Archive for the ‘Latin’ Category

Failure as a good thing

Friday, March 11th, 2016

People tout many different goals in the educational enterprise, but not all goals are created equal. They require a good deal of sifting, and some should be discarded. Many of them seem to be either obvious on the one hand or, on the other, completely wrong-headed (to my way of thinking, at least).

One of the most improbable goals one could posit, however, would be failure. Yet failure — not as an end (and hence not a final goal), but as an essential and salutary means to achieving a real education — is the subject of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure (New York, HarperCollins, 2015). In all fairness, I guess I was predisposed to like what she had to say, since she’s a teacher of both English and Latin, but I genuinely think that it is one of the more trenchant critiques I have read of modern pedagogy and the child-rearing approaches that have helped shape it, sometimes with the complicity of teachers, and sometimes in spite of their best efforts.

Christe first drew my attention to an extract of her book at The Atlantic here. When we conferred after reading it, we discovered that we’d both been sufficiently impressed that we’d each ordered a copy of the book.

Lahey calls into question, first and foremost, the notion that the student (whether younger or older) really needs to feel that he or she is doing well at all stages of the process. Feeling good about your achievement, whether or not it really amounts to anything, is not in fact a particularly useful thing. That seems common-sensical to me, but it has for some time gone against the grain of a good deal of teaching theory. Instead, Lahey argues, failing — and in the process learning to get up again, and throw oneself back into the task at hand — is not only beneficial to a student, but essential to the formation of any kind of adult autonomy. Insofar as education is not merely about achieving a certain number of grades and scores, but about the actual formation of characer, this is (I think) spot-on.

A good deal of her discussion is centered around the sharply diminishing value of any system of extrinsic reward — that is, anything attached secondarily to the process of learning — be it grades on a paper or a report card, a monetary payoff from parents for good grades, or the often illusory goal of getting into a good college. The only real reward for learning something, she insists, is knowing it. She has articulated better than I have a number of things I’ve tried to express before. (On the notion that the reason to learn Latin and Greek was not as a stepping-stone to something else, but really to know Latin and Greek, see here and here. On allowing the student freedom to fail, see here. On grades, see here.) Education should be — and arguably can only be — about learning, not about grades, and about mastery, not about serving time, passing tests so that one can be certified or bumped along to something else. In meticulous detail, Lahey documents the uselessness of extrinsic rewards at almost every level — not merely because they fail to achieve the desired result, but because they drag the student away from engagement in learning, dull the mind and sensitivity, and effectively promote the ongoing infantilization of our adolescents — making sure that they are never directly exposed to the real and natural consequences of either their successes or their failures. Put differently, unless you can fail, you can’t really succeed either.

Rather than merely being content to denounce the inadequacies of modern pedagogy, Ms. Lahey has concrete suggestions for how to turn things around. She honestly reports how she has had to do so herself in her ways of dealing with her own children. The book is graciously honest, and I enthusiastically recommend it to parents and teachers at every level. If I haven’t convinced you this far, though, at least read the excerpt linked above. The kind of learning she’s talking about — engaged learning tied to a real love of learning, coupled with the humility to take the occasional setback not as an invalidation of oneself but as a challenge to grow into something tougher — is precisely what we’re hoping to cultivate at Scholars Online. If that’s what you’re looking for, I hope we can provide it.

STEMs and Roots

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Everywhere we see extravagant public handwringing about education. Something is not working. The economy seems to be the symptom that garners the most attention, and there are people across the political spectrum who want to fix it directly; but most seem to agree that education is at least an important piece of the solution. We must produce competitive workers for the twenty-first century, proclaim the banners and headlines; if we do not, the United States will become a third-world nation. We need to get education on the fast track — education that is edgy, aggressive, and technologically savvy. Whatever else it is, it must be up to date, it must be fast, and it must be modern. It must not be what we have been doing.

I’m a Latin teacher. If I were a standup comedian, that would be considered a punch line. In addition to Latin, I teach literature — much of it hundreds of years old. I ask students, improbably, to see it for what it itself is, not just for what they can use it for themselves. What’s the point of that? one might ask. Things need to be made relevant to them, not the other way around, don’t they?

Being a Latin teacher, however (among other things), I have gone for a number of years now to the Summer Institute of the American Classical League, made up largely of Latin teachers across the country. One might expect them to be stubbornly resistant to these concerns — or perhaps blandly oblivious. That’s far from the case. Every year, in between the discussions of Latin and Greek literature and history, there are far more devoted to pedagogy: how to make Latin relevant to the needs of the twenty-first century, how to advance the goals of STEM education using classical languages, and how to utilize the available technology in the latest and greatest ways. What that technology does or does not do is of some interest, but the most important thing for many there is that it be new and catchy and up to date. Only that way can we hope to engage our ever-so-modern students.

The accrediting body that reviewed our curricular offerings at Scholars Online supplies a torrent of exortation about preparing our students for twenty-first century jobs by providing them with the latest skills. It’s obvious enough that the ones they have now aren’t doing the trick, since so many people are out of work, and so many of those who are employed seem to be in dead-end positions. The way out of our social and cultural morass lies, we are told, in a focus on the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Providing students with job skills is the main business of education. They need to be made employable. They need to be able to become wealthy, because that’s how our society understands, recognizes, and rewards worth. We pay lip service, but little else, to other standards of value.

The Sarah D. Barder Fellowship organization to which I also belong is a branch of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. It’s devoted to gifted and highly gifted education. At their annual conference they continue to push for skills, chiefly in the scientific and technical areas, to make our students competitive in the emergent job market. The highly gifted ought to be highly employable and hence earn high incomes. That’s what it means, isn’t it?

The politicians of both parties have contrived to disagree about almost everything, but they seem to agree about this. In January of 2014, President Barack Obama commented, “…I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

From the other side of the aisle, Florida Governor Rick Scott said, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

They’re both, of course, right. The problem isn’t that they have come up with the wrong answer. It isn’t even that they’re asking the wrong question. It’s that they’re asking only one of several relevant questions. They have drawn entirely correct conclusions from their premises. A well-trained plumber with a twelfth-grade education (or less) can make more money than I ever will as a Ph.D. That has been obvious for some time now. If I needed any reminding, the last time we required a plumber’s service, the point was amply reinforced: the two of them walked away in a day with about what I make in a month. It’s true, too, that a supply of anthropologists is not, on the face of things, serving the “compelling interests” of the state of Florida (or any other state, probably). In all fairness, President Obama said that he wasn’t talking about the value of art history as such, but merely its value in the job market. All the same, that he was dealing with the job market as the chief index of an education’s value is symptomatic of our culture’s expectations about education and its understanding of what it’s for.

