Why study Latin?

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.

5 Responses to “Why study Latin?”

  1. Andrew Kuiper says:

    Clarity is a wonderful thing. I am particularly frustrated by homeschooled parents not understanding what they are doing. This doesn’t just apply to the subject of Latin, but for education as a whole. The entire motivation behind their desire for a classical education (when it is not some sort of perverse urge for superiority) is usually expressed in “practical” terms. Again, we are given the SAT scores and incomes of educated people. All the while, the real reason for education lies untouched and neglected. Depth and breadth of human experience is the real power of education. Not a nice job and a house.

  2. Karl Maurer says:

    Your ‘right reasons’ for learning Latin seem all real, very interesting, very worth pointing out; much less careful seems your polemic against what you think the wrong reasons. In particular, it is only half-true that English doesