G.R. Parkin: On the Study of Greek (1905)

Background: Back in March, The President of the Classical Association of Canada, Dr Mark Joyal contacted me about something I had mentioned on the Classics list way back in August of 2001. After poking around a bit, it was recalled that it was something I had come across on the About.com Canadian History site and was a letter written by (Canadian) G.R. Parkin in 1905 to entitled The Study of Greek. At the time, Parkin was Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship Trust and appears to have been concerned about declining abilities in Greek and how that might impact applications for Rhodes Scholarships. In pencil below the title of the letter is handwritten “sent to Churchman” (or something like that) and I’m not sure who that is. In any event, Dr Joyal was seeking the letter as part of his research for his talk In Altum, In Gelidum: 350 Years of Classical Learning in the New Found Land, which was a public lecture delivered at this year’s Classical Association of Canada meeting at Memorial University. The letter itself stands as a very interesting glimpse into the state of Greek/Classics in 1905, and it also seems to have several resonances for today, interestingly enough. Since it is no longer available on the web (it’s in Canada’s National Archives), we’ll ‘reboot the blog’ by reproducing this somewhat lengthy epistle in its entirety below. I have taken the liberty of ‘correcting’ some typos in the text (Parkin actually fixed them with corrections done in ink).

The Study of Greek
G.R. Parkin

While travelling through the United States during the last two years in connection with the organization of the Rhodes Scholarship scheme I have constantly been made aware of the slight importance given to the study of Greek at many centres of American education. Even the small quantity of Greek required to pass the Responsions examination at Oxford, which is the only qualifying test applied to candidates for the Scholarship, has proved a stumbling block to great numbers of those who have aspired to become Rhodes Scholars. It has often been suggested to me that the tide is now setting so strongly in the United States against the study of Greek as an unpractical and comparatively useless subject that our chance of getting the ablest young Americans as competitors for the Scholarship would be greatly improved if we could induce Oxford to relax regulations which now make Greek a compulsory study for the ordinary undergraduate up to the time when he has passed the first public examination.

But Cambridge University, which has long enjoyed great renown as a centre of mathematical study, and is now vigorously organizing scientific research, has just rejected a motion for the abolition of compulsory Greek by a greater majority of votes than was given on a like motion at Oxford a year or two ago. So while there is in England a considerable drift in the opposite direction Greek still holds its ground more or less firmly.

I think that there is a good deal more than the conservatism of an old country and of ancient foundations behind these votes. There is the strongest conviction in many of the best minds that the interests of higher education will suffer if the great Universities yield on this point. Is this conviction right or wrong? It seems important that any bit of evidence on the question which turns up in England should be considered in America as well. Let me mention two or three.

The first comes from a scientific source.

There is no weightier name in the world of science today than that of Lord Kelvin. He has given it as his decided opinion that scientific men will lose greatly if the miss the training and mental equipment which come from the study of Greek.

At the time when the motion of the abolition of compulsory Greek was under discussion at Oxford I have to be in a company with Lord Thring, who is known in England as the greatest parliamentary draughtsman of modern times, who put into shape most of the legislation carried through by both Disraeli and Gladstone, and who work on “Practical Legislation” has been widely accepted as an authority on the subject. After various opinions had been expressed by the gentlemen present, Lord Thring somewhat surprised us by remarking that he considered that he owed his peerage to the fact that he had studied Greek. He went on to say that the explanation was simple. He had read Greek with Benjamin Kennedy at Shrewsbury. Kennedy’s favourite Greek author was Thucydides, and throughout a long course of training his boy were expected to translate the pregnant sentences of the famous historian into English which aimed at reflecting not only his condensed thought, but his condensed accuracy of expression.

This severe training Lord Thring had found invaluable in his later public life, when as Parliamentary Counsel it became his business for many years to frame English statutes for submission to Parliament. What he had done for Kennedy throughout boyhood he now had to do for Parliament, viz. to express with clearness and brevity the precise thing that had to be said. He had been able to sweep away much of the useless verbiage with which statute books were laden, and he believed that his peerage had been given him in recognition of his services in putting English Statute Law on a clearer and better basis. For this work he believed that his qualifying training had been the close study and careful translation of Thucydides under the critical supervision of his great headmaster.

I told this story one evening not long since to a group of friends in the Cosmos Club at Washington, and pointed the illustration by turning to the Congressional Record of the day before which with its one or two hundred pages of printed matter was lying on the table of the club. I think that there was a general agreement that if all the legislators in our English speaking senates could have been drilled in Thucydides the practical advantages would be enormous.

To this striking evidence may be added the remarkable letter written by Brougham, then reckoned the greatest orator of his time, to Zachary Macaulay, when the latter consulted him in reference to the training for public life that should be given to his son, afterwards the historian, essayist and parliamentary orator, Thomas Babington Macaulay. After several minor suggestions Brougham affirms that the best way he knew by which to secure a finished style of powerful and persuasive speech is by the study of Greek models — mentioning incidentally that some of his own best known orations were composed after laborious translations of the chief speeches of Thucydides, and that he had achieved his most marked success not only in the courts and Parliament, but even with mobs when translating almost word for word from the Greek.

