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The Essence of Classical Culture

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[Reposted from 2021]

Source title: “The Essence of Classical Culture”: Werner Jaeger’s First Public Address in the United States”

(Stanley M. Burstein)

History of Classical Scholarship. 20 July 2020. Issue 2 (2020): 115–130.

“This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence.”


The Essence of Classical Culture 29

by Werner W. Jaeger, Ph.D., Litt. D.
Professor of Greek, the University of Chicago


The Classics were handed down to us from the end of the ancient period to the present time by a continuous historical movement which has preserved in varying forms the abiding content of this spiritual possession.30 It was in the first place a process of conscious tradition which was almost uninterrupted through two thousand years. It has been interrupted by some special high points of inner contact with ancient culture which we call renaissances or revivals and which coincided with the high points of cultural life in the history of the medieval and modern nations. Standing at the end of this historical curve and viewing its uniform rhythm we may ask for the cause of this amazing phenomenon of continuity and vitality. It goes without saying that this cause is to be found only in the inner structure of ancient civilization itself. At the same time a second question arises: what is or ought to be the position of classics in contemporary culture?


[Two notes by Stanley M. Burstein are retained here:

29 At this point Jaeger inserted the following footnote: “An address delivered at the Goodman Theater May 18th, 1937, as part of a symposium on “What Our Civilization Owes to Greece and Rome.

30 While Jaeger’s English in this talk is remarkably fluent overall, his punctuation, which is reproduced here, is uneven, particularly his use of commas. Underlining reproduces Jaeger’s emphases in the text.]


A thousand answers have been given to both questions, each of them stressing a particular feature of this many-sided problem. But since we cannot discuss them in this limited account, I shall try to reduce them to one single answer which covers both questions. For the position of the classics in our present time must be based necessarily on the same quality which was the cause of their triumph in history. To define this quality, it would not be enough to enumerate all the individual inventions of the Greek genius in art and literature, science and philosophy, moral thought and political ideology. However highly we may esteem each of these achievements, one thing stands out above them all and makes us understand them as a spiritual unity: this is the ideal scope which they were aimed at more and more consciously as Greek culture progressed. The Greeks referred all their creative work to one highest task: the formation of man. So they became the creators of a new form of living and thinking which we call culture. This concept since has become the distinctive mark and common link of all those nations which share in the Greek heritage. We call this Greek idea by a Latin word, because the Romans brought both the thing and the word for it to the Occidental world when they imposed their domination on the other nations and unified them in a tradition based on Greek civilization. Even [sic] since the downfall of the Roman Empire the nations which had begun their historical careers as parts of that Empire have been bound together by the common heritage of Greco-Roman culture, in which their descendants in the New World now likewise participate. All higher norms of human thought and action which modern nations have in common derive either from Christian religion or from Classical culture. To abandon this basis would mean for them to relapse into external isolation and barbarous primitivism; it would mean inner disruption and the complete loss of mutual understanding.

But is this thesis of the uniqueness of Classical culture compatible at all with the historical conception of the Ancient world which modern research has opened during the last hundred years? The discovery of the monumental civilizations of Egypt and Asia has aroused our admiration for the august age and the achievements of those nations compared with which the Greeks themselves felt like children. But this discovery itself discloses even more clearly the fact that none of these other nations produced a conscious ideal of culture in our Hellenic sense of the term. Even the word and with it the concept as such is missing in their languages. The intellectual and moral structure of their own systems of life is essentially different. We are able to recognize this more easily when we ask ourselves how the principles of their own civilizations differed from our cultural ideals. Either their systems were fundamentally religious in character e.g. the Law and the Prophets of the Jews or the Dharma of the Indians, or they were exclusively moral like the Confucianism which shaped the lives of the Chinese for many centuries, or exclusively militaristic or juridical like the Persian or Roman systems. None of these nations developed a literature or art, a science or philosophy in our sense of the term with the exception of the Romans who were the authors of the first Renaissance of Greek literature and culture. If nonetheless the abstract language of our modern Social Science uses the word “culture” unhesitatingly in the plural as a merely descriptive concept and speaks of the Persian or Indian or Egyptian cultures and even of the culture of primitive tribes, we shall be able to avoid rendering one of our highest concepts of value relative and almost meaningless only if we are aware that such a juxtaposition has no foundation in history. It is much the same as when e.g. some ancient Greeks speak of the Mosaic Genesis and Decalogue as the “philosophy of the Hebrews.” History knows only one system that is really dominated and illuminated by the conscious ideal of culture. This is the community of nations in which we are living. Thus, as far as culture is concerned, we are living in a hellenocentric system.

But what does it mean to say that the Greeks were the creators of culture? Our definition of Greek culture as a conscious ideal involves the danger of taking it as something abstract, whereas what I mean is a tendency which pervades all the creations of the Greek mind and determines their form. But let us take as an example Greek literature and views which the Greeks themselves held of poetry and spiritual creation. To them the work of art was never a mere object of esthetic pleasure as it to us. It was at the same time the bearer of an ethos, a feeling or intention of the artist which has sought expression and found it. It was true to life, not realistic in the narrow sense of mere verisimilitude, but true in the perfection or excellence of the object represented. The subject of their art is always man in all the essential relations of his existence to life, to nature, to the divine, and to destiny. Where poetry ceases and the contents of thought calls for prose — oratory, history, philosophy — the same rule holds. The literature of the Greeks offers thus a splendid spectacle: the striving of the human spirit for the abiding expression of its ideals, the molding of human excellence from the heroic stage of the epic to the later phase of the tragic, the political, the philosophical man. Homer is the herald of heroic virtue embodied in the chorus of national heroes fighting against Troy. His follower, Hesiod, set up in his epic Works and Days a parallel codification of the virtues of the working man. The poets Tyrtaeus and Solon become the great political teachers of their countrymen: the first of them by his praise of the Spartan ideal of valor with which he tries to inspire a whole community during a fatal war; the other, one of the Classical law-givers of history and a poetical representative of the spirit of democracy, deifies the ideal of an organic social order based on justice, lawfulness, and free self-responsibility. The lyric poets show for the first time the awakening of a free individuality conscious of the objective norms underlying its subjective feeling and expression. Tragedy deepens the inborn heroism of the Greek soul to the religious consciousness of the tragic character of life. It discovers the sources of tragic complications and models the immortal figures of suffering humanity: Prometheus, Oedipus, Antigone. Comedy castigates the weaknesses of human nature. Historiography reveals the eternal struggle of right and might as the essence of political life. In the same ways Greek literature and poetry show all stages of human existence and its immanent laws and make the poet the very prophet and teacher of his nation, early Greek philosophy seeks the abiding laws of nature, and Greek art discovers for the first time the hidden plastic norms of the body, the general laws of anatomy, proportion, ponderation, motion, and perspective.

On this background we understand how the Greeks were able to formulate also the problem of education in an entirely new way. Education is common to all human races from the beginnings of civilization. It is based on the necessity of transferring to every new generation the standards of human life, which so far have been attained by the continuous struggle for existence and the maintenance of a long tradition. Men are brought up in the arts of peace and war and are taught to honor the gods and their parents. The Greeks set up a higher idea of education. The nation of artists and thinkers conceived the process of conscious formation of the living man. Nothing is equal to the philosophical earnestness and the creative power with which they approached this task. Simonides, the ancient poet, says: “It is hard to become a man of perfect virtue constructed four-square with hands and feet and mind without blemish.” Indeed the Greek spirit faces this problem as a sort of architectonic task. Like the Greek artist or poet, the educator asks for the ideal laws and norms of human nature in order to express them in the individual. The earliest stage of Greek education, which we can trace back to Homer, was a combination of gymnastic and music. The harmony of body and soul is one of its basic features. Music means the arts of the Muses; it includes poetry and dance as well as vocal and instrumental music. We can understand from what has been said about the specific character of Greek poetry, why it is given so high a place in education. Poetry becomes in the Greek scheme the representative interpreter of life. In its higher forms it is far beyond the limits of any mere individual emotion or expression to which modern artists usually confine. The Greeks found in Homer and Sophocles not only entertainment and inspiration, but an expression of obligation. More and more the word culture or education (the Greeks say paideia) included the works of literature and thought in which the highest spiritual and moral ideas of the nation were embodied. The content of the word was enlarged again when, in connection with the educational problem, the Greeks became the investigators and discoverers of the typical forms of human thought, voice, speech, and action. They discovered the laws of musical harmony and the grammatical structure of human language. They taught how to distinguish force and shade of meaning of every word and how to adapt the various types of style which they brought into a rhetorical system, to the various parts of discourses and to the changing situations of life. They disclosed the laws of argumentation and logic as well as arithmetic, geometry, and stereometry, and referred the epoch-making knowledge of all these formal principles of the human mind to the task of the intellectual formation of men. We have inherited this form of education from the Greeks and since there is no civilized nation in the Western World which has not adopted their system, we all participate in their achievements even when we do not know their language.

