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It’s not all Greek to Oxford classicists

Last year’s notably unpleasant general election campaign did not provide many moments of light relief, but one of the better distractions was that of French classical scholars queueing up online to find fault with Boris Johnson’s recitation, in an old video clip unearthed from his time as mayor, of an early passage of the Iliad in the original Homeric Greek. One managed to locate allegedly off pronunciation. Another noticed that a line had been left out midway through. The sense of insecurity this flurry of fault-finding revealed is arguably unwarranted given that the French tradition of classical education is still in tolerably good health, but there was clearly something about the spectacle of an English politician being able to recite Homer in the first place which spooked our neighbours.

That may not be a concern too often in the future if the universities have their way. In a week which has already seen the lawn of Trinity College Cambridge revised by Extinction Rebellion, news arrives that Oxford is considering a revision to the classical curriculum which would have the effect of making Homer and Virgil in the original effectively optional for future students. A lawn takes time to repair but in principle this can be accomplished with patient gardening over a few years. A classical curriculum from which Latin and Greek’s two canonical texts have been side-lined looks likely to prove damage of the more lasting kind.

Within only a few generations, the West has gone from a higher culture in which the classics were reasonably widely read to one in which the very centrepieces are becoming optional even to the few elite specialists. This is cultural and national decline at a vertiginous pace. When the late Clive James titled his 800-page survey of the landscape Cultural Amnesia, it was with the sense that some of the depth of Western civilisation had fallen into abeyance, but nevertheless was still there for those willing to seek it out. That unspoken assumption, that a higher culture in retreat has nevertheless not been lost outright, becomes more difficult to sustain when the citadels of learning are themselves joining the flight. Decisions such as Oxford’s this week have the appearance not of a lazy or an accidental overlooking, but of a deliberate and quite intentional decision to forget about much of what was once thought the highest and the best. Or, to borrow the shop slogan from discount retailer TK Maxx, ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’.

The justification is typically twofold. Firstly, it is said that without a private education before university begins, it is difficult or impossible to attain adequate proficiency in the  languages. The second claim is that less is lost by marginalising the canonical texts than people like to imagine. Both lines of thought have the air of retrospective justification for unwarranted defeatism.

We are now almost two decades since the publication of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, in which the long tradition of learning Latin and Greek among those of modest means and little leisure was documented in detail. Already a work of history then rather than a description of something living, indeed in the care of its remembering carrying the air of something of an act of piety, Rose’s study demonstrated what was routinely accomplished by virtue of the consistent application of the willing. It was not unusual, without being commonplace either, for labourers beginning with little formal education to attain the ability to read Homer in the original. In the final analysis, what might be most telling about the Prime Minister’s party piece is not that he was able to pull it off, but that we have collectively fallen so far as to believe, consciously or less explicitly, that probably only someone who went to a school such as Eton might end up being able to do so.

The West has gone from a higher culture in which the classics were reasonably widely read to one in which the very centrepieces are becoming optional

The counsel of despair from Oxford is also an unnecessary discouragement to those in own our time who might be willing on their own initiative to pick up what they can, on whom rest much of the hope for there being something of a living classical tradition in the generations still to come. Becoming a professional concert pianist is no doubt extremely difficult but learning how to play manageable parts of Mozart or Beethoven as an amateur is not, assuming as always a certain perseverance. Similarly, acquiring the level of linguistic mastery expected at a first-rate university is supposed to be very difficult, but learning enough Latin or Greek to be able to do something with it is not. Even without anything approaching mastery, the resolute amateur might find that parts of Scripture in Latin or Greek become more accessible, as does some of the poetry in either language. Someone willing to give Plato the time many people give to various series on Netflix would be able to understand parts of the Greek on its own terms, with the parallel translation taking on more of the role of supporting scaffolding and becoming over time less the centre of attention. The universities are under no obligation to pretend that any of this is easier or quicker than it actually is, but they probably are under a moral obligation not to give the impression that it is more difficult than it is either.

There is a believable story told of Churchill in one of the Asquith-era diaries which has the future Prime Minister on a yacht in the Mediterranean remarking that much of the accomplishment of the ancients was simply to have been able to be the first to say certain things, adding that he thought many of his own ideas just as good, only having less chance by now to be thought original. Echoes of this Churchillian aside can be heard whenever part of the classical canon is relegated, the thought sometimes being that what people have to say in our own generation is at least as worthy of a hearing.

Possibly the truth of the matter is the very reverse. There is less need of the classics to sustain a sense of connection with the distant generations or to provide archetypal possibilities of human understanding when the religious or spiritual traditions are still doing so successfully. It is not a comment on the truth of anything or a slight to places where tradition is living to say that the spiritual resources of the culture as a whole are somewhat marginalised and attenuated at present. As the late Sir Roger Scruton wrote fifteen years ago in Gentle Regrets, ‘the loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable.’ One cannot help but observe that Oxford’s decision to forget is directed specifically against those works, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, which deal most directly with loss, exile, homecoming, and those aspects of the human experience which, on Scruton’s account, the culture we live in is least inclined to deal with. Certainly Homer and Virgil are quite technically demanding, but more than many texts in those languages, they are also psychologically and morally demanding. Perhaps in its attempt to make life easier for its next cohort of classical students, Oxford is simply cooperating unconsciously with that drift towards forgetting which in eliding those parts of the tradition which would speak most pertinently to the absences of meaning or reference in the current cultural moment makes life more difficult for many, not less.

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