This Chapter containeth an Eulogy on the Greek Tongue.
WHAT added to the misfor|tune, mentioned in the last chapter, a worthy divine, settled in Boston, passing through our town, told my father, in a private con|versation, that all the Greek I had acquir|ed, was of no other service than fitting me for college. My father was astonished. He was a plain unlettered man, of strong natural abilities. Pray, Reverend Sir, said my father, do they not learn this Greek language at college? If so, why do such wise men, as the governours of col|leges, teach boys what is entirely useless? Page 61 I thought that the sum of all good edu|cation was, to teach youth those things, which they were to practise in after life. Learning, replied our enlightened visitor, has its fashions; and, like other fashions of this world, they pass away. When our forefathers founded the college, at Cam|bridge, critical knowledge in the mazes and subtleties of school divinity was all the mode. He that could give a new turn to an old text, or detect a mistransla|tion in the version, was more admired than the man, who invented printing, discovered the magnetic powers, or con|trived an instrument of agriculture, which should abridge the labour of the husband|man. The books of our faith, with the voluminous commentaries of the fathers, being originally written, in what are now called, the dead languages, the knowledge of those languages was then necessary, for the accomplishment of the fashionable scholar. The moderns, of New England, Page 62 have ceased to interest themselves in the disputes, whether a civil oath may be ad|ministered to an unregenerate man; or, whether souls, existing merely in the con|templation of Deity, are capable of actual transgression. Fashion has given a new direction to the pursuits of the learned. They no longer soar into the regions of in|finite space; but endeavour, by the aid of natural and moral philosophy, to a|mend the manners and better the condi|tion of man: and the college, at Cam|bridge, may be assimilated to an old beau, with his pocket holes under his arm pits, the skirts of his coat to his ancles, and three gross of buttons on his breeches; looking with contempt on the more easy, useful garb of the present day, for deviat|ing from what was fashionable in his youth.
But, inquired my father, is there not some valuable knowledge contained in those Greek books? All that is useful in Page 63 them, replied our visitor, is already trans|lated into English; and more of the sense and spirit may be imbibed, from trans|lations, than most scholars would be a|ble to extract, from the originals, if they even availed themselves of such an ac|quaintance with that language, as is usually acquired, at college.
Well, replied my father, do you call them dead languages. It appears to me now, that confining a lad of lively genius to the study of them, for five or six of the most precious years of his youth, is like the ingenious cruelty of those tyrants, I have heard of, who chained the living and the dead together. If Updike went to college, I should wish he would learn, not hard words, but useful things.
You spake of governours of col|leges, continued our visitor. Let me ob|serve, as an apology, for the concern they may be supposed to have, in this er|rour, that they are moral, worthy men, Page 64 who have passed the same dull routine of education, and whose knowledge is neces|sarily confined to these defunct languages. They must teach their pupils what they know, not what they do not know. That measure, which was measured unto them, they mete out, most liberally, unto others.
Should not the legislature, as the fathers of the people, interfere, inquired my fa|ther? We will not talk politics, at this time, replied our visitor.
My father was now determined that I should not go to college. He concealed this conversation from me, and I was left to be proud of my Greek. The little ad|vantage, this deceased language has since been to me, has often caused me sorely to regret the mispense of time, in acquiring it. The French make it no part of their academical studies. Voltaire, D'Alem|bert, and Diderot, when they completed their education, were probably ignorant of the cognata tempora of a Geek verb.
Page 65 It was resolved that I should labour on my father's farm; but alas! a taste for Greek had quite eradicated a love for la|bour. Poring so intensely on Homer and Virgil had so completely filled my brain with the heathen mythology, that I imagined a Hamadryade in every sapling, a Naiad in every puddle; and expected to hear the sobbings of the infant Fauns, as I turned the furrow. I gave Greek names to all our farming tools; and cheer|ed the cattle with hexameter verse. My father's hired men, after a tedious day's labour in the woods, inspecting our stores, for refreshment, instead of the customary bread and cheese and brandy, found Ho|mer's Iliad, Virgil Delphini and Schreve|lius's Lexicon, in the basket.
After I had worked on the farm some months, having killed a fat heifer of my father's, upon which the family depend|ed for their winter's beef, covered it with green boughs, and laid it in the shade to Page 66 putrify, in order to raise a swarm of bees, after the manner of Virgil; which process, notwithstanding I followed closely the di|rections in the georgics, some how or other, failed, my father consented to my mother's request, that I should renew my career of learning.