Like all mythologies of origins, however, this account is both partially true and partially false. First, there really was no such thing as a "humanist movement" either in philosophical or other terms. The term "humanism" was coined in by a German educator, F. Niethammer, to describe a program of study distinct from scientific and engineering educational programs. In the fifteenth century, the term "umanista," or "humanist," was current and described a professional group of teachers whose subject matter consisted of those areas that were called studia humanitatis.
The studia humanitatis originated in the mddle ages and were all those educational disciplines outside of theology and natural science. Humanism was not opposed to logic, as is commonly held, but opposed to the particular brand of logic known as Scholasticism. In point of fact, the humanists actively revised the science of logic. Humanism, then, really begins during the middle ages in Europe; while the humanist scholars of the Renaissance made great strides and discoveries in this field, humanistic studies were really a product of middle ages.
Not only that, the "rediscovery" of the classical world which was the hallmark of Renaissance humanism in reality began much earlier in the middle ages; as Europeans began to see themselves as a single ethnic group with a common origin in the middle ages, the recovery of classical literature, both Latin and Greek, became a concern for all the medieval centers of learning.
The studia humanitatis consisted of more or less five disciplines drawn from the classical educational curriculum, called the trivium "the three part curriculum": It is interesting for Englishmen to remember that Winchester College was built in Vittorino's boyhood, and that the Mantuan public school was at its zenith when Henry VI.
Both those illustrious foundations, since so distinguished as seats of humanistic training, arose before humanism had come to England, and were originally of the ecclesiastical type. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, a few Oxford scholars, who had visited Italy,—William Selling, Grocyn, William Latimer, Thomas Linacre ,—brought the taste for humane letters to England, where it was presently quickened by the visits of Erasmus. St Paul's School, founded by the friend of Erasmus, Dean Colet, is the oldest in England which was humanistic from its origin.
Its first High Master, William Lily, of Magdalen College, appointed by the founder in , is best remembered as a Latin grammarian, but had also studied Greek at Rhodes and afterwards at Rome. It might almost be said that the relation in which St Paul's School stood to the influence of the earliest Oxford humanists resembled that in which Vittorino's school at Mantua stood to the early humanism of Florence.
The statutes of St Paul's, dated , prescribe that the High Master shall be "learned in good and clean Latin, and also in Greek, if such may be gotten. Several great public schools were founded, or re-founded, in or near London, during the century which followed;—Christ's Hospital in , Westminster in , Merchant Taylor's in , Charterhouse in ; and in all of these, as in many smaller grammar-schools founded at the same period, the basis was humanistic.
But it was probably not much before that Greek was thoroughly established among English school studies. The statutes of Harrow School, dated , contain directions for the teaching of some Greek orators and historians, and of Hesiod.
This seems to be one of the earliest English examples of detailed regulations, as distinguished from merely general prescription, concerning the school study of Greek. The resources of humanism as an instrument of education have been expanded and enriched by the manifold development of the higher classical learning in the centuries since the Renaissance.
After the age of Petrarch, of Politian, of Erasmus, came Joseph Scaliger, akin, on the literary side of his work, to the Italian scholars, but more characteristically occupied in the endeavour to frame a critical chronology of the ancient world; Casaubon, the first who popularized a connected knowledge of ancient life and manners; Bentley, active primarily in the emendation of texts, but also in the higher criticism of classical history and literature; then a long series of eminent names, too long to enumerate, which extends from the days of Porson and Elmsley, of Hermann and Lachmann, to those of Mommsen.
All these developments have lent new life and freshness to classical studies generally: The ideal of humanism has thus been reinforced in a manner which brings back to us something of the spirit which animated the Renaissance when it was largest and most vigorous. For the enthusiasm of the Renaissance was nourished by the monuments of classical art scarcely less than by the masterpieces of literature.
Each statue that was disinterred from Italian soil, every stone or coin or gem that could help to illustrate the past, became a source of delight to men whose strenuous aim was to apprehend classical antiquity as a whole.
