Tyrants and Butchers by Instinct

Benjamin Rush, Letter to John Adams, December 21 1810:

“You have made no impression upon me by your arguments in favor of the dead languages. Napoleon would have been just what he is, had he never read a page of ancient history. Rulers become tyrants and butchers from instinct, much oftener than from imitation. As well might we suppose the human race would have been extinct, had not Ovid bequeathed to modern nations his “arte amandi,” as suppose that modern Villains, are made by ancient examples. Royal Crimes, like yellow fevers spring up spontaneously under similar circumstances in every Country, and in every age. The  adoption of the former from Antiquity, is as contrary to truth & reason as the importation of the latter from foreign Countries.”

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Reading for Deep Erudition

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1.20):

“I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness nor cruelty; but from the best of motives; and therefore shall make her no apology for it when she returns back:—’Tis to rebuke a vicious taste, which has crept into thousands besides herself,—of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them—The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, ‘That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.’ The stories of Greece and Rome, run over without this turn and application,—do less service, I affirm it, than the history of Parismus and Parismenus, or of the Seven Champions of England, read with it.”

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Humanism vs. Erudition

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. III:

“Gesner was one of the foremost leaders of the movement known as the New Humanism. The Old Humanism had aimed at the verbal imitation of the style of the Latin Classics, and at the artificial prolongation of the modern life of the ancient Latin literature. This aim was gradually found to be impracticable, and, about 1650, it was abandoned. Latin was still taught in schools ; it also survived as the medium of university instruction and as the language of the learned world. But the ancient literature came to be considered as a superfluity; neglected at school, it was regarded simply as a waste and barren field, where the learned might burrow in quest of the facts required for building up the fabric of an encyclopaedic erudition. Such was practically the view of the School of Halle.”

The Language of Non-Thought

Lionel Trilling, The Meaning of a Literary Idea:

We think Aristotle to be a better critic of the drama than Plato because we perceive that Aristotle understood and Plato did not understand that the form of the drama was of itself an idea which controlled and brought to a particular issue the subordinate ideas it contained. The form of the drama is its idea, and its idea is its form. And form in those arts which we call abstract is no less an idea than is form in the representational arts. Governments nowadays are very simple and accurate in their perception of this — much more simple and accurate than are academic critics and aestheticians — and they are as quick to deal with the arts of “pure” form as they are to deal with ideas stated in discourse: it is as if totalitarian governments kept in mind what the rest of us tend to forget, that “idea” in one of its early significations exactly means form and was so used by many philosophers.

It is helpful to have this meaning before us when we come to consider that particular connection between literature and ideas which presents us with the greatest difficulty, the connection that involves highly elaborated ideas, or ideas as we have them in highly elaborated systems such as philosophy, or theology, or science. The modem feeling about this relation- ship is defined by two texts, both provided by T. S. Eliot. In his essay on Shakespeare Mr. Eliot says, “I can see no reason for believing that either Dante or Shakespeare did any thinking on his own. The people who think that Shakespeare thought are always people who are not engaged in writing poetry, but who are engaged in thinking, and we all like to think that great men were like ourselves.” And in his essay on Henry James Mr. Eliot makes the well-known remark that James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.

In both statements, as I believe, Mr. Eliot permits his impulse to spirited phrase to run away with him, yielding too much to what he conceives to be the didactic necessities of the moment, for he has it in mind to offer resistance to the nineteenth-century way of looking at poetry as a heuristic medium, as a communication of knowledge. This is a view which is well exemplified in a sentence of Carlyle’s: “If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all in that.’’ As between the two statements about Shakespeare’s mental processes, I give my suffrage to Carlyle’s as representing a more intelligible and a more available notion of intellect than Mr. Eliot’s, but I think I understand what Mr. Eliot is trying to do with his — he is trying to rescue poetry from the kind of misinterpretation of Carlyle’s view which was once more common than it is now; he is trying to save for poetry what is peculiar to it, and for systematic thought what is peculiar to it.

