Charles Nisbet (1736-1804), Dickinson Classicist

The classics are useful, not from their being writ in dead languages, or because it costs a great deal of pains to read them: but they are valuable as models of just thinking, examples of true taste, and monuments of the wisdom and capacity of ancient nations, and have been the delight and wonder of many successive generations.

Charles Nisbet, from “An Address to the First Graduates of Dickinson College” (1787)

I have been reading Caroline Winterer’s wonderful bookThe Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and came across this discussion of the first president of Dickinson, Charles Nisbet. The context is a discussion of how late 18th and early 19th century classical teachers thought that Greek and Roman culture could be known simply through a study of the Greek and Latin languages.

A typical rendering of the expansive possibilities of language was articulated by the classically educated Scottish Presbyterian minister Charles Nisbet (1736-1804), who emigrated to America in 1785 to become [the first] president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Nisbet possessed a formidable knowledge of the classics, even by the standards of hi time, and was widely known as a walking library. The utter vacuity of Dickinson literally sickened him, and he once called America a nation of “Quacks.” Though tempted to leave Dickinson, he was convinced by the trustees to stay, and until his death Nisbet made Carlisle a little oasis of classical erudition in America.

Winterer, The Culture of Classicism, pp. 30-31.

As Winterer’s discussion makes clear, in this period and context the word “quack” referred to people who pretended to have classical learning but really did not, so in today’s terms he was probably calling America a nation of bluffers or poseurs.

Verbatim notes by a student on a series of 65 lectures on literary criticism as delivered by Nisbet in 1792 give further insight into his literary and ethical ideas.

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