Whose Classics?

The new identity and desirability of training in the Classical languages, as an obligatory accoutrement of the Gentleman, had also, by as early as 1700, inspired an altercation between those who despised reading the classical authors in translation and those who advocated it. In this debate, the arguments anticipated by three centuries those put forward today in discussions about the best way to give the nation’s youth access to the ancient world. Thomas Brown, the first man to use ‘Classics’ without a definite article, and the author of the colourful description of the Lord Mayor’s Show quoted above, was also probably the author of a wonderful piece of English prose published in 1700, the ‘Preface’ to an anonymous book, Lucian’s Charon: or A Survey of The Follies of Mankind. Translated from the Greek. With Notes, and A Prefatory Dialogue in Vindication of Translations (Figure 2.5). The dialogue itself is one of Lucian’s most elegant little dramas: Charon ascends to the world of the living and is taken on a whistle-stop tour of archaic civilisation by Hermes. The 1700 preface, however, is an original dialogue between two men, Eumenes and Philenor, on the theme of studying classical literature in translation. The arguments put forward by Philenor are diverse and cogent.

Philenor has published a translation, thus disappointing Eumenes. Philenor points out that translation of Greek masterpieces was good enough for the Romans, since Cicero, Ennius, Pacuvius and so on had all been translators. But Eumenes is having none of it:

For certainly Translations are the greatest obstructions of Learning immaginable: for to what purpose shou’d Men be at the expence of so much time and pains in

^dCIan’î Charon:

0 R, A


follies of MANKIND.

Tranilitcd from the Greet,

With Notts, an J /Prtptor^Dialogue in Kindle at itn of TRANSLATIONS.


Nil dulcius rS, !«’>. {«.1» «nnti'M ttxrit Win Dostrina SapitxiuiH T<«t£ alios, fajfw'i' viitu *"•>»«, atj-, vijH y«i«W<< ]»«<■■ I’tlt. j


FIGURE 2.5 Title page of Lucian’s Charon: or A Survey of The Follies of Mankind (1700), reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library.

studying Greek and Latine, when they may read the same Books in their Mother Tongue?8

This is a curious case of putting the cart before the horse: we must not translate Greek and Latin into English because it has cost so much effort to learn those ancient tongues. Philenor sensibly responds that this does not represent an obstruction of learning. On the contrary, we ‘shou’d think now that nothing in the World has a greater tendency to its advancement. Those rich Treasures of Knowledge & Learning among the Antients are no longer now lock’d up in unintelligible Words’. Translating texts by the ancient Greeks and Romans into English

“... has to our Country brought / All that they writ, and all they thought..

Men may now familiarly Converse with the Wits of Greece and Rome, and that without the laborious and ungrateful Toil of Learning Words & Syllables ... For now Every Man may hear Plutarch and Tully, Homer and Virgil, Theocritus, Horace and Ovid, and innumerable others, speaking in his own

Tongue the wonderful works of God and Nature, the admirable Productions of Wit and Fancy, and what ever else may yield a grateful Satisfaction to noble and ingenious Minds.

The patrician Eumenes plays the class card. If every man can read Plutarch and Cicero in his own native tongue, this will ‘make Learning common, cheap, and contemptible, when every ordinary Mechanick shall be as well acquainted with these Authors as he that has spent 10 or 12 Years in the Universities?’ At the climax of his rant against reading ancient authors in translation, he cites the same proverbial pearls cast before swine that Edmund Burke was to invoke 90 years later, quoted at the opening of this book:

Those rich Treasures of Knowledge and Learning are now unlock’d indeed, and scattered abroad among the Rabble; and the mischief on’t is, we do but cast Pearls before Swine who will trample them under their Feet, and turn again and rent us: for they have not Capacities to understand ’em so as to value them, but just so much only as to make ’em Conceited and despise all the World as illeterate and ignorant.86

Philenor points out that Eumenes looks upon

Mechanicks only as meer Animals, not considering that many who understand not Greek and Latine are yet more truly wise than your Learned Criticks and Gramarians... A Man may be learned in the Languages and expert in all the Sciences, & yet be as great a Fool as others.117

He quotes Montaigne to the effect when you observe the young men ‘when they are newly come from the Universities, all that you will find they have got is, that their Latine and Greek has only made ’em greater and more conceited Coxcombs than when they went from home’.88 And he triumphs when he argues that one of his aims has been to ‘excite’ the desire of readers to improve their knowledge of the ancient language.89 The pearls of ancient culture will not be besmirched by the swine forming the multitude. Whether consumed in fairgrounds or through mother-tongue translations, they just might edify and delight them instead.

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