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PinkMonkey.com Digital Library - PinkMonkey.com-Walden by Henry David Thoreau


languages; for these were not written in that Greek or Latin which
they knew, but in the select language of literature. They had not
learned the nobler dialects of Greece and Rome, but the very
materials on which they were written were waste paper to them, and
they prized instead a cheap contemporary literature. But when the
several nations of Europe had acquired distinct though rude written
languages of their own, sufficient for the purposes of their rising
literatures, then first learning revived, and scholars were enabled to
discern from that remoteness the treasures of antiquity. What the
Roman and Grecian multitude could not hear, after the lapse of ages
a few scholars read, and a few scholars only are still reading it.

However much we may admire the oratorís occasional bursts of
eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or
above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is
behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read
them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They
are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath.
What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be
rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a
transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who
can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion,
and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which
inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all
in any age who can understand him.

No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his
expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of
relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more
universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to
life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be
read but actually breathed from all human lips;- not be represented
on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life
itself. The symbol of an ancient manís thought becomes a modern
manís speech. Two thousand summers have imparted to the
monuments of Grecian literature, as to her marbles, only a maturer
golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own serene and
celestial atmosphere into all lands to protect them against the
corrosion of time. Books are the treasured wealth of the world and
the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and
the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every
cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they
enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse
them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every
society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on
mankind. When the illiterate and perhaps scornful trader has earned
by enterprise and industry his coveted leisure and independence, and
is admitted to the circles of wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at
last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and
genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the
vanity and insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good
sense by the pains which be takes to secure for his children that
intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels; and thus it is that
he becomes the founder of a family.

Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the
language in which they were written must have a very imperfect
knowledge of the history of the human race; for it is remarkable that
no transcript of them has ever been made into any modern tongue,
unless our civilization itself may be regarded as such a transcript.
Homer has never yet been printed in English, nor Aeschylus, nor
Virgil even-works as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost
as the morning itself; for later writers, say what we will of their
genius, have rarely, if ever, equalled the elaborate beauty and finish
and the lifelong and heroic literary labors of the ancients. They only
talk of forgetting them who never knew them. It will be soon enough
to forget them when we have the learning and the genius which will
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PinkMonkey.com Digital Library - PinkMonkey.com-Walden by Henry David Thoreau



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