Coolidge on Classics
by William Harris
William Harris has his PH.D. from Harvard where he studied Historical Linguistics under Joshua Whatmough. Teaching first at Whitman College, than at Stanford for a few years, he came to Middlebury College in 1957 to teach Classics and by some quirk of fate, probably aided by the loveliness of the green Mountains, stayed on until retirement. He has recuperated from the loss of his college student audience by putting together a large website which has accrued nearly 30,000 visits worldwide, so the teaching is not all lost.
This is Coolidge’s address, but with interposed commentary from William Harris, one who has labored in the vineyards of the classical tradition for almost a lifetime. The comments are from the vantage point of three quarters of a century afterwards, certainly not criticisms but notes on the passing of so much fast-moving time. An address delivered at the Second Annual Meeting of the American Classical League at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa., on Thursday, July 7, 1921.
COOLIDGE: We come here today in defense of some of the great realities of life. We come to continue the guarantee of progress in the future by continuing a knowledge of progress in the past. We come to proclaim our allegiance to those ideals which have made the predominant civilization of the earth. We come because we believe that thought is the master of things. We come because we realize that the only road to freedom lies through a knowledge of the truth.
COMMENT: This was a commonly held opinion of classical studies in the 19th century, that Athenian democracy and philosophical “truth” were direct inheritances from the ancient world. There are two flaws in this argument: First, American education at the turn of the century was very narrow, until Dean LeBaron Briggs at Harvard brought out the idea of having students in college read literature and write papers regularly as a college course, there was no English taught as such. Sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics were all to wait until after 1930 to make a serious inroad into the college curriculum. So Coolidge’s picture of the Classics is different from ours, he came through a rigid system of tough grammar, little literary criticism, and much memorization of data which would be of little use in later life. No wonder Dewey and his ideas took such firm hold so quickly.
COOLIDGE: Mankind have always had classics. They always will. That is only another way of saying they have always set up ideals and always will. Always the question has been, always the question will be. What are those ideals to be, what are to be the classics? For many centuries, in education, the classics have meant Greek and Latin literature. It does not need much argument to demonstrate that in the western world society can have little liberal culture which is not based on these. Without them there could be no interpretation of language and literature, no adequate comprehension of history, no understanding of the foundations of philosophy and law. In fact, the natural sciences are so much the product of those trained in the classics that, without such training, their very terminology cannot be fully understood.
COMMENT: There is much sense in understanding the traditions of the present world, since 1950 we have been doing this in English translation, probably with more impact that was ever done in the old days. But we have lost the contact with the classical texts, the poetry which cannot be translated, the feel of original, authentic materials. What Coolidge prized is still prized, but in a medium which would have surprised him — in English!
COOLIDGE: Education is undertaken to give a larger comprehension of life. In the last fifty years its scope has been very much broadened. It is scarcely possible to consider it in the light of the individual. It is easy to see that it must be discussed in the light of society. The question for consideration is not what shall be taught to a few individuals. Nor can it be determined by the example of the accomplishments of a few individuals. There have been great men with little of what we call education. There have been small men with a great deal of learning. There has never been a great people who did not possess great learning. The whole question at issue is, what does the public welfare require for the purpose of education? What are the fundamental things that young Americans should be taught? What is necessary for society to come to a larger comprehension of life?
COMMENT: Here Coolidge shines, he believes in education as a critical force in developing character, and this is possibly one of the areas we have least attended. How this is done is not clear, but the current disregard of the “learning” Coolidge speaks of is general, many distrust well worded paragraphs, many distrust ideas.
COOLIDGE: The present age has been marked by science and commercialism. In its primary purpose it reveals mankind undertaking to overcome their physical limitations. This is being accomplished by wonderful discoveries which have given the race dominion over new powers. The chief demand of all the world has seemed to be for new increases in these directions. There has been a great impatience with everything which did not appear to minister to this requirement.
COMMENT: Again Coolidge scores high, the 1920’s were just getting under way when this essay was written, but he sees the giant post-war boom bringing cars, radios, electricity to every home, jobs at high pay everywhere, and above all — lots of money. He was wary, had more people been wary the great bursting of the bubble in l929 might have been avoided, and the decade of poverty and deprivation until another War rescued our failed economics.
