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Short stories: A Classic Instance by Henry van Dyke


A Classic Instance
by Henry van Dyke

“Latin and Greek are dead,” said Hardman, lean, eager, absolute, a fanatic of modernity. “They have been a long while dying, and this war has finished them. We see now that they are useless in the modern world. Nobody is going to waste time in studying them. Education must be direct and scientific. Train men for efficiency and prepare them for defense. Otherwise they will have no chance of making a living or of keeping what they make. Your classics are musty and rusty and fusty. _Heraus mit—-“_

He checked himself suddenly, with as near a blush as his sallow skin could show.

“Excuse me,” he stammered; “bad habit, contracted when I was a student at Kiel–only place where they really understood metallurgy.”

Professor John De Vries, round, rosy, white-haired, steeped in the mellow lore of ancient history, puffed his cigar and smiled that benignant smile with which he was accustomed joyfully to enter a duel of wits. Many such conflicts had enlivened that low-ceilinged book-room of his at Calvinton.

“You are excused, my dear Hardman,” he said, “especially because you have just given us a valuable illustration of the truth that language and the study of language have a profound influence upon thought. The tongue which you inadvertently used belongs to the country that bred the theory of education which you advocate. The theory is as crude and imperfect as the German language itself. And that is saying a great deal.”

Young Richard De Vries, the professor’s favorite nephew and adopted son, whose chief interest was athletics, but who had a very pretty side taste for verbal bouts, was sitting with the older men before a cheerful fire of logs in the chilly spring of 1917. He tucked one leg comfortably underneath him and leaned forward in his chair, lighting a fresh cigarette. He foresaw a brisk encounter, and was delighted, as one who watches from the side-lines the opening of a lively game.

“Well played, sir,” he ejaculated; “well played, indeed. Score one for you, Uncle.”

“The approbation of the young is the consolation of the aged,” murmured the professor sententiously, as if it were a quotation from Plutarch. “But let us hear what our friend Hardman has to say about the German language and the Germanic theory of education. It is his turn.”

“I throw you in the German language,” answered Hardman, rather tartly. “I don’t profess to admire it or defend it. But nobody can deny its utility for the things that are taught in it. You can learn more science from half a dozen recent German books than from a whole library of Latin and Greek. Besides, you must admit that the Germans are great classical scholars too.”

“Rather neat,” commented Dick; “you touched him there, Mr. Hardman. Now, Uncle!”

“I do not admit,” said the professor firmly, “that the Germans are great classical scholars. They are great students, that is all. The difference is immense. Far be it from me to deny the value of the patient and laborious researches of the Germans in the grammar and syntax of the ancient languages and in archaeology. They are painstaking to a painful degree. They gather facts as bees gather pollen, indefatigably. But when it comes to making honey they go dry. They cannot interpret, they can only instruct. They do not comprehend, they only classify. Name me one recent German book of classical interpretation to compare in sweetness and light with Jowett’s ‘Dialogues of Plato’ or Butcher’s ‘Some Aspects of the Greek Genius’ or Croiset’s ‘Histoire de la Litterature Grecque.’ You can’t do it,” he ended, with a note of triumph.

“Of course not,” replied Hardman sharply. “I never claimed to know anything about classical literature or scholarship. My point at the beginning–you have cleverly led the discussion away from it, like one of your old sophists–the point I made was that Greek and Latin are dead languages, and therefore practically worthless in the modern world. Let us go back to that and discuss it fairly and leave the Germans out.”

“But that, my dear fellow, is precisely what you cannot do. It is partly because they have insisted on treating Latin and Greek as dead that the Germans have become what they are–spectacled barbarians, learned Huns, veneered Vandals. In older times it was not so bad. They had some perception of the everlasting current of life in the classics. When the Latin spirit touched them for a while, they acquired a sense of form, they produced some literature that was good–Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller. But it was a brief illumination, and the darkness that followed it was deeper than ever. Who are their foremost writers to-day? The Hauptmanns and the Sudermanns, gropers in obscurity, violent sentimentalists, ‘bigots to laxness,’ Dr. Johnson would have called them. Their world is a moral and artistic chaos agitated by spasms of hysteria. Their work is a mass of decay touched with gleams of phosphorescence. The Romans would have called it _immunditia_. What is your new American word for that kind of thing, Richard? I heard you use it the other day.”

