Disadvantages of a classical education

January 10 2008

I have, I hope, […] convincingly made my point that a classical education has much to be said for it, and this both in general and for the particular purpose of trying to make a comprehensive study of human affairs. Since, however, this happens to be the kind of education that I myself have received, I must not blow its trumpet without also dwelling on some of the unfortunate effects that it has had for me. I am aware of these unfortunate effects – partly thanks to my critics’ strictures on them. These reflect, of course, on me, and not on the classical kind of education; for many people have been drilled in this as thoroughly as I have been without taking the harm from it that I have taken.

For example, I have allowed my classical education in the Greek and Latin languages to have an unfortunate effect on the style in which I write my English mother-tongue. I often fall into writing English clumsily. A number of critics have castigated this in sharper words, and one of them, Sir Ernest Barker, has also given the correct diagnosis of the malady. [This refers to Sir Ernest Barker, Dr. Toynbee’s Study of History, in International Affairs, Vol 31, London, 1955.] He traces it to the effects of my classical education. I write English, he justly says, in a Ciceronian style, as if it were a foreign language. The stuff calls for a literary surgeon’s knife to “break up and rewrite the long rolling cryptic sentences” [are they so cryptic?] and cut out “the ornate alias”, to chasten the metaphors, to prune the analogies. The reviewer in The Oxford Magazine wittily [not that wittily] remarks that I have “never felt obliged to use one word if two would do”. The writer in The Times Literary Supplement [anonymous, August 17 1956] who kindly credits me with a “mastery over words” expressed “in a clear prose of the most pliable steel”, also justly debits me with “another style … encumbered by its own wealth, like a man who loads himself with souvenirs from every resort he ever visited”.

“There are times [this writer finds] [Toynbee’s bracket] when the long sentences – every adjective and adverb inserted, all loopholes stopped up, and nothing left to the imagination – would clog the mind even if they were not further burdened with cumbrous Latinisations.”

Barker points out that this particular unfortunate result of a classical education is not universal and is therefore not inevitable. He cites his own case as an instance. He has had the same classical education that I have had, without succumbing to this malady; and this is true. If one’s automatic reaction to an inoculation is excessive, that is one’s own lookout. If one’s error is only partly involuntary, and is partly the result of an irrational prejudice, one is still more to blame. But the question of culpability is beside the point. The point is that language is not a private plaything. It is a means of communication or nothing. A writer must write in the language that is current among the public that he wishes to reach; and, in writing this language, he must follow the usual practice of his and his readers’ day. He writes in order to be read, and, in his encounter with his reader, the reader has the last word. At any moment the reader can stop reading if he wishes, but the writer can never stop wishing to have readers. If he were to become indifferent to his book’s being read, this would make nonsense of his whole activity, and he would have done better if he had never put pen to paper. So, if he falls into writing in a style which is alien to the genius of his linguistic medium, or which, short of that, is noticeably discordant with ordinary current usage, he stands to lose more by his personal peculiarity than his reader does. The reader who finds his style difficult, or just irritating, has an easy remedy. He can put the book down and pick up another written in a more congenial style by a different author. But the price that the irritating author may have to pay for having indulged his literary eccentricity is to frustrate himself by defeating his own purposes. He will certainly reduce the number of his readers.

Here is an effect of a classical education that has been an unfortunate one for me. My Latinizing way of writing English is not, of course, deliberate. It is the unintended result of many hours spent, at an impressionable age, on writing Latin prose. But, as far as I have become conscious of this fault, I have, I think, been partly inhibited from correcting it by a distaste for the vernacular languages of the Western World which is also the result of a classical education. This is partly a classical scholar’s irrational prejudice. I have been educated into seeing in French a vulgar deformation of Latin, and in English a barbarous substitute for it. But I also have a rational ground for finding these Western vernaculars inferior to Latin and Attic Greek, and also to Pre-Atatürk Ottoman Turkish (of which I have a smattering).

The grammar and the syntax of these three languages work together not only to allow, but to demand, a style that leaves the reader in no doubt about the logical connexion between the words and phrases in which the writer is addressing him. A writer employing such logical linguistic media as these can and should bring out clearly the distinction between subordinate clauses and the main clause on which they logically depend. And, if it is Latin or Attic Greek that he is writing, he also can and should link sentence to sentence by conjunctions expressing precise and finely differentiated logical relations. If one has been brought up on languages of this kind, and on the highly articulated structural style that comes natural (sic) to him when he writes in them, he will feel that the Western vernaculars, and the style in which, nowadays, they are usually written, are inferior inasmuch as they throw upon the reader the work of establishing the logical relations that it is the writer’s business to indicate. And it is true that the natural style in these languages, in contrast to Attic Greek and Latin, is an uncoordinated series of short indicative sentences, linked together, if at all, by conjunctions with only vague and ambiguous logical connotations. It is also true, however, that this staccato style is not just a symptom of degeneracy and perversity. It, too, has its reason. Its first objective is simplicity, and it achieves this at the price of sacrificing logical clarity. The classically educated reader and writer are apt to overlook this valuable virtue of the loose-jointed vernacular style’s obvious defects. On the other hand, a master of the vernacular style finds the integrated classical style clumsy even when the medium is an integrated language, and he finds it grotesque when a contemporary employs it, as I have done, in writing one of the current vernaculars.

