Thomas Paine Goes Off the Rails

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason:

“The Greeks were a learned people, but learning with them did not consist in speaking Greek, any more than in a Roman’s speaking Latin, or a Frenchman’s speaking French, or an Englishman’s speaking English. From what we know of the Greeks, it does not appear that they knew or studied any language but their own, and this was one cause of their becoming so learned: it afforded them more time to apply themselves to better studies. The schools of the Greeks were schools of science and philosophy, and not of languages; and it is in the knowledge of the things that science and philosophy teach, that learning consists.

Almost all the scientific learning that now exists came to us from the Greeks, or the people who spoke the Greek language. It, therefore, became necessary for the people of other nations who spoke a different language that some among them should learn the Greek language, in order that the learning the Greeks had, might be made known in those nations, by translating the Greek books of science and philosophy into the mother tongue of each nation.

The study, therefore, of the Greek language (and in the same manner for the Latin) was no other than the drudgery business of a linguist; and the language thus obtained, was no other than the means, as it were the tools, employed to obtain the learning the Greeks had. It made no part of the learning itself, and was so distinct from it, as to make it exceedingly probable that the persons who had studied Greek sufficiently to translate those works, such, for instance, as Euclid’s Elements, did not understand any of the learning the works contained.”

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2 thoughts on “Thomas Paine Goes Off the Rails

  1. Egads! I am glad the scientists and economists at my school didn’t have Thomas Paine at hand when trying to argue against preserving the language requirement. Ironically, their arguments were undone by their linguistic limitations…

    But this is quite the doozy of a passage.

    1. It is! It also shows the narrow limits of the supposedly broad Classical education which the founders possessed. It’s clear that Paine had no conception of the type of verbal scholarship which really only began to flourish after Plato/Aristotle, and came into its own beginning in the 3rd century. Among the famous Alexandrian librarians, Eratosthenes was the only one who was *that* concerned with science. He even ignores more trivial points, as for example some of the discurses in Herodotus in which non-Greek words are the central focus of an anecdote, such as the story in which the first word spoken by the infant raised in linguistic isolation was ‘bekos’, the Phrygian word for bread.

      Anyway, this passage is also a clear counterpoint to those who think that selective citation of the classics for pamphleteering purposes is a purely modern vice. It’s been going on for a while! The interesting irony is the *use* of classical exempla to discredit classical education.

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