Pietro Bembo: less than 1% of ancient literature survives

Many years ago I learned from the eminent Greek scholar N.G.Wilson that less than 1% of ancient literature survives.  He referred to an statement by Renaissance humanist, Pietro Bembo, which seemed as good as any.[1]

The work in question is the Oratio pro litteris graecis (Oration in favour of studying Greek), addressed to the rulers of Venice, written in 1494 but never published.  It was edited for the first time with – thankfully! – an English translation in 2003 by … none other than N.G. Wilson.

The book is a slim paperback of some 97 pages, but is hardly very accessible.  So I thought that I would give the passage here.  It is full of interest, considering the current condition of classical studies.

I have over-paragraphed it, to suit the needs of reading online.

For I have already heard some people who spend their time in the market say repeatedly «What need do we have of Greek? It is enough, quite enough I for us if we preserve Latin. Let the Greeks themselves look after Greek».

Very well, but I certainly at this point would not be surprised if the unthinking public at large are unashamed at tossing out such sentiments, which do not deserve the slightest attention – their stupidity is apparent from a distance for anyone willing to look; such are the majority of the population, who know how to gossip and nothing else. On subjects which they have not learnt and are not good at learning, they all now criticise the educated as if these subjects were not desirable or beneficial to anyone, and they also even try to deter those who wish to learn.

If any of you, gentlemen of Venice, believes them, is convinced of the correctness of such statements, and wishes to speak in their support, I will reply in my defence first that for serious students our own culture is not sufficient; no, by Zeus, and it is altogether necessary to study Greek culture as well. Secondly, education in these subjects is quite excellent and worthy of all praise; so our efforts are not to be devoted to trivial and unworthy pursuits. Further, these subjects need your support now, not in the future, if for no other reason, because the Greeks cannot put their own affairs to rights.

The condition of Greece is now such that a short space of time will be quite sufficient to obliterate the whole of their legacy to humanity, if the care of it is neglected a little longer. Watch out in case you are unable to do this when you want and immediately feel great remorse, combined with hatred of those who have completely misled you.

So urgency is needed, and no further postponement; you must not feel aggrieved when you no longer have power to achieve your aim, you must now seek measures to ensure that nothing of the kind happens.

Yet everyone knows how inferior we are in Latin to the men who lived before the barbarians invaded Italy. Now if the rulers of Italy, as soon as the barbarians ceased their activity, had abandoned what was left to them, successive generations would have had much less to devote their attention to. And if they too had been entirely negligent, perhaps, I say perhaps, we should not now, by the gods, possess even the elements of our literature.

So with this recognition and understanding of our past we ought to provide similarly for Greek studies, since we recognise our debt to previous generations and are not inferior to them in any way. And we should note that with Greece now similarly enslaved and having often suffered extremes of misfortune, almost exceeding the disasters of Troy, should we take no interest, our children would be at a great disadvantage if they wished to restore the situation. All human affairs, when once they are unsatisfactory, quickly and easily take a turn for the worse. And if that generation too were to take no interest, where are we to expect these matters to end? I am afraid, if this happens, that they would pass on nothing to their descendants except the possibility of recalling that through the incompetence of ourselves and our fathers they have been entirely excluded from Greek studies.

To understand this better, gentlemen of Venice, consider also the following. How much of their literature did the Greeks lose since, at the time of their misfortunes, the Latins became so neglectful of these matters? What I am about to say is perhaps strange, but it is perfectly true. If we count the poets, orators, philosophers, and to put it briefly, past writers of works read by earlier generations of interested students, if we count all these, we shall find that perhaps we do not even have one per cent of them available to us now. That is not at all surprising. If a man has a field, as long as he ploughs, sows, digs, waters, tends the vines and does everything necessary in time, he naturally reaps rich and generous crops according to nature’s seasons and gains a reward through his care. When he does none of these things and is negligent, his whole property is not simply unproductive and disorderly but deteriorates by the day and in due time passes away, or rather is largely damaged I through lack of cultivation. So it is with letters. When a man is concerned with them and serious, all goes well for him. But when he ceases to study them, from that point onwards the situation changes to become unsatisfactory, and their no longer satisfactory state is immediately damaging.

Why do I say this and go into detail? So that you may know, gentlemen of Venice, and realise that, in just the same way, if the Greeks because of their sufferings do not give thought now to their own interests and in addition all of us in Italy fail to give thought to the matter, Greek culture cannot survive for long. I do not wish to describe the attitude of all the other Latin states; it would, I think, be a discourse full of ill will and insolence. You know all that. But if this happens, I cannot imagine how you yourselves can avoid all kinds of troubles in the future. It is your task, Venetians, yours above all to ponder questions of excellence and culture.

Prof. Wilson comments:

162-67 This is the most interesting assertion in the whole essay. I am not aware of any similar calculation by other humanists. What inspired B. to make this conjecture is unclear. He could well have been impressed by the innumerable entries in the Suda lexicon naming lost works of Greek literature. Another good source for such information would have been Athenaeus’, Deipnosophistae, but there is no reason to think that he had access to it at this early stage in his career.

The oration struck a chord with me as I read it.  We think of the renaissance as  a time of great interest in Greek; but even then, the study of it needed attention.  Some may feel that in the present day there is scope for the same address to be made to the rulers of the state – do not neglect Greek.

  1. [1]Many thanks to Nigel Wilson for responding to my email of enquiry this week and advising me of the source.