any preparation for living in our modern age? This is an interesting problem, not only in itself but because it raises the general questions: What is a good education? What ought we to be seeking when we go to school or college or when we educate ourselves? What insights, what outlook, what training of the mind?
THERE are two types of teachers to whom we have reason to be grateful. There are those who teach us facts, who introduce us in a methodical way to a subject, lay solid foundations in it, and on these foundations raise the tower of knowledge, foursquare and firmly built. We owe much to them. But there is another, rarer type, to whom we owe more still — those teachers who have an attitude to life, an outlook on the world, that we have not met before, who open our eyes to a new point of view and teach us to see life in a new way. That is the most valuable education one ever gets; and one can recognize it not so much perhaps by the impression it makes at the moment as by the way in which the mind recurs with growing understanding and gratitude to an inspiration which the passage of time does nothing to dim. The Greeks belong to this rarer type of teachers. They give, or can give, two things which everyone needs, two things which education must give if it is to be education at all; first, a certain intellectual habit and attitude of mind; second, a view of life. If education can give these two things, a right view of life and the right mental habits, it will have given us the chief equipment which we need for our voyage through the world. My suggestion is that Greek can give these two things. If so, it has a very important connection with the modern world, and it is the connection between ancient Greece and modern civilization with which this article deals — the mental habits and the attitude to life which can be learned from the Greeks. First their mental habits. What were they?
If we wish to know the nature and quality of a man’s mind, we can discover it by studying his life and observing what he has achieved. So too with a nation. II we wish to know its quality, capacity, nature, genius, we have only to study what it has done, and then to ask what that nation must have been like to do this. What did the Greeks do?
In Norse mythology there is a legend of a rainbow bridge, made by the gods so that men who had earned the right could cross the deep and sundering gulf between Midgard, which is the earth, and Asgard, which is heaven. That legend reflects man’s sense of the two worlds, human and superhuman, to both of which he belongs, and his instinct, often sleeping, never dead, to pass from the lower to the higher world. Earth and heaven, barbarism and civilization; those are worlds between which a deep gulf lies. But the gulf can be bridged. In Norse mythology the bridge is built by Odin and the Aesir; in history and fact it was built by the Greeks with a double span, the bridge of goodness and the bridge of wisdom, by which men pass from barbarism to civilization, if not from earth to heaven.
It was not an easy bridge to build. Consider, very briefly, the Greek achievement — in the form of two contrasts. If we had lived in Greece in 650 B.C. we would have thought that the sun and moon were gods, that thunder and lightning were divine weapons, that the arrows of Apollo caused influenza, that corn was the gift of Demeter, that each mountain, tree, and river was the home of a spirit. Four hundred years later we would have known that the earth was a sphere rotating on its own axis and revolving round the sun; the circumference of the earth had been determined accurately within fifty miles; a recent astronomer had catalogued eight hundred fixed stars; and two hundred years earlier a scientist had argued that the universe was constructed of atoms in infinite space. There we have one of the great transformations of the world, one of the great steps forward in the history of man: the creation of a rational, scientific attitude to the universe. That is a bridge which the Greeks built between 600 and 300 B.C.
Human history shows nothing comparable. It is not of course the actual amount of knowledge achieved, of facts discovered. It is to have created, out of ignorance and superstition, the idea of science, the notion of a rational world. We have done infinitely more in detailed scientific discovery. But ours has been development; theirs was origination. Greek science — by which I mean the idea that the universe is rational and is capable of being explained and understood — was created in a world in which science, as we understand the word, did not exist; and to have originated science is greater than to have developed it.
That, to recur to my metaphor, is one span of the bridge leading from barbarism to civilization which the Greeks built for us — the span of reason which leads to knowledge. Now let me turn to the other span. The fact that in the dark chaos of ignorance and superstition the Greeks conceived the idea of looking at the universe and life with the eye of reason shows that they must have had unique intellectual genius. But they created something else besides science and philosophy: they created a great human ideal; and from that fact we can divine that they had a rare spiritual genius too. We have seen the contrast between man’s attitude to the universe before and after Greek thought, and how the Greeks built the bridge by which mankind crossed from a nonscientific view of the world to a scientific view. But they built an even more important bridge — the bridge by which it passed from barbarism to the life which caused Goethe to say that of all men the Greeks had dreamed the dream of life best.