But the very progress made in recent times has brought us to a point at which the larger educational benefits of humanism become more difficult to harmonise with the new standards of special knowledge. But each of the latter subjects is now, in itself, an organized and complex discipline; to become an expert in any one of them is a work of years. Hence much can be said in favour of a plan by which the University student, who is to devote a course of three or four years to the humane letters, confines himself, during the earlier stage of it, to the languages and literatures; then turns away from these, viewed in their wider range, and concentrates himself, for the rest of his time, on one or two important aspects of classical antiquity, such as philosophy and history, to the exclusion of the rest.
The younger student, in the highest form of a school where the classics are taught, has not yet reached the moment at which the need of specializing begins to be felt.
We will suppose that he has an aptitude and taste for literary studies; and the number of such boys is always very considerable—immensely larger, for instance, than the number of those who are fitted to excel in Greek or Latin composition. When he first attains to some appreciation of the best classical poetry and prose, he goes through a little Renaissance of his own; he feels the stimulus of discovery; he perceives, in some measure, a beauty of form unlike anything that he has found elsewhere; there is much in the thoughts of those great writers, much of their charm, much of their music, that fixes itself in his memory, and becomes part of his consciousness.
However dimly and imperfectly, there lives before him a world very distinct from that in which he moves, and yet, as he can already feel, by no means wholly alien from it; though perhaps he does not yet understand with any clearness the nature of the links which bind that past to the present. This, as many masters and pupils could testify, is an experience not confined to the school-boy of exceptional temperament or gifts; it is one common to a fairly large proportion of boys who have no more than a good average capacity for literary studies in general.
And it is an experience which is not forgotten afterwards. Whatever the man's work may be in after years, if ever he looks back and tries to date epochs in his mental history, he will recur to that early time as a season which made the buds unfold and the leaves grow, which gave him new elements of intellectual life and interest. But the conditions under which that early experience was gained are modified when the student passes to the University.
It may be that he works under a system which permits him to devote the whole of his academic course to the classical languages and literatures; if so, the humanistic training begun at school is carried to a certain maturity; but it remains exclusively literary.
If, on the other hand, he turns, at a certain point, from the general study of the languages and literatures to one or two special subjects, such as ancient philosophy and history, then he is expected to aim at the standards set by modern specialists in those subjects.
That through these subjects he can receive an admirable intellectual training, is not disputed. But his range of view is necessarily contracted. The particular educational merits which belong to humanistic studies of a larger scope are different in kind from those which can be claimed for any special department of such studies when isolated from the rest. It may be added that, when specialization has been carried far in any study of literature or art, that study tends to become technical; and then a danger arises lest the pursuit of exact method should obscure the nature of the material with which the study has to deal, namely, productions of human thought and imagination; there is a danger lest analogies drawn from studies conversant with different material should be pushed too far, and what is called the scientific spirit should cease to be duly tempered by aesthetic and literary judgment.
We remember what Gibbon so characteristically said about his early mathematical studies: No one will suspect me of underrating the immense services which have been rendered to classical study, in every department, by deeper and more thorough work, by rational and exact methods of research. I only say that the tendency to make those methods too technical is one of the besetting temptations of the higher and more esoteric classical study,—a fashion in which it sometimes appears even to exult, as though it were a warning to the profane to stay outside; and I say that such a tendency is adverse to the appropriate and sympathetic treatment of any subject-matter derived from literature or art.
Aristotle observes in the Rhetoric that a speaker unconsciously but inevitably passes out of the province of that art if he begins to reason in the technical terms of a particular science; and one feels that the modern specialist, in certain branches of classical study, may come perilously near to passing out of the province of humanism. At any rate, I suppose it would be generally agreed that one of the chief problems which we have to face in classical studies at the present day is this: It would not be my desire, even if the occasion permitted, to attempt a detailed criticism of any particular answer to that question which has taken shape and is now operative in this country.
But one is tempted to ask whether the advance of knowledge and the subdivision of the field have really made it impossible to obtain, in the education of University students, something nearer to that more comprehensive survey of classical antiquity at which the earlier humanists aimed.
It may be a dream, but it is an interesting subject of speculation. Evidently we have to reckon, at the outset, with a prepossession which the growth of high specializing has strengthened; namely, that the only intellectually valuable knowledge of a subject is such as is possessed by the specialist, the expert, in that subject; and that the acquisition of knowledge which is not, in that sense, thorough can be of little or no worth, either as a discipline or as a result.
