It Still Goes On

H. F. ELLIS is widely known for his light prose and is a frequent contributor to the pages of the ATLANTIC.

In the face of this grave threat the Athenians acted with great energy. By incredible exertions. . . .

I may return to that later. The question I want to put right away to all those who, twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago, bore away from their university a hood, scroll, diploma, or other witness to proficiency in some recognized branch of learning is this: Have you at any time since that date opened a textbook on the subject that then filled your nights and days; that provided the nourishment on which your mind ripened from its inchoate, schoolboy state to maturity; that finally sent you out into the world a scholar, a marked man, holder of a baccalaureate?

Probably not. Yet the subject, whatever it was, to which you owe so much goes on. Knowledge advances at a dizzy rate, but its elements (which are what, even as third-year men, we were chiefly concerned with) remain recognizably the same. You may be fat and bald now, but phenyl cyanide still has an almondlike odor and boils at 190.7° C. Calculus is as infinitesimal as ever it was; rocks, if you studied geology, are not less gneissic or pre-Cambrian now because you have spent the intervening twenty years boosting some ghastly sweetmeat; the chief exports of Burma almost certainly continue to be rice and rubies, if that is what they were when you hurried across the campus; Hildebrand, for medieval historians, is still advancing the temporal power of the papacy and repressing simony and plurality in his spare time; the “windowless monads” of Leibnitz surely retain to this day at least an academic interest for the faculty of philosophy; the Athenians, when gravely threatened, act with their accustomed energy.

I discovered this important truth more or less by accident. Maundering about in a bookshop, with some idea of buying Sir Anthony Eden’s memoirs, I came upon A History of Greece to 322 B. C. and paused, struck perhaps by an unfamiliar note in the title. It always used to be “to 323 B.C.” in my day. I fingered the volume, unable to move on, paralyzed by a deadly fascination. The fact is that the springtime of my own life was spent investigating the life and times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and in a curious way a whiff of youth and its follies seemed to emanate from this solid, unmeretricious book, written by N. G. L. Hammond, sometime lecturer in classics at the University of Cambridge. Weighing the great thing in my hand, Ii became twenty-one again, and into my mind flooded memories of the Delian League, of Leonidas’ last stand at Thermopylae, of wild nights with Alcibiades, and of a place called Potidaea, which must once have held some significance for me. Snatches of history flashed across my mental retina like a trailer for Ben-Hur. I remembered the building of the Long Walls and Aristides, and I all but recalled the name of the man who was said by somebody to have danced his marriage away. Powerless to resist, I opened the book, and there, as I flicked the pages, they all were. The old brigade. Xerxes and Themistocles, Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, the Areopagus, the Four Hundred, the pestilential Cleon, Brasidas, the only decent Spartan. And Cimon! I had forgotten Cimon, but the name rang some sort of bell. Undoubtedly he acted with great energy when the moment came.

I bought the book. It cost no more than the Eden memoirs, and Sir Anthony, for all his gifts, was never at Thermopylae. For thirty-five shillings (or a handful of drachmas) I had the means of rolling back thirty years and reliving the life of the eager inquiring mind. “The Spartans, however, were celebrating the festival of Apollo Carneius and a sacred law forbade any military operation until the full moon, which was six days ahead.” The Spartans were always celebrating some damn thing or other when they were needed elsewhere, on the double. People say that the British never take any action on weekends and that America is useless during a presidential election year, but for sheer, downright procrastination —

However, I am not called upon to write a thesis on the influence of Spartan religious scruples on Panhellenic defense policy. That is one of the acute pleasures of reading a textbook in later life. Nobody is going to examine you on it. You can take it or you can leave it alone. There is no need, when reading about the Amphictyonic Council (which I confess had slipped my memory), to turn back fifty pages to find out who the devil the Opuntian Locrians were. They were Greeks of a kind, no doubt. Their name has about it the faintest flavor of familiarity; it carries undertones of longforgotten emotions, as will a scrawled “Phyllis” or “Betty” on some hoarded dance program. To read about them now, casually, without a flicker of animosity, does more to reconcile the mind to advancing years than a belief in reincarnation, or even than that keener appreciation of fine wines and good music so widely hymned by sexagenarians.

Something of the same consoling delight, I cannot doubt, awaits the old geological alumnus, the botanist, the economist, the mathematician, the student of Chinese poetry, whoever will take the trouble to spend a reminiscent evening or two with a textbook on his degree subject — always provided that he put all that kind of thing behind him on graduation day and has devoted himself since then to getting and spending and laying waste his powers. Conceive the pleasure of reading, without a quiver of anxiety or the slightest attempt to produce a mnemonic, that the leaflets of the columbine are lobed, toothed, and of a glaucous hue; that after syngamy the zygote forms around itself a resistant wall, enabling it to avoid desiccation, and so becomes a zygospore; that bad money sooner or later drives out the good; that Tamerlane, Timur, or Timur Leng returned to Samarkand laden with booty in 1398; or that tragedy is an imitation of some action that is important, self-contained, and of a fitting magnitude, effecting through pity and terror the purgation of the emotions.

All this beautiful nostalgic stuff is lying about in bookshops waiting to be picked up for no more than the price of a politician’s memoirs. Here and there, of course, if the textbook you buy is a recent one, an unfamiliar word or phrase, even a whole chapter that strikes no chord of memory, may have been added; there may be an emphasis on amino acids that causes a momentary raising of the eyebrows, or, as in my case, a whole raft of new conjectures about the early migrations of the Greeks, which I am happy to have escaped. But by and large, if my own experience is anything to go by, there will be plenty that is vaguely familiar, more than enough to recall vividly the anguish, the intolerable burdens of youth. How trivial in comparison are the distresses of middle age.

Forward, then. I have still, I see, some four hundred and eighty pages of A History of Greece to 322 B.C. to read; and if by the time I reach the end I still don’t fully realize howlucky I am not to be twenty again, it ought not to be difficult to find a history of Rome (probably A.D, 138) that I can take or leave alone as I feel inclined. The Punic Wars and the Scipios, Jugurtha, Cicero and Catiline, emperor worship, Cisalpine Gaul, the Struggle of the Orders, the agrarian reforms of Tiberius Gracchus — what a purgation of the emotions, as Aristotle would say. I cannot, offhand, think of any pleasure more complete than not to have to write an essay on Jugurtha.