The politicians haven’t created the problem; but they have bought, and are now helping to articulate further, the prevalent assessment of what ends are worth pursuing, and, by sheer repetition and emphasis, crowding the others out. I’m not at all against STEM subjects, nor am I against technologically competent workers. I use and enjoy technology. I am not intimidated by it. I teach online. I’ve been using the Internet for twenty-odd years. I buy a fantastic range of products online. I programmed the chat software I use to teach Latin and Greek, using PHP, JavaScript, and mySQL. I’m a registered Apple Developer. I think every literate person should know not only some Latin and Greek, but also some algebra and geometry. I even think, when going through Thucydides’ description of how the Plataeans determined the height of the wall the Thebans had built around their city, “This would be so much easier if they just applied a little trigonometry.” Everyone should know how to program a computer. Those are all good things, and help us understand the world we’re living in, whether we use them for work or not.

But they are not all that we need to know. So before you quietly determine that what I’m offering is just irrelevant, allow me to bring some news from the past. If that sounds contradictory, bear in mind that it’s really the only kind of news there is. All we know about anything at all, we know from the past, whether recent or distant. Everything in the paper or on the radio news is already in the past. Every idea we have has been formulated based on already-accumulated evidence and already-completed ratiocination. We may think we are looking at the future, but we aren’t: we’re at most observing the trends of the recent past and hypothesizing about what the future will be like. What I have to say is news, not because it’s about late-breaking happenings, but because it seems not to be widely known. The unsettling truth is that if we understood the past better and more deeply, we might be less sanguine about trusting the apparent trends of a year or even a decade as predictors of the future. They do not define our course into the infinite future, or even necessarily the short term — be they about job creation, technical developments, or weather patterns. We are no more able to envision the global culture and economy of 2050 than the independent bookseller in 1980 could have predicted that a company named Amazon would put him out of business by 2015.

So here’s my news: if the United States becomes a third-world nation (a distinct possibility), it will not be because of a failure in our technology, or even in our technological education. It will be because, in our headlong pursuit of what glitters, we have forgotten how to differentiate value from price: we have forgotten how be a free people. Citizenship — not merely in terms of law and government, but the whole spectrum of activities involved in evaluating and making decisions about what kind of people to be, collectively and individually — is not a STEM subject. Our ability to articulate and grasp values, and to make reasoned and well-informed decisions at the polls, in the workplace, and in our families, cannot be transmitted by a simple, repeatable process. Nor can achievement in citizenship be assessed simply, or, in the short term, accurately at all. The successes and failures of the polity as a whole, and of the citizens individually, will remain for the next generation to identify and evaluate — if we have left them tools equal to the task. Our human achievement cannot be measured by lines of code, by units of product off the assembly line, or by GNP. Our competence in the business of being human cannot be certified like competence in Java or Oracle (or, for that matter, plumbing). Even a success does not necessarily hold out much prospect of employment or material advantage, because that was never what it was about in the first place. It offers only the elusive hope that we will have spent our stock of days with meaning — measured not by our net worth when we die, but by what we have contributed when we’re alive. The questions we encounter in this arena are not new ones, but rather old ones. If we lose sight of them, however, we will have left every child behind, for technocracy can offer nothing to redirect our attention to what matters.

Is learning this material of compelling interest to the state? That depends on what you think the state is. The state as a bureaucratic organism is capable of getting along just fine with drones that don’t ask any inconvenient questions. We’re already well on the way to achieving that kind of state. Noam Chomsky, ever a firebrand and not a man with whom I invariably agree, trenchantly pointed out, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” He’s right. If we are to become unfree people, it will be because we gave our freedom away in exchange for material security or some other ephemeral reward — an illusion of safety and welfare, and those same jobs that President Obama and Governor Scott have tacitly accepted as the chief — or perhaps the only — real objects of our educational system. Whatever lies outside that narrow band of approved material is an object of ridicule.

If the state is the people who make it up, the question is subtly but massively different. Real education may not be in the compelling interest of the state qua state, but it is in the compelling interest of the people. It’s the unique and unfathomably complex amalgam that each person forges out of personal reflection, of coming to understand one’s place in the family, in the nation, and in the world. It is not primarily practical, and we should eschew it altogether, if our highest goal were merely to get along materially. The only reason to value it is the belief that there is some meaning to life beyond one’s bank balance and material comfort. I cannot prove that there is, and the vocabulary of the market has done its best to be rid of the idea. But I will cling to it while I live, because I think it’s what makes that life worthwhile.

Technical skills — job skills of any sort — are means, among others, to the well-lived life. They are even useful means in their place, and everyone should become as competent as possible. But as they are means, they are definitionally not ends in themselves. They can be mistakenly viewed as ends in themselves, and sold to the credulous as such, but the traffic is fraudulent, and it corrupts the good that is being conveyed. Wherever that sale is going on, it’s because the real ends are being quietly bought up by those with the power to keep them out of our view in their own interest.

Approximately 1900 years ago, Tacitus wrote of a sea change in another civilization that had happened not by cataclysm but through inattention to what really mattered. Describing the state of Rome at the end of the reign of Augustus, he wrote: “At home all was calm. The officials carried the old names; the younger men had been born after the victory of Actium; most even of the elder generation, during the civil wars; few indeed were left who had seen the Republic. It was thus an altered world, and of the old, unspoilt Roman character not a trace lingered.” It takes but a single generation to forget the work of ages.

But perhaps that’s an old story, and terribly out of date. I teach Latin, Greek, literature, and history, after all.

Do you still have that old double-dactyl thing…?

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Okay…now for something a mite silly. Of the various things I’ve published in one medium or another over the years, the one that people still e-mail me asking about is not actually anything serious — but this. It’s not widely available any more, so I thought I’d put it where those who want it can find it. It may also give my students in Latin IV and Western Literature to Dante something to chuckle at. I submitted it to a list of Latinists back in 1995, in response to a double-dactyl contest that had been announced there. For those who were looking for it, here it is. For those who just stumbled on it, I hope you enjoy it. For those who consider me humorless…perhaps you’re right. For those who find it out of place in this serious context…well, flip ahead to the next item or back to the last one…


I realize that the deadline for the double-dactyl competition has come and gone. I also realize that these do not qualify as Proper Double-Dactyls because:

a) there is an irregular overlapping of the sense occasionally into the first verse, which is properly off-limits to all but the obligatory nonsense, and

b) I have dispensed summarily (though, I think, for good cause) with the placement of a name in the second line of every stanza (a concession that cost three permanent punches on my poetic license — but I suspect it’s about to be revoked anyway).

Nevertheless, they do preserve the other features of the form, and constitute a cycle, as it were, of Almost-proper Double-Dactyls, maintaining a one-to-one correspondence of stanza to book of the Aeneid, something that has not, to my knowledge, been attempted before. One wonders why.

Their propriety on other, less formal, grounds, I decline to consider, and encourage the reader to do the same. The fact that they are only slightly and/or obscurely salacious (and not at all vicious) will strike some as a virtue, others as a deficiency; it is, for the time being, an unalterable function of my own mild and retiring nature. I must accordingly leave it to my readers to pronounce on the eligibility of these nugae for admission to the elect and spiritually rarefied company of classic double-dactyls.

To do so will of course require a certain amount of imaginative energy, since the corpus comprises so few real classics. The same task has already caused some discomfort for the author. Though one is inevitably stimulated by the freedom of a new species of verse, still it is a pity that this one is itself so young and its traditions so relatively slight, and there are so few verses eligible for allusive parody. We must manufacture them by exercising the power of hypothesis to — nay, beyond — its furthest reasonable extent. Then, what wonders emerge! Who can imagine what an Archilochus could have done with so potent a form in a siege: who can doubt that he would have reduced whole poleis by suicide, making that cast-off shield of his unnecessary? What clear little rivulets might Callimachus not have fashioned on this irrational bipedal Parnassus? What ripe mysteries could not Sappho have enclosed within the ambit of the Aeolic Iggledy Piggledy?

And yet my particular undertaking here is an epic one, and of a Latinate mold as well. It presumes (for sake of argument) all those Hellenic and Hellenistic antecedents and more. It presumes as well an entire early history of Latin double-dactyls, and invites us to suppose them as we may. It is obvious on reflection, surely, that the twelve thousand Ennian double-dactyls that never made it into Warmington’s collection would have afforded an unparallelled mine of six-syllable words, elaborately compounded by insertion, one into another. It seems similarly apparent that Lucretius could have written double-dactyls without much altering his general procedure at all. And imagine, for a moment, the Catullan hexasyllabic in all of its pumicexpolitous glory — darkly ironic and bitterly playful. What a lot we have lost to the fact that the double-dactyl was not contrived sooner. I like to think that these very verses here presented (rendered dashingly into Latin, of course) would have afforded Vergil himself a quicker and easier, if not a better, recusatio when pestered by Augustus to produce an epic. Surely the Princeps would have known better than to ask for more. And this is but the beginning. What could the Nachleben of such a work have been? Would Augustine have wept over the fourth double-dactyl? I think not. He’d have had to confess other things. Would Dante have sought another guide, or would the Divine Comedy have been much more comedic, and much less divine?

Be that as it may, it is our mortal lot to patch up as we can the deficiencies of the past, and to this mighty and thankless work I have here set my hand. Lest I appear a mere Johnny-come-lately to this particular area of historical repair, I hasten to point out that the first version of this nugatory opus had in fact been completed before I learned of the similar (and wholly admirable) efforts of some of my colleagues to render the Iliad into limericks. It seems fitting, though, that whereas that has been an accretive product of many authors’ labors (one might say an instance of traditional poetry, growing in our midst, even while we debate whether such a thing is possible), my contribution, like the poem on which it is modeled, is the product of a single vision, howso astigmatic: which is to say, I bear the blame for it entirely myself. That its relationship to its model is one of Very Free Interpretation is granted, and need not, I think, be pointed out in any critical essays; note of all other defects, real or imagined, should be carefully written down and sent to dev.null@nowhere.edu, where they will receive the attention they deserve. In conclusion, I should also warn one and all that any attempt at Deconstruction by anyone anywhere, with or without the proper credentials, will be vigorously resisted to the fullest extent permitted under the prevailing laws.

Which being said, for the amusement of those of my fellow Latinists still possessed of a sense of the absurd (which, given the state of the discipline, must be most of us), I offer the following:




Aeneas Reductus,
or,
The Epick Taym’d

            I.
Arma virumque ca-
nobody’s suffered as
pius Aeneas, the
      Trojan, has done:
so he tells Dido, that
Carthagenetical
Tyrian princess and
      bundle of fun.

            II.
“Arma virumque, ca-
cophonous noises came
down through the floor of a
      large wooden horse;
that night all Hellas broke
pyromaniacally
loose, wrecking Troy, sealing
      Helen’s divorce.

            III.
“Arma virumque, ca-
lamitous ruin has
followed me everywhere,
      run me to ground;
now I, across the whole
Mediterranean,
find myself searching for
      something to found.”

            IV.
Arma virumque, Ca-
lypso had no better
luck when she tried to keep
      arms on her man;
Dido does dire deeds
autophoneutical
(Suicide’s shorter, but
      it wouldn’t scan).

            V.
Arma virumque, ca-
priciously Juno has
fired up the blighters to
      burn all the ships;
pius Aeneas says
(labiorigidly):
“Build some new galleys, guys:
      then — watch your slips.”

            VI.
Arma virumque, ca-
no one expects to get
out when they once have gone
      down into hell;
heroes, though, packing a
patrioracular
promise, appear to come
      through it quite well.

            VII.
Arma virumque, ca-
tastrophe hatches to
cancel the wedding — a
      hitch in the plan:
Turnus, the mettlesome
Rutuliprincipal
lad, grows so mad as to
      nettle our man.

            VIII.
Arma virumque, ca-
nonical topics: a
good man, Evander, now
      enters the field;
Venus grows fretful, and
matriprotectively
calling on Vulcan, buys
      sonny a shield.

            IX.
Arma virumque, can-
tankerous Turnus tries
storming the camp — hopes to
      clean up the plains;
Nisus and Co., caught in
noctiprogredient
slaughters, are slaughtered in
      turn for their pains.

            X.
Arma virumque, (ca-
tharsis unbounded!) young
Pallas, Evander’s son
      buys it, poor pup;
Venus’s son fixes
responsibility —
sees that the prime bounder’s
      number is up.

            XI.
Arma virumque, Ca-
milla the Volscian
makes for the Latins a
      splendid last stand;
leaving a legacy
axiomatical:
“Trust no Etruscan who’s
      eyeing your land.”

            XII.
Arma virumque: can
’neas put Pallas’s
fall from his mind, sweeten
      bitter with verse? —
“But that reminds me…” — so,
semperspontaneous,
he does to Turnus two
      turns for the worse.

Copyright © 1995, Bruce A. McMenomy

Autonomy of Means revisited: the Internet

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Last May I wrote a piece for this blog entitled “Autonomy of Means and Education”. The choice of phrasing was drawn from Charles WIlliams, “Bors to Elayne, on the King’s Coins”. I’ve recently had reason to revisit the question again, from a different direction.