COOLIDGE: This has resulted in the establishment of technical schools and in general provisions for vocational education. There has been a theory that all learning ought to be at once translated into scientific and commercial activities. Of course the world today is absolutely dependent on science and on commerce. Without them great areas would be de-populated by famine and pestilence almost in a day. With them there is a general diffusion of comfort and prosperity, not only unexcelled, but also continually increasing. These advantages, these very necessities, are not only not to be denied, but acknowledged and given the highest commendation. All this is not absolute but relative. It is neither self-sufficient nor self-existing. It represents the physical side of life. It is the product of centuries of an earlier culture, a culture which was nonetheless real because it supposed the earth was flat, and a culture which was preeminent in the re-development of the moral and spiritual forces of life.
COMMENT: It is curious that the Vocational Schools which were being developed as the hope for the non-college populations in the 1920’s, have not fulfilled their purpose, and as the century closes are being seriously questioned as a large cost with little purpose. Voc. Ed. soon became a refuge for many high school drifters, who lowered the standards for everyone else. Now businesses do their own hi-tech training in many fields, they are more efficient and do it cheaper.
COOLIDGE: The age of science and commercialism is here. There is no sound reason for wishing it otherwise The wise desire is not to destroy it, but to use it and direct it rather than to be used and directed by it, that it may be as it should be .not the master but the servant, that the physical forces may not prevail over the moral forces and that the rule of life may not be expediency but righteousness.
COMMENT: It does seem that the business world, which has been so remarkably successful after WW II, is not the dominant force in this country, and providing a pattern for development worldwide. Whether this is entirely good remains to be seen. The idea of a thriving business sector providing funds to carry the least fortunate, the sick and the aged in our society, seems not to be carrying the day. When everything comes down to the bottom line, the society may well refuse to carry the least intelligent, energetic or healthy. I suspect Coolidge may have had glimpse of this, as companies like GE and GM and Ford put together their plans in those boom days of the 1920’s.
COOLIDGE: No question can be adequately comprehended without knowing its historical background. Modern civilization dates from Greece and Rome. The world was not new in their day. They were the inheritors of a civilization which had gone before, but what they had inherited they recast, enlarged and intensified and made their own, so that their culture took on a distinctive form, embracing all that the past held best in the Roman world of the Caesars. That great Empire fell a prey, first to itself and then to the barbarians. After this seeming catastrophe scholarship and culture almost disappeared for nearly a thousand years, finally to emerge again in the revival of learning. This came almost entirely out of the influence of the Christian church. The revival of learning was the revival of the learning of Greece and Rome plus the teachings of revealed religion. Out of that revival has grown the culture of Western Europe and America. It is important to keep foundations clearly in mind. The superstructure is entirely dependent upon them for support whatever may be its excellence. However worthy a place it may fill, it cannot stand except on a sound foundation. In the revival of learning the philosophy of Greece played an important part. It was under its stimulus that the two methods of induction and deduction, experiment and reason by which the human mind gains knowledge were firmly established. This swept away the vain imaginings of the schoolmen, gave a new freedom to thought and laid the beginnings of modern scientific re-search. It has brought about the modern era of learning which is reflected in every avenue of human life. It is in business. It is in education. It is in religion. No one questions its power. No one questions its desirability, but is not all sufficient.
COMMENT: Of course we make some arbitrary selections in taking what we wanted from the classical past. New England is replete with houses fronted by (wooden) Doric columns, every publish building has a Greek temple appearance, this may have been foolish but it did no harm. On the other hand the ancient Mediterranean societies were dependent on slave labor, and we followed their suit eagerly. The Romans subdued all “inferior” peoples effectively, the Gauls, the Britons, the Greeks and Jews and Egyptians in the Near East, which we took as tacit approval for our attitudes toward the Native Americans as well as the Native Africans on our farms. Athens was seen as the fount of Democracy, but it was a democracy for native Athenian males, not for woman, metics, or the large slave population toiling on the triremes and drying in the silver mines. We got much good from the ancient world, but much evil along with it!
