The Stolen Fruits of a Classical Education

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 30, 2017

I MYSELF WAS DESTINED, or as some would say, doomed to an old-fashioned classical education. By the time I was ten I was translating simple sentences in which generals conquered cities or masters gave boring orders to slaves. At twelve I had progressed to whole paragraphs, still about generals and slaves, and I have also taken on Greek, starting the latter language by learning an interminable verb which meant uninterestingly, "to loose". At thirteen, fourteen and fifteen I had a little respite from military matters: Ovid whined away at me from his exile by the Black Sea, Cicero declaimed in pompous tautologies about virtue; but in any case I was so pestered and plagued to find and define the exact grammatical value of each word that I had little leisure to consider what meaning belonged to the aggregate. It was just a mental exercise, roughly comparable to algebra. And this, if some of my old schoolmasters had had their way, is what it would have remained.

But by the time I was sixteen, I was becoming, after seven years hard, familiar with the Latin and Greek languages. At least, instead of just solving a problem in syntax, I could understand what it said. And some curiosity led me to look in a lot of places and not just where they told me to look. I found that what it said was richly and ripely subversive of the whole moral establishment around me; so far from supporting the moral doctrines in which I was being so carefully and expensively educated, it either refuted them, mocked at them, or quite simply ignored them.

Take pleasure. This, my housemaster said, was not exactly wrong but was certainly not quite right; discomfort, self-denial, tedious forms of duty — these were the normal, healthy things. Pleasure was definitely suspect. Most Latin and Greek poets on the other hand relished pleasure, and wrote of it as something, possibly the only thing, of

SIMON RAVEN, who wrote the devastating chapter about the army, "Perish by the Sword" in the symposium The Establishment, is also the author of The English Gentleman and several novels: The Feathers of Death, Brother Cain, Doctors Wear Scarlet, and Close of Play.

undoubted value by and for itself: food, drink, circuses, sumptuousness and sex. And as to the latter, of course, the cat was now right out of the bag. My housemaster said that sex outside marriage was sinful, dirty and ruinous, but inside marriage it was solemn and beautiful, even holy. But Horace, Catullus, Propertius and a whole lot more acknowledged poets, whose work had survived for 2,000 years, just said that sex was an appealing and slightly dangerous form of amusement, there for you to take it or leave it alone. Take it, and it might lead to delight or disaster; leave it, and one might have the more leisure for drinking; but in neither case, and this is the important thing, was there any question of moral reference. The notion of chastity for its own sake invited only the laughter or the contempt of these civilised and intelligent men; sex, of whatever kind, was there for the fun to be had from it: it was not there, as my housemaster would have had it, for reverence, babies, public prosecutions, or the greater glory of God.

And of course, all this follows easily and naturally from the classical poets' view of death. "Pale death comes with impartial tread to cottage and castle", wrote Horace and when it comes, Pulvis et Umbra sumus, "we are but dust and shadow". Dust in the ground that is and, at best, a squeaking, gibbering shadow in an underworld in which nobody really believed. Death, in fact, is just nothing: no rewards, no punishments, no hell fire, no Hosannas. So the best thing you can do, the only thing you can do, is amuse yourself after your bent while you are still under the sun.

Much classical poetry then, and that among the best of it, is so unsuitable from the schoolmaster's point of view that I often wonder why it was so long allowed to be the staple of our education. It encourages all the attitudes the authorities most detest. At times dignified and melancholy, it is also cynical, lustful, anti-spiritual, malicious and often plain brutal.

Non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te Restituet pietas.
Neither your birth by Lord Torquatus nor eloquence nor even your undoubted virtue will bring you resurrection from the dead.

The crushing finality of this statement should have been enough one would have thought to shatter the complacency of Dr. Arnold himself. How did he get round it? How do they get round it these days, to the matter of that? Quite simple. They just pretend it isn't there. Only the suitable, the neutral passages are read in school hours; the rest you have to find for yourself as I did — the stolen fruits, which are, as they say, so very much the sweeter.