The Classics in France – and in England
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[ 469 The Classics in France – and in England1 The Criterion: A Quarterly Review, 2 (Oct 1923) 104-05 Latin and Greek are to be reinstated in public instruction in France; and already there are not wanting interpreters to tell us that this is no doubt excellent for the French.2 But in England, we are told and shall be told, such a step would be a step backward, an artificial restriction and a barrier toliberalProgress.Andthedifferenceisexplained.TheFrenchare“Latins”; the English are Saxons, or – not to put too fine a point upon it – Teutons. Such a theory is only one of the many absurd conclusions to which popular ethnology and popular philology may lead us, but it happens to be one of the most noxious of these absurdities. Because most of the radical grunts of the French language came north from the Mediterranean, and ours came west from Scythia, or thereabouts,3 the French must base their culture on Latin and Greek, and we must not. But what have the French in common with Greece (except a port on the middle sea) that we have not? and is the French spirit really more akin to that of Rome than ours? The fact is, of course, that all European civilisations are equally dependent upon Greece and Rome – so far as they are civilisations at all. If we were indeed beyond the sphere of influence of Greece and Rome, and could produce a civilisation independent of them, well and good; we have no prejudice against non-European civilisations. But it would be as ridiculous for us to deny our ancestry as for India and China to reject their ancient literature, con Virgil, and compose Horatian odes. And it is as ludicrous to approve Latin for the Frenchman and belittle it for the Englishman as to approve Sanskrit for the Bengali and condemn it for the Marathi.4 Those who diminish Latin and Greek fail to comprehend what goes to make a civilisation. Three or four great novelists do not make a literature, thoughWarandPeaceisaverygreatnovelindeed.5 Ifeverythingderivedfrom Rome were withdrawn – everything we have from Norman-French society, from the Church, from Humanism, from every channel direct and indirect, what would be left? A few Teutonic roots and husks. England is a “Latin” country, and we ought not to have to go to France for our Latinity, any more 1923 470 ] than we ought to be obliged to go there for our cooking. But two hundred years ago the English cuisine, like English music, was not to be despised. T. S. E. Notes 1. Printed under the general title, “NOTES,” and followed by a paragraph titled “The Church of Rome” by assistant editor Richard Aldington. The section “NOTES” was permanently replaced by “A Commentary” in the issue of Apr 1924. 2. TSE responds to an editorial, “The Classics in France,” in the Times of 31 Aug 1923 announcing the decision by French educational authorities, who had removed the obligatory teaching of classical languages in 1902, that “Latin and Greek will become once more the door to the degree of bachelor of arts and to the learned professions” (9). The editors asserted that France “has always been more directly a product of the classical spirit than ourselves. . . . Her resolve, therefore, to return to compulsory classics must not necessarily be made to serve as an argument on this side of the Channel. . . . Magnificent as the representatives of the classical genius have been in England, they are not the sole expressions of the English character, which remains at bottom obstinately ‘humorous’ and noncomformist. Such is still the effect of the unreclaimed Teutonic element in us, which we have never been able, and perhaps never really wished, to shake off.” 3. Scythia: an ancient region north of the Black Sea, encompassing parts of modern Ukraine, Russia, and Western Asia and inhabited by a number of nomadic tribes. 4. Though the Bengali language, spoken in the state of Bengal, descends more directly from the Sanskrit than the Marathi, spoken in the state of Maharashtra, both Indo-Aryan languages share attributes of the ancient language and culture. 5. Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel was published in 1869. ...


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