As for Mr. Eliot’s statement about James and ideas, it is useful to us because it gives us a clue to what might be called the sociology of our question. “Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.’’ In the context “violate” is a strong word, yet we can grant that the mind of the poet is a sort of Clarissa Harlowe and that an idea is a sort of Colonel Lovelace, for it is a truism of contemporary thought that the whole nature of man stands in danger of being brutalized by the intellect, or at least by some one of its apparently accredited surrogates. A specter haunts our culture — it is that people will eventually be unable to say, “They fell in love and married,” let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, “Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”

Now this is not the language of abstract thought or of any kind of thought. It is the language of non-thought. But it is the language which is developing from the peculiar status which we in our culture have given to abstract thought. There can be no doubt whatever that it constitutes a threat to the emotions and thus to life itself.


Modestly Correcting Ovid

Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not (Chapter 7):

The girl said suddenly; they had run into a clearing of the deep underwoods:

‘I’m not stuffy with you over that Latin, though you were unnecessarily rude. And I’m not sleepy. I’m loving it all.’

He hesitated for a minute. It was a silly-girl thing to say. She didn’t usually say silly-girl things. He ought to snub her for her own sake…

He said:

‘I’m rather loving it, too!’ She was looking at him; her nose had disappeared from the silhouette. He hadn’t been able to help it; the moon had been just above her head; unknown stars all round her; the night was warm. Besides, a really manly man may condescend at times! He rather owes it to himself…

She said:

‘That was nice of you! You might have hinted that the rotten drive was taking you away from your so important work…

‘Oh, I can think as I drive,’ he said. She said:

‘Oh!’ and then: ‘The reason why I’m unconcerned over your rudeness about my Latin is that I know I’m a much better Latinist than you. You can’t quote a few lines of Ovid without sprinkling howlers in…It’s vastum, not longum…”Terra tribus scopulis vastum procurrit”…It’s alto, not coelo…”Uvidus ex alto desilientis.”…How could Ovid have written ex coelo? The “c” after the “x” sets your teeth on edge.’

Tietjens said:


‘That’s purely canine!’ she said with contempt.

‘Besides,’ Tietjens said, longum is much better than vastum. I hate cant adjectives like “vast.”…’

‘It’s like your modesty to correct Ovid,’ she exclaimed. ‘Yet you say Ovid and Catullus were the only two Roman poets to be poets. That’s because they were sentimental and used adjectives like vastum…What’s “Sad tears mixed with kisses” but the sheerest sentimentality?’

‘It ought, you know,’ Tietjens said with soft dangerousness, ‘to be “Kisses mingled with sad tears”…”Tristibus et lacrimis oscula mixta dabis.”‘

‘I’m hanged if ever I could,’ she exclaimed explosively. ‘A man like you could die in a ditch and I’d never come near. You’re desiccated even for a man who has learned his Latin from the Germans.’

‘Oh, well, I’m a mathematician,’ Tietjens said. ‘Classics is not my line!’

‘It isn’t,’ she answered tartly.

A long time afterwards from her black figure came the words:

‘You used “mingled” instead of “mixed” to translate mixta. I shouldn’t think you took English at Cambridge, either! Though they’re as rotten at that as at everything else, father used to say.’

‘Your father was Balliol, of course,’ Tietjens said with the snuffy contempt of a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge. But having lived most of her life amongst Balliol people she took this as a compliment and an olive branch.

Some Do Not... by Ford Madox Ford

Surgery Beneath the Scholar’s Dignity

Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages I.4.6:

“It was the ordinary practice in the Italian Universities for a Medical Doctor to read the relative parts of this treatise while the Professor of Surgery performed the dissection and another Doctor pointed out to the students the various bones or muscles as they were named by the reader. By the Statutes of Florence food and wine and spices were to be provided to keep up the spirits of Professors and Students during this unwonted ordeal. The importance of Surgery in Italy as compared with its neglect in the Northern Universities is indicated by the different position occupied by its teachers. Not only was Surgery taught by Doctors of Medicine, but the latter were allowed to engage in surgical practice, an employment which was looked upon by the Doctors of Paris as a degrading manual craft, entirely beneath the dignity of a sage learned in all the wisdom of Aristotle and Galen.”

Brandy and Novels: Enemies of Greek Scholarship

Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers, to which is added Porsoniana:

“I believe, with you, that Burney was indebted to Porson for many of those remarks on various niceties of Greek which he has given as his own in different publications. Porson once said to me, ‘A certain gentleman’ (evidently meaning Burney) ‘has just been with me; and he brought me a long string of questions, every one of which I answered offhand. Really, before people become schoolmasters, they ought to get up their Greek thoroughly, for they never learn any thing more of it afterwards.’ I one day asked Burney for his opinion of Porson as a scholar. Burney replied, ‘I think my friend Dick’s acquaintance with the Greek dramatists quite marvellous; but he was just as well acquainted with them at the age of thirty as he is now: he has not improved in Greek since he added brandy-and-water to his potations, and took to novel-reading.’ Porson would sometimes read nothing but novels for a fortnight together.”

