11 July 2016

‘Let the clever ones learn Latin as
an honour, and Greek as a treat’

‘Let the clever ones learn … Greek as a treat’ – children’s comics in a supermarket in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

For my daily Lenten meditations each morning during Lent this year [2016], I reflected on words of wisdom from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Although Johnson never visited Greece, he was fluent in classical and New Testament Greek, and during this time back in Greece, I wondered just how fluent in Greek he was.

Although Johnson left Oxford without a degree, before returning to Lichfield he used his brief time as an undergraduate at Pembroke College to learn French while working on his Greek. He may not have been a first-rate Greek scholar, but he knew more Greek than most, and when he opened his new school at Edial, near Lichfield, he advertised himself in 1736 as a teacher of Latin and Greek.

Johnson is well-known for having said “A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek.” The words are ascribed to him by Sir John Hawkins in his Life of Samuel Johnson.

However, this remark is probably less indicative of a misogynistic attitude than it is of Johnson’s quirky and quick sense of humour. Indeed, he wrote favourably of how the 16th century Cambridge scholar Roger Ascham had come across Lady Jane Gray reading Plato’s Phædo in Greek.

He wrote wittily about people who knew Latin and pretended to know Greek:

I have read of a man, who being, by his ignorance of Greek, compelled to gratify his curiosity with the Latin printed on the opposite page, declared that from the rude simplicity of the lines literally rendered, he formed nobler ideas of the Homerick majesty than from the laboured elegance of polished versions.

With his greater reverence for Greek than Latin, Johnson said: “Greece appears to be the fountain of knowledge; Rome of elegance.” It was, perhaps, the attitude to the classics that had Winston Churchill declare later: “The cleverer boys … all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that … I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.”

Hawkins, in his biography of Johnson, recalls how he suffered what may have been a sudden and severe stroke in 1783. When Johnson knelt to pray later, tried to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, “first in English, then in Latin, and afterwards in Greek.” But Hawkins was surprised that because of his stroke Johnson could only repeat the Lord's Prayer in Greek.

It was an indication of how deeply embedded his knowledge of Greek actually was. His diaries indicate he read a passage from the Bible in Greek each day, and in his will Johnson left collections of Greek poetry and a number of Greek Bibles. The manner of his bequests indicates that Johnson saw Latin as an honour, but Greek as a treat.

‘Greek as a treat’ … children’s comics in a supermarket in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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