“Punk,” responded Dick promptly. “Sometimes, if it’s very sickening, we call it pink punk.”

“All right,” interrupted Hardman impatiently. “Say what you like about Hauptmann and Sudermann. They are no friends of mine. Be as ferocious with them as you please. But you surely do not mean to claim that the right kind of study and understanding of the classics could have had any practical influence on the German character, or any value in saving the German Empire from its horrible blunders.”

“Precisely that is what I do mean.”

“But how?”

“Through the mind, _animus_, the intelligent directing spirit which guides human conduct in all who have passed beyond the stage of mere barbarism.”

“You exaggerate the part played by what you call the mind. Human conduct is mainly a matter of heredity and environment. Most of it is determined by instinct, impulse, and habit.”

“Granted, for the sake of argument. But may there not be a mental as well as a physical inheritance, an environment of thought as well as of bodily circumstances?”

“Perhaps so. Yes, I suppose that is true to a certain extent.”

“A poor phrase, my dear Hardman; but let it pass. Will you admit that there may be habits of thinking and feeling as well as habits of doing and making things?”


“And do you recognize a difference between bad habits and good habits?”

“Of course.”

“And you agree that this difference exists both in mental and in physical affairs? For example, you would call the foreman of a machine-shop who directed his work in accordance with the natural laws of his material and of his steam or electric power a man of good habits, would you not?”


“And you would not deny him this name, but would rather emphasize it, if in addition he had the habit of paying regard to the moral and social laws which condition the welfare and efficiency of his workmen; for example, self-control, cheerfulness, honesty, fair play, honor, human kindness, and so on. If he taught these things, not only by word but by deed, you would call him an excellent foreman, would you not?”

“Without a question. That machine-shop would be a great success, a model.”

“But suppose your foreman had none of these good mental and moral habits. Suppose he was proud, overbearing, dishonest, unfair, and cruel. Do you not believe he would have a bad influence upon his men? Would not the shop, no matter what kind of work it turned out, become a nest of evil and a menace to its neighbors?”

“It surely would.”

“What, then, would you do with the foreman?”

“I would try to teach him better. If that failed, I would discharge him.”

“In what method and by what means would you endeavor to teach him?”

“By all the means that I could command. By precept and by example, by warning him of his faults and by showing him better ways, by wholesome books and good company.”

“And if he refused to learn; if he remained obstinate; if he mocked you and called you a hypocrite; if he claimed that his way was the best, in fact the only way, divinely inspired, and therefore beyond all criticism, then you would throw him out?”

“Certainly, and quickly! I should regard him as morally insane, and try my best to put him where he could do no more harm. But tell me why this protracted imitation of Socrates? Where are you trying to lead me? Do you want me to say that the German Kaiser is a very bad foreman of his shop; that he has got it into a horrible mess and made it despised and hated by all the other shops; that he ought to be put out? If that is your point, I am with you in advance.”

“Right you are!” cried Dick joyously. “Can the Kaiser! We all agree to that. And here the bout ends, with honors for both sides, and a special prize for the Governor.”

The professor smiled, recognizing in the name more affection than disrespect. He leaned forward in his chair, lighting a fresh cigar with gusto.

“Not yet,” he said, “O too enthusiastic youth! Our friend here has not yet come to the point at which I was aiming. The application of my remarks to the Kaiser–whom I regard as a gifted paranoiac–is altogether too personal and limited. I was thinking of something larger and more important. Do you give me leave to develop the idea?”

“Fire away, sir,” said Dick.