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Some may consider it ironic that I discovered this book at the recommendation of some friends via Facebook: it is an extended (and not particularly optimistic) meditation on how the Internet is “rewiring” our minds — making quantifiable and physically measurable changes in our brains — by the kinds of information it delivers, and the way it delivers it.

Carr’s main point is fairly straightforward, and very hard to refute from common experience: he contends that the rapid-fire interruption-machine that the Internet offers us tends to fragment our attention, perpetually redirect us to the superficial, and prevent us from achieving any of the continuous long-term concentration from which emerge real ideas, serious discourse, and, in the long view, civilization itself. Not only is it not conducive to such thinking in and of itself — it actually suppresses our capacity for such thinking even when we’re away from our computers. Carr doesn’t point fingers or lay particularly onerous burdens of blame at anyone’s door, though one is moved to wonder cui bono? — to whom is all this a benefit, and where is the money coming from? There is a curious unquestioned positivist philosophy driving companies like Google that is not consistent with at least how I see myself in relation to my God, and the other people in his world.

Carr supports his case with a dazzling array of synthetic arguments ranging from the philosophical to the neuropsychological. He makes a very convincing case for the plasticity of the human brain, even into adulthood — and for the notion that those capacities that get exercise tend to be enhanced through measurable growth and synaptic enhancement of specific areas of the brain. All this can happen in remarkably short time (mere days or even hours). My own field is rather far removed from psychology, but what he says rings true with me — my ability do do almost any kind of mental activity really does improve with practice. Unused abilities, by the same token, can atrophy. That this happens is probably not very surprising to any of us; what is surprising is its extent and the objectivity with which it can be measured. I was intrigued to learn, for example, that one can identify particular developments characteristic of the brains of taxi-drivers, and that discernible physical differences distinguish the brains of readers of Italian, for example, from readers of English. We tend to think of language as largely convertible from one to another; it’s not necessarily so. Whether this has some other implications about why one ought to learn Latin or Greek is intriguing to me, but not something I’m going to chase down here.

Carr’s thesis, if it’s true, has serious consequences for us at Scholars Online. It has implications about who we are and how we do what we are doing. As a teacher who has found his calling trying to teach people to read carefully and thoughtfully, analytically and critically, with concentration and focus — via the Internet — I naturally feel torn. I like to believe that the format in which I’m pursuing that work is not itself militating against its success. It is at the very least a strong warning that we should examine how we work and why we do what we do the way we do it.

I do feel somewhat vindicated in the fact that we have never chosen to pursue each and every new technological gewgaw that came down the pike. Our own concern has always been for cautiously adopting appropriate technology. I still tend not to direct students to heavily linked hypertext documents (which, as Carr argues, provide vastly less benefit than they promise, with substantially lower retention than simple linear documents in prose); almost anything that requires the division or fragmentation of attention is an impediment to real learning. As I have said elsewhere in my discussions of the literature program, my main effort there has always been to teach students to read carefully and thoroughly — not just the mechanics of decoding text, but the skills of interpreting and understanding its meaning.

The book is not without a few technical flaws. Carr has either misread or misinterpreted some of the points in Paul Saenger’s Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Many of his claims about Latin and the development of the manuscript are too facile, and some are simply incorrect. Saenger points out that in Classical Latin, word order makes relatively little syntactic difference. He’s using that distinction precisely. Carr apparently takes this to mean that, as a function of the way manuscripts were written and produced in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, there was less concern for discrete idenitification of word boundaries (likely to be true), and less concern for word order in a given text (completely preposterous). Yes, it’s true that Latin syntax does not rely as heavily as English does on word order; it’s not true that word order is without significance semantically. The fact that many of our survivals from ancient sources are poetic would clearly argue against this: if you rearrange the words in a line of Vergil, you will destroy the meter, if nothing else. Word order in poetry is essential for meter (something we can verify objectively); it’s also powerful poetically. Words echo each other only if they stand in a certain arrangment; this one will be left enjambed at the beginning of a new line with potent poetical effect.

Of Horace, Friedrich Nietzsche said:

Bis heute habe ich an keinem Dichter dasselbe artistische Entzücken gehabt, das mir von Anfang an eine Horazische Ode gab. In gewissen Sprachen ist Das, was hier erreicht ist, nicht einmal zu wollen. Dies Mosaik von Worten, wo jedes Wort als Klang, als Ort, als Begriff, nach rechts und links und über das Ganze hin seine Kraft ausströmt, dies minimum in Umfang und Zahl der Zeichen, dies damit erzielte maximum in der Energie der Zeichen – das Alles ist römisch und, wenn man mir glauben will, vornehm par excellence.
(Götzen-Dämmerung, “Was ich den Alten verdanke”, 1)

To this day, I have had from no other poet the same artistic pleasure that one of Horace’s Odes gave me from the beginning. In some languages, what Horace accomplished here could not even be hoped for. This mosaic of words, where each word — [understood] as sound, as place, and as idea — exerts its influence to the right and left and over the whole, this economy in the extent and number of the signs, through which those signs receive their greatest power — that is all Roman and, to my way of thinking, supremely noble.
(Twilight of the Gods, “What I owe to the Ancients”, 1. Tr. my own.)

Nietzsche was a very strange philosopher (if that’s even the right term to describe him); I don’t hold with many of his ideas. But he was actually a pretty astute reader of Horace.

Cicero’s orations — not poetry — were similarly characterized by prose rhythms and semantic subtleties that could not possibly have been preserved were the scribes or copyists indifferent to word order. Whether we’re dealing with poetry or prose, word order is ultimately no less important in Latin than in English. It just has a different importance. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Carr also routinely refers to Socrates as an orator, which is certainly not how Socrates viewed himself. He correctly notes that Socrates eschewed writing, partly because (as is discussed in the Phaedrus, one of the weirder Platonic dialogues), the old Egyptian priest claimed that it tended to weaken the memory. This is true, but it’s only one of Socrates’ reasons. He also disdained writing and oratory both because they were one-way forms of communication. What he valued (as can be found elsewhere throughout his work) is the give-and-take of two-way conversation: in the Greek, διαλέγεσθαι (dialegesthai) — the root of our own “dialogue” and “dialectic”. He believed that the exchange was uniquely capable of allowing people to dig out the truth.

