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.

Some later reflections about education -- from July, 2015

I guess lots of people have heard old fogies like me complaining  that education "ain't what it used to be". And of course it is not.  The world of today is different from the past and education must reflect that to some extent.  

A century ago, a "Greekless" person was regarded as not fully educated, for instance.  Even if you were not fluent in ancient Greek, you were expected to know the more famous quotations and be able to at least figure out the bits that you did not know.  These days a knowledge of html is much more important and helpful.  It certainly makes blogging easier.

But good stuff has undoubtedly been lost in today's schools and replaced with blah. Important areas of cultural awareness have been supplanted by lessons about fluid sexual identities and the importance of saving the planet! Not to mention the evils of patriarchy and lies about Hitler being a conservative.

And it takes us old guys to be aware of that.  If you have never been exposed to something you cannot know what you have missed. And to have missed exposure to our great cultural heritage is a great loss indeed.  There is, of course, culture of all sorts. But what I am talking about is areas of enjoyment that have stood the test of time.  And poetry, literature and music are such areas. 

Contrary to what Leftists seem to believe, the world did not begin yesterday.  It's possible that half of all the great minds that have ever existed are alive today -- but what about the other half?  And the traditional role of education was to tell us about that other half

And it is particularly in the area of culture that the other half is important.  Scientists, engineers and philosophers of the past have now mostly been completely superseded.  Isaac Newton, for instance, was brilliant in his day but physics has long gone beyond him in its understanding of the universe.  But cultural contributions are really never superseded.  Monteverdi might have written the Vespro della Beata Vergine 400 years ago but  it is still performed and enjoyed to this day.  And, for religious music, no-one has surpassed J.S. Bach, who lived from 1685 to 1750.

And its the same in poetry.  Poets like Coleridge and Tennyson just simply cannot be replaced.  They are sui generis and give particular pleasures that no-one else does.  There are other good poets but to miss out of Tennyson and Coleridge is to miss out on much of the pleasure that poetry can bring.  Tennyson died in 1892. Samuel Taylor Coleridge died in 1834.  And if you like poetry but know nothing of either of those dead white men, you have simply missed out on a great experience.

So I am glad that I went to school when the importance of the culture of the past was still recognized.  In the '50s I went to a totally undistinguished Australian country school but came away from it not only with some knowledge of mathematics, chemistry  and physics but also a knowledge of the great poets, a basic grasp of Latin and Italian -- and a good introduction to the language and literature of Germany.  At age 15 I was even learning to recite and sing Schubert Lieder  in the original German.  And I knew English language poems by Tennyson and others by heart.  And it was also courtesy of my school that, at age 13 or thereabouts, I first heard Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

But most of that will be Greek to young readers today.  They have no idea of how much enjoyment and satisfaction has been hidden from them.

So how come I learnt all that highbrow stuff in a country school half a world away from where it originated?  It was basically because Britain's very prestigious "public" (meaning private!) schools taught that sort of thing.  And because of the acknowledged excellence of such schools, they became a model that everyone wanted to emulate.  I was, in short, taught a curriculum not too different from what I would have got at Eton.

But nowadays everything from the past is wrong in our Left-dominated educational system so Eton traditions are the last thing that a "modern" educator would respect.

And yet the past can be so helpful.  Readers of novels, for instance, always have the problem that you usually have to read a fair bit of a novel before you know whether it is any good.  Without guidance of some sort you cannot know in advance whether a novel is worth reading and you can waste a lot of time on something that in the end gives you nothing.

But classic novels are classics because lots of people have found them good over a long period of time and recommended them to others.  They are the sort of book of which people have long said:  "You MUST read ...".   So knowing which are the classic novels can greatly upgrade the pleasure you get out of reading.

For instance, I greatly enjoyed reading many years ago what some say is only the second novel ever written in English --  "Joseph Andrews" by Fielding. Can anybody who has read that book forget "Madam Slipslop"?  I cannot.  Sometimes a classic novel has great insights but it is always entertaining. And fortunately, you can get a reading list of great novels and enjoy them.

