Irrational Imitation and Phrasemongery

W. Johnson, On the Education of the Reasoning Faculties:

“With many oscillations, and much infirmity of purpose, I have for twenty-two years, with classes of sixty, of forty, of thirty, with sets of pupils varying from twenty to three, and also with single pupils, cultivated what is called taste, or the art of expression, in conformity with an excellent tradition, and in obedience to academical authorities of the highest order. Nor is it in this paper asserted or implied that propriety of language is not a more attainable result of classical training than correctness of thought. But it has of late years become manifest, that what was taken for classical taste by those who did battle against useful knowledge was, to a great extent irrational imitation and phrase-mongery. Taste after all is not a mere cultivated instinct or perception, like an ear for music. It is discrimination, a kind of reasoning.

A logician need not be ashamed to study those curious artifices by which Virgil heightens the effect of his statements; in ‘hypallage’ and ‘hendiadys’ there is scope for rational choice. It is one thing to put together dissimilar words, as Tacitus does, for poetical effect; another thing to use two similar words where one will do, as Cicero does, for mere copiousness of sound. The monstrous fatuities which disfigure Aeschylus are condemned by the clear head of an Aristophanes, and can be proved to be bad. Amongst the worthies whose names are used as bludgeons to beat us with, there was at least one whose taste was inextricably combined with his reasoning powers, — Mr. Fox. He would not have abetted the defenders of the classical faith in teaching boys to wrap their truisms in the drapery of Cicero; but he would have encouraged them to state a case or tell a story like Herodotus, Euripides, and Ovid.

Think and write like Mr. Fox, and you will use Latin unaffectedly and straightforwardly to do justice to your subject: you will not choose a subject which will enable you to bring in your stored phrases. The desire of doing at schools what is done at our universities has led to very absurd results with ordinary schoolmasters, who have made it their object to get Greek verses written, like the Porson prize exercises, by tesselating bits of Attic idiom, and have broken their hearts in hopeless attempts to get Latin prose written as it is written by Oxford professors.”

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