The Slow Lane: Ancient lessons for modern lives

Harry Eyres:

I went along to a fundraising event for the organisation Classics for All, which promotes the teaching of classics in state schools in England, more out of a general feeling that learning classics is a Good Thing than out of messianic zeal.

If I’m honest, I have mixed feelings about all the years I spent studying classics. Half the time I found Latin and Greek both tough and dry; my classics teachers, and the subject, were not what is now called “sexy”; though experts on the use of the ablative absolute and the middle voice, they seemed to have had what Yeats called “spontaneous joy and natural content” squeezed out of them. I remember lying on my bed with two books beside me: one was the Odyssey in Greek, the other was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. They were both, now I think about it, accounts of fatherless young men setting out on adventures on Greek islands, but at that time I found the business of construing the ancient Greek laborious and wished I was outside in the olive groves of Corfu with young Gerald, who never went to school until the age of 13.

What is the point of studying languages that have been dead for centuries, and societies that would seem to have minimal relevance to our high-tech world? This was a question that concerned the classicist and poet Louis MacNeice. Working as a classics lecturer at Birmingham university in the 1930s he is beset by doubts: he should be teaching “The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it/ Page by page/ To train the mind or even to point a moral/ For the present age”. But instead of the “paragons of Hellas” he thinks of less noble figures, “the crooks, the adventurers . . . the fancy boys . . . the demagogues and the quacks” and concludes: “how one can imagine oneself among them/ I do not know;/ It was all so unimaginably different/ and all so long ago.”