Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Classics for the people

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Edith Hall, a professor in the department of classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London, writes in Aeon:

The hero of Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel Jude the Obscure (1895) is a poor stonemason living in a Victorian village who is desperate to study Latin and Greek at university. He gazes, from the top of a ladder leaning against a rural barn, on the spires of the University of Christminster (a fictional substitute for Oxford). The spires, vanes and domes ‘like the topaz gleamed’ in the distance. The lustrous topaz shares its golden colour with the stone used to build Oxbridge colleges, but it is also one of the hardest minerals in nature. Jude’s fragile psyche and health inevitably collapse when he discovers just how unbreakable are the social barriers that exclude him from elite culture and perpetuate his class position, however lovely the buildings seem that concretely represent them, shimmering on the horizon.

By Hardy’s time, the trope of the exclusion of the working class from the classical cultural realm, especially from access to the ancient languages, had become a standard feature of British fiction. Charles Dickens probes the class system with a tragicomic scalpel in David Copperfield (1850). The envious Uriah sees David as a privileged young snob, but he refuses to accept the offer of Latin lessons because he is ‘far too umble. There are people enough to tread upon me in my lowly state, without my doing outrage to their feelings by possessing learning.’

It is with good reason that education in Classics was and still is associated in the British mind with the upper classes. Since the late 17th century, when the discipline of ‘Classics’ as we know it emerged, only parents of substantial means have been able to buy their teenaged children (and, until the late-19th century, only their male children) the leisure and lengthy tuition that a thorough knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages requires. Classics emerged to provide a curriculum that could bestow a shared concept of gentlemanliness on the new ruling order after the Glorious Revolution. This was composed of Tory hereditary aristocrats in a new alliance with the Whiggish mercantile bourgeoisie. The sought-after ‘classical education’ could now be purchased not only at one of the tiny group of richly endowed all-male boarding schools but at one of the new small private schools in which the 18th century saw an exponential growth. Most were run by Anglican priests, offering a classical curriculum to provide the patina of gentlemanliness as well as access to Oxford and Cambridge.

Even the language used to define class difference was derived from the ancient languages. ‘Classics’ and ‘class’ share a lexical stem that relates them to ancient Roman tax bands. Upper-class snobs call their perceived inferiors hoi polloi (‘the many’, a classical Greek term for the ruling majority in a democracy) or plebeians or plebs (Roman citizens who were not patrician). But there is another dimension to the chronicle of access to classical material in Britain, for non-elite individuals and groups across the same historical period persistently attempted, with varying degrees of success, to educate themselves in ancient Greek and Roman civilisation and languages. For every Jude Fawley and Uriah Heep, there has been a working-class autodidact like Charles Kingsley’s Chartist hero in Alton Locke (1850), an impoverished tailor who does eventually improve his socioeconomic situation. He also comes to a greater understanding of his historical moment by teaching himself classical languages and literature with the help of a Scottish working-class intellectual who is a thinly disguised Thomas Carlyle.

Working-class libraries and archives, the writings of autodidacts and the annals of adult education reveal a dynamic tradition of working-class access to the ancient Greeks and Romans, not only through language study but through translations and visual culture. Classical materials have been present in the identity construction and psychological experience of substantial groups of working-class Britons. Dissenting academies, Nonconformist Sunday schools and Methodist preacher-training initiatives all encouraged those who attended them to read widely in ancient history, ideas and rhetorical handbooks. Classical topics were included on the curricula of Mutual Improvement Societies, adult schools, Mechanics’ Institutes, university extension schemes, the Workers’ Educational Association, trade unions and the early Labour Colleges. These initiatives did much to counter the sluggish legislative response to workers’ demands for education: it was not until the Elementary Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 that even rudimentary instruction in literacy and numeracy, let alone access to classical culture, became universally and freely available to children under 13.

But there had long been other ways to learn about the Greeks and Romans. Museums in Britain were visited by a far wider class cross-section than their Continental equivalents, where the admission of visitors to the princely galleries was closely monitored. There was a sense that art and archaeology somehow belonged to the nation rather than exclusively to wealthy individuals; free admission was customary. A Prussian traveller in London was disturbed to find in 1782 that the visitors to the British Museum were ‘various … some I believe, of the very lowest classes of the people, of both sexes, for as it is the property of the nation, everyone has the same right … to see it, that another has’. And classical sculptures such as the Parthenon frieze and the Venus de Milo were endlessly reproduced in forms accessible even to the poorest Briton: plaster reproductions in municipal museums across the nation, cheap self-education magazines such as Cassell’s Popular Educator, and volumes published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, available in libraries of Mechanics’ Institutes. Lower-class visitors’ memoirs often imply that what they saw in museums nurtured an impulse towards self-education.

