Adam Sedgwick, A Discourse on the Studies of the University (1833) 

Part 2 of 3, mounted as part of the History of English Studies Page (Rita Raley

II. In the comments I think it right to make on the second branch of our studies, I may take for granted that every one of those whom I now address, has from his tender years been taught the languages of Greece and Rome, and is familiar with at least a portion of their literature. It is no part of my object either to praise or blame the system of early education in this country: but, before I pass on, I may recall to your minds the wonderful ease with which a child comprehends the conventional signs of thought formed between man and man -- not only learns the meaning of words descriptive of visible things; but understands, by a kind of rational instinct, the meaning of abstract terms, without ever thinking of the faculty by which he comes to separate them from the names of mere objects of sense. The readiness with which a child acquires a language may well be called a rational instinct: for during the time that his knowledge is built up, and that he learns to handle the implements of thought, he knows no more of what passes within himself, than he does of the structure of the eye, or of the properties of light, while he attends to the impressions on his visual sense, and gives to each impression its appropriate name. As the memory becomes stored with words, and the mind accustomed to their application, this readiness of verbal acquisition gradually decays, and at length, with some persons, almost disappears. That this is true, I need only appeal to the experience of those who, after being long disused to such studies, have attempted to learn a language. They will tell you of their feelings of mental drudgery and intolerable fatigue, during their slow, laborious progress, in acquiring what a child gains without knowing how, and a young person learns cheerfully and without a sense of toil. A small part of these remarks applies only to our vernacular tongue and to oral teaching: the greater part bears on the acquisition of all languages -- the dead as well as the living. our fathers then have done wisely, and followed nature, in making the study of languages a part of our earliest discipline. By this study we gain access to the magazines of thought‹we find our way through the vast storehouses wherein are piled the intellectual treasures of a nation, as soon as we have capacity to understand their value, and strength to turn them to good account. 

With individuals as with nations, the powers of imagination reach their maturity sooner than the powers of reason; and this is another proof, that the severer investigations of science ought to be preceded by the study of languages; and especially of those great works of imagination which have become a pattern for the literature of every civilized tongue. From time to time there arise up on the earth men who seem formed to become the center of an intellectual system of their own. They are invested, like the prophet of old, with a heavenly mantle, and speak with the voice of inspiration. Those that appear after them are but attendants in their train -- seem born only to revolve around them, warmed by their heat and shining by their reflected glory. Their works derive not their strength from momentary passions or local interests, but speak to feelings common to mankind, and reach the inner-most movements of the soul; and hence it is that they have an immortal spirit which carries them safe through the wreck of empires and the changes of opinion. 

Works like these are formed by no rule; but become a model and a rule to other men. Few, however, among us are permitted to shew this high excellence. ordinary minds must be content to learn by rule; and every good system of teaching must have reference to the many and not to the few. But surely it is our glorious privilege to follow the track of those who have adorned the history of mankind‹ to feel as they have felt -- to think as they have thought -- and to draw from the living fountain of their genius. Wonderful and mysterious is the intellectual communion we hold with them! Visions of imagination starting from their souls, as if struck out by creative power, are turned into words, and fixed in the glowing forms of language: and, after a time, the outward signs of thought pass before our sense; and, by a law of our being not under our control, kindle within us the very fire which (it may be thousands of years ago) warmed the bosom of the orator or the poet -- so that once again, for a moment, he seems in word and feeling, to have a living presence within ourselves! 

As the body gains strength and grace by the appropriate exercise of all its members; so, also, the mind is fortified and adorned by calling every faculty into its proper movement. No one will indeed deny, that the imaginative powers are strengthened and the taste improved, especially in young minds, by the habitual study of models of high excellence. It may, however, at first sight well admit of question, when we consider the shortness of life and the multitude of things demanding our efforts and pressing on our attention, whether a study of the dead languages ought to form a prominent part of academic discipline. Had Europe, after the darker ages, advanced to civilization without the aid of ancient learning, this question might not have been so readily answered in the affirmative. But, without troubling ourselves with imaginary difficulties, we may reply -- that the best literature of modern Europe, is drawn more or less from the classic source, and cast in the classic mould; and can neither be felt nor valued as it ought without ascending to the fountain head -- that our superstructure must suffer if we allow its foundations to decay -- If this answer be not thought sufficient, there is another which admits of no reply, and the force of which no time can take away. our classical studies help us to interpret the oracles of God, and enable us to read the book wherein man's moral destinies are written, and the means of eternal life are placed before him. 

