Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Spirit of Classical and of Modern Literature

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Spirit of Classical and of Modern Literature

By Charles Sumner (1811–1874)

From the Phi Beta Kappa Oration of 1846, entitled ‘The Scholar, the Jurist, the Artist, the Philanthropist’

THE CLASSICS possess a peculiar charm as the models—I might almost say the masters—of composition and thought in all ages. In the contemplation of these august teachers of mankind, we are filled with conflicting emotions. They are the early voice of the world, better remembered and more cherished still than all the intermediate words that have been uttered,—as the language of childhood still haunts us, when the impressions of later years have been effaced from the mind. But they show with unwelcome frequency the tokens of the world’s childhood, before passion had yielded to the sway of reason and the affections. They want the highest charm of purity, of righteousness, of elevated sentiments, of love to God and man. It is not in the frigid philosophy of the Porch and the Academy that we are to seek these; not in the marvelous teachings of Socrates, as they come mended by the mellifluous words of Plato; not in the resounding line of Homer, on whose inspiring tale of blood Alexander pillowed his head; not in the animated strain of Pindar, where virtue is pictured in the successful strife of an athlete at the Isthmian games; not in the torrent of Demosthenes, dark with self-love and the spirit of vengeance; not in the fitful philosophy and intemperate eloquence of Tully; not in the genial libertinism of Horace, or the stately atheism of Lucretius. No: these must not be our masters; in none of these are we to seek the way of life. For eighteen hundred years, the spirit of these writers has been engaged in constant contest with the Sermon on the Mount, and with those two sublime commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets. The strife is still pending. Heathenism, which has possessed itself of such siren forms, is not yet exorcised. It still tempts the young, controls the affairs of active life, and haunts the meditations of age.

Our own productions, though they may yield to those of the ancients in the arrangement of ideas, in method, in beauty of form, and in freshness of illustration, are far superior in the truth, delicacy, and elevation of their sentiments,—above all, in the benign recognition of that peculiar Christian revelation, the brotherhood of mankind. How vain are eloquence and poetry, compared with this heaven-descended truth! Put in one scale that simple utterance, and in the other all the lore of antiquity, with all its accumulating glosses and commentaries, and the last will be light and trivial in the balance. Greek poetry has been likened to the song of the nightingale, as she sits in the rich, symmetrical crown of the palm-tree, trilling her thick-warbled notes; but even this is less sweet and tender than those words of charity to our “neighbor,” remote or near, which are inspired by Christian love.