Hardman nodded his assent. “I should like very much to hear in what possible way you connect the misconduct of Germany, which I admit, with your idea of the present value of classical study, which I question.”

“In this way,” said the professor earnestly. “Germany has been living for fifty years with a closed mind. Oh, I grant you it was an active mind, scientific, laborious, immensely patient. But it was an ingrowing mind. Sure of its own superiority, it took no counsel with antiquity and scorned the advice of its neighbors. It was intent on producing something entirely new and all its own–a purely German _Kultur_, independent of the past, and irresponsible to any laws except those of Germany’s interests and needs. Hence it fell into bad habits of thought and feeling, got into trouble, and brought infinite trouble upon the world.”

“And do you claim,” interrupted Hardman, “that this would have been prevented by reading the classics? Would that have been the only and efficient cure for Germany’s disease? Rather a large claim, that!”

“Much too large,” replied the professor. “I did not make it. In the first place, it may be that Germany’s trouble had gone beyond any cure but the knife. In the second place, I regard the intelligent reading of the Bible and the vital apprehension of the real spirit of Christianity as the best of all cures for mental and moral ills. All that I claim for the classics–the works of the greatest of the Greek and Roman writers–is that they have in them a certain remedial and sanitary quality. They contain noble thoughts in noble forms. They show the strength of self-restraint. They breathe the air of clearness and candor. They set forth ideals of character and conduct which are elevating. They also disclose the weakness and the ugliness of things mean and base. They have the broad and generous spirit of the true _literae humaniores._ They reveal the springs of civilization and lead us–
‘To the glory that was Greece,
To the grandeur that was Rome.’

Now these are precisely the remedies ‘indicated,’ as the physicians say, for the cure, or at least the mitigation, of the specific bad habits which finally caused the madness of Germany.”

“Please tell us, sir,” asked Dick gravely, “how you mean us to take that. Do you really think it would have done any good to those brutes who ravaged Belgium and outraged France to read Tacitus or Virgil or the Greek tragedies? They couldn’t have done it, anyhow.”

“Probably not,” answered the professor, while Hardman sat staring intently into the fire, “probably not. But suppose the leaders and guides of Germany (her masters, in effect, who moulded and _kultured_ the people to serve their nefarious purpose of dominating the world by violence), suppose these masters had really known the meaning and felt the truth of the Greek tragedies, which unveil reckless arrogance–_Hybris_–as the fatal sin, hateful to the gods and doomed to an inevitable Nemesis. Might not this truth, filtering through the masters to the people, have led them to the abatement of the ruinous pride which sent Germany out to subjugate the other nations in 1914? The egregious General von der Goltz voiced the insane arrogance which made this war when he said, ‘The nineteenth century saw a German Empire, the twentieth shall see a German world.’

“Or suppose the Teutonic teachers and pastors had read with understanding and taken to heart the passages of Csesar in which he curtly describes the violent and thievish qualities of the ancient Germans–how they spread desolation around them to protect their borders, and encouraged their young men in brigandage in order to keep them in practice. Might not these plain lessons have been used as a warning to the people of modern Germany to discourage their predatory propensities and their habits of devastation and to hold them back from their relapse into the _Schrecklichkeit_ of savage warfare? George Meredith says a good thing in ‘Diana of the Crossways’: ‘Before you can civilize a man, you must first de-barbarize him.’ That is the trouble with the Germans, especially their leaders and masters. They have never gotten rid of their fundamental barbarism, the idolatry of might above right.
They have only put on a varnish of civilization.
It cracks and peels off in the heat.
“Take one more illustration. Suppose these German thought-masters and war-lords had really understood and assimilated the true greatness of the conception of the old Roman Empire as it is shown, let us say, by Virgil. You remember that splendid passage in the Sixth Book of the AEneid where the Romans are called to remember that it is their mission ‘to crown Peace with Law, to spare the humbled, and to subdue and tame the proud.’ Might not sucn a noble doctrine have detached the Germans a little from their blind devotion to the Hohenzollern-Hollweg conception of the modern pinchbeck German Empire–a predatory state, greedy to gain new territory but incapable of ruling it when gained, scornful of the rights of smaller peoples, oppressing them when subjugated, as she has oppressed Poland and Schleswig-Holstein and Alsace-Lorraine, a clumsy and exterminating tyrant in her own colonies, as she has shown herself in East and West Africa? I tell you that a vital perception of what the Roman Empire really meant in its palmy days might have been good medicine for Germany. It might have taught her to make herself fit for power before seeking to grasp it.”