Assuming then that our fathers have done well in making classical studies an early and prominent part of liberal education; there still remains a question whether they are wisely followed up in the system of our University. Those who are best acquainted with our studies will confess with w hat delight they have witnessed the extent and accuracy of erudition displayed, of late years, by many of our younger members. Whatever is taught in this place ought to be taught profoundly: for superficial information is not merely of little value, but is a sure proof of bad training. Hence, that critical skill which teaches men to dissect the ancient languages -- to unravel all the subtilties of their structure -- and to transfuse their whole meaning into a translation, well deserves the honors and rewards we have long bestowed upon it. 

In the department of verbal criticism some of the mighty men whose names adorn our domestic history (and whose remembrance we keep alive by this day's ceremonial), have earned a lasting fame; and have proved how in their hands, that knowledge, which with vulgar minds is trifling and without fruit, can be made to assist in the illumination of history, the detection of sophistry, and the support of sacred truth. Few persons are, however, gifted with the powers of a Bentley or a Porson: and were we permitted, on a day like this, to allude to the imperfections of such men, we might perhaps lament, that so little even of their time was employed on matter worthy of the giant strength that God had given them. 

I think it incontestably true, that for the last fifty years our classical studies (with much to demand our undivided praise) have been too critical and formal; and that we have sometimes been taught, while straining after an accuracy beyond our reach, to value the husk more than the fruit of ancient learning: and if of late years our younger members have sometimes written prose Greek almost with the purity of Xenophon, or composed iambics in the finished diction of the Attic noets, we may well doubt whether time suffices for such perfection -- whether the imagination and the taste might not be more wisely cultivated than by a long sacrifiee to what, after all, ends but in verbal imitations -- In short, whether such acquisitions, however beautiful in themselves, are not gained at the expense of something better. This at least is true, that he who forgets that language is but the sign and vehicle of thought, and while studying the word, knows little of the sentiment -- who learns the measure, the garb, and fashion of ancient song, without looking to its living soul or feeling its inspiration -- is not one jot better than a traveller in classic land, who sees its crumbling temples, and numbers, with arithmetical precision, their steps and pillars, but thinks not of their beauty, their design, or the living sculptures on their walls -- or who counts the stones in the Appian way instead of gazing on the monuments of the " eternal city." 

There is one province of verbal criticism which has often been overlooked, or set at naught, and yet would abundantly repay the labour of its cultivation. Words are the signs of thought; and from words themselves (without following them through all their inflexions and combinations in the finished structure of a language), we may see into the natural feelings and judgments of men, before they become warped by the prejudices of sect or the subtilties of system. If in reading the ancient writers, we meet with words describing virtue and vice, honour and dishonour, guilt and shame, coupled with the strongest epithets of praise or condemnation; then we are certain that these things existed as realities before they became words; or at least, that in the minds of those who, during the early progress of society, built up the ancient languages, they were considered as realities; and on that account (and that account only) had their representatives among the symbols of thought. I believe we might in this way make a near approach to a true system of moral philo sophy: and our progress would at every step record a series of judgments, not derived from any doubtful train of reasoning, but forced on men by the very condition of their existence. 