Think of the early Greek world as we see it in the poems of Homer, a world with its splendid virtues but also full of injustice, cruelty, and superstition, a world that knew human sacrifice and believed in gods who, even as men, would have been discreditable. And then contrast with it the Greek world of the fifth century B.C., and see how in the interval the Greeks had created out of a primitive society a great spiritual life. It may seem a surprising suggestion that Greece can help us in the field of conduct, of morals. People don’t always think of her in that light; art, literature, thought — yes; morality — no. But Greece and Christianity are the two supreme masters of the ethical, the spiritual life. There and nowhere else in Western civilization do we find what the modern world has largely lost: a clear philosophy of living.
Think, as I suggested, of the world of Homer; then look at two pictures: the first an ideal for the state, the second an ideal for the individual. The first, from the second book of Thucydides, is Pericles’ political ideal for Athens:
Our constitution is called a democracy because it is in the hands not of the few but of the many. But the laws secure equal justice for all in their private disputes. As for social standing, our practice is that a citizen who has recognized ability in some field gets public preferment — it is a question of his abilities, not of his rank. As for poverty, our practice is that if a man can do good work for the community, humbleness of condition is no bar. . . . Open and friendly in our private intercourse, in our public conduct we keep strictly within the control of law . . . we are obedient to those in authority and to the laws, more especially to those which offer protection to the oppressed.
Has any finer definition of the democratic ideal ever been written? Has any nation gone beyond that? Or contrast with the ideals of the Homeric age this conception, from the Theaetetus of Plato, of what human life should be. “Evil, Theodorus, can never pass away, for there must always be an opposite to good. It has no place in heaven, so of necessity it haunts the mortal nature and this earthly sphere. Therefore we ought to escape from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and the way to escape is to become like God, as far as this is possible; and the way to become like him is to become holy, good and wise.”
Between 700 and 400 B.C., beside the transformation of human outlook by the creation of the scientific spirit, is another of the great transformations of the world — the creation of a rational and worthy spiritual ideal for men. During those years a real civilization emerged with incredible rapidity; amid heavy clouds a patch of the clearest sky appeared, in which of the three great lights of the human firmament — Goodness, Beauty, Truth — two at least, Beauty and Truth, shine as brightly as they have ever shone since. There is only one other movement in the spiritual history of Western civilization in any degree comparable to it in importance — what was done in Palestine between the age of the Book of Judges and the age of the New Testament.
WHAT qualities make the Greek achievement possible? How could a people pass, in a few centuries, from Homeric to Platonic morality, from primitive views about the universe to thinking that it was composed of atoms in infinite space?
Two qualities do much to explain this achievement; and they can be divined in some Greek sayings taken from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., if we look behind the saying to the outlook of the man who said it. “I would rather discover one scientific fact than be King of Persia” (as we might say, a Rockefeller or a Ford). “Why are we born? To contemplate the works of Nature.” What sort of men were the speakers of these words, Democritus and Anaxagoras? What do these phrases reveal? A passionate interest in the world and curiosity about it — their own word to describe their feeling, “wonder,” is better. These men do not want money or fame or pleasure, but they find the world about them extraordinarily interesting, and it seems to them a sufficient occupation to contemplate and study it. People who fell like that were singularly well-equipped to create science and philosophy. We recognize in those sayings the secret of perpetual youth, and feel in them the greatness of man — something divine and immortal emerging in this frail, sensuous, mundane, petty creature. The Greeks say in effect about the pursuit of knowledge what Antony in Shakespeare says about something very different: “The nobleness of life is to do thus.” That attitude of wonder in the presence of the world is a continuous quality of Greek thought.