In the Apology (which I’m now reading with some terrific students in Greek III), Socrates specifically and fairly extensively begs to be excused from having to talk like an orator. This is how the dialogue begins:

How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know; but I, for my part, almost forgot my own identity, so persuasively did they talk; and yet there is hardly a word of truth in what they have said. But I was most amazed by one of the many lies that they told—when they said that you must be on your guard not to be deceived by me, because I was a clever speaker. For I thought it the most shameless part of their conduct that they are not ashamed because they will immediately be convicted by me of falsehood by the evidence of fact, when I show myself to be not in the least a clever speaker, unless indeed they call him a clever speaker who speaks the truth; for if this is what they mean, I would agree that I am an orator—not after their fashion. Now they, as I say, have said little or nothing true; but you shall hear from me nothing but the truth. Not, however, men of Athens, speeches finely tricked out with words and phrases, as theirs are, nor carefully arranged, but you will hear things said at random with the words that happen to occur to me. For I trust that what I say is just; and let none of you expect anything else. For surely it would not be fitting for one of my age to come before you like a youngster making up speeches. And, men of Athens, I urgently beg and beseech you if you hear me making my defence with the same words with which I have been accustomed to speak both in the market place at the bankers tables, where many of you have heard me, and elsewhere, not to be surprised or to make a disturbance on this account. For the fact is that this is the first time I have come before the court, although I am seventy years old; I am therefore an utter foreigner to the manner of speech here. Hence, just as you would, of course, if I were really a foreigner, pardon me if I spoke in that dialect and that manner in which I had been brought up, so now I make this request of you, a fair one, as it seems to me, that you disregard the manner of my speech—for perhaps it might be worse and perhaps better—and observe and pay attention merely to this, whether what I say is just or not; for that is the virtue of a judge, and an orator’s virtue is to speak the truth.
(Plat. Apol., 17a-18a, tr. Harold North Fowler).

One of the things that struck me while I was reading the latter stretches of this book was the subject I raised last May: when a tool — any tool — becomes autonomous, we’re heading for trouble with it. We pour much of who and what we are into our tools, and the making of tools is apparently very much a part of our nature as human beings. We are homo faber — man the maker — as much as we are homo sapiens. That is, as I take it, a good thing. With our tools we have been able to do many things that are worth doing, and that could not have been done otherwise. But we must always hold our tools accountable to our higher purposes. The mere fact that one can do something with a given tool does not mean that it’s a good thing. They say the man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail. That adage still holds good. We can be empowered by our tools, but every one comes at a cost — a cost to us in terms of who we are and how we work, and what ends our work ultimately serves. There is some power in choosing not to use certain tools on certain occasions.

Latin pronunciation for the continuing student

Monday, April 19th, 2010

On bulletin boards and in magazines dealing with classical homeschooling, one question that arises over and over again is, “What sort of pronunciation should we use in teaching Latin?” The options usually boil down to two: the reconstructed classical pronunciation, and the Italianate ecclesiastical pronunciation. Both have their champions, and the discussions that follow in their defense usually generate more heat than light. A lot of the discussion is usually centered on which one is right.

Asking “Which pronunciation is the right one?” is an exercise in historical reductionism doomed to fail. One cannot define an entire spectrum from a single point, and the history of Latin as a living language extends for somewhat over two thousand years. Either is right. Neither of them is satisfactory for all occasions.

Typically, the most attention is given this question by parents just starting out in Latin instruction. At this point, the question is more or less moot, and any real anxiety is out of proportion with its pedagogical significance. While learning forms — declensions and conjugations — it doesn’t matter much how you pronounce them, as long as you learn those forms, what they mean, and what they’re for. For practical purposes, therefore, my own suggestion is to pick one — whether purposefully or arbitrarily — and use it consistently for the first year or two. You’re probably better off choosing a pronunciation matching the kinds of texts used in the introductory text. With something like Wheelock’s Latin Grammar, which draws most of its examples from classical authors, you probably want to go with a classical pronunciation. If you’re using a course like Henle’s, which is based on ecclesiastical texts and ecclesiastical authors, then it only makes sense to go with that as your pronunciation standard. If your chief reason for learning Latin at first is to be able to sing church music, that’s a good reason to start with an ecclesiastical pronunciation as well.

Later on, though, pronunciation will become significant, especially when one begins to deal with literary products. Poetry in particular is at least largely about the sounds of a language. I’ll discuss that a little bit later. First, however, it’s probably worth dispelling some of the widespread misinformation that gets circulated.

The one I’ve heard most frequently is, “There are no recordings of classical Latin speakers. It’s clearly impossible to know how the language was pronounced.” This is generally used as a way of dismissing the classical pronunciation, though a parallel argument could be used as easily to dismiss any other system. Unfortunately, those who make this argument are merely asserting that they don’t know how to figure something of this sort out. But there are those who do.

At the subtlest level, yes — there are things we don’t know. We’d give a lot to be able to plant even one microphone in the Forum to pick up just one of Cicero’s orations. But we actually do know, with fair accuracy, how the major inventory of language sounds were produced. Historical linguistics is a slow and painstaking process, but over its long history people really have taken those pains, and so there is now a substantial body of data available for analysis.

Detailing all those sources of information is beyond the scope of this discussion, but a few examples may suffice. We do have a few grammatical and literary discussions about mispronunciations, of course. These are at least somewhat interesting. But they usually document the egregiously odd — such as Catullus’ harangue against a certain Arrius, who added initial “h” sounds to a lot of words that should have begun with a vowel. Those are colorful, but provide less information than we might wish, and almost no information about what was normal. There are, moreover, relatively few of them.

Just as one might read novels and the publications of the popular press today without learning a great deal about how we pronounce English, one could stare at a page of Cicero for the next ten years and learn little or nothing about how Cicero pronounced it. It would help you very little in distinguishing classical from ecclesiastical pronunciations.

But those are literary texts, and literary texts are not the only tools of the discipline. The real treasures for the historical linguist are errors. Some of the papers I get from my students, for example, could provide more information about how we speak than a ten-year run of National Geographic or New Yorker: those who write “I might of known” instead of “I might have known” are providing virtually irrefutable evidence that, in its auxiliary usage, “have” is normally pronounced much the same way as “of”. That will tell us something about the loss of the initial h; it will also tell us that in “of” the final f is like a v. The fact that one sees, with increasing frequency, comparative phrases formed with “then” rather than “than” illustrates the fact that in an unemphatic position (as these connective words almost always are), the vowel itself tends to settle down to about the same middle schwa sound (ǝ).

Our surviving evidence from the ancient world is (unsurprisingly) short on student papers, but they are not short of inscriptions scratched into stone of one sort or another. Some of these are quite elegant; others are primitive — the desperate efforts, for example, of a grieving parent who wants to memorialize his dead son or daughter as best he can. Often that best is riddled with misspellings. The inscriptions themselves are often rather moving, reaching across centuries with an uncommon universality, but in addition, almost every one of them tells us something about the language.