It's not so simple with poetry.  The great pleasure of poetry is not to read it just once but to KNOW it.  And that means to know at least some of it by heart. If you do, you will often recite it, either out loud or just in your head.  And you will enjoy doing that.  But there's the difficulty:  The older you get the harder it is to memorize things.  Anything that needs memorizing basically has to be done when you are young -- preferably at school.  So if you were never taught any of the great classic poems at school, the pleasure of poetry has basically been ripped away from you.  Sorry.  But that's it.  If you want to try yourself out, here is a famous but short poem by Tennyson. It's a lament over the death of his homosexual lover.  The Left seem to think they have invented homosexuality recently.  They have not.

Break, Break, Break


Break, break, break,
         On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
         The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
         That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
         That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
         To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
         And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
         At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
         Will never come back to me.

It's a wonderful and heartfelt poem by a master of the English language.  I learnt it at school.

And then there is music.  Fortunately, the simpler music from the past has been  much revived by the folk music movement -- so remains accessible regardless of your education. It was the folkies who introduced to "Cutty Wren", written over 200 years ago. If you know that song can you ever forget "John the red nose"?  I cannot.

But some of the slightly more complex songs from the past should also be enjoyable to many.  I think particularly of madrigals. They were once taught as part of a good education. In some private schools they still are.  Take Monteverdi's Chiome d' Oro ("Tresses of gold").  It's a love song to a lady with blonde hair! A not unfamiliar idea, though probably politically incorrect these days.  The many ladies who blond their hair these days would sympathize.  A good performance here. It's wonderful.  Monteverdi wrote it around 400 years ago.  Words translated from the Italian  here.

And that brings me to another important cultural element:  languages.  If you learn (say) German at school you will almost certainly never get to the point of being able to have a reasonable conversation in it.  That is not the point.  It is much more likely that you WILL get to the point where you  can make  some fist of reading texts in that language.  And that IS useful.

Translating plain text into English from another language is difficult enough but translating a work of art into English is just about impossible.  The translation will never be as gracious as the original. That came home forcefully to me when I was reading the translation of Chiome d' Oro.  Italian was one of the languages I studied in my schooldays and the translation of Chiome d' Oro is nowhere as magical as the original Italian.  Every Italian would agree with me on that!  You just miss so much if your cultural awareness is limited to English.

All that came back to me recently when Anne asked me "Who is this Goethe fella?".  Johann  Wolfgang von Goethe is of course Germany's most famous and beloved poet.  And seeing that he wrote in the land of music, it is no surprise that his poems have been set to music -- by Hugo Wolf, Franz Schubert and others.  Some of Schubert's most famous Lieder are to texts written by Goethe. So I was able to introduce Anne to Goethe via the Schubert Lieder.

So, for the benefit of anybody reading this who might have an interest in classical music let me link to just two of the songs I found. Let me revisit some things that it has been my great good fortune to enjoy for nearly 60 years.

There is for instance here a good rendition of Gretchen am Spinnrade set by Schubert.  It is a love song.  It is from the legend of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the Devil.  Faust wanted Gretchen so the Devil made her fall frantically and hopelessly  in love with him.  The song tells of her feelings.  A translation from the German:

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.
Where I do not have him,
That is the grave,
The whole world
Is bitter to me.

My poor head
Is crazy to me,
My poor mind
Is torn apart.

For him only, I look
Out the window
Only for him do I go
Out of the house.

His tall walk,
His noble figure,
His mouth's smile,
His eyes' power,

And his mouth's
Magic flow,
His handclasp,
and ah! his kiss!

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.

My bosom urges itself
toward him.
Ah, might I grasp
And hold him!

And kiss him,
As I would wish,
At his kisses
I should die!

And if the song is good, just the music Schubert wrote for it is great too.  There is an incredibly sensitive performance of it for solo piano by a Chinese lady -- Yuja Wang -- here.  What a treasure it is that the East Asians seem to like our classical music even more than we do! If, as seems likely, the Leftists achieve the destruction of our civilization, China will preserve our great cultural treasures.  

And, getting back to Goethe, there is Erlkoenig set by Schubert -- one of the most famous of the Schubert Lieder. A version sung by the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a famous German baritone) is here -- with English subtitles.  The story is of an ill child who is having hallucinations while his father is riding frantically to get the child home.  It is very dramatic.

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