20 AUGUST 1948, Page 12


By HAROLD NICOLSON • HAVE the deepest respect for classical scholars ; they maintain • the standards of industry, accuracy and taste ; by their ardent

researches they keep alive the continuity of intellectual tradition .and remind us constantly that it is a tremendous European privilege to be the inheritors of Greece and Rome. I like to feel that there are men immured at Oxford and Cambridge who are still profoundly

concerned with the digamma and who can still evolve original theories about the sources of the Homeric epics. I like to remember that in this high upper atmosphere of pare scholarship there exists no nationalism and no frontiers, and that these human letters are

a bond between the European nations more ancient and more precious than anything which can be offered by the giants of the East and West. I regret none the less that these admirable scholars (so dis- interested in their purposes, so exacting in their methods) should be so oppressed by the consciousness that they represent but a tiny minority that they have become quite cowardly regarding their convictions. Did one not know the utter purity of their minds, the profound probity of their whole training, one might suspect them even of not telling the truth. It is, for instance, difficult to believe that all those young men and all those old men who ten days ago gathered at Oxford for the joint meeting of *he Greek and Roman Classical Societies really accepted the truth of all that was said to them. The appalling fallacy in which classical scholars, with their new-found sense of inferiority, are apt to indulge, is the contention that in some manner a knowledge of Greek and Latin is of practical utility in the modern world. Being terrified of being thought irre- levant, these noble men try, with pathetic obscurantism, to find a relevance in their studies which does not, and surely ought not to, exist. How infinitely preferable would it be if they were to pro- claim: "We are the great irrelevant. We have nothing whatsoever to do with this ugly modern world."

* * * Reading the report of their deliberations, I detect the incessant strain and tension created by this suspicion that they have no appli- cability to modern life. Thus Mr. Axel Boethius read a paper to suggest that if we really wish to understand the problems of town planning, we should study the principles of Greek and Roman city architecture. Similarly, Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Stevens argued that local excavations were today of greater importance than pure archaeo- logy and that there were many practical lessons to be derived from such diggings regarding the density of populations, the relation of available food supply to the extent of settlements, and the exploitation of civilians for the upkeep of armies. It may be, of course, that I am doing an injustice to Mr. Boethius, Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Stevens, since I did not myself hear their addresses and have had to rely only upon a summary report which may well distort the proportions of what they said. But it is not to be denied that classical scholars, feeling that their functions are being disputed, seek unduly to contend that their branch of learning is of some practical utility to the architects, plumbers, sewer experts and Ministry of Food officials of today. It may well be that we have much to learn regarding the alignment of streets and market-places, regarding the drainage systems and the hypocausts of ancient times. But it is not necessary in order to learn these facts to know one word of Latin or Greek. Any accurate handbook, any good translation, can provide all the information required with precision and speed. Once these scholars start pretending that their studies are of practical utility they enter a false path, which may lead them in the end to forget that the point about pure culture is that it possesses no practical utility at all.

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Professor Last, for instance, in speaking about " Romanization," had much that was useful to say about Roman humanitas, and the extent to which the Roman ideal of law and order did succeed in imposing the habit of peacefulness. Nobody who considers the loss occasioned to those tribes who stood outside the Roman limes (whether Teutonic or Scythian) can question the valuable and

durable effects of Roman conquest. The hope of mankind, he con- tended, lay in the principle that men were more important than States. This principle had been handed down to us through the Romans from the Greeks. I should not question the excellence of this principle, yet I wonder whether it is quite true to say that any such doctrine is Greek in origin. We always like to repeat that the three great stages in human evolution were the Greek discovery of the importance of the individual, the Roman discovery of the im- portance of law and contract, and the Christian doctrine of humility and gentleness. But is it really true that the Greeks believed in the importance of the individual ? Is it really true that what we call "social democracy" was first evolved by the Greek thinkers of the fifth century ? And even if such assertions were in fact founded upon truth, then is it really necessary to know Latin or Greek in order to understand them ? In fact, I doubt whether any young man or woman reading the Republic or the Laws would derive the impression that the ideal Platonic State was in any way similar to our conceptions of social democracy. Never have the principles of a totalitarian system been so precisely expounded. The selection, segregation and training of Plato's " Guardians " were as deliberate as anything devised for the Nazi or Communist academies for the elite. The individual, from womb to grave, was allowed no liberty whatsoever ; the State was to prescribe for him the books he read, the food he ate, the music and plays he listened to, the games in which he indulged. Nobody should be allowed "to spend his day just as he pleases " ; every hour of that day should be compulsorily regulated. No—I do not think that either the Republic or the Laws is a book which young people should be allowed to read.

I wish, therefore, that our scholars would abandon this strained theory that the study of the classics can be of any practical utility in modern life. The theory even that the Greek City States were forced to unite when faced by a barbarian menace is not a theory which can be pushed very far ; such analogies as exist are dis- couraging analogies. Surely the wiser argument would be that the study of Greek and Latin has no practical purpose whatsoever. Certainly they train the mind in habits of precision, but so also do the more relevant studies of mathematics, chemistry or the German and Russian languages. Certainly they provide many valuable ideas, but these ideas can be obtained equally well from good translations. The charm of the Greek and Latin languages is that they offer us a lovely irrelevance ; that they provide an escape from the material values of the modern world. It is of no practical use whatsoever to be able to appreciate the amazing variation of stresses which Virgil can introduce into the hexameter, the vigour of the Homeric line, or the beauty of the little songs which Aristo- phanes will suddenly insert. Such things provide but little infor- mation regarding town-planning or municipal sewage systems. But they do provide pleasure and interest ; and they do extend the areas of appreciation and raise the standard of taste. In our age of quantitative values, it is surely valuable that there should be some people at least who devote their lives to. studies which have no practical utility whatever, but which do remind us that quality of expression (whether in art, thought or language) is an aim in itself.

* * In The Times newspaper last week there was a letter, signed by many representative people, announcing the establishment of a Crafts Centre for the maintenance of British craftsmanship. The scheme has the approval of the Board of Trade and of Sir Stafford Cripps. The purpose of this scheme is to maintain the qualitative standards of British production against the flood of quantitative manufacture. I am not for one moment suggesting that the Classical Associations are not deeply concerned with maintaining the quality of British scholarship ; all I am suggesting is that it is time they abandoned the attempt to prove that such studies have a practical application. The whole glory of classical studies is that they have no utilitarian purpose ; they maintain the level of the mind.