Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XVI.

Of Antiquity

[1]WHERE the ancients said ‘our ancestors’ we say ‘posterity’ … it is the magic of the future, and not of the past, that allures us.

[2]Many words have changed their meaning. For example, among the ancients the word ‘liberty’ had at bottom the same meaning as dominium: ‘I would be free’ meant to them,’ I wish to govern, or administer the State,’ and to us it means, ‘I wish to be independent.’ With us ‘liberty’ has a moral meaning, and with them it had an entirely political meaning.

[3]Contempt for personal insult was one of the characteristics of ancient manners.

[4]The ancients always extol firmness as a rare and heroic quality. They must have been naturally far removed from our coldness of heart and manners. There was in the soul of the ancients a sensitiveness and a tenderness that is lost to us. Our more exact ideas have made us harder judges even of heroes.

[5]To the Greeks, and above all to the Athenians—belong literary and civil beauty; to the Romans—moral and political beauty; to the Jews—religious and domestic beauty; to all other nations—the imitation of these three.

[6]The Greeks loved truth, but they could not resist the longing to adorn it, or the opportunity to make it beautiful; they loved to express even the most solid truths in words that float.

[7]The Athenians, and the Greeks generally, laid great stress on beauty of disposition. Penetration of mind, gentleness, and courage made the perfection of a man in the eyes of Socrates and Plato: gentleness, which makes a man peaceful in the State, and pleasant to his fellow-citizens; courage, which makes him strong in misfortune, temperate in his pleasures, and formidable to his enemies; penetration of mind, which makes him delightful in his intercourse with friends, and perfect in his own life, in that it enables him always to see what is the best, and to do it.

[8]To preserve, and to know; according to Plato the happiness of private life consists in these two.

[9]It seems to me much harder to be a modern than one of the ancients.

[10]When I speak of antiquity I mean a sane antiquity, for there has been an insane and exaggerated—the antiquity of Porphyry and Iamblicus.

[11]The Athenians had delicacy both of mind and of ear. They would not have borne with an unpleasing phrase, even as a quotation. One might say, that when they wrote, they were always in a good humour. They disapproved in style of that harshness which is the indication of sour, morose or melancholy manners.

[12]God, not willing to bestow truth upon the Greeks, gave them poetry.

[13]The ancients were wont to say that a too ornamental style of speaking had no moral quality—that is to say, did not express the character and the disposition of the speaker. All elaborations of style, in fact, can show nothing more than our literary habits, skill and resource.

[14]The Greeks took pleasure in speaking their own language, and in feeling it flow from their pens, and from their tongues; it charmed them. This was because their language was easy, and it was easy because its elegant phrases were in common use; every one, both authors and people, spoke it with the same purity. Thus the most polished writers make frequent allusion to the popular proverbs; Plato is full of them. Now allusions are what give most magic to style, and most entertainment to the mind. They enliven and refresh it. In France we have been used to say that maxims were the proverbs of the educated class. At Athens the maxims of the educated class, and the proverbs of the market-place, were one and the same thing.

[15]In speaking the Latins listened to themselves, while the Greeks watched their words; for they wished their words to match their thoughts. The first aimed at rhythm, pomp, dignity, and eloquence; the second at clearness and grace.

[16]In writing, the ancients had a mind more at ease than we. They were not embarrassed by a thousand considerations that are forced upon us, concerning a crowd of books already known to our readers, which we cannot help perpetually combating or recalling. Being obliged thus to be either in harmony or in discord with all existing books, we sing our part in the midst of clamour; whilst the ancients sang their solo in peace.

[17]It is above all the language of the ancients that we must diligently scrutinise.

[18]The classics are an encyclopædia of style, where we find examples of the art of saying everything with delicacy, good taste, and beauty; for they speak of everything with a mild accent, and in a fine language. Even their indifferent work bears the impress of a fine type. They had no more genius than we have, but their art excelled ours; in their country there was better taste, and they had inherited better traditions.

[19]It is true oratory to make use in speaking of the authority of the ancients, and true morals to revere it. The philosophy that appeals to this authority in argument is gentler, more persuasive, and more likely to make the world better. A spirit of wisdom breathes upon us as we read the classics, and penetrates the enchanted soul.

[20]The dregs even of Greek literature in its old age have a certain delicacy.

[21]The classics must be read slowly; we need much patience, that is to say, much attention, if we are to get much pleasure from the reading of great works.

[22]Antiquity!—I love it better in ruins than restored.

[23]‘The fault is not in the writer, but in the time,’ said Aristarchus, speaking of those beauties in ancient writings which later generations can no longer feel; meaning by this, and rightly, that tastes had changed, and not the dishes or their flavour.

[24]We cannot say anything without confusing and tumbling it. The ancients smoothed and unfolded everything.

[25]In our writings, thought seems to move like a man who walks straight on. In the writings of the ancients, on the contrary, its movement is like the soaring of a bird that circles as it goes. They aimed at grace—‘quid deceat, quid non’—rather than at force and accuracy. Observe the peculiar freedom of thought and imagination of the Greeks. In comparison, we seem in our writings like convicts fastened to the chain, like slaves bent upon their task, like idiots in a rapture.

[26]The minds of the ancients were not trained like ours to contention and effort. They were all the better adapted to impart their ideas to the minds of the vulgar, incapable and unfitted as these generally are for laborious and sustained attention.

[27]A pathetic, lofty, harmonious style fitted for the eloquence of the tribune came as easily to a Greek or a Roman as a witty, polished, lively, terse, bantering, flattering style does to a Frenchman. The talent for domestic and social life predominates amongst us, as the talent for public life did among the ancients. From childhood they were taught to speak to the multitude and practised in it from early youth; we are trained to speak to individuals. They had a language rich in metaphor and sonorous words, ours abounds in words of double meaning and ingenious turns of phrase. It was as easy for them to make long, grave and pathetic speeches as it is to us to talk for long together of pleasant things. The letters of Cicero are extremely short, and have little ornament. His speeches on the contrary have an inexhaustible supply of it; in them his mind appears ever varied, ever fruitful, and seems never to be weary. It would have been as difficult for Cicero to write a letter like Voltaire, as for Voltaire to make a speech like Cicero. It would have even been a great effort to an intellectual Roman to write a letter such as those that Caraccioli ascribes to Clement XIV. No Roman woman, such for example as Veturia, mother of Coriolanus, could have succeeded in forging a letter worthy of Madame de Sévigné. Perhaps however a flower-girl in Athens might have succeeded.—It has been well said that every language has its own character; but like all other things that make the wealth of nations, the wealth of each language proceeds from the use that men have made of it in their traffic with each other.