Academic journal article CLIO

Philosophy and Life

Academic journal article CLIO

Philosophy and Life

Article excerpt

I was the eldest son of an English farmer. But I was a weak and physically incompetent child followed into the world by several siblings far more able than myself. I began school late, and learning to read (which I did fairly rapidly) was the most important and exciting thing that has ever happened to me. I entered at once, quite consciously, into a world in which my physical inadequacies did not matter. From the first I wanted to be a teacher myself.

At school I jogged along in the middle of the class order. I read voraciously and I had a good memory, but I wrote very slowly, and not very legibly. So my performance record was quite moderate. The second most important thing that happened in my school career (not very exciting at this time) was my discovery of the ball-point pen. With this I could finally learn to write legibly (but never very fast). I have never learned to type (though I did try for a while, before the ball-point came).

As far as I know, one does not encounter philosophy in English secondary schools even now. My earliest interests were in history and literature. I was a moderately religious child, and I learned the conventional doctrines of the Anglican Church when I was preparing for confirmation at the age of fourteen. But it was the English Romantic poets--especially Shelley and Keats--who first set my imagination on fire, a year or two later.

Probably it was from them that I imbibed the idea that classical Athens was a kind of paradise to be regained. When I was sixteen I began to learn Latin and Greek (with the help of my headmaster who gave me lessons in our lunch hour). This was an amazing turn of events, because I was not--and have never become--a good linguist. For the whole of my professional life I have worked in foreign tongues, first in the classical languages, then in Italian, and finally in German. But in spite of my years of practice, I have never become a proficient speaker of any language other than English, and I still cannot even sight-read any alien text for pleasure. Yet I do truly love the alien tongues--at least I love classical Greek and Italian, and some Latin authors. I have never felt much love either for German or for French.

In all probability I should never have become an effective teacher of Greek and Latin; but in any case, I started too late to complete my school preparation in the orthodox way. After my first year of semi-private lessons, I transferred to Lancing College where classics was a regular option--and in which the Anglican faith was taken very seriously. But I had only been there for a year and a half, when his Britannic majesty called upon me for service against the Axis powers. I was never really fit for military service, but the normal medical examinations were rather cursory, and it took the Army some eight months to discover that the fingers which had finally learned to use a ball-point pen, but had failed to master a typewriter keyboard, were too badly coordinated by nature to send Morse intelligibly. When I listened to Winston Churchill on the afternoon of V. E. Day, I had just been notified in the morning that I was about to be "invalided out."

This was extremely fortunate for me. I was able to apply to Oxford for the Michaelmas term of 1945. Even one year later, with my incomplete school record, and a flood of returning ex-servicemen, I should never have got in. The "Greats" curriculum attracted me because of the combination of philosophy and history with classical literature. I did not perform very well in the literary-linguistic part of the course, and in the end my respectable second-class degree owed more to good marks in ancient history than to anything I produced for the philosophy examiners.

The story behind that is not without its interest. When I arrived in Oxford, I had read no philosophy except for some short dialogues of Plato and Cicero, and among my friends at Oxford there was a would-be historian who admired R. …

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