What was Not Covered
We have come a long way. From the darkness of early Anglo-Saxon England, through the rise and rediscovery of the classics of the Renaissance, into the fading light of European glory which seeped through the cracks of the twentieth century. There is much not covered by the Highetian model – the lyrics of Góngora; the Adonis of Italian baroque poet Marini; the Homeric tragedy of the Polish Konchanowski. Into the twentieth century we enter an abundance of figures worthy of discussion – Robert Bridges; Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle; Stefan George to name but a few. There is an entire separate classical tradition left unfollowed in the field of philosophy – Voltaire, the Church, the age of reason as stemming from the logic and mteaphysics of the Greeks. Another approach would be to view the Classical tradition in terms of its influence over political greats – Charles the Twelfth though he was Alexander. Jefferson wished to be Cicero. In many ways Napoleon succeeded in making himself Caesar.
Other artists were indirectly influenced. Wagner’s The Rings of the Nibelungs, the great composer’s greatest achievement, is chiefly a non-classical influence, yet the man himself was steeped in Classical culture. He would work all morning on his music. Yet after lunch his would take to the garden and pour himself over the Greek tragedies – the only literary work he felt kept his intellect appropriately stimulated for him to continue his work the following day. Whitman called the Muses to come away from Greece and Ionia. His own poetry was boldly untraditional in pattern and feeling. Thoreau recalls how Whitman loved to ride up and down Broadway on a bus, declaiming Homer at the top of his voice. Tolstoy began to learn Greek at forty-two. His final conviction was that ‘without a knowledge of Greek there is no education’.
Indeed, the educational core of the western tradition has been Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek. This system of learning, destroyed by Europe’s post-war decline, etched in the minds of its pupils the greatness of the past, and the need to live up to its accomplishments. Among the teaching class, the Jesuits were the masters. Their students include Moliere, Descartes, Tasso, Voltaire, Calderon, Montesquieu, Corneille, Buffon, Diderot, Goldoni, Bossuet, Lesage, Chiabera, and Joyce. After them, the great teachers of the Renaissance; the Scot Buchanan, the Italian Ficino, the Frenchman Dorat, the cosmopolitan Erasmus.
It is also important to note that no writer took purely from the tradition. The personal experience of each writer is unique – his emotional and personal interactions, at the familial and professional level; the politics of his time – both at state and church level; his sources of revenue; the cities he visited and the irrevocable nationhood to which he inherited his life; his relationship to God.
Lessons to Take
The mistake the modern (or post-modern) thinker makes is to believe that the past is dead. With the rapidity of change in their daily experience, what does man now have to take and interpret from those who came before us? Many would have us belief our ancestors were ignorant close-minded, and the works of the greats are nothing but a Eurocentric interpretation of events – arrogant and pompous. Bigoted. But nobody is more bigoted than the man who forgets the past. If you are American, what can you say of 1776? Can you understand what it meant to live in that time? It is from that seed that all of America found its place in the world. The impetus to deconstruct those who constructed, without properly understanding their works, is an evil force in the modern world. If you are European, or proclaim to be a socialist, a lack of understanding of 1848 or 1917 is equally indefensible. Humanity has experienced more than our present age of abundance and outrage. This experience matters.
And so we take this wider lesson and focus it on the literary experience, namely the European experience. ‘Latin is a dead language’ states the modern zeitgeist that reneges all but instantaneous wish-fulfilment. Dead languages do indeed exist – Etruscan, Cretan. But as long as Latin is read and written. As long as the Classical tradition is remembered and embraced it yet lives. The European is the offspring of the Roman Empire, with its Latin and Greek components. Writers who truly seek to make a mark through their works recognise the agelessness of this descendance. Literature is a cornerstone of any nation or people. It is one of the benchmarks of what comprises a thriving civilisation. A literary tradition that recognises greatness in previous literary works that shapes the historical narrative and experience of millennia of thinkers. As Highet states:
‘To be difference between an educated man and an uneducated man is that the uneducated man lives only for the moment, reading his newspaper and watching the latest moving-picture, while the educated man lives in a far wider present, that vital eternity which the psalms of David and the plays of Shakespeare, the epistles of Paul, and the dialogues of Plato, speak with the same charm and power that made them immortal the instant they were written’
The hope is that this series helps the reader, caught in modernity’s many trappings, to elevate himself to the level of ‘an educated man’, even if slightly.
