Pondering the Past

James Bryce,

Letter from A Symposium on the Value of Humanistic, Particularly Classical, Studies as a Training for Men of Affairs:

“I do not say that the classics will make a dull man bright, nor that a man ignorant of them may not display the highest literary or the highest practical gifts, as indeed many have done. Natural genius can overleap all deficiencies of training. But a mastery of the literature and history of the ancient world makes every one fitter to excel than he would have been without it, for it widens the horizon, it sets standards unlike our own, it sharpens the edge of critical discrimination, it suggests new lines of constructive thought. It is no doubt more directly helpful to the lawyer or the clergyman or the statesman than it is to the engineer or the banker. But it is useful to all, for the man of affairs gains, like all others, from whatever enables him better to comprehend the world of men around him and to discern the changes that are passing on in it.

Without disparaging the grammatical and philological study of Greek and Latin, the highest value a knowledge of these languages contains seems to me to lie less in familiarity with their forms than in a grasp of ancient life and ancient thought, in an appreciation of the splendor of the poetry they contain, in a sense of what human nature was in days remote from our own. It is for all of us necessary to live for the present and the immediate future. But it is a mistake to live so entirely in the present as we are apt to do in these days, for the power of broad thinking suffers. It is not only the historian who ought to know the past, nor only the philosopher and the statesman who ought to ponder the future and endeavor to divine it by filling his mind with the best thought which the men of old have left to us.”

This famous illustration for which the manuscript is named has been the subject of numerous scholarly interpretations.

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