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Louis Charles Moeller, ‘Men Drinking Punch’

A Mere Scholar, A Mere Ass

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 1.2.3:

“Hear Tully pro Archia Poeta: whilst others loitered, and took their pleasures, he was continually at his book, so they do that will be scholars, and that to the hazard (I say) of their healths, fortunes, wits, and lives. How much did Aristotle and Ptolemy spend? unius regni precium they say, more than a king’s ransom; how many crowns per annum, to perfect arts, the one about his History of Creatures, the other on his Almagest? How much time did Thebet Benchorat employ, to find out the motion of the eighth sphere? forty years and more, some write: how many poor scholars have lost their wits, or become dizzards, neglecting all worldly affairs and their own health, wealth, esse and bene esse, to gain knowledge for which, after all their pains, in this world’s esteem they are accounted ridiculous and silly fools, idiots, asses, and (as oft they are) rejected, contemned, derided, doting, and mad. Look for examples in Hildesheim spicel. 2, de mania et delirio: read Trincavellius, l. 3. consil. 36, et c. 17. Montanus, consil. 233. Garceus de Judic. genit. cap. 33. Mercurialis, consil. 86, cap. 25. Prosper Calenius in his Book de atra bile; Go to Bedlam and ask. Or if they keep their wits, yet they are esteemed scrubs and fools by reason of their carriage: after seven years’ study

———statua, taciturnius exit,
Plerumque et risum populi quatit.———

He becomes more silent than a statue, and generally excites people’s laughter. Because they cannot ride a horse, which every clown can do; salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe and make conges, which every common swasher can do, hos populus ridet, &c., they are laughed to scorn, and accounted silly fools by our gallants. Yea, many times, such is their misery, they deserve it: a mere scholar, a mere ass.”

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Groaning Under the Load of Scholarship

Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon:

“The renaissance, the spring-tide of modern life, with its genial freshness, is far behind us. The creative period is past, the accumulative is set in. Genius can now do nothing, the day is to dull industry. The prophet is departed, and in his place we have the priest of the book. Casaubon knows so much of ancient lore, that not only his faculties, but his spirits are oppressed by the knowledge. He can neither create nor enjoy; he groans under his load. The scholar of 1500 gambols in the free air of classical poetry, as in an atmosphere of joy. The scholar of 1600 has a century of compilation behind him, and ‘drags at each remove a lengthening chain.’ If anyone thinks that to write and read books is a life of idleness, let him look at Casaubon’s diary. Pope, during his engagement on Homer, used to be haunted by it in his dreams, and ‘wished to be hanged a hundred times.’ Vergil, having undertaken the Aeneid, said of himself that ‘he thought he must have been out of his senses when he did so.’ But of the blood and sweat, the groans and sighs, which enter into the composition of a folio volume of learned research, no more faithful record has ever been written than Casaubon’s ‘Ephemerides.’ Throughout its entire progress, the ‘ Animadversiones’ on Athenaeus was an ungrateful and irksome task, ‘catenati in ergastulo labores [the chained-up labors in the little workshop].‘ He can hardly open Athenaeus without disgust, and he prays God, day by day, that he may get away from such trifles to better reading.”

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Plutarch’s Better Half

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (3.6):

The Roman Empire having worked out its destruction, Mr Boffin next appeared in a cab with Rollin’s Ancient History, which valuable work being found to possess lethargic properties, broke down, at about the period when the whole of the army of Alexander the Macedonian (at that time about forty thousand strong) burst into tears simultaneously, on his being taken with a shivering fit after bathing. The Wars of the Jews, likewise languishing under Mr Wegg’s generalship, Mr Boffin arrived in another cab with Plutarch: whose Lives he found in the sequel extremely entertaining, though he hoped Plutarch might not expect him to believe them all. What to believe, in the course of his reading, was Mr Boffin’s chief literary difficulty indeed; for some time he was divided in his mind between half, all, or none; at length, when he decided, as a moderate man, to compound with half, the question still remained, which half? And that stumbling-block he never got over.