Now, the most general recommendation of all classical study is the supreme and varied excellence of the classical literatures; these illustrate, and are illustrated by, all the activities of classical thought and life. A conceivable ideal of humanistic study under modern conditions—whether it be practicable or not, I do not venture to pronounce, though I am not convinced that it is impracticable—would be one which took those literatures as the basis throughout, but also exacted some measure of acquaintance with each of the more important among the other subjects of classical study.
Take, for example, the subject of classical art, which means primarily and chiefly Greek art. Even a limited knowledge of that subject is obviously of the greatest value to a student of classical literature; not merely, of course, as a key to allusions, but often in a far deeper sense, as throwing light on the spirit which animates both monuments and books.
I repeat, even a limited knowledge of classical art has that use,—a knowledge which stops far short of the equipment requisite for a specialist in the subject. But, because it is limited, must it therefore be superficial or unsound?
It is difficult to see why it must be so. The teacher to whom students of the classical literatures would have recourse in this matter would be the specialist in classical art. Would he not be competent to decide what parts of his own subject are the most essential for such students to know? And would he not be competent to secure that, in those selected parts, and within the limits which he himself had traced, the knowledge should not be unsound or superficial?
Like considerations apply to other special departments. I must be content to have asked this question, and leave the judgment upon it to others.
I turn now to the brief consideration of a larger question. What is the general position of the humane letters in this country at the present day, and what are their prospects of retaining that position? The most salient feature in the intellectual development of this century has been the progress of science.
And this century is the first since the revival of learning in which a serious challenge has been thrown down to the defenders of the humanistic tradition. But I think it will be found that the position of humanism in this country at the close of the century is much stronger than it was at the beginning. In the earlier part of the century, the classics still held a virtual monopoly, so far as literary studies were concerned, in the public schools and Universities.
And they had no cause to be ashamed of their record. The culture which they supplied, while limited in the sphere of its operation, had long been an efficient and vital influence, not only in forming men of letters and learning, but in training men who afterwards gained distinction in public life and in various active careers.
There can be no better proof that such a discipline has penetrated the mind, and has been assimilated, than if, in the crises of life, a man recurs to the great thoughts and images of the literature in which he has been trained, and finds there what braces and fortifies him, a comfort, an inspiration, an utterance for his deeper feelings.
Robert Wood, in his " Essay on the Original Genius of Homer " , relates a story which will illustrate what I mean. In , at the end of the Seven Years' War, Wood, being then an Under-Secretary of State, took the preliminary articles of the Treaty of Paris to the President of the Council, Lord Granville; who was then ill, and had, indeed, but a few days to live.
Seeing what his condition was, Wood proposed to withdraw; but the statesman replied that it could not prolong his life to neglect his duty, and then quoted in Greek from the " Iliad ," the words of Sarpedon to Glaucus: That is what I meant by a man recurring, in a crisis of life, to the great thoughts of the literature on which he has been nourished.
Or, to give one other example: It was Eton, he says, which had taught him to aim high, and to approach the bright fountains of the ancient wisdom,— et purum antiquae lucis adire iubar ; to her he owes whatever he has achieved, and from her he asks a final resting-place.
Yes, to such men the humanities had been a true culture; but the social sphere within which they gave that culture had been, as I have said, limited. And in the earlier years of this century there arose in English letters no popular force tending to spread a recognition of the humanistic ideal. In our imaginative literature the most potent forces, those which exerted the widest influence, were then on the side of the romanticists.
The genius of Walter Scott was of course essentially romantic; so, too, was that of Byron, his interest in Greece notwithstanding. Only a very limited audience was in those days commanded by the writers whose genius had a native kinship with the classical, such as Keats and Landor. But a little later came Tennyson, whose influence throughout the English-speaking world has made strongly for an appreciation of the classical spirit, not only directly, through his poems on classical themes, but also generally, by his qualities of form and style.
And the influence of Matthew Arnold, both as a poet and as a critic, if less widely popular than Tennyson's, has had a not less penetrating and subtle power in making the Greek spirit, and the distinctive qualities of the best Greek achievement, understood and felt by cultivated readers. Then, in the domain of history, Grote's great work, the work of a man of affairs, has done much, more perhaps than any other one book of the century, to invest his subject with a vivid, an almost modern interest for a world wider than the academic, and has done so all the more effectively just because his own antecedents were not academic.
Again, there has been a considerable literature, the growth chiefly of the last forty years, which has sought to popularize the classical literatures in a scholarly sense, and to illustrate them from the modern,—such books as those of the late Mr Symonds and the late Professor Sellar. To these must be added translations of the higher order, such as that by which Professor Jowett has made Plato an English classic.
New facilities of travel have enabled thousands to become acquainted with the scenes of Greek and Roman life. The study of classical antiquity has been in many respects revolutionized by a series of striking discoveries in Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt. The opportunities of exploration for English students have been improved by the establishment in of a school at Athens, which may probably be followed, ere long, by the opening of a similar school at Rome. The wealth of the British Museum in classical antiquities has received frequent accessions; it was never before so attractive or so well organized as a place of classical study.
In all these ways, the humanistic studies have, during this century, become wider and more real. They have gradually been drawn out of a scholastic isolation, and have been brought more and more into the general current of intellectual and literary interests. So far from losing strength or efficacy by ceasing to hold that more exclusive position which they occupied two or three generations ago, they have acquired a fresh vigour, a larger sphere of genuine activity, and a place in the higher education which is more secure, because the acceptance on which it rests is more intelligent.
There was, indeed, a moment in this century when the attack upon the humanities was somewhat formidable. It was rather more than thirty years ago, towards the end of the period during which the classics had enjoyed a virtual monopoly in literary education.
The educational claims of science had been fully developed, and were being powerfully urged by champions of whom Professor Huxley was the most brilliant; but these claims had not yet been effectively recognised by adequate provision for the teaching of science in schools and Universities.
Several able men, who had been trained in classical studies and had been successful in them, were discontented with the classical system, were conscious of personal needs which it had not satisfied, and felt a sort of resentment against it.
In education, as in other matters, some of these men were advanced and eager reformers, who, by their general habit of mind, apart from their particular complaints against the classics, were unlikely to feel any prejudice in favour of tradition,—were apt to be sceptical, or even scornful, of anything alleged on behalf of the humanities which appeared to them sentimental or conventional,—and were little disposed to conserve any element in education to which they could not assign a definite rational value.
As a typical expression of those tendencies, one might mention the volume of " Essays on a Liberal Education ," published in In the sixties, then, considering the strength of the attack both from without and from within, the position of humane studies was certainly more seriously imperilled than it had ever been before. Not, indeed, that even then there was any danger of their being discarded at once.
But there was a danger of another kind. Some influential men were saying, "Keep Latin if you like, but drop Greek, or reserve it for a few boys; and take care that the classics do not, in any case, trench upon the time which should, in all schools, be given to natural science and to modern studies.
That danger was sensibly increased by a further circumstance. It was the first time in England that classical education had been seriously put upon its defence; and some of its less discreet defenders made some claims on its behalf which were ill-founded or exaggerated.
Thus one eminent scholar said, "If the old classical literature were swept away, the moderns would in many cases become unintelligible, and in all cases lose most of their characteristic charms. One distinguished head-master even said, "It is scarcely possible to speak the English language with accuracy or precision, without a knowledge of Latin or Greek. And when such people, who had no personal knowledge of humanistic study, heard claims made for it which seemed repugnant to experience and common-sense, they not unnaturally suspected that the whole case for the humanities was unsound.
But in the last thirty years the position of the humane letters, relatively to other studies, has been altered in several important respects.
The study of the natural sciences is now firmly established in schools and Universities; it can no longer be said that a haughty and exclusive humanism keeps them out of the educational field: Modern languages and literatures have also their recognised place in the higher education; if they do not yet attract as many disciples as they deserve, the reason is not that they are neglected or discouraged by educational authorities, but rather that they are new studies, with methods and aims which are still in some measure tentative, and competing with highly equipped rivals of older standing.
This establishment of the modern studies is, so far as I have seen, viewed by humanists generally with cordial satisfaction. The spirit of humanism, indeed, wherever it is not a narrow pedantry, is one which welcomes every accession to the domain of sound knowledge. Meanwhile, the claims of humanism itself, sifted by a period of controversy, and illustrated by the larger views of liberal education which now prevail, are usually stated with more discrimination than formerly, and are more willingly and more widely acknowledged.
Now, what are the true and permanent claims of humanistic studies? They are of two kinds, the intrinsic, and the historical. The intrinsic merits of the classical literatures depend, in the first place, on their purely literary qualities in respect to form and style.
The creative literature of Greece, from Homer to Demosthenes, had a course of spontaneous and natural growth, throughout which it was in constant touch with life; and it has left a series of typical standards in prose and poetry. The excellence of these models is not a scholastic figment or a medieval superstition; it is a fact which has been recognised, through all the changes of the centuries, by the common feeling and the general consent of civilised mankind.
The Roman literature, though partly imitative, is not only original in some of its types, but original throughout as a manifestation of the Latin genius in the speech which that genius moulded; and abounds in works of poetry and prose which must always rank as masterpieces.
An unguarded champion of the classics once said of them that "they utterly condemn all false ornament, all tinsel, all ungraceful and unshapely work. The utility of the classical languages as subjects of study and as instruments of training depends partly on these qualities of the literatures, but also on the importance of these languages themselves for grammar and comparative philology.
They afford, moreover, a discipline in nicety of judgment which is all the better because the questions of idiom and usage which they raise cannot be solved by living authority. The intrinsic value of the classical literatures depends, further, on their contents. The claim made for them on this score at the present day is much more limited than that which was made by the humanists of the Renaissance; but, within those limits, it is as valid as ever.
The observations and discoveries of the Greeks and Romans in particular sciences, such as Mathematics or Medicine, have been incorporated or transmuted in modern work, and no longer form a practical reason for studying the literatures, though still investing them with a special interest for some students who would not otherwise be drawn to them.
But an universal and abiding interest belongs to another and far larger element in their contents. That element is the store of experience and observation accumulated by keen watchers of human nature and conduct through all the centuries from Homer to Justinian. And the utterance of this varied wisdom of life is precisely one of the regions in which the distinctive excellences of classical expression shine most. This is a kind of literary wealth which, as John Stuart Mill said of it, "does not well admit of being transferred bodily" into modern books, and "has been very imperfectly transferred even piecemeal.
The historical value of the classical literatures is that which arises from their relation to the modern. No one, of course, would now maintain that a knowledge of Greek or Latin is necessary to success in writing English; such a statement could be disproved by a cloud of witnesses,—among others, by Shakespeare, De Foe, Bunyan, Byron, Carlyle, Cobbett, Charles Lamb.
But it is certain that no one can comprehend the history and development of English literature, or of any literature of modern Europe, without a knowledge of the ultimate sources in ancient Greece and Italy. Without such a knowledge, the process by which the forms of modern literature have been evolved would be unintelligible. It has been urged, indeed, that for a student of a modern literature the important thing is to know the immediate antecedents of that literature, rather than the more remote; and that, if the student of English literature, for instance, studies Early English, it is needless to trouble him with Greek or Latin.
It may be replied, however, that, in the study of modern literary history, the light afforded by the nearer past differs in kind from that which is given by the more distant past. The nearer past will explain details; as a study of Chaucer will give the key to some later forms or usages of the language.
But it is necessary to go further back,—in the case of any European literature, it is necessary to go back to ancient Greece and Italy, if you desire to find the points from which the main currents of literary tradition started, and from which the chief types in literature have been derived. An ordinary reader does not require to know the classics in order to appreciate and enjoy modern literature, though such knowledge will enhance his appreciation and enjoyment at many points.
But, for any one who aspires to be a scholarly critic of modern literature, the knowledge is indispensable. Finally, it should not be forgotten that classical literature affords the best, if not a necessary, preparation for the study of classical art; and that Greek art remains, in its own province, the most perfect expression of the artistic spirit.
Such, in outline, are the principal claims that can be made for the humanities. These merits surely entitle them to keep their place in the higher literary education. I do not think that there is any exaggeration in what Mr Froude said thirteen years ago, that, if we ever lose those studies, "our national taste, and the tone of our national intellect, will suffer a serious decline.
It is not difficult to lose such standards, even for a nation with the highest material civilisation, with abounding mental activity, and with a great literature of its own.
It is peculiarly easy to do so in days when the lighter and more ephemeral kinds of writing form for many people the staple of daily reading.
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