The hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Scott-King’s Modern Europe is a classics teacher who has lived into a time when classics are regarded as irrelevant and useless. He is told that parents no longer want the school to produce the “complete man” but to qualify their sons to enter the modern world. Can he blame them?
“Oh yes,” Scott-King said. “I can and I do.”
“But you know there might be something of a crisis ahead.”
“Then what do you intend to do?”
“If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”
This exchange, which concludes the novella, captures the sense of doomed devotion characteristic of many classicists. There they are, gathered on the upper deck of the Titanic, watching boatloads of the rescued being rowed off into a future closed to them.
The quarrel about the classics is as old as Christendom. When I was a boy, one of the books we translated and parsed, doing our daily lines, was St. Basil the Great’s address to young Christians studying Greek literature. St. Basil stresses the good things to be found in the pagan authors. He was no more interested than Scott-King in qualifying boys to enter the modern world. Their destination was the next world, and the classics were an aid, not a hindrance, to reaching that destination.
We remember very little of what we are taught in school and much of what we learn was not taught us. I began studying Latin at 13 and Greek two years later and spent years with both languages. My first instruction in Latin was given by Father Kush—no one could pronounce his polysyllabic Polish name—who would pretend to spit into his hands, then rub them and say, “Well, gentlemen, let’s get going.” It was a basement classroom, its windows flush with the lawn of the courtyard outside. We met six times a week. The curriculum was planned for boys thinking of entering the priesthood, but all that was in an impossibly distant future.
The usefulness of Latin and Greek was never stressed; I am not sure it was even mentioned. Of course, our daily Mass was in Latin, and we all used missals. On the baldachino over the altar in the Chapel of the Annunciation were the words from Luke, “Spiritus Sanctus superveniet in te, et virtus Altimissimi obumbrabit tibi” (The Holy Spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you). One morning, I realized I understood what that said. It was a heady moment.
In Latin, we read Caesar and Cicero and Horace and Virgil; in Greek, Homer—a great struggle. A day’s assignment might be 30 lines of text, and one had to be ready for a “call”: standing and reading the text, translating it, and then being asked to parse this word or that. Calls were random, but we tried to figure out the system, keeping records, hoping to predict our next turn. In the margins of those books, I find the names of old classmates written next to the lines they were called on to translate.
I loved it. I also read Catullus with Father Peters and Plato with Father Blatz, who had a plaque advertising the beer of that name in his room. I had been studying Latin for five years before first reading the Summa Theologiae. That turned out to be the personal point of all those preceding years. For more than half a century, the Latin I have read has been mostly medieval or patristic, not classical. I still have all my Latin and Greek schoolbooks, and I have added to my little classical library over the years. Horace has emerged as my favorite.
What is the point of it all?
St. Basil thought that moral good could come from reading the classics. Perhaps. But Horace’s morals are dubious. In fact, it is the chaste, complicated structure of the odes that elevates—and haunting phrases like “Non omnis moriar” (I shall not die entirely).
Must we justify learning and loving such texts? So few things stick in the mind from our school days and then largely as mental Post-It notes. Going back to some of them involves nostalgia, of course. Teachers, classmates, even the school—all gone. One becomes an old man being read to by the boy one was, realizing how little wiser one is. Useless? Of course. But not being sought for further use is the mark of the very best things.
This article first appeared in the October 2002 edition of Crisis Magazine.