Monday, September 28, 2015

1841. And Latin. And Trains.

In 1841 Søren Kierkegaard had to write to the King of Denmark for permission to present his dissertation, for a Master of Arts in Theology from the department of Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, in Danish instead of Latin. I don't know how many dissertations presented there were written in Latin at the time, as opposed to Danish: whether they were almost all in Latin, and a request such as Kierkegaard's was unusual, or whether almost all were written in the vernacular, and the request was little more than a formality and a remnant of earlier times (the university was founded in 1479).

I would guess: neither. I would guess that a fair number of dissertations were written in each language at that time. In any case, Kierkegaard publicly (and successfully) defended the dissertation in Latin disputation on the 29th of September, 1841. Although the main text of the dissertation, Om Begrebet Ironi: Med Stadigt Hensyn Til Socrates, is in Danish, it begins with 12 theses written in Latin. And it contains many citations in Greek, Latin and German.

10 days before Kierkegaard publicly defended his dissertation, on the 19th of September, 1841, the world's first international railway line opened, between Strasbourg and Basel. Today most passenger trains take about 3 1/2 hours to get from Strasbourg to Basel. In 1841, presumably, it took a bit longer.

The first Danish railway would not open until 1844 if you consider Holstein to have been part of Denmark at the time, or 1847 if you do not. The Prussians considered Holstein to be part of Prussia, and after the Second Schleswig War in 1864, Denmark stopped contesting the matter.

In 1841 William Henry Harrison was inaugurated President of the United States on the 4th of March, and died of pneumonia on the 4th of April. Popular legend has it that Harrison contracted his fatal case on pneumonia while delivering an extraordinarily long Inaugural address on the 4th of March; actually, he did not fall ill until the 26th of March.

I do not know what state railroads were in in the USA in 1841. I cannot find any information of great events in the American railroad industry in that year. The first commercial American railroad opened in 1830, and between the 1830's and the 1860's American railways boomed, and replaced canals as the major method of transport. Plans for a great nationwide network of canals were abandoned.

I cannot tell what state the Latin language was in in the US in 1841, but I see signs to suspect that it was worse off there than in Europe. The Classics in America have had the bad luck that some very influential men have been anti-intellectual, and that some influential American intellectuals have been pretty stupid concerning the Classics they had been taught. As an example of the former, I have already in this blog pilloried Tom Paine: Part 1 Part 2

As an example of the latter, Benjamin H Latrobe, who was able to pass for a leading American intellectual at the time, writing in 1798 about the American curriculum, suggested that

"Terence, Phedrus, Ovid and other poets, from whom no one ever learned a single useful fact, should be should be rejected"

in favor of

"Justin's epitome of the history of Trogus Pompeius, as being an easy and entertaining writer,"

and also Nepos. After that shocking display, I think we can chalk up the fact that Latrobe also recommends some good writers, including Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Horace and Vergil, to sheer dumb luck. Which Greek author does Latrobe praise above all others? Xenophon. What Greek work does he call the the worst of them all for schoolchildren, against which they must be protected at all costs? The Iliad.

And Paine and Latrobe, who may well have journeyed to America because they had to, because they were laughed out of the entire country of England for saying and writing such things, were and are counted among the best minds of the American Revolution and the early American republic.

That is how much of a chance Classical education had in the US.

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