If the history of British experience of classical materials other than artistic and archaeological ones is widened to include a working-class perspective, it emerges that ancient history, literature and philosophy were pored over by many non-elite consumers as well. The revolutionary democrats of the 1790s, the radical journalists of the crisis at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and in the aftermath of Peterloo, the Chartists, the early trade unionists and the founders of the Labour Party – they all had their own historians who rewrote the histories of ancient Greece and Rome from the perspective of slaves and the poor. The ancient authors central to this alternative version of Greek and Roman history included Livy, especially his account of the heroes of the early Republic, and Plutarch. Brutus: or, The Fall of Tarquin, a popular tragedy by John Howard Payne, premiered at Drury Lane in December 1818, at a time when the British monarchy was at its most unpopular for centuries. Frequently revived, Brutus toured demotic theatres in the provinces, and its text circulated in working men’s reading societies.

Plutarch’s Solon was admired as the wise leader who cancelled peasants’ debts to rich landowners; Spartacus as described in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus was adopted as the hero of the proletariat as well as Abolitionism by the 1830s; Irish Republicans, Chartists and trade unionists alike consumed numerous versions of the lives of the Gracchi brothers, who tried to redistribute land to the Italian poor. The Gracchi also featured in a collection of Plutarch’s biographies rewritten by the socialist freethinker Frederick Gould, The Children’s Plutarch (1906), with engravings by Walter Crane. Gould had taught in board schools in underprivileged London districts, developing a programme for teaching secular ethics with classical instead of Christian literature: in his subsequent volume, Pages for Young Socialists (1913), published by the National Labour Press with a preface by Keir Hardie, Gould uses classical sources to inspire his intended audience, including Herodotus on Thermopylae, Xenophon’s idealised marriage in his Oeconomicus, and the caricature of the plutocrat Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon.

Once the classical Athenian democracy became an acceptable constitutional ideal by the late-1820s, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War moved to the centre of the working-class autodidact’s curriculum: a young miner who was a member of the Ashington Debating and Literary Improvement Society in Northumberland, and who was killed by a fall of coal in 1899, died with a translation of Thucydides in his pocket, the page turned down at Pericles’ funeral speech.

The nub of the controversy over classical education has always been whether it ‘counts’ to read classical texts in modern-language translation. By 1720, the battlelines had been drawn up. Britons who were unable or unwilling to bankroll their sons’ classical educations fought back. The Greeks and Romans could be approached by routes that didn’t require years glued to grammars and dictionaries. They could be read in mother-tongue translations, by great poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope, even though this was obviously derided as a vulgar mode of access to the Classics by those who had purchased the linguistic training. The material covered in ancient authors could be enjoyed even by the completely illiterate in accessible entertainments such as travelling booth theatres and fairground shows.

Pope’s translations had brought Homer to a larger audience, including workers and women, than had ever had the opportunity to learn Greek. Take Esther Easton, a Jedburgh gardener’s wife, visited by the poet Robert Burns in 1787. He recorded that she was ‘a very remarkable woman for reciting poetry of all kinds … she can repeat by heart almost everything she has ever read, particularly Pope’s “Homer” from end to end.’ Pope’s Homer captured the childhood imagination of another Scot, Hugh Miller, a stonemason and a distinguished autodidact, who became a world-famous geologist. Even as a boy, he saw the Iliad as incomparable literature. He wrote in My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) that he had learned early ‘that no other writer could cast a javelin with half the force of Homer. The missiles went whizzing athwart his pages; and I could see the momentary gleam of the steel, ere it buried itself deep in brass and bull-hide.’ Pope’s version was crucial in providing access to Homer for the working classes because it was such a commercial success that it quickly filtered down to the bustling secondhand book market, frequented by readers of the lower social orders.

Inexpensive translations remained the main avenue of access to classical authors available to the poor. Reading rooms and workers’ libraries allowed many people to read the same publication: in 1829, it was estimated that one journal might be read by as many as 25 people. As early as 1730, the French philosopher Montesquieu was struck to see that, in England, even a slater would have newspapers brought to him to read on the roofs of houses. And that slater might well have read passages aloud to his less literate co-workers; Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) was consumed by literate and nonliterate alike, in written and oral form; it was read by public men, but its contents were repeated everywhere – in clubs and schools, and from pulpits. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and you may become inspired.

Full disclosure: I spent my undergraduate years in a college dedicated to the proposition that the classic works of Western civilization should be read and discussed and pondered by everyone — the works themselves, not commentaries or glosses or summaries.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 9:12 am

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