Then there is a second quality, which again is revealed in two sentences, if, as before, we look behind the words to the spirit of the man who uttered them. “The greatness of man consists in saying what is true, and in acting according to Nature, listening to her” (Heraclitus, sixth century B.C.). The second instance is a sentence from Plato:
I am one of the people who would like to be proved wrong if they say anything which is not correct, and would like to prove others wrong if they are in error; and I should not find it more disagreeable to have my own errors pointed out than to prove others wrong, for it is a greater gain to be set free from the greatest of evils (error) than to set others free.
The speaker of these words was not a common type — how many of us think it an advantage to be shown wrong? In those two passages another secret of how the Greeks came to create science and philosophy and a rational view of life is apparent. They found the world and life intensely interesting, but also they desired to see both as they really are. That again is a continuous quality of Greek literature, the instinct to see things accurately — not to rest in prejudices and preconceptions. How difficult, how salutary, how liberating! Few things are more needed in politics, amid the cant of Party, in the work of education or administration — indeed everywhere — than this desire, without bitterness or cynicism, to see things as they are. There again we see the divine in man, something human and also superhuman.
These attitudes: curiosity, the capacity for intense interest, and the power
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
are the essential qualities for achievement in science and philosophy. (But in what field of life are they not of supreme importance?) No people have ever used the eye of the mind so steadily and effectively as the Greeks. It meets us everywhere from Homer to Epictetus. Even the earliest Greek literature shows that instinct to see things without prejudice or prepossession, which is a forerunner of reason. Thus Homer writes of a war between Greeks and barbarians, but we could not tell from the Iliad whether he was Greek or Trojan. Thus Thucydides narrates the war in which his country was ruined; but it would be difficult to tell, except for the rare passages in which he speaks in the first person, whether he was an Athenian or a Spartan.
It is by the use of reason that the Ionians broke loose from a savage’s views of the universe and argued their way through a series of hypotheses to the atomism of Democritus. It is by reason that the Greeks achieved the most difficult of all tasks, that of seeing further than the accepted conventions of their age; thus Plato, in a state where women had no education or share in public life, declared that they should have the same upbringing as men and follow the same pursuits and occupations: thus, in an age when slavery was universally accepted, Alcidamas (fifth century B.C.) wrote, “God has set all men free; nature has made no one a slave”; thus, two centuries later in a world divided by race, culture, and government, Diogenes, when asked what was his country, replied, “I am a citizen of the world”; and Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, said, “Let us look on all men as fellow countrymen and fellow citizens, and let there be unity in our life, like that of a flock feeding together in a common pasture.”
The Greeks reached these truths — Plato, the emancipation of women; Alcidamas, the abolition of slavery; Zeno, the unity of mankind — not under the pressure of social or economic trends, but by the power of reason, breaking the thought barrier of their time. It has taken mankind a long time to see as far; even today we have not seen as far as Zeno.
A TRINITY of virtues shines throughout Greek literature. I have mentioned two; the Greek writers find the world intensely interesting, and they try to see it as it is. The third virtue is Sophrosyne. The word is untranslatable — the most interesting words in any language are always the words which cannot be translated, like spirituel in French, or “comfortable” and “gentleman” in English, for such words are characteristic of their creators and give a glimpse of their inner selves. We generally render it as “temperance”; “self-mastery” is better; but “balance” perhaps would come nearest to its meaning. It is the virtue which keeps men in the middle of the road, checks their waywardness and extravagance, saves them from the falsehood of extremes, and gives their life and thought the harmony of a fine piece of music. The literal meaning of the word is “soundness of mind”; if you have Sophrosyne, you have health of spirit and intellect and character. Really it is reason in another aspect — the power to see things as a whole, each in its place and proportion. It is not a common virtue in human beings, as Shakespeare knew when he made Hamlet praise Horatio:
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are these
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me the man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core.
That is a good description of Sophrosyne.
Nor is Sophrosyne a common virtue in peoples: witness the excesses of the French Revolution and the Nazi madness. But, apart from such spectacular instances of popular delirium, the history of most nations shows less destructive but equally irrational lapses from sanity. We can all think of such cases. There are plenty in Greek history, for the Greeks were a passionate people; Sophrosyne, supreme in their thought and literature, did not rule their political life. One would not recommend the study of Greek history to anyone who wished to know what Sophrosyne is in action. If anyone wishes to see Sophrosyne in a statesman, he could not find a better example than Abraham Lincoln.
