Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tom Paine vs the Classics, Part I

"The Greeks were a learned people, but learning with them did not consist in speaking Greek, any more than in a Roman's speaking Latin, or a Frenchman's speaking French, or an Englishman's speaking English. From what we know of the Greeks, it does not appear that they knew or studied any language but their own, and this was one cause of their becoming so learned; it afforded them more time to apply themselves to better studies. The schools of the Greeks were schools of science and philosophy, and not of languages; and it is in the knowledge of the things that science and philosophy teach that learning consists.

"Almost all the scientific learning that now exists, came to us from the Greeks, or the people who spoke the Greek language. It therefore became necessary to the people of other nations, who spoke a different language, that some among them should learn the Greek language, in order that the learning the Greeks had might be made known in those nations, by translating the Greek books of science and philosophy into the mother tongue of each nation.

"The study, therefore, of the Greek language (and in the same manner for the Latin) was no other than the drudgery business of a linguist; and the language thus obtained, was no other than the means, or as it were the tools, employed to obtain the learning the Greeks had. It made no part of the learning itself; and was so distinct from it as to make it exceedingly probable that the persons who had studied Greek sufficiently to translate those works, such for instance as Euclid's Elements, did not understand any of the learning the works contained.

"As there is now nothing new to be learned from the dead languages, all the useful books being already translated, the languages are become useless, and the time expended in teaching and in learning them is wasted. So far as the study of languages may contribute to the progress and communication of knowledge (for it has nothing to do with the creation of knowledge) it is only in the living languages that new knowledge is to be found; and certain it is, that, in general, a youth will learn more of a living language in one year, than of a dead language in seven; and it is but seldom that the teacher knows much of it himself. The difficulty of learning the dead languages does not arise from any superior abstruseness in the languages themselves, but in their being dead, and the pronunciation entirely lost. It would be the same thing with any other language when it becomes dead. The best Greek linguist that now exists does not understand Greek so well as a Grecian plowman did, or a Grecian milkmaid; and the same for the Latin, compared with a plowman or a milkmaid of the Romans; and with respect to pronunciation and idiom, not so well as the cows that she milked. It would therefore be advantageous to the state of learning to abolish the study of the dead languages, and to make learning consist, as it originally did, in scientific knowledge.

"The apology that is sometimes made for continuing to teach the dead languages is, that they are taught at a time when a child is not capable of exerting any other mental faculty than that of memory. But this is altogether erroneous. The human mind has a natural disposition to scientific knowledge, and to the things connected with it. The first and favourite amusement of a child, even before it begins to play, is that of imitating the works of man. It builds houses with cards or sticks; it navigates the little ocean of a bowl of water with a paper boat; or dams the stream of a gutter, and contrives something which it calls a mill; and it interests itself in the fate of its works with a care that resembles affection. It afterwards goes to school, where its genius is killed by the barren study of a dead language, and the philosopher is lost in the linguist."

This remarkably stupid passage, in which so many things are asserted as facts, hardly one of which is actually true, is taken from Tom Paine's book The Age of Reason,published in 1794. In Paine's case, as with any other person with a reputation for wisdom, it behooves one to read at least a little of the supposedly wise one's work, before forming one's opinion of him -- in other words: to have one's own opinion, as opposed to accepting someone else's. It is a commonplace that history is written by the winners. But so are sociology, paedagogy, economic theory, theology and so on.

Most people have heard of William Jennings Bryan, and accept the general view of him as a populist hero. Most have also heard of the Scopes "monkey" trial. How many people, however, know that at this trial, the primary attorney for the anti-evolutionist side, for the prosecution which wished to punish Scopes for teaching Darwin, was William Jennings Bryan? (By the way, Scopes, a high-school principal, intentionally sought prosecution by violating the state law against teaching evolution, because he and a group of businessmen cronies thought that the publicity would put their town of Dayton, Tennessee on the map. It did. It also led to the founding in Dayton of the fundamentalist Bryan College, which is still there. The prosecution won the case, and Scopes was fined $100. Bryan offered to pay the fine for Scopes. The defense appealed to the State Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction, but set aside the fine, as it had been set by the judge and not by the jury, and at the time judges in Tennessee were prohibited from setting fines of over $50.)

So was Bryan a progressive or a reactionary? He was both. Was Paine an enlightened enemy of superstition and oppression, or a class-obsessed moron who couldn't see the positive achievements of the ancien regime along with their crimes and tyranny? He was both. People are complex. If you want to think of a politician or a philosopher -- Paine and Bryan were both, each in his own way -- as 100% right or 100% wrong, and you yourself are not exceptionally dull, it helps not to be very familiar with his actual positions. Stick to a few quotations, carefully chosen for you from some other collection of quotes by someone with a similar outlook on life and a webpage. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Paine was in revolutionary France when he wrote The Age of Reason, quoted above. He was elected to the Convention. He was in many ways quite in tune with the Revolution, which was throwing out many things. Traditional weights and measures, which were often inexact and varied from place to place, were eliminated, and the metric system introduced. Other changes did not last longer than the Revolution itself, such as the new decimal-based calender, or the rejection of traditional names. The study of ancient languages, unfortunately, although it did not disappear as completely as the pre-metric weights and measures of France, did continue to decline; and it was, moreover, ever more identified with conservatism, reaction, aristocracy and the Catholic Church, in France as elsewhere. As did many other Revolutionaries, Paine rejected Christianity. The main thrust of The Age of Reason was to reject both organized religion and atheism in favor of Deism. Unfortunately, as one can see in the quote which begins this essay, Paine rejects the study of ancient languages along with traditional religion. And thus, implicitly, he rejects the study of whole millenia of the history of Europe, during which the written record is almost entirely in in Latin or Greek -- to say nothing of other ancient cultures in other parts of the world. Or, if he is not actually dismissing the importance of studying the classics, he is at the very least proposing a course which would very much hamper its study: because, no matter what the subject, no very profound knowledge can be gained while relying exclusively on translations.

Of course, one of the primary categories of things rejected by the Revolution, or at least by its self-appointed leader Robespierre, who in his own eyes was the most revolutionary among them, was other, insufficiently revolutionary Revolutionaries. Paine was one of the many former comrades condemned to death by Robespierre; Paine's offense was that he had argued against the death penalty for Louis XVI. It was in a French prison, awaiting the guillotine, that he wrote The Age of Reason. He was freed when Robespierre was finally overthrown and executed.

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