What Should We Lose by Our Ignorance?

Imagine for a moment that we had never heard the names of Greece and Rome. What should we lose by our ignorance? Those of us who read poetry would find much that was unintelligible in English authors, in all English poets, I think, without exception, from Chaucer to Rupert Brooke. We should not know in Julius Caesar who the tribunes were or what the Capitol was, or how Brutus and Antony came to be the heroes of Shakespeare. We should not know what sort of thing was that Greek urn which moved Keats to song. We should see that our poets had had the entry to a world from which we were excluded, a world of some strange charm and beauty, for they moved in it as happily and as delightfully as in their own.

Then, again, the key to much of our own language would have disappeared. Most of its vocabulary would be mere sounds to us, calling up certain ideas, but leaving us quite ignorant how the words came to have their particular meaning; and this would be so, not only with words like subliminal, hypochondriac, acolyte, centripetal, exogamy, but with quite common ones like angel, planet, revolution, Bible, conscience, etc. Further, the technical terminology of medicine, botany, and many other sciences would be a meaningless jargon.

More serious would be the descent of darkness on the origins of nearly all our civilisation. We should be different from Indians or Chinese, but we should not know why; certain words would be continually on our lips, certain ideals constantly before our eyes, but we should not know whence they had come. Politics, astronomy, magnanimity, Caesarism, empire, municipality, federalism, drama, history, religion, urbanity, metaphysics, anatomy, scepticism, rationalism, and a thousand others—we should know what these words meant to us, but we should be ignorant who first had used them, who invented democracy, the name and the thing, and what success its inventors had with their experiment, who first called the study of human destiny philosophy, and along what paths of thought his “love of wisdom” took him.

Equally dark would be the origin of many of our institutions, including much in our legal system, and of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, meteorology, medicine, and other sciences (the names of nearly all the sciences betray their descent). We should not know from what seed of original inspiration had come the architectural style of most of our public buildings and many of our churches. We should live ignorant of the rock whence we were hewn and the pit whence we were digged.

A man who knows the origins of the world in which he lives looks at it with more understanding, walks in it with securer and more certain steps; he is less intimidated by words, for he knows their history, less inclined to either excessive respect or contempt for existing institutions, for he sees how they came to be there. He understands the world better, as parents understand a child whom they have known from its cradle better than a stranger understands him, and he is more confident and capable in handling it.

The difficulty with modern history and modern thought is their complexity; we grope through them and find it difficult to know where we are, what are the forces and problems around us. It is like being in a modern factory; the machinery spins, the pulleys, cogs, and driving wheels are in motion, but we cannot detect their connection and interdependence, the origin of all this activity or its purpose. To understand it we must study machinery on simpler models and a smaller scale.

We are afforded this simplicity partly by a happy accident. Athens and Rome stand on the upper courses of the rivers of civilisation, while we are on the lower reaches, where confluents from many sources have swollen and disturbed its waters. Our civilisation is compounded of contributions from Greece, Rome, Palestine; and added to these are byproducts of its own, Feudalism, the Papacy, the Renaissance, the Reformation, our own and the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution. Could the compound of all these forces be otherwise than confused and confusing? But Greece was made by herself, and Rome by herself and Greece, and they and their creations are simple. Monarchy, oligarchy, democracy were evolved by the nation that gave them their names and their forms in Greek history, and their conception in Greek thought are clearer and less complicated than they have ever been since. In the classics we study their development, and the development of the state, in domestic, imperial and foreign relations, on an easily comprehended model that has the essentials in simple form. The older the world grows, the more heavily the burdens of wealth and knowledge and complex civilisation weigh it down, the more eagerly it will look back to the many-coloured, many-sided life which humanity once led in Athens.

There is no better medicine against the dangers of the modern world than to be able to withdraw from it and view and judge it in the light of other civilisations than our own. In studying the classics we are acquiring standards independent of our own age and its prejudices, by which to judge ourselves and it.

Still, this is not the strongest argument for the classics; it is possible to live ignorant of the book of our history and to guess from its later chapters what we have never read, though such guesswork may lead to errors and misconstructions. If the classics are to stand, they must do so on their own merits; the final answer to anyone who asks why we read them must be: Look at Greek literature and Roman civilisation; listen to what the great moderns have said about them. Hear Goethe: “Of all peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best.” Hear Coleridge: “The Greeks were the masters of all grace, elegance, proportion, fancy, dignity, majesty, of whatever, in short, is capable of being conveyed by defined forms of thought.” Hear Shelley: “Never at any other period has so much energy, beauty, and virtue been developed; never was blind strength and stubborn form so disciplined and rendered subject to the will of man, or that will less repugnant to the dictates of the beautiful and the true, as during the century which preceded the death of Socrates. Of no other epoch in the history of our species have we records and fragments stamped so visibly with the image of the divinity in man.”

From the small cities on the Aegean coasts came the idea of giving a rational account of the universe, its shape, composition, and behaviour, and with the idea, guesses, often wild, as was to be expected, but which contain the seeds of modern thought. The secret of this colossal achievement is simple. Greece is the ferment of the intelligence, quickening, permeating all media with life. The Greek genius is the triumph of creative intelligence. It is reason joined with vision, not mere intelligence, but creative intelligence; and it is the highest of intellectual qualities. Reason without vision is cold, creeping, inadequate; vision without reason may be fantastic, unreal, either ineffective or dangerous. But the greatest men are neither mere thinkers nor mere dreamers. They are neither like Hume an d Locke, nor like Blake and Shelley. In them vision and reason blend; they dream, but reason rols and orders their vision. They think, but vision reveals to their thought the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them.

For its literary masterpieces, for its sane and steady view of life, for its intellectual inspiration and stimulus, Greece is unmatched and unmatchable: the Greek temper is so necessary to us, yet so alien from us, that we require it as constitutions of a certain habit require iron.

Greece and Rome are complementary; each has a deficiency, and each supplies the other’s deficiency. If nothing moves in the world but what is Greek, it is almost true to say that nothing stands but what is Roman. Combine the two and you have the strength of Rome without its hardness, the glory of Greece without its instability, and (what is important for education), you have perfect models of two sides of human nature.