Considering how much of the literature of the Western Civilization was written in Latin down to the fifteenth century, it is not surprising that the early modern writers in the vernaculars should have continued to employ the classical style, inappropriate though this was to their new linguistic medium. But the impossibility of writing English satisfactorily in this style has been demonstrated, once for all, by the contrast between Milton’s magnificent failure as a writer of prose and Dryden’s adroit success. Dryden was not gifted with Milton’s genius, but he had the sense to realize what could and could not be done with the English language, and to adapt his own style to the medium in which he and Milton both had to work. Subsequent writers of English have no excuse for not heeding this warning example. Where Milton failed, how can they expect to succeed? We have to take our linguistic medium as we find it. To apply the point ad hominem, the accident of my birthplace and cultural milieu has given me the English language for my mother-tongue; and it is my good fortune that this language, which I have never had to learn artificially, happens to be today the mother-tongue of many nations besides my own, and also to be a lingua franca of almost world-wide currency. So I must write in English, and therefore should try to write it in the style that is demanded by the language’s genius and is prescribed by current usage.

I have found this difficult because I have had a classical education in Greek and Latin. Having been educated in this way, I should feel more at home if Greek and Latin were the media of communication between me and my public. It is a reflection on a classical education, as well as on one particular recipient of it, that it should have educated me into putting myself out of tune with my mother-tongue and, in consequence, also, to some extent, with the public among whom I hope to find readers.

It was, of course, French, not English, prose which established itself as a lingua franca in the seventeenth century – as what Kenneth Clark calls in the television script of Civilisation “that division between scientific truth and imagination which was to kill poetic drama” began to open (surely one can enjoy Dryden) “and give a slight feeling of artificiality to all poetry” until it began to be recast by the Romantics.

He quotes the “rather ridiculous character” called Sprat, who published his History of the Royal Society (“Poetry is the parent of superstition”) in the same year as Milton published Paradise Lost, 1667. “However, there was a compensation: the emergence of a clear, workable prose. It was a tool of the new philosophy, almost as much as Stevin’s decimal system was a tool of the new mathematics. […] It’s arguable that the non-existence of a clear, concrete German prose has been one of the chief disasters of European civilisation.” … Though when it came to modern vernaculars, Toynbee was more at home in German than in French, and preferred Goethe to Shakespeare.

Toynbee did not always write excessively Latinate prose, even in the Study. The vice which he admits became more pronounced as he grew older. His classical style is also mediated through the English Augustans, and through Gibbon: “the shaft which […] the Attic archer had shot into the Sicilian air”, “instilling a suggestion of the dewy freshness of dawn into the still and stale air of a monotonous evening”; and we have this in his early Blue Book submitted to Parliament on the Armenian massacres of 1915:

The civilisation in which we lived was like a labyrinth, so huge and intricate that none of the dwellers in it could altogether grasp its structure, while most of them were barely conscious that it had any structural design at all. But now that the War has caught it and it is all aflame, the unity and symmetry of the building are revealed to the common eye. As the glare lights it up from end to end, it stands out in its glory, in matchless outline and perspective; for the first time (and possibly for the last) we see its parts simultaneously and in proper relation, and realise for one moment the marvel and mystery of this civilisation that is perishing – the subtle, immemorial, unrelaxing effort that raised it up and maintained it, and the impossibility of improvising any equivalent structure in its place. Then the fire masters its prey; the various parts of the labyrinth fall in one by one, the light goes out of them, and nothing is left but smoke and ashes.

Apropos Milton, via Davos Newbies, here is Philip Pullman on the monarchy as the price of Milton’s masterpiece. Paradise Lost has been a major influence on this atheist. I wonder, though, how long Milton would have remained loyal to a military dictatorship, and how long it would have remained friendly to him even if he had remained republican – liberty was restored under the monarchy; it grew because of capitalism’s dislike of interference – and how much of the decay of political language in Britain today can be blamed on a monarchical constitution.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

Editor, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, by Viscount Bryce, with a Preface by Viscount Bryce, Hodder & Stoughton and His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1916, online here

10 Responses to “Disadvantages of a classical education”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I suppose that Milton comes before the change Clark points to. His poetry does not have the artificiality which came in in the 18th century, and his prose is not modern.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    This passage really refers to one disadvantage, though I refer to disadvantages in the plural.

    There are, in fact, two passages referring to “unfortunate effects”. He heads this passage “Effects on my Writing of English”. There is a subsequent, and much longer, passage headed “Effects on the Range of my Knowledge”, which I will quote later.

  3. GT Runner Says:

    Maybe it is just you and not the education you received? Not all are so afflicted.

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  6. […] critic of Toynbee’s style might ask: “Did the whole of that second sentence need to be in the pluperfect […]

  7. […] Toynbee writes a little like an autodidact, despite having had, at Winchester and Oxford, the most rigorous classical training possible. Perhaps this is because he was always rethinking things on his own. There are writers whose prose suggests deeper learning than it immediately displays. They tend to be more readable than Toynbee. With Toynbee, everything is revealed, laid out, and in a style “encumbered by its own wealth, like a man who loads himself with souvenirs from every resort he ever visited” (Times Literary Supplement, August 17 1956), in “long sentences – every adjective and adverb inserted, all loopholes stopped up, and nothing left to the imagination – [which] would clog the mind even if they were not further burdened with cumbrous Latinisations” (Sir Ernest Barker, Dr. Toynbee’s Study of History, International Affairs, Vol 31, London, 1955). His scholarly style is the literary equivalent of the Beaubourg: all the pipes and plumbing are on the exterior. See the post here called Disadvantages of a classical education. […]

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