Anyone interested in the detailed conclusions about classical Latin, and the fastidious work that has gone into reconstructing it, would be well advised to take a look at W. Sidney Allen, Vox Latina. It’s fairly dry going, unless you have the philological bent, but it’s worth reading if you do. It argues every point with very solid evidence.

Of course the “we can’t know” argument is not the only one out there. Others are more belligerent and random. One of the more bizarre ones I’ve encountered over the last few years includes the reflection that “if it’s good enough for Dante, it’s good enough for me.” This sounds full of conviction, but substitutes triumphal ignorance for reason. Anyone even glancingly familiar with rhetorical fallacies will identify it as an appeal to inappropriate authority. Dante, writing a little more than 1300 years after Vergil (whom he regarded as his master), had no better direct access to recordings of Classical Latin than we do, but certainly lacked all the comparative evidence that has been marshalled over the last two centuries. To read Vergil as Dante did is probably a useful exercise, if you are interested in learning what Dante was hearing. It tells us virtually nothing about what Vergil was writing, however.

So does it matter what kind of pronunciation you use, and if so, why? To start with, no. It will obviously not affect your conversation with native Romans. It will probably not vastly affect your understanding of Latin texts. Some of the best classicists I have known have had very peculiar pronunciation. They seemed to get along. The English have had a long tradition of some of the finest classical scholarship in the world, coupled with with some of the worst pronunciation imaginable.

But if you want to deal with authors on their own terms, you probably need ultimately to learn and use two (or perhaps more) different ways to pronounce Latin. Sure, you should start with one method while you’re learning the ropes. But if you really want to appreciate the Latin that was written over a space of a thousand years, you have to be ready to adapt. It’s not really that hard, and the fruits of the exercise are considerable.

What’s wrong with reading classical Latin as if it were Mediaeval Latin? It’s not merely that it’s wrong. It’s not, I would argue, morally wrong, and if you can read and appreciate Cicero’s orations while reading them with a thick Italian or English accent, fine. But you will lose the music of the language, and especially with poetry, that’s important. Just as a brief illustrative case, let’s look at two consonants and a diphthong that are treated differently in Classical and Mediaeval pronunciations.

  • In classical Latin pronunciation, the letter C is invariably hard — like our K. It does not vary with position. In ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, it will change to something like our CH sound (as in “church”) when followed by an I or an E.
  • Similarly, in classical Latin pronunciation, the letter T is invariably hard. In ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, it will change to something like our S or TS sound when followed by an I or an E.
  • The diphthong AE in classical Latin is a true diphthong — beginning with A (as in “amen”) and gliding into an E or I sound — much like our word “eye”. In the ecclesiastical pronunciation, it is flattened to the equivalent of E — much like what we call a “long” A in modern English.

So in the classical pronunciation, the word “caelum” (heaven) comes out to something like “kylum”. In ecclesiastial pronunciation, it is going to be more like “chaylum”.

Consider the implications in the following fragment from the beginning of Bk. II of Vergil’s Aeneid. It’s written in the ancient meter reserved for epic and didactic poetry, dactylic hexameter. The meter is quantitative, and the lines are unrhymed.

A few lines into the book, one encounters the remarkable lines:

…Et iam nox umida caelo
praecipitat, suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.

…And now dewy night from heaven
descends, and the sinking stars bid us to sleep.”

Vergil achieves something remarkable here (and he knows it’s good: he quotes himself later in Bk. IV):

In a classical Latin pronunciation, the vowels are dark and muted; and the two words in the middle of the line contain an internal rhyme (suadentque cadentia), are followed by two words alliterating in S. The effect is lulling and hypnotic.

In an Italianate ecclesiastical pronunciation, all that is ruined. Praecipitat becomes something like praychippytot; cadentia becomes more like cadensia, which piles up one S-sound too many at the end of the line, so that the whole thing begins to hiss like a basket full of vipers.

Lest I seem to be exhibiting a bias in favor of the classical pronunciation, let me hasten to point out that one can achieve a similar train-wreck by reading mediaeval verse in the wrong way, too. Take the following example from the beginning of the monumental De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Cluny. It’s written in something also called dactylic hexameter, but it’s of a completely different sort. It’s qualitative (stress accent, rather than duration); its lines are rhymed internally (but always at word-end) at the end of the second and the fourth dactyls, and couplets are end-rhymed.

Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus.
Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus.
Imminet imminet ut mala terminet, aequa coronet,
Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, aethera donet.
Auferat aspera duraque pondera mentis onustae,
Sobria muniat, improba puniat, utraque iuste.
Ille piissimus, ille gravissimus ecce venit rex.
Surgat homo reus; instat homo deus, a patre iudex.
Surgite, currite simplice tramite, quique potestis;
Rex venit ocius ipseque conscius, ipseque testis.

To read this in a classical voice is to crush its rhymes: ocius and conscius in the last line there are meant to rhyme, but won’t, unless one follows the ecclesiastical norms for how to handle C; if one keeps a classical diphthong pronunciation of AE, the end-rhymes between onustae and iuste are obliterated. The driving, almost manic energy of Bernard’s apocalyptic lines drains away.

My point here isn’t to champion one form of pronunciation over another. It’s to recommend that a maturing Latinist — and I would include anyone who has done three or four years of Latin with Scholars Online — should learn to adapt his or her reading to the text at hand. If nothing else, it’s an act of humility before the material at hand, and that is probably a good thing in and of itself.

Making Sense and Finding Meaning

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

My intermediate and advanced Greek and Latin classes are largely translation-based. There’s a lot of discussion among Latin teachers about whether that’s a good approach, but much of the dispute is, I think, mired in terminological ambiguity, and at least some of the objections to translation classes don’t entirely apply to what we’re doing. What I’m looking for is emphatically not a mechanical translation according to rigid and externally objective rules (“Render the subjunctive with ‘might’,” “Translate the imperfect with the English progressive,” or the like), but rather the expression of the student’s understanding of each sentence as a whole, in the context of the larger discussion or narrative.

We aren’t there to produce publishable translations: that’s an entirely different game, with different rules. For us, translations are the means to an end: the understanding is the real point of the process, but it’s hard to measure understanding unless it’s expressed somehow. The translations, therefore, are like a scaffold surrounding the real edifice — engagement with the text as a whole: its words, its sounds, and its various levels of meaning. That engagement is hard to pin down, but it allows us to make a genuine human connection with the mind of the author. A detached mechanical “translation”, though, is like a scaffold built around nothing, or the new clothes without the emperor. Even were artificial intelligence able to advance to the point that a computer could produce a flawless rendition of a text into another language, it still would not have achieved what is essential. It will not have understood. It will not have savored the words, grasped the concepts, combined them into larger ideas, applied them to new contexts, or come to a meeting of the minds with the author.
This is not always an easy concept for students to grasp. Some are fretful to get exactly the right wording (as if there were such a thing), but apparently less concerned with understanding the essential meaning. At the beginning of the year, I usually have a few students who make the (to me bizarre) claim, “I translated this sentence, but I don’t understand it.” My response is always some variation on, “If you didn’t make sense of it, you didn’t really translate it.”

