The Intrinsic Merits of Classical Literatures

R.C. Jebb, Humanism in Education:

“The intrinsic merits of the classical literatures depend, in the first place, on their purely literary qualities in respect to form and style. The creative literature of Greece, from Homer to Demosthenes, had a course of spontaneous and natural growth, throughout which it was in constant touch with life; and it has left a series of typical standards in prose and poetry. The excellence of these models is not a scholastic figment or a medieval superstition; it is a fact which has been recognised, through all the changes of the centuries, by the common feeling and the general consent of civilised mankind. The Roman literature, though partly imitative, is not only original in some of its types, but original throughout as a manifestation of the Latin genius in the speech which that genius moulded ; and abounds in works of poetry and prose which must always rank as masterpieces. An unguarded champion of the classics once said of them that ‘ they utterly condemn all false ornament, all tinsel, all ungraceful and unshapely work.’ That statement, though quite true in a general sense, is not true without exception ; the classics are not perfect, any more than other human productions ; they have their occasional faults or blemishes in style and taste. But it would argue a strange deficiency in the sense of proportion, a singular want of balance in literary judgment, to affirm that such faults or blemishes detract in any appreciable degree from the intellectual stimulus and the aesthetic pleasure which their great and characteristic qualities afford, or from the admiration due to the artistic harmony of their best work, when viewed as a whole. The utility of the classical languages as subjects of study and as instruments of training depends partly on these qualities of the literatures, but also on the importance of these languages themselves for grammar and comparative philology. They afford, moreover, a discipline in nicety of judgment which is all the better because the questions of idiom and usage which they raise cannot be solved by living authority.”

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