COOLIDGE: It is impossible for society to break with its past. It is the product of all which has gone before. We could not cut ourselves off from all influences which existed prior to the Declaration of Independence and expect any success by undertaking to ignore all that happened before that date. The development of society is a gradual accomplishment. Culture is the product of a continuing effort. The education of the race is never accomplished. It must be gone over with each individual and it must continue from the beginning to the ending of life. Society cannot say it has attained culture and can therefore rest from its labors. All that it can say is that it has learned the method and process by which culture is secured and go on applying such method and process.
COMMENT: It was not generally realized in Coolidge’s time that the Western world had gone through a vast change in rules and operations early in the 19th century, when machines opened up new markets, new ways of doing work, and new wealth. He would have been aware of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, but certainly not the Industrial Revolution. Nor the fact that Marx was sitting in the British libraries in l850, noting all the new wealth and where it was congregating. None of this was to become clear for years.
COOLIDGE: Biology teaches us that the individual goes through the various stages of evolution which has brought him to his present state of perfection. All theories of education teach us that the mind develops in the same way, rising through the various stages that have marked the ascent of mankind from the lowest savagery to the highest Civilization. This principle is a compelling reason for the continuance of classics as the foundation of our educational system. It was by the use of this method that we reached our present state of development.
COMMENT: Coolidge was intelligent, he had no trouble dealing with Evolution at a time when many were automatic creationists, considering Evolution the work of the Devil. Not a professor, not a New York intellectual, a hard headed Vermonter — and he saw the sense in Evolution, and spoke out when many didn’t. Good work!
COOLIDGE: This does not mean that every person must be a classical scholar. It is not necessary for everyone who crosses the ocean to be an experienced mariner, nor for everyone who works on a building to be a learned architect, but if the foreign shore is to be reached in safety, if the building is to take on a form of utility and beauty, it will be because of direction and instruction given according to established principles and ideals. The principles and ideals on which we must depend not only for a continuance of modern culture, but I believe, for a continuance of the development of science itself come to us from the classics. All this is the reason that the sciences and the professions reach their highest development as the supplement of a classical education.
COMMENT: By now we have to reverse the logic of the preceding sentence, we must admit that a good Classical education in broad outline, taught in English even by teachers who cannot read Greek at all, must be seen as a supplement to the sciences and the professions, not the other way around. The well rounded student versed in the Liberal Arts is well prepared in background material at graduation. Now he or she can go on to law school or medical school or a business degree. The Liberal Arts are a worth preparation or supplement, but in this competitive world it is the professional training which determines what you do for life, your honor respect, and your pay.
COOLIDGE: Perhaps the chief criticism of education and its resulting effect upon the community today is superficiality. A generation ago the businessman who had made a success without the advantages of a liberal education, sent his son to the university where he took a course in Greek and Latin. On his return home, because he could not immediately take his father’s place in the conduct of the business, the conclusion was drawn that his education had been a failure. In order to judge the correctness of this conclusion it would be necessary to know whether the young man had really been educated or whether he had gone through certain prescribed courses in the first place, and in the second place whether he finally developed executive ability. It cannot be denied that a superficial knowledge of the classics is only a superficial knowledge. There cannot be expected to be derived from it the ability to think correctly which is the characteristic of a disciplined mind. Without doubt a superficial study of the classics is of less value than a superficial acquaintance with some of the sciences or a superficial business course. One of the advantages of the classics as a course of training is that in modern institutions there is little chance of going through them in a superficial way. Another of their advantages is that the master of them lives in something more than the present and thinks of something more than the external problems of the hour, and after all it was the study of the classics that produced the glories of the Elizabethan age with its poets, its philosophers, its artists, its explorers, its soldiers, its states-men, and its churchmen.
COMMENT: Coolidge sees the criticism of the Classics coming down the educational highway very clearly. Put more succinctly, there are many people who do a straight classical college degree, and I am even thinking of student who do Greek and Latin in the original languages, the hard way. In doing a college Classics major with the languages, and achieve high distinctions with grades and graduate honors, these people somehow often turn up as remarkably successful later doing something entirely different. A former student of mine, who did a straight old-fashioned Classics degree, came out of law school with honors and has put together a fine career in the law. Ted Turner of TV fame was criticized by his father for his odd choice of an odd major, but turned out fairly well in the world of business. There are many more, of course Classics per se does not mean immediate financial success, but there is something there more than meets the eye.
