The Very Rev. Dean Inge

The Very Rev. Dean Inge on ‘The Classics and Modern Life’

From Whitefriars Journal, vol. IV, no. 2, February 1914, pp. 50-53.

October 31st 1913– The Very Reverend Dean Inge was the Club guest, with Friar Richard Whiteing in the chair. Among the guests present were: Mr Edwin Pugh, the well-known novelist of London life, Mr Frederick Watson, author of Shallows, etc., [son of ‘Ian Maclaren’, the Rev. John Watson], the Rev. G. E. Darlaston, M.A., Mr Charles Aitken, Director of the Tate Gallery, Mr G. E. Dreaper, Mr St. John Ervine, the Rev. Prebendary Loraine, of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Mr D. J. Knox, Mr Henry White, Mr William Shackleford, Mr John Walker, Mr W. Hunter, Mr F. X. Fincham, Mr J. Stuart Hay, and Mr Cyril Brown.

The topic for discussion was ‘The Classics and Modern Life’, and in his opening speech the Prior remarked that on entering upon his present charge our guest had spoken with a refreshing candour on many topics, and, for his part, he thought that, though sometimes Dean Inge hit him personally in some of his prejudices, his likes and his dislikes, he did him good in the long run, because what he said was just what an independent-minded man thought in his heart and in his soul: and that was all we wanted from any man. And if the Press had not dealt quite fairly with his utterances, he hoped the Dean would make allowances for the conditions in which the modern newspaper came out – conditions forbidding, for example, that any article should ‘turn the column’, and that compelled the sub-editor to deal lightly with the context of a speech in his search for its ‘plums’.

The Very Reverend Dean, who had a splendid reception, thanked the Prior heartily for the way in which he had proposed his health, and the company for the way in which it had responded. He regarded their invitation as a great honour and a source of real pleasure to him. As an assistant master for four and a tutor for fifteen years, his time had been largely taken up in teaching Greek and Latin to more or less reluctant pupils; but he did not wish to approach the topic before them from its scholastic side. There were, he felt, indications that we were approaching the beginning of the end of a long and mighty tradition which had affected the whole course of our civilisation. We no longer looked with deference, as our forbears did, to Greece and Rome. But the real marvel was that the tradition had lasted so long. After remarking that history explained most things, and giving a vivid description of the rise and development of the old classical influence in modern Europe, he said we had no reason to be ashamed of the result as seen in the now oldfashioned type of the scholar and gentleman, such as the Marquess Wellesley, or as witnessed in such later representatives of scholarship as Jowett, Jebb, Grote, Gilbert Murray, Mackail, and others. The old forms, however, did not appeal to the younger generation, and he asked us to think what the evidently pending change might mean in all departments of human knowledge. Classical influence was at the root of some of the noblest of English poetry. Citing from Paradise Lost the lines beginning –

‘Hail, holy Light! offspring of heaven’s first-born––’

he ventured to suggest that no man who had not a classical education could appreciate the beauty of that passage. We were faced by new forces of science and industrialism. Bacon’s reference to the old alchemists who ‘call upon men to sell their books and to build furnaces’, seemed like a prophecy of our own time, the tendency of which appeared to be expressed in the words of the Louvain Principal quoted in The Vicar of Wakefield: ‘You see me, young man: I never learnt Greek, and I don’t find that I have ever missed it. I have had a doctor’s cap and gown without Greek; I have ten thousand florins a year without Greek; I eat heartily without Greek; and, in short, as I don’t know Greek, I do not believe there is any good in it.’ To illustrate the effect of the new spirit on the modern student, the Dean cited Charles Darwin’s regret that excessive attention to natural science had simply killed his love of poetry and fiction. Concluding, the speaker dwelt on the qualities of the Greek spirit, qualities drawn doubtless, to some extent, from the clarity of the Greek atmosphere; the Greek sense of proportion, the criticism which primarily concerned itself with the ends at which people were aiming; and he hoped that, whatever happened to classical study, we should try to preserve the old Greek spirit as much as possible; that the orgy of unrelieved money-making was only a passing phase.

The Prior said the question, as it arose in many minds, was not ‘Are the classics worthwhile in themselves and for select students?’ but ‘Are the classics worthwhile for me?’ Was there time for the classics in a life so insistently occupied as our own was with problems belonging to an outlook totally different from that of the classic writers? It was a problem in the minds of most people who had to do with the education of even those who were destined to occupy a pretty good position. He thought the Dean was inclined to belittle somewhat the difficulties of a study so vast and so important as to require for its mastery almost the devotion of a lifetime. The old Greeks and Romans tried nearly everything, including democratic government, but they never gave democratic government as we were trying to give it today. The revolution that was coming in Europe and America was one beside which the French Revolution would seem but as the prelude to an opera. But, however far we might travel away from the classics, he thought there would always be able professors remaining to interpret them for us.

Friar the Rev. S. N. Sedgwick suggested that some of the English classics had quite as high a place of influence in the world of today as that occupied by the old Greek and Latin writers.

Friar Edward Clodd, after commenting on the fascination of the ancient world and contrasting the emotions called up by contemplation respectively of the Parthenon and some old English cathedral, was disposed to conclude that the classics were not so dead as the Dean had implied. There was still a comparatively large number of people who revelled in them, revelled even in translations; and so long as this was the case there was not much to grumble at.

Friar G. H. Wells gave a lively account of the thorough way in which ‘a classical education’ was carried out in Germany.

The Rev. Prebendary Loraine, commenting on the vast debt we owed to the classics, said that if he could live his own life over again, with the added benefit of his experience, he would gladly give twice as much time and ten times as much energy to their study. He pleaded eloquently for a better understanding of what the old Greeks meant by education.

Mr D. J. Knox drew attention to the value of the Loeb translation. Mr Edwin Pugh, pointing his argument with an amusing story, compared the mastery of Greek and Latin with the mastery of the violin, and went on to suggest that the Dean was somewhat dogmatic in saying that no one without a classical edition could appreciate the lines quoted from Paradise Lost. The Greeks themselves doubted things. Were we to go on doubting things? The need today was for men to come down to the real facts of life and to study them with a trained mind. He did not undervalue the classics. He had a very fair acquaintance with them in translations. But, as the world went on, conditions changed, and new and not only academic standards were set up. It was ‘a little learning’, not ‘a little knowledge’ that was ‘a dangerous thing’. And new standards might be set up just as well by a study of the plain facts of life as by any study of the classics in school or college.

Friar F. Harvey Darton drew attention to the fact that the reaction against the classics was led by the educated as well as by the uneducated, as exemplified in art, literature, and drama; and this at a time when our Prime minister happened to be one of the most eminent scholars of his years.

In a few closing words, Dean Inge said he was by no means a fanatical supporter of classical eduction as it existed, and paid a tribute to the translators – to Jowett’s Plato and Pope’s Homer in particular.