The discovery of the disciplines just mentioned led to an immense extension of the intellectual part of education, to the new idea of a gymnastic training of the mind. It is interesting to see that at about the same time Greek medicine entered the circle of disciplines which contributed to the objective of human culture and accomplished a parallel enlargement of the somatic part of education. This also is an instructive example of what I called the educational attitude of the Greek genius. Although Greek medicine was already highly specialized and had its own special literature in the time of Hippocrates and his medical school, physicians of all schools endeavored to state their theories in a form intelligible to the public and to bridge the gap between specialists and laymen. The Greek physician turns from the sick to the healthy man and becomes his educator. He teaches him how to live, how to avoid the dangerous influence of the various seasons, the menace of epidemic diseases, the bad consequence of false diet, and how to find out by experience, conjecture, and tact the right mean of symmetry. The literature on diet increases rapidly and shows an incredible refinement. This new discipline is based on the assumption that nature itself is the greatest physician. The task of medicine is only to understand and to assist nature. Medicine must combine a tactful diplomacy, which is aware of the nature of the individual and his constitutional needs, with a tendency toward nature in the sense of the general norm and its measure. The whole life must be controlled by medical intelligence and is described in all its daily details. This literature gives an admirable picture of physical culture in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and of the unifying influence which the cultural ideal exercised at that time on all branches of Greek life. This medical theory of diet is, as it were, the ethics of the body. Plato and Aristotle are full of praise of the medical art and imitate in their ethics the example of medical method. On the other hand medicine stands in close contact with philosophy. Comparing it with the beginnings of medical experience in Egypt, we may say that Greek medicine developed its scientific character because of its close contact with the philosophical thought of the Greeks.

The Greek idea of education is opposed to all professionalism. The objective of education is not business but man, that is to say true education must develop man’s nature and faculties as a whole and not merely make him fit for a technical job. Thus Greek education is general education, but this does not mean a mere formal training of man’s mental and physical forces. The stress which is laid on the arts, i.e. on grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and the mathematical disciplines, might give the opposite impressions, but this stage of the educational process is by no means final. According to Plato and Aristotle, it is only preparatory in character. Even among the Sophists who were the inventors of that formal training, there was a Protagoras who was aware of the fact that an education that was based chiefly on the formal arts would be too technical and would not make a man fit for a life within a community. To the Greeks a general education means a political education, if we take this word in its highest sense. Socrates’ objection to the Sophists was that they did not attain this objective in making a young man a good public speaker by their formal training. But even Protagoras who initiated his pupils in the abstract theories of the recently invented Social Science did not satisfy the philosophical critics of the Socratic school. To the great philosophers of the fourth century, Plato and Aristotle, true civic virtue is based on the knowledge of the highest norms of human life[,] moral and political. Such norms and ideals, as we have seen, had been heralded by the great poets who embodied them in their works and thus had become the spiritual law-givers of the Greek nation. But after the breakdown of all religious and moral traditions in public and private life during the Peloponnesian War, philosophy had to take over the educational mission from poetry. Turning from the lonely contemplation of the cosmos to the social problem of the present time, the philosophical mind tried to reestablish a system of life on a rational basis. In the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle Greek culture attains its most universal form and in this universal form it was able to conquer the world. On the other hand these architectonic systems are far from being empty constructions. Their so-called rational character is something very complicated. All sorts of empirical research, historical tradition and natural science have given to this philosophy its substantial foundation and received from it the most vigorous impulses for their own development. Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical solutions of the practical problems of human life presuppose a theoretical knowledge which comprises the totality of being. This was the hour of birth of the University in which the theoretical totality of knowledge is displayed under the practical scope of educating man and organizing human life. In the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle the development of Greek education comes to its height. Education is no longer a training of youth. It claims the whole life of man and becomes the highest symbol of the metaphysical sense of human existence and striving. In schools and works of philosophy the Greek ideal of culture finds its last and highest manifestation. In this form which includes the earlier stages it has continued vital more than two thousand years beyond the political and national life of its authors.


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