COOLIDGE: Education is primarily a means of establishing ideals. Its first great duty is the formation of character, which is the result of heredity and training. This by no means excludes the desirability of an education in the utilities, but is a statement of what education must include if it meet with any success. It is not only because the classical method has been followed in our evolution of culture, but because the study of Greek and Latin is unsurpassed as a method of discipline. Their mastery requires an effort and an application which must be both intense and prolonged. They bring into action all the faculties of observation, understanding and reason. To become proficient in them is to become possessed of self control and of intelligence, which are the foundations of all character.
COMMENT: Classics as discipline! This is a sore point with many of my generation, who were taught rules and details, an in graduate studies the value of exact references, carefully checked footnotes, and the use of vast bibliographies of everything ever written to see if a new idea was really new. My teachers never spoke of art, the beauty of words, the esthetics of poetic diction, the human side of the literature of the past. The Classics WERE the testing ground for discipline for centuries, with high honors there you could go into church or law or government, because it was proved that you knew how to deal with dead and meaningless data. The modern analog is the requirement of Calculus for pre-medical students, a hard test of disciplined mind, although the MD.. later will have absolutely no use for the Calculus in his medical practice. This was a bad use of the Classics as selective gateway to the professions.
COOLIDGE: We often hear Greek and Latin referred to as dead languages. There are some languages which may have entirely expired, but I do not think any such have yet been discovered. There are words and forms in all languages which are dead because no longer used. There are many such in our own language. But Greek and Latin are not dead. The Romance languages are a modified Latin, and our own language is filled with words derived from Greek and Latin which have every living attribute. This is so true that to a certain extent there can be no adequate comprehension of the meaning of a large part of the language employed in everyday use, and the language of science and scholarship almost in its entirety, without a knowledge of Greek and Latin. Our literature is so filled with classical allusions that an understanding of its beauties can scarcely be secured by any other means.
COMMENT: On the matter of “Latin is dead….dead as dead can be….” he comes in strong. You still hear this, the student in HS elects French because it is a live language, but he or she will probably not get enough of the spoken idiom to be able to order a dinner in a French restaurant, if speaking to a francophone his speech may not be at all intelligible, and the basics of asking questions about the location of My Aunt’s Pen (ou est la plume de ma tante…) do not rate high in the intellectual history of our origins. Joking aside, there are many things in Latin which are quite alive, love poems, hate poems, chapters of weird history not unlike parts of our entertainment world. And if you want to understand Plato, the Greek is really required, but if you want bawdy talk, try Aristophanes or Plautus. Selection has picked some of the dullest stuff from the Classical tradition, but it has also picked some of the best and most interesting; And again, for each his own taste…..
In the realm of language teaching, non-spoken languages are MUCH easier to learn than spoken ones, starting French you spent much of the first year with problems of pronunciation. For Latin……just say it as if English, and read on.
COOLIDGE: The most pressing requirement of the present hour is not how we are to solve our economic problems, but: Where are we to find the sustaining influences for the realities of life? How are we to justify the existing form of government in our Republic? Where shall we resort for teachings in patriotism ? On what can we rely for a continuation of that service of sacrifice which has made modern civilization possible? The progress of the present era gives no new answers to these problems. There are no examples of heroism which outrival Leonidas at Thermopylae, or Horatius at the Bridge. The literature of Greece and Rome is through and through an inspiring plea for patriotism, from the meditations of their philosophers to the orations of their statesmen and the despatches of their soldiers.
COMMENT: Patriotism is in bad shape as this century ends. When our soldiers went to Europe in l917, with the notion of saving the world, they were at a high point. My father enlisted in the Marines in 1917, saw action in France, was decorated for bravery by Gen. Pershing, and to the end of his long life at age 93 he felt an unabashed pride in his country and what it stood for. In the next generation, I was drafter at age eighteen in WW II, there was certainly a feeling at the time that Hitler simply had to be stopped, when the Japanese entered the scene it was even more clear. But it was a dirty job to be done, and nobody liked doing it much. When we generated the acronym SNAFU recognizing that the screwed up situation was the normal things in the Army Manual Operational System, we registered our distaste, but did our jobs.
