Fit for a pupil and a gent's pocket

The Orator's Education
March 22, 2002

It is pleasing to think of the founder of the Loeb Classical Library somewhere flicking through these 90th birthday volumes. James Loeb was not the only New York banker to dream of perpetuating his name through educational philanthropy. But he was one of the most successful. In the seven decades since his death, his commitment to providing accessible texts and translations for students of Greek and Latin has been massively fulfilled. There must be one of the red and green volumes, each with the LCL initials in gold, on the shelves of every classical enthusiast in the English-speaking world.

Loeb would easily recognise his new birthday books, Terence's Roman comedies and Quintilian's treatise on oratory, as siblings of the old. Both, being in Latin, are red, slightly brighter than the old copies but that may just be the burnish of youth. Green is still reserved for Greek. The size remains compact. The printing, on acid-free paper, is from Suffolk. The strong cloth binding is from Scotland. Financial backing is from mighty Harvard. This is a collection of almost 500 books now, whose keepers look as far ahead as they look back.

Both the additions are replacements for texts from the founder's lifetime. The Quintilian is, of the two, the one that he would have particularly approved. Loeb, the German-Jewish dreamer who followed his father to Wall Street, may even have seen parallels between himself and the Spanish orator, who followed his own father in to the newly profitable business of teaching people to speak. Both men were wealthy classicists. Both were exiles. Both were protesters against the barbarian prejudices of their age and each proposed copious study as the remedy.

Every early edition of the Loeb Classical Library carried the sponsor's message, "A word about its purpose and its scope", which attacked the turn-of-the-century rush for mechanical and social achievement and the neglect of the humanities. The banker's son admired the way in which any Parisian could buy cheap copies of Latin and Greek texts, with a simple parallel translation into their language. He wanted English readers to have the same.

Loeb was primarily the paymaster. Quintilian was one of many ancient authors who were never going to make any money for a publisher. Educationalists might study his sections on the primary syllabus of the first century AD; literary critics needed the section in which he gives the contemporary verdict on classic writers. But the publication of the full 12 books of the Institutio Oratoria , today in five volumes, was always going to be a labour of love. Loeb's money made sure that Quintilian got into print and, despite the vicissitudes of war and bookselling, stayed in print.

His contribution was more, however, than just money. Although his mental health was poor, his political loyalties painfully stretched during the great war and his business stamina permanently under strain, he organised his scholars, designers and editors with keen attention.

Loeb objected to the materialist education of his age, felt the familiar guilt of liberal capitalists, and wondered what to do about it. Quintilian's objection to the educational rules of Rome was less to do with the excess of materialism than the lack of morality. After making his fortune by schooling the children of the rich to pursue each other in court, Quintilian decided to write a lengthy protest against those who dressed up their verse and prose to conceal bad intentions. He lived in an age of sudden concentration of power, wealth and terror. He knew that his oratorical arts, officially recognised as Roman for the first time by the emperors, could kill. He wanted to promote the better and prohibit the worse.

Loeb idealised almost the whole of classical civilisation. It was his means of escape. Quintilian idealised specifically the century before his own, the age of Cicero when the good man and the good orator could be seen as synonymous. It was his means of self-defence.

The beginning of the Institutio Oratoria is an account of how teachers can ensure that pupils absorb virtue as well as verbal facility. He later examines how the great classical writers, from Homer to Propertius, could be mined by seekers after truth, goodness and a good line of argument. Homer stands high. Propertius, the salon love poet, is subject, by contrast, to one of the neater put-downs in Latin criticism, " sunt qui malint Propertium " - "some prefer Propertius", as Donald Russell's new translation crisply puts it.

Russell's predecessor, H. E. Butler, renders the same line as "there are some, however, who prefer Propertius", a rebuke that resounds with the rotundity of a more leisured age. Butler's version is not, however, more scholarly than his successor's. While Russell will often leave a technical rhetorical term in Greek, Butler preferred to heave it, however inelegantly, into English. The first Loeb era was that of the extraordinary 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica , when nothing was too technical or too obscure to be understood by a decently educated Englishman. But Quintilian's use of rhetorical terminology stretched this thesis to the limits and it is much easier for readers to recognise, with Russell, that "periphrasis" is a word from a foreign language than to struggle with Butler's "periphrastically", an ugly adverb in their own tongue.

The new Loeb volumes are uncensored. Schoolboys will no longer thumb through the pages for the bits in Italian that were once thereby signalled as too obscene for English. They will have to seek out the dirty bits without clues; in Quintilian they will search in vain. The new sets have introductions and notes more suitable for the pupil in the library than the gentleman with a Loeb in his pocket.

To write of Loeb and Quintilian together is to be reminded of a single important truth about classical scholarship. Whatever the doom-mongers may say, its quality has hugely improved. Russell understands Roman poets better than his predecessors did. He is not alone in that.

Loeb sought refuge in the classics from a life of severe depression that was scarred at an early age by American anti-semitism and in the years before his death by the rise of Hitler in his German home. He died in 1933 before it could be shown how false was the hope that the greatest culture could prevent the greatest evils. Quintilian had the advantage of living close in time to some of the greatest writers that have ever lived and the disadvantage of living under tyrants almost as bad as Hitler. But proximity in time helped him to show an understanding of Propertius and Virgil no better than Dr Johnson's of Hamlet . The lasting virtue of Loeb and Quintilian was to make it possible for others to read and understand better. It is highly fitting this year that the older should be deployed to bid happy birthday to the younger.

Peter Stothard, editor of The Times until February, is a frequent writer on classical literature.

The Orator's Education: Volumes 1 - 5

Author - Quintilian
Editor - Donald A. Russell
ISBN - 0 674 99591 0, 99592 9, 99593 7, 99594 5, 99595 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £14.50 each
Pages - 448, 560, 496, 416
Translator - Donald A. Russell

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