In following up the manly studies of this place, we ought to read the classic page, not merely to kindle delightful emotions_to gratify the imagination and the taste_but also to instruct the understanding; and to this end the philosophical and ethical works of the ancients deserve a much larger portion of our time than we have hitherto bestowed on them. It is indeed notorious, that during many past years, while verbal criticism has been pursued with so much ardour, the works to which I now allude (coming home, as they do, to the business of life; and pregnant, as they are, with knowledge well fitted to fortify the reasoning powers) have, by the greatest number of us, hardly been thought of; and have in no instance been made prominent subjects of Academic training. The classical writers did not cultivate the imagination only; but they saw deep into the springs of human thought and action: and rightly apprehending the capacities of man and their bearing on social life, they laid the foundation of their moral systems in the principles and feelings of our nature, and built thereon a noble superstructure. Should any one object to these ancient systems (as Paley and many other writers have done), and tell us that they are obscure, indefinite, and without sanction: we might reply, that in every question, even of physical science, we take but a few steps towards a first cause, before we are arrested by a boundary we cannot pass -- before we are encompassed with a darkness no eye can penetrate: -- that in moral questions (founded, not on the properties of material agents, which we can examine and sift, again and again, by new experiments, but on the qualities of rational and responsible beings), still narrower is the limitation of our inquiries. To suppose that we can reason up to a first cause in moral questions‹that we can reach some simple principle, whence we may descend with logical precision to all the complicated duties of a social being; is to misapprehend the nature of our faculties, and utterly to mistake the relation we bear both to God and man. Such a system may delight us by its clearness, and liatter our pride because it appears, at once, to bring all our duties within our narrow grasp: but it is clear only because it is shallow; while a better system may seem darker, only because it is more profound. 

If it be contended, that in the trying circumstances of life the moral systems of the ancients are without sufficient motives: we may reply, that in this respect all moral systems are alike -- that all of them lead to consequences, and point to actions, beyond the power of any earthly sanction. When we ascend to the highest virtues and capacities of our moral nature, and think of the tens of thousands who in every age have encountered a voluntary death for the good of their kindred men and the glory of their country, or the still more exalted heroes who have died as solitary martyrs in the defence of some high and holy principle; we tell of deeds which moralists and historians of every age have adorned with their praise, and held up for imitation. But still, however common acts like these may have been in the history of mankind, we have no right to class them as social duties, grounded in mere moral and social feelings; and in accounting for them, our souls recoil from the vulgar sanction of this world's praise. If deeds like these be compatible with our nature; then is there something within us, which, however obscured or ill-informed, points to a higher destiny: and in asking for motives, we must quit the province of morals, and enter on that of religion; and in its hopes, faint and feeble as they may often be, we may not only find an answer to our question, but a reason why such high feelings and capacities are implanted in us; leading us, as they do, into acts opposed to the strongest instincts of our nature, and above the sanction of all ordinary moral rules. 

It is, I think, certain that the study of an ethical system, grounded on the moral and social feelings, and exemplified by that course of action which in all ages has been honourea by the virtuous and the wise, is not only a good practical training for the mind (which in the busy commerce of life has often more to do with moral than with physical reasoning), but prepares it for the acceptance of religious truth. Whether this opinion be true or false, it is at least certain, that many of the writers of antiquity had correct notions on the subject of natural religion. The argument for the being of a God, derived from final causes, is as well stated in the conversations of Socrates, as in the Natural Theology of Paley. Nor does Socrates merely regard God as a powerful first cause, but as a provident and benevolent being: and he tells us, that. as man is the only animal with a soul capable of apprehending a God, he is the only being by whom God is worshipped -- that prayer and sacrifice are our duty -- that by such services we may learn some of the secrets concealed front men, and know, that the Divinity sees every thing, hears every thing, is present every where, and cares for all his works. Few however of the heathen Philosophers conceived or uttered sentiments like these; and trained as they were in a superstition which deiBed their bad passions, and sanctioned their vices under the impure forms of its religious rites, we need not wonder at their limited knowledge of the attributes of God, or their feeble hopes of a more exalted state of future being. 