The Trajectory of Literature
The effect of Greece and Rome on the emergence of European literature as a fine art, worthy of the Greeks and Romans themselves, cannot be understated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity and the Church had preserved through its institutions the essence of Greek philosophical thought and had imbue in the European a scholarly attitude toward literature without which the Renaissance simply would not have occurred. The Church through its longevity and divinity it espoused, also found itself soluble with the subjects of antiquity. Dante’s Comedy is the cornerstone work which proves this.
In the Renaissance, rediscovery resulted in greater distinction and categorisation of types of literature – namely tragedy, comedy, ode, essay, elegy, epic, and satire. Literature’s ascendancy was linked to other emergent trends of the renaissance and reformation. The Thirty Years War and the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th century stalled that growth, but did not prohibit it. We were now cognisant heirs to the greats of Greece and Rome, and felt genuinely that our civilisation approached parity with them. Whether Roman republic or Greek democracy, we sought them for political guidance, culminating in the American and French wars, whose literary effect was discussed in the Age of Revolution. We sought them for spiritual guidance – in discussions between Christianity and Graeco-Roman paganism, and whether human nature was inherently good or required a supernatural guidance. How do we elicit the best of that nature? Amidst the discussion, we lurched toward the Age of Industry, whose advent of materialism led to a dilution and ultimately a retreat of the importance of Graeco-Roman literature in the eyes of first the public, and then within the institutions themselves.
We still live in this materialistic world, more so than ever before. As a result, the literary tradition has waned in immediate, if not in eternal, prominence. The twentieth century was ultimately an age of Mammon. In the grip of mechanised warfare, European man lost his sense of the divine, and his ability to reach for that divinity in a tradition akin to his predecessors. Power is now expressed purely in material terms – the deficit of one nation against another, as marked by GDP; the redistribution of wealth ‘due’ to one group over another. In The Republic, Plato referred to it as a ‘city of swine’ – content on eating, drinking, mating, and sleeping until they died.
Finding ourselves in such a situation, we must again reconsider the world of Greece and Rome. The Greeks were keen businessmen. The Romans built a vast empire of tremendous power and wealth. But if they had done no more than that, they would be as dead as the Assyrians. Their civilisation rose above the that horizontal plain of existence. After attaining the means of material security, physical health, and wealth, they probed further. The result was their intellectual legacy, a chief strand of which is the literary legacy in which we have just engaged ourselves. Literature was and remains one of the best methods of educating ourselves in the greatness of those who came before. The rest, the games and the food and the shelter and the fighting, we share with the animals.
The Noble Path of Rome
Finally, let us carve out and remember the noble path of Rome:
- Rome quietens the savage
- Rome builds the roads
- Rome makes the laws
- Rome faces and conquers ancient lands – Greece, Egypt, the Levant
- Rome is humbled by the greatness of Greek thought
- Rome cultivates and intertwines itself with that thought
- Rome encounters Christ, and is humbled by him
- Rome succumbs to its material pleasures
- Rome allows the savages to seep in
- Rome’s material wealth dwindles
- Rome ceases as a political entity
- Rome lives on – not in its material prowess, but in its literary and spiritual legacy
Great Civilisations produce great art. Greater civilisations respect the great art that came before them and incorporate it with their own. This is what the great European nations achieved in the Renaissance as they rediscovered the classics. It is by this method that the great civilisations survive their own decay. The Classical Tradition imbues all who learn it to recognise this method and write and think and thrive within it. Let us take it into the twenty-first century, as Highet helped take it into the twentieth.