We talk about making sense of the passage, but even that turn of phrase may be one of the little arrogances of the modern world. The prevalent modern paradigm suggests that the world is without order or meaning unless we impose it; Christianity, however, presupposes a world informed by its Creator with a consistent meaning that we only occasionally perceive. For us, it would probably be more accurate, and certainly more modest, to talk of finding or discovering the sense in the passage.

Whether we call it “making sense” or “finding sense”, though, it is not just the stuff of language classes. Every discipline is ultimately about finding meaning in and through its subject matter. In language and literature we look for the informing thought behind speech and writing. In history we look to understand the whole complex relationship of individuals and groups through time, with their ideas, movements, and circumstances, and what it all meant for them and what it means for us today. The sciences look to find the rationale in the order of the physical universe, mathematics the meaning of pure number and proportion, and philosophy to find the sense of sense itself. Each discipline has its own methods, its own vocabulary, and its own techniques. Each has its own equivalent of the translation exercise, too — something we do not really for its own sake, but to verify that the student has grasped something larger that cannot be measured directly. But behind those differences of method and process, all of them are about engaging with the underlying meaning. All real learning is. (In that respect it differs from training, which is not really about learning as such, but about acquiring known skills. Both learning and training are essential to a well-rounded human being, but they shouldn’t be confused with one another.)

From a secular point of view, this must seem a rather granular exercise with many dead ends. That each thing should have its own limited kind of meaning, unrelated to every other, seems at least aesthetically unsatisfying; it offers us Eliot’s Waste Land: a “heap of broken images”, pointing nowhere. Language is fractured, and our first great gift of articulate speech clogs and becomes useless.

Our faith offers us something else: we were given the power to name creation — to refer to one thing through or with another — as a way of proclaiming the truth of God, surely, but also, I think, as a kind of hint as to how we should view the whole world. Everything, viewed properly, can be a sign. As Paul says in Romans, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (1:20, NIV); Alanus ab Insulis (1128-1202) wrote, about 1100 years later, “Every creature in the world is like a picture to us, or a mirror.” Signification itself is transformed and transfigured, sub specie aeternitatis, from a set of chaotic references into a kind of tree, in which the signifiers converge, both attesting the unitary truth of the Lord and endowing every created thing in its turn with a holy function.

Why study Latin?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I read a lot of material on classical education, and I’ve become a little bit skeptical of much of it. In almost any given context, one question that’s sure to come up is, “Why study Latin?” Almost everyone who writes on the topic has a great passion for learning Latin, whether they really know Latin or not, and there’s a kind of blind, jingoistic boosterism that often takes over. Partisans tend to be uncritical: as long as you’re for it, it really doesn’t matter what you say in its favor.

That’s unfortunate. I believe that learning Latin is great, and I wish it were in every primary and secondary school in the country. But I also believe that it’s important to have the right reasons for pursuing something so extensive. At the most abstract level, I’ve learned that doing the right thing for the wrong reason often corrupts the process and the deed. And pursuing something just because someone else tells you that it’s good for you is not really enough either.

To put that into more concrete terms, having the wrong expectations sets a student up for failure — and sometimes the teacher too. For all the hype about classical education (and I’m thoroughly in favor if it), one should not take up Latin in a starry-eyed assumption that it’s going to be the quick and easy way to some kind of higher understanding. It’s not. It’s hard. If we as teachers are going to claim that it has real rewards, too, we should be ready to deliver on that promise. The fact is that a lot more people set out on the road to classical learning — and learning Latin in particular — than finish. There are many reasons for failure, and, depending on the teachers or parents or students, there is an obvious human tendency to blame someone or something. The student is dull or unwilling to apply himself or herself. The teacher is narrow and rigid and horrible. The textbook is arid and depressing. Most commonly the fault is attributed to some mixture of those elements: in any case, the assumption is that the process is flawed — and so we need to find another. If only we can find the right process, everything will suddenly fall into place, and the student will achieve an erudite kind of enlightenment. But that seldom happens either.

Mostly what I’m talking about here is a matter of expectations. Having the right expectations makes it possible to recognize success when you have it (or when you don’t).

The reasons people give for studying Latin tend to fall into three classes. Some of them are just bad, some of them are necessary but not sufficient, and some have real merit. Let’s start with the really bogus reasons first. These include those that are simply factually wrong:

English comes from Latin. This is a charming reduction of the facts, but it’s false. Latin is not the ancestor of all languages, and it’s not the ancestor of English. It’s the ancestor of a small group of important modern languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and a few other dialect variations of the above — but not English. English is a West Germanic language — a distinction it shares with German, Dutch, and Frisian. While it is was heavily influenced by the infusion of Norman French in the two centuries or so following 1066, and though it’s certainly true that more than 50% of the words in the dictionary come either directly or indirectly from Latin (a fact triumphantly used to endorse the notion that Latin is the ancestral tongue), the simple fact is that the most common words in use — the ones that will show up several times in every paragraph or every sentence you read, though each gets only one dictionary entry — are not from Latin, but can be found in Old English. This is a great reason to study Old English. It’s not much of a reason to study Latin.

Harder to address are the perplexingly vague or insubstantial reasons. These are often advanced with great passion and zeal, but insufficient clarity of thought.

Latin has more grammar than English. I run into this one a lot. I suspect from some of what I’ve read from the people who say this that by “more grammar” they merely mean “more inflected forms”. This much is true. But that Latin has more grammar is preposterous and unsustainable. Latin has a fully functional system of accidence and syntax, as does almost every other language on the globe, and taken together, those constitute grammar. The question is not what language has more, but what kind each one has, and how we can use a knowledge of those different kinds to help us understand how to say what we have to say. It will probably raise the ire of these same people to point out that even dialects of English that are widely considered substandard are marked by a very sophisticated and precise grammar. There’s every bit as much grammar in “I don’t have no money” as there is in “I don’t have any money.“ It’s a different grammar, but there’s neither more nor less of it. It’s not just a looseness about negatives: it’s a matter of a different, but equally specific, deployment of quantifiers. For what it’s worth, it’s the way Greek would say the same thing — and Greek was admired by the Romans for (you’ve guessed it) its sophisticated grammar.

