6 April, 1998

Brisbane, QLD, Australia

A Classical Education

John Ray

Over the years I have acquired something of a classical education (i.e. an education in "The Classics", meaning generally ancient Greek and Latin and their attendant literatures). My formal studies were limited to two years of Latin up to the Junior level at Cairns State High School but I subsequently did some study of Biblical Greek and Hebrew by myself whilst I was a Bible student and I have read most of the classical texts in translation. I actually read Herodotus, Aeschylus, Euripedes, Thucydides, Plato, Homer, Xenophon and Tacitus whilst I was in my teens. So I know, for example, why "Ajax" was once a popular brand name, business name, team name etc. Most contemporary Australians probably think it just the name of a popular kitchen cleaning product. Almost none would have heard of Telamon.

Since I have also studied Italian and German at some length I do find that most words in English "speak to me" -- i.e. I can see what their origins in Greek, Latin or German are and this helps me to understand exactly what they mean. I have also made a desultory study of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Middle English so this also helps in various ways.

I have along the way memorized a few quotes from Middle English, Old English, Biblical Greek, Biblical Hebrew, modern Italian and modern German which I very occasionally trot out as party pieces. The quotations that I most trot out are the first few pages of "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer (in the original Middle English), The first 4 lines of "Beowulf" (in Old English), the first two verses of the Gospel of St John (in the original Greek), the first verse of Genesis (in the original Hebrew), most of "Prometheus" by Goethe (in German) and a common Italian "joke": "Italiano e la lingua di Angeli, Inglese e la lingua di Uomini, Francesca e la lingua di donne e Tedesco e la lingua di Cavalli". The joke is a bit too rough on the Germans but apt from an Italian point of view. I think I even get the gestures right for the last leg of the joke. Most essential!

From Church Latin I mainly remember a few lines from the "Stabat Mater" -- solely because I love Pergolesi's setting of it. It does however sadden me a little when I trot even the most cliche classical quotations (such as "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes") and NOBODY understands what I am saying. Once any educated person would have recognized Laocoon's warning to the Trojans from the Virgil (Yes: That's "Virgil", not "virgin") he studied at school. The Latin literally means "I fear Greeks and bearers of gifts" (but is usually translated as "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts"). I have however met some people who understand "veni, vidi, vici" -- though I wonder how many would remember it as Caesar's inimitably succinct communique from Asia Minor.

Joy once remarked to me that in her observation the people who wrote English most clearly had all studied Latin. I think there may be a lot of truth in that. Latin grammar certainly does make you think about how sentences are constructed. I greatly enjoyed my Latin studies and I am often congratulated on the clarity with which my academic journal articles are written. Apropos of that, a colleague (Ken Rigby) once said to me that people may not agree with me but at least they can understand what I am saying. Academic journal articles are of course normally difficult for people to follow.

Be that as it may, however, it seems that as well as knowing something of Latin, Italian and German, I also have a fairly good French and Spanish vocabulary, even though I have never really studied French or Spanish. It is just stuff that I have picked up in general reading -- to the extent that I score as well in French and Spanish vocabulary recognition tests as I do in Italian and German vocabulary tests!

My cultural awareness is not however limited to the classics or languages. My very extensive knowledge of Bible texts also helps me to understand many of the roots of our culture and my wide reading generally means that there are few allusions in the newspapers or elsewhere that pass me by. For instance, when people refer in various contexts to the significance of "the dog that didn't bark" I have in fact read and remember something of the Sherlock Holmes story (”The Silver Blaze") that is being referred to.”

The key to that sort of understanding is of course the very good memory I have fortunately always had for almost anything I read. My memory is far from perfect, however. By my early twenties I knew and could pronounce the Greek, Hebrew and Cyrillic alphabets but only most of the Greek alphabet is still with me in my 50s.

The classics and high culture are of course far from being the only major influences on the world about us. Of other major influences on the modern world, the sciences and computers stand out as fields I am familiar with. My university studies of psychology and the social sciences generally also led me to a fair knowledge of the biological sciences and computers have long been a hobby of mine. So although I could not really claim to be a "renaissance man", my background in both science and the humanities does get me some of the way towards that.