Korea was a mess, my wife was a child of five in Seoul, and remembers the war well, but again it was a necessary war, what else could you do with Stalin pushing North Korea to advance with China in the scene? But in Vietnam everything changed, for the first time the public entered the scene and literally stopped an American War, the first time ever. Patriotism went down fast as our solider came back crippled, mentally crippled, distraught, unemployable, and above all — despised. So I have to say: Patriotism between 1917 and 2000 has taken what looks like a serious dive, and an appeal to the Roman sense of patriotism is not to be taken seriously. As an aside, weren’t Horace’ “Patriotic Odes” written to the Emperor’s order, and aren’t they pretty weak after all. For Romans patriotism has already gone the way of lost causes.
COOLIDGE: The world has recently awakened to the value and the righteousness of democracy. This ideal is not new. It has been the vision which the people of many nations have followed through centuries. Because men knew that ideal had been partially realized in Greece and Rome, they have had faith that it would be fully realized in Europe and America. The beginnings of modern democracy were in Athens and Sparta. That form of human relationship can neither be explained nor defended, except by reference to these examples and a restatement of the principles in which their government rested. Both of these nations speak to us eloquently of the progress they made so long as their citizens held to these ideals, and they admonish us with an eloquence even more convincing of the decay and ruin which comes to any people when it falls away from these ideals. There is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character
COMMENT: Here Coolidge is out of his scholarly realm. Sparta was never democratic, and Athens only so for about twenty five percent of the male, native population. And our sense of democracy dating back to the Fathers in the 18th c. probably owe more to new civic ideas stemming from Free Masonry as it influenced Jefferson and others here and in Europe, than to the Classical models. The idea of “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is NOT a classical notion, any more than the right of the individual to speak out freely without punishment, and the right of all to be free.
COOLIDGE: There is little need to mention the debt which modern literature owes to the great examples of Greece and Rome. Even the New Testament was written in Greek. It is un-thinkable that any institution founded for the purpose of teaching literature should neglect the classics. Nowhere have the niceties of thought been better expressed than in their prose. Nowhere have music and reason been more harmoniously combined than in their poetry, and nowhere is there greater eloquence than in their orations. We look to them not merely as the writers and speakers of great thoughts, but as the doers of greater deeds. There is a glory in the achievements of the Greeks under Themistocles, there is an admiration for the heroes of Salamis, there is even a pride in the successful retreat of the Ten Thousand which the humiliating days of Philip and Alexander can-not take away.
COMMENT: Again, a vast change in taste and temperament. The Orations of the ancient world from Demosthenes to Cicero are remarkable works of political, persuasive prose, they have form, wit, and point. But although they were models for early 19th c. rhetoric, in this century they have been replaced by the plainest of speech. Our politicians have a light rhetorical turn, but their sentences are short, their ideas kept plain, and they avoid all nuances which might be seen as over-educated, uppity. We are living in a post-industrial capitalistic society, in which every politician knows that the road to election is by seeming perfectly plain and egalitarian. So the Ciceronian, long-winded, rhetorical effect is now out of place, in fact laughable in public. This marks a real change in taste of speech, something Coolidge would have probably understood out of his tight Vermont background, but he would hardly have suspected as normal on the national scene.
COOLIDGE: But when we turn to Rome we are overwhelmed by its greatness. When we recall the difficulties of the transportation of that day, which made the defense easy and attack difficult, her achievement, not only in conquering all that there was of the then civilized western world, but of holding it in subjection with a reign of law so absolute that the world has never known a peace so secure as that of the Pax Romana strikes us with wonder. They gave to the world the first great example of order, and a tolerable state of liberty under the law. As we study their history, there is revealed to us one of the greatest peoples, under the guidance of great leaders, exhausting themselves in their efforts that the civilized world might be unified and the stage set for the entrance of Christianity. In their conquests, we see one of the most stupendous services, and in their disintegration one of the most gigantic tragedies which ever befell a great people.