Sophrosyne is as necessary a virtue in literature and in thought as in practical life. Can we see clearly if our eyes are bloodshot with prejudice or passion? If one of them is blind, are we likely to get things in focus? There is plenty of unbalance in the literature of the last hundred years. It is obvious in the sentimentality and facile optimism of the weaker Victorian writers; but in a different form it is quite as common in the generation which reacted against the Victorians, practiced the Art of Debunking, and in a world often dreary and sordid was blind to the countervailing goodness.
The irony of it is that these modern writers of whom I am speaking profess to look at the world with clear eyes, to see things as they are. But no one’s eyes are clear unless they see the good in life as well as the evil. To miss the good is unbalance too, unbalance of a more dangerous kind. It is not to be found in the great Greek writers. There is plenty of gloom in them, in Homer or Pindar or the tragic poets; but always, shining in the gloom, there is a sense of beauty and splendor in the world no less real than the tragedy and evil. It is best to see life as the Greeks saw it — for they saw it as it is — and to go into the world with eyes open indeed to its darker side, so that we may know what we have to face, but not to ignore the other aspect in which its growing good resides.
Yes, it may be said, but what exactly do we get by reading this literature and studying this civilization? In what way does it prepare us to live in the modern world? No doubt the Greek achievement was remarkable, indeed unique. But how does it help us now?
My reply would be that the people who did these things must have been a very remarkable people, a people with extraordinary qualities of mind, the sort of people one likes to meet, the sort of people one cannot meet without learning something from them; and when one reflects that the Greeks brought into the world the idea of science and the ideal of democracy, and when one considers their achievement in philosophy, in political thought, in poetry, in sculpture, in architecture, in the creation of an ideal of life, are not the men who did these things worth meeting? Are they not likely to be able to teach us much, not in actual facts, but if we ask from them what Elisha asked from Elijah — a portrait of their spirit? The most important thing in education is to live with the right people — in life, if we can find them; in the past, where they are easy to find. The Greeks, I think, stand highest among the right people.
No race has ever been so gifted, and taking them individually, some of its writers have no rivals. Can we think of anyone equal to Homer in epic, to Thucydides in history, to Aristophanes in his special field of comedy? There have been great philosophers since their time, but it would be difficult to maintain that any of them are equal to Aristotle and still less to Plato, of whom Whitehead said that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”Shakespeare no doubt is supreme among dramatists, but each of the three great Greek tragic poets is his superior in a particular field.
Greek studies are a training of the eye of the mind to see rightly, and that is a sufficient reason for regarding them as a good training for life. Only a small minority of those who pass through school and college will learn Greek, though especially in America it might well be a larger minority than it is today. But any educated person can read at least some of the Greek masterpieces in English. He will of course lose much; poetry can never be transmuted from one tongue into another without change and loss. And he will not know the Greek language, “A language doubtless the most perfect that has been contrived by the art of man” (Gibbon).
If I had to prescribe a course of Greek literature in English, I should include at least Homer’s Odyssey (the Iliad is greater but it has a less universal appeal); some Greek plays, including Agamemnon (in McNeice’s translation, the best that I know of any Greek play); and in prose, Thucydides, the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Republic of Plato (the last of these in Cornford’s translation). These are indispensables. Anyone interested in dramatic criticism will not omit Aristotle’s Poetics; and one would like to add his Ethics and Politics. Neither of them is easy reading, but Sir Ernest Barker’s translation, with notes, has smoothed the path in the case of Politics.
The prose works which I have mentioned should be read in translations with short notes; otherwise the reader who knows no Greek is liable to miss a good deal. If he plunges into a bare text of, for instance, the Republic, his head is not likely to be continuously above water. There are, however, editions with notes of all the prose works, except the Ethics and the Poetics‚ notably Cornford’s brilliant translation of the Republic; and in Greek drama Gilbert Murray’s short introductions and comments add greatly to the enjoyment and appreciation of the plays.