Latin is more precise than English. This is probably true in some areas. Especially if you want to talk about the organization of a manipular legion, the welfare of the Republic, or the honor due a consul, Latin is your language. It’s probably even pretty good for describing election fraud. If you want to discuss nuclear physics, on the other hand, or a Beethoven symphony, I’d recommend something else. Precision varies with subject matter. Classical Latin was not a very good language for making abstract distinctions of the kind valued by the scholastic philosophers of the later Middle Ages. They had to evolve a range of new forms and extensions of the language — all of them thoroughly non-classical — to cover the contingencies. Then it became a powerful tool for that task, and reading Aquinas in Latin is easier for the average Latinist with a passing familiarity with scholastic thought than is reading an English translation. But it didn’t start out that way, and the language of Caesar and Cicero was not about that.

In general, I would argue that the deficiency of English is ultimately just not a very good reason for studying Latin or any other language. English is probably the most sophisticated and capable language ever evolved on the planet, and capable of more nuances of meaning, about almost every subject known to mankind, than any other. If learning Latin is chiefly to be justified by the promise of transcending the shortcomings of English, the student who’s arrived at the finish line (wherever that’s imagined to be) will almost certainly be disappointed. Latin has quite as many deficiencies.

More difficult to deal with — and probably more damaging — are those claims for Latin that are true, but still not really more than distractions. These fall into two categories, but both point in the same general direction. They chiefly address the adjunct benefits of learning Latin. One class focuses on the blank desirability of outcomes, without really asking how they came about, while the other class tries to sort those out in terms of pedagogical processes and their expected results. The former point out that the Latin students on average score higher on the SATs and ACTs (which is true), and they tend to write English better (which is also true), and tend in the long run to have more lucrative jobs (again, true). The same claim could, however, be made for students of calculus. The latter point out that Latin instruction is such that it promotes grammatical thinking, an awareness of vocabulary and etymology, and rewards the sheer discipline required to master a hard subject like Latin. These are also all true, and they’re wonderful. I still don’t think they’re really sufficient reasons either, however. One could become a sharper critical thinker by studying computer programming or scholastic philosophy. One could learn a lot about writing balanced English prose by studying Thomas Cranmer, John Donne, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Burke. We could theoretically be taught grammar in our own language. If it doesn’t make sense to justify learning Latin on the basis of the deficiencies of English, neither does it make sense to justify it on the basis of contemporary deficiencies in English instruction. All the merely ancillary benefits of learning Latin could be acquired some other way, in other words.

The irreducible benefit of learning to read Latin, however, is so simple and so obvious as to seem tautological: if you learn to read Latin, you will be able to read Latin. There is no other way to arrive at this state than by learning Latin.

“Okay, then,” someone will say, “fine. Be a wise guy. But why — leaving aside all those other things you dismissed above — should I care about reading Latin?”

That’s harder. But I think there are good reasons to care.

One of the chief reasons to read things in Latin is that they are from a different place from our own. There are several dimensions to this.

When we read anything in any other language, we will get something different from it. I occasionally like to read Scripture in French or German — not because I suppose that will get me any closer to the original text. I can read the New Testament in Greek, after all. But even a language that doesn’t pull me into the original text as such has the benefit of slowing me down, and delivering to me something that is not in my own native language. It causes me to see the underlying ideas in a slightly different way.

And so it is with Latin. Specifically, Latin has different tactics for doing certain things. It differs from English in structure. It’s not that it’s better or worse than English: it’s the simple difference that counts. The reason we can see in three dimensions is that we have two eyes that are not in quite the same place. We hear stereophonic sound by getting different sources of sound that are not the same. This is like that.

The more general historical fact is that Latin speaks to us out of a different time. It is a voice from an age that had different social, cultural, and metaphysical presuppositions from our own. This provides us with a sense of depth through the sheer fact of separation. You get this partly from reading Latin literature in translation, but you’ll get it a lot more by reading Latin literature in Latin.

More importantly, there’s the cumulative historical leverage provided by the fact that Latin — uniquely among the languages in the history of the Western world — was the language of learning and culture for over two thousand years. Knowing Latin is a path into the discourse of the second century B.C., but also of the sixth, twelfth, and seventeenth centuries A.D. That’s a lot of clout. Not only does reading Latin help you understand the Latin that was written in that period — it also helps you understand the writings of learned people in their own languages.

Finally, there is simply the joy of reading literature in its own language. Personally, I think that one supremely great piece of literature is fully sufficient reason for learning a language. If Homer were the only Greek author on record, there would still be plenty of reason to learn Homeric Greek. Homer is virtually impossible to appreciate fully in translation. And if there were nothing beside the New Testament, that would be fully sufficient reason to learn New Testament Greek (for several reasons — only one of which is literary). If there were no Italian literature beside Dante, there would be reason enough to learn Italian. If there were no German beside Goethe, there would be enough reason to learn German. Similarly, if there were nothing in Latin aside from Vergil or Horace (for the classical world) or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas (for a later age), any one of them would be sufficient reason to learn Latin. There are all of them.

I would further argue that the patterns of language are, to a greater or lesser extent, the patterns of thought. I’m resistant enough to modern structuralist linguistic theory to question the existence of a “deep structure” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that’s wholly free of the words themselves. And if that is so, to read Latin writers in Latin is to enlarge your mind by submitting it to the modes of thinking of people who are different from ourselves in some very important ways. Modernists and ideologues will often tell you that they were terribly backward. And in some ways they were. But if you read their own writings in their own words, you will come to wonder whether the gap we think we perceive is all quite as primitive or as uninformed as we had thought.

Grabbing for the meaning of a Latin writer is at least partly a good-faith effort at hearing another human being with respect. In that regard we are fulfilling our duty of charity as Christians. (I’ve talked about this somewhat elsewhere in “Reading and Christian Charity’.) That’s not itself a reason for learning Latin as opposed to learning any other language — but it’s a reason for learning Latin on its own terms.

We need to stop teaching Latin as if it were a kind of high-fiber diet, or a sort of Spartan training in intellectual virtue — something odious to be endured just because of its salubrious consequences, however valid those may be. Latin doesn’t need any excuses of that sort. Sure: it has all those benefits. But it isn’t unique in having them, and nobody can really convince me that this is enough to keep any but the most driven and compulsive of students going — and usually when a student takes it on that way, it’s at an enormous cost: by concentrating exclusively or largely on acquiring collateral benefits, real or imagined, we can blind ourselves to the genuine joy and delight of doing the thing in and of itself, and the kind of clear and glorious freedom we can secure by exercising our charity on its own terms.