In speaking of the spirit which ought to guide us in our classical studies, we must look also to their lessons of practical wisdom. History is to our knowledge of man in his social capacity, what physical experiments are to our knowledge of the laws of nature: and well it is for that country which learns wisdom by the experiments of other nations. In ancient history we can not only trace the fortunes of mankind under almost every condition of political and social life; but all the successive actions we contemplate are at such a distance from us, that we can see their true bearings on each other undistorted by that mist of prejudice with which every modern political question is surrounded. We may see that the higher virtues, which are the only secure foundation of a nation's strength, are confined to no time or country; and although sometimes called into their fullest action by a sudden and trying circumstance, are in the common course of things but the slowly matured fruit of good discipline and good government. We may look on states rising out of small beginnings, and watch the means by which they gradually ascend in the scale of national strength. We may mark the giant power of despotism wasting away before a petty combine tion of free men. We may see that liberty is the handmaid of genius and virtue‹that under her fostering care, feelings and sentiments, embodied in national literature, spring up and knit men together as one family, and for a time give them an almost unconquerable might -- and lastly, that the loss of national sentiments and national independence, whether commencing in decay from within or violence from without, is alike followed by moral and physical desolation. 

We study to little purpose, if while we unroll the history of past time we look but at one side of the portraiture of our race. If we read in it the maxims of wisdom, we find also the annals of crime. If great actions have strewn man's high capacities, the sins and follies, by which all history is blotted, prove also the feebleness of his pm.pose. We may find in every page the records of selfishness -- the desolation produced by the jarring interests of faction. We may see that the foulest crimes have oftentimes been enacted under the fairest forms of government; and that in all conditions of a state (from its beginning to its end) corruption of manners is ever incompatible with true liberty. We may trace the history of a vast empire, from its first beginnings -- find it, after many mutations of fortune, rising to great power by the exercise of great virtue -- and during the lapse of ages, see its citizens jealous, even to a crime, of their civil freedom. We may then go on, and find the same people becoming willing tools in the hands of bad men, and, at length, so utterly corrupt, as to rush, with one consent, into the basest servitude: and in those evil days, we may find that even the best men were willing to surrender their inheritance, and to seek, in the despotic authority of one, a refuge against the more intolerable licence of the many. We leave however our lesson incomplete if we follow not this history to its end, and see that the calm of despotism, superinduced on a corruption of manners, is followed by a stagnation of all the higher virtues which minister to national strength; and so becomes but the dismal presage of dismemberment and final dissolution. 

In the moral, as in the physical, convulsions of the world, the good and the bad are often mingled together in a common calamity; and were we to limit our views to this life only, we might see, in the dealings of God with man, much to perplex and to confound us. Still it is true, even in this narrow view, that there is in the history of past times enough to shew that God will in the end vindicate his character as a moral "over nour: for we find, that in all ages virtue and wisdom have been the only firm supports of national strength -- and that as in individual men, where sin rules in the bodily members, there is a degrading moral servitude, and a loss of capacity for high thought and action -- so also that among states and empires, depravity of manners has ever been followed by a loss of glory and a loss of freedom. Hence we may conclude on a large experience, grounded on all history, past or present, sacred or profane, that those public men who have sought to gain their ends by inflaming the bad passions of the people and pandering to their vices, have been traitors to the cause of true liberty, and blasphemers against the very God they professed to worship. 

Another conclusion, not less general than the former, may also be drawn from the universal experience of past history -- that under no form of government is man to be maintained in a condition of personal happiness, and social dignity, without the sanction of religion. Finally, as all material laws, and all material organs throughout animated nature, are wisely fitted together, so that nothing, of which we comprehend the use, is created in vain; and as the moral and intellectual powers of man, working together according to the laws of his being, make him what he is -- teach him to comprehend the past and almost to realize the future -- and rule over his social destiny; we may surely conclude, as a fair induction of natural reason, that this religious nature (so essential to his social happiness) was not given to him only to deceive him; but was wisely implanted in him, to guide him in the way of truth, and to direct his soul to the highest objects of his creation. And thus we reach (though hy steps somewhat different) the same end to which I endeavoured to point the way in the former division of this discourse. 

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Rita Raley
University of California, Santa Barbara
Page Created: 12.18.96