“Granted, granted,” broke in Hardman, impatiently poking the fire. “You can’t say anything about Germany too severe to suit me. Whatever she needed to keep her from committing the criminal blunder of this war, it is certain that she did not get it. The blunder was made and the price must be paid. But what I say now, as I said at the beginning, is that Latin and Greek are dead languages. For us, for the future, for the competitions of the modern industrial and social era, the classics are no good. For a few ornamental persons a knowledge of them may be a pleasing accomplishment. But they are luxuries, not necessaries. They belong to a bygone age. They have nothing to tell us about the things we most need to know–chemistry and physics, engineering and intensive agriculture, the discovery of new forms and applications of power, the organization of labor and the distribution of wealth, the development of mechanical skill and the increase of production–these are the things that we must study. I say they are the only things that will count for success in the new democracy.”

“That is what _you_ say,” replied Professor De Vries dryly. “But the wisest men of the world have said something very different. No democracy ever has survived, or ever will survive, without an aristocracy at the heart of it. Not an aristocracy of birth and privilege, but one of worth and intelligence; not a band of hereditary lords, but a company of well-chosen leaders. Their value will depend not so much upon their technical knowledge and skill as upon the breadth of their mind, the clearness of their thought, the loftiness of their motives, the balance of their judgment, and the strength of their devotion to duty. For the cultivation of these things I say–pardon the apparent contradiction of what _you_ said–I say the study of the classics has been and still is of the greatest value.”

“What did George Washington know about the classics?” Hardman interrupted sharply. “He was one of your aristocrats of democracy, I suppose?”

“He was,” answered the professor blandly, “and he knew more about the classics than, I fear, you do, my dear Hardman. At all events, he understood what was meant when he was called ‘the Cincinnatus of the West’–and he lived up to the ideal, otherwise we should have had no American Republic.

“But let us not drop to personalities. What I maintain is that Latin and Greek are not dead languages, because they still convey living thoughts. The real success of a democracy–the production of a finer manhood–depends less upon mechanics than upon morale. For that the teachings of the classics are excellent. They have a bracing and a steadying quality. They instil a sense of order and they inspire a sense of admiration, both of which are needed by the people–especially the plain people–of a sane democracy. The classics are fresher, younger, more vital and encouraging than most modern books. They have lessons for us to-day–believe me–great words for the present crisis and the pressing duty of the hour.”

“Give us an example,” said Dick; “something classic to fit this war.”

“I have one at hand,” responded the professor promptly. He went to the book-shelves and pulled out a small brown volume with a slip of paper in it. He opened the book at the marked place. “It is from the Eighth Satire of Juvenal, beginning at line 79. I will read the Latin first, and afterward a little version which I made the other day.”

The old man rolled the lines out in his sonorous voice, almost chanting:
“‘Esto bonus miles, tutor bonus, arbiter idem
Integer; ambiguae si quando citabere testis
Incertaeque rei, Phalaris licet imperet ut sis
Falsus et admoto dictet periuria tauro,
_Summum crede nefas, animam praeferre pudori
Et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.'”_
“Please to translate, sir,” said Dick, copying exactly the professor’s classroom phrase and manner.

“To gratify my nephew,” said the professor, nodding and winking at Hardman. “But, understand, this is not a real translation. It is only a paraphrase. Here it is:
“Be a good soldier, and a guardian just;
Likewise an upright judge. Let no one thrust
You in a dubious cause to testify,
Through fear of tyrant’s vengeance, to a lie.
Count it a baseness if your soul prefer
Safety above what Honor asks of her:
And hold it manly life itself to give,
Rather than lose the things for which we live.