COMMENT: The development of a serious infra-structure in this country, with roads, communications, and transport from anywhere to everywhere, are exactly in the pattern of the Roman world. Highways from Rome through Croatia into Greece, through Palestine to Egypt and beyond, carrying pony express massages of import, travelers, goods………this was the model for the American road and telephone system which evolved after 1950. In the business of business, the Romans were masters, and their law system is the proof of the pudding.
COOLIDGE: Everyone knows that the culture of Greece and Rome are gone. They could not be restored, they could not be successfully imitated. What those who advocate their continued study desire to bring about is the endurance of that modern culture which has been the result of a familiarity with the classics of these two great peoples. We do not wish to be Greek, we do not wish to be Roman. We have a great desire to be supremely American. That purpose we know we can accomplish by continuing the process which has made us Americans. We must search out and think the thoughts of those who established our institutions. The education which made them must not be divorced from the education which is to make us. In our efforts to minister to man’s material welfare we must not forget to minister to his spiritual welfare. It is not enough to teach men science, the great thing is to teach them how to use science.
COMMENT: In place of being supremely American, we have become, whether we like it or not, supremely global. Since 1970 America seriously entered the global marketplace, with it came global politics, and with the electronic and satellite communications of the last quarter century, we are in fact GLOBAL. I can expect that this essay may be read by a non-Russian speaking former communist in Eastern Asia, or in Indonesia, the limiting factor being interest, not as before, access. The world has changed indeed!
COOLIDGE: We believe in our Republic. We believe in the principles of democracy. We believe in liberty. We believe in liberty under the established provisions of law. We believe in the promotion of literature and the arts. We believe in the righteous authority of organized government. We believe in patriotism. These beliefs must be supported and strengthened. They are not to be inquired of for gain and profit, though without them all gain and all profit would pass away. They will not be found in the teachings devoted exclusively to commercialism though without them commerce would not exist. These are the higher things of life. Their teaching has come to us from the classics. If they are to be maintained they will find their support in the institutions of the liberal arts. When we are drawing away from them, we are drawing away from the path of security and progress. It is not yet possible that instruction in the classics could be the portion of every American. That opportunity ought to be not diminished but increased. But while every American has not had and may not have that privilege, America has had it. Our leadership has been directed in accordance with these ideals. Our faith is in them still
COMMENT: We have by now institutionalized the idea of the Liberal Arts in our college education, we may not be sure of all the effects our programs will have, but we have faith in the value of a broad, general education as something valuable in life, if slightly indefensible as compared with training for a position or a job. But the field has been broadened, now we have many literatures to choose from, and at last we have started teaching the cultures of the eastern world in our regular curriculum. It is not just Rome but the Han dynasty, not just the New Testament but Zen Buddhism, the world has become larger, as it natural in a commercial global enterprise. So we have emigrated from Coolidge’s Classical font while at the same time recognizing it as one social enterprise among many.
COOLIDGE: We have seen many periods which tried the soul of our Republic. We shall see many more. There will be times when efforts will be great and profits will vanish. There have been and will be times when the people will be called upon to make great sacrifices for their country. Unless Americans shall continue to live in something more than the present, to be moved by something more than material gains, they will not be able to respond to these requirements and they will go down as other peoples have gone down before some nation possessed of a greater moral force. The will to endure is not the creation of a moment, it is the result of long training. That will has been our possession up to the present hour. By its exercise we have prospered and brought forth many wonderful works. The object of our education is to continue us in this great power. That power depends on our ideals. The great and unfailing source of that power and these ideals has been the influence of the classics of Greece and Rome. Those who believe in America, in her language, her arts, her literature and in her science, will seek to perpetuate them by perpetuating the education which has produced them.
COMMENT: Education itself, in the wide world’s classics, in the history of what Man has done with what we call Civilization since the last Ice Retreat only 12,000 years ago, in new vistas of thought which science is providing beside fact and device, in new ways of looking at ourselves in evolving dimensions, evolving duties and responsibilities —- education is what Calvin Coolidge has been talking about in this essay on the Classics. Times have changed, the subjects of our concern have changed vastly, but what has not changed in the responsibility of our generation to cultivate mind, intelligence, forward thinking and enthusiasm for ideas. Without these our strong American society would have an in-built weakness, and could , as he notes, go down in the long list of civilizations which has simply not made the grade.