Has Broughams’s advice been followed on your side of the Atlantic? The question is suggested by a ltter to the Times of today — written by Dr. Walker, High Master of St. Paul’s School, the ancient foundation of Dean Colat. What the Renaissance and the renewed study of Greek meant to Western Europe when Dean Colet founded St. Paul’s in 1513 all students know. That the inaugural address of the President of the United States should in 1905 be made a vehicle for the continued cultivation of Greek in the same old foundation is a fact interesting in itself and perhaps not without its element of prophecy as to the future of that study. Dr. Walker’s letter reads as follows:

Sir, – May I crave space to call attention to the extraordinary resemblance in spirit between President Roosevelt’s inaugural oration and the speeches of Pericles in the second book of Thucydides?

I doubt whether there is a sentence in the English which cannot be paralleled in the Greek, as regards meaning at least, and often as regards form.

I set today a section of the oration for translation into Greek prose, and I asked our head form, “Where does this English come from?”

The general answer was “From Jowett’s translation of Thucydides!”

I have no time to go into the general argument, but these points seem to me to be worth putting on paper.

London, March 9th. 1905

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Potidea Tsunami

This is one of those stories that aggravates me greatly because it seems to provide a ‘scientific’ corroboration for something in Herodotus, and so the evidence of such corroboration would be interesting, but instead the vast majority of the media reports concentrate on ‘implications’ (i.e. it happened 2500 years ago, so it might happen again!). In any event, the AFP coverage via Deutsche Welle seems to have the most of interest to us, despite their headline:

Greece should add northwestern regions to its list of areas at risk of tsunamis and earthquakes, according to German scientists. The experts used an account of fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus in their research.

Scientists from the RWTH Aachen University have warned that northwestern coastal regions of Greece remain prone to earthquakes and tsunamis and should be added to the list of areas at risk.

“We have found several historic tsunamis on the coast,” Professor Klaus Reicherter told the DPA news agency. “That means there is a certain risk for the coastal areas.”

He and his colleagues found sediment on the northern Greek peninsula where Potidaea, and its modern counterpart, Nea Potidaea, is located. They showed signs of massive marine events, such as large waves.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus lent a hand to modern-day researchers

Excavations in the suburbs of the nearby ancient city of Mende uncovered a high-energy level dating back to the fifth century B.C. that contained far older sea shells that were likely picked up off the ocean floor and deposited during a tsunami.

An account dating back to 479 B.C. by Greek scholar Herodotus triggered the scientists’ research. He described “mighty waves” that killed hundreds of Persian invaders that year, in what was then Potidaea.

Over the last four years, the researchers sought out lagoons to look for sediment like marine sands or gravel that are typical for an area affected by a tsunami.

They also found evidence of massive blocks of rock formations “where you do have to ask yourself, how did they get out of the ocean,” Reicherter said. […]

Some coverage does quote a bit of Herodotus, or at least paraphrase him, so here’s a full bit from 8.129.1-3 (via Perseus):

This is how Timoxenus’ treachery was brought to light. But when Artabazus had besieged Potidaea for three months, there was a great ebb-tide in the sea which lasted for a long while, and when the foreigners saw that the sea was turned to a marsh, they prepared to pass over it into Pallene. [2] When they had made their way over two-fifths of it, however, and three yet remained to cross before they could be in Pallene, there came a great flood-tide, higher, as the people of the place say, than any one of the many that had been before. Some of them who did not know how to swim were drowned, and those who knew were slain by the Potidaeans, who came among them in boats. [3] The Potidaeans say that the cause of the high sea and flood and the Persian disaster lay in the fact that those same Persians who now perished in the sea had profaned the temple and the image of Poseidon which was in the suburb of the city. I think that in saying that this was the cause they are correct. Those who escaped alive were led away by Artabazus to Mardonius in Thessaly. This is how the men who had been the king’s escort fared.

It’s worth noting — as Colin McLarty has done in the ongoing discussion of this on the Classics list — that a generation later, during the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides would recognize the connection between earthquakes and tsunamis. See, e.g. 3.89.1-5 … again, via Perseus):

The next summer the Peloponnesians and their allies set out to invade Attica under the command of Agis, son of Archidamus, and went as far as the Isthmus, but numerous earthquakes occurring, turned back again without the invasion taking place. [2] About the same time that these earthquakes were so common, the sea at Orobiae, in Euboea, retiring from the then line of coast, returned in a huge wave and invaded a great part of the town, and retreated leaving some of it still under water; so that what was once land is now sea; such of the inhabitants perishing as could not run up to the higher ground in time. [3] A similar inundation also occurred at Atalanta, the island off the Opuntian-Locrian coast, carrying away part of the Athenian fort and wrecking one of two ships which were drawn up on the beach. [4] At Peparethus also the sea retreated a little, without however any inundation following; and an earthquake threw down part of the wall, the town hall, and a few other buildings. [5] The cause, in my opinion, of this phenomenon must be sought in the earthquake. At the point where its shock has been the most violent the sea is driven back, and suddenly recoiling with redoubled force, causes the inundation. Without an earthquake I do not see how such an accident could happen.

T.C. Smid comments on both these events in ‘Tsunamis’ in Greek Literature, Greece & Rome, Second Series, 17 (1970), pp. 100-104.

Of course, tsunamis in the Mediterranean have been the source of a fair bit of attention here at rogueclassicism … some of our previous coverage:

On the one mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus, see also Adrian Murdoch’s Tsunami in late antiquity … we also note at Corinthian Matters: Did a tsunami destroy ancient Lechaion?

… and we’ll end with an assortment of the other press coverage of the ‘Potidea event’:

Hopefully we’ll get further coverage when/if Dr Reicherter’s paper is published …