It is not half as good as the Latin. But it gives the meaning. How do you like it, Richard?”

“Fine!” answered the young man quickly; “especially the last lines. They are great.” He hesitated slightly, and then went on. “Perhaps I ought to tell you now, sir, that I have signed up and got my papers for the training-school at Madison Barracks. I hope you will not be angry with me.”

The old man put both hands on the lad’s shoulders and looked at him with a suspicious moisture in his eyes. He swallowed hard a couple of times. You could see the big Adam’s apple moving up and down in his wrinkled throat.

“Angry!” he cried. “Why, boy, I love you for it.”

Hardman, who was a thoroughly good fellow at heart, held out his hand.

“Good for you, Dick! But I must be going now. I am putting up at the Ivy. Will you walk up with me? I’d like to have a word with you.”

The two men walked in silence along the shady, moon-flecked streets of the tranquil old university town. Then the elder one spoke.

“You have done the right thing, I am sure. That officers’ training-school is a good place to get a practical education. When you are through, how would you like to have a post in the Ordnance Department at Washington? I have some influence there and believe I could get you in without difficulty.”

“Thanks, a lot,” answered the lad modestly. “You’re awfully kind. But, if you don’t mind my saying so, I think I’d rather have service at the front–that is, if I can qualify for it.”

There was another long silence before Hardman spoke again, with an apparent change of subject:

“I wish you would tell me what you really think of your uncle’s views on the classics, you and the other fellows of your age in the university.”

Dick hesitated a moment before he replied:

“Well, personally, you know, I believe what Uncle says is usually about right. He has the habit of it. But I allow when he gets on his hobby he rides rather hard. Most of the other fellows have given up the classics–they like the modern-language course with sciences better–perhaps it’s softer. They say not; but I know the classics are hard enough. I flunked out on my Greek exam junior year. So, you see, I’m not a very good judge. But, anyhow, wasn’t the bit he read us from Juvenal simply fine? And didn’t he read it well? I’ve felt that a hundred times, but never knew how to say it.”
It was in the early fall of 1918, more than a year later, that Hardman came once more into the familiar library at Calvinton. He had read the casualty list of the last week of August and came to condole with his friend De Vries.

The old man sat in the twilight of the tranquil book-lined room, leaning back in his armchair, with an open letter on the table before him. He gave his hand cordially to Hardman and thanked him for his sympathetic words. He talked quietly and naturally about Dick, and confessed how much he should miss the boy–as it were, his only son.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I am going to be lonely, but I am not forsaken. I shall be sad sometimes, but never sorry–always proud of my boy. Would you like to see this letter? It is the last that he wrote.”

It was a young, simple letter, full of cheerful joking and personal details and words of affection which the shy lad would never have spoken face to face. At the end he wrote:

“Well, dear Governor, this is a rough life, and some parts are not easy to bear. But I want you to know that I was never happier in all my days. I know that we are fighting for a good cause, justice, and freedom, and a world made clean from this beastly German militarism. The things that the Germans have done to France and Belgium must be stopped, and they must never be done again. We want a decent world to live in, and we are going to have it, no matter what it costs. Of course I should like to live through it all, if I can do it with honor. But a man never can tell what is going to happen. And I certainly would rather give up my life than the things we are fighting for–the things you taught me to believe are according to the will of God. So good-night for the present, Uncle, and sleep well.

“Your loving nephew and son,


Hardman’s hand shook a little as he laid the paper on the table.

“It is a beautiful letter,” he said.

“Yes,” nodded the old professor, putting his hand upon it; “it is a classic; very clear and simple and high-minded. The German Crown Prince says our American soldiers do not know what they are fighting for. But Richard knew. It was to defend ‘the things for which we live’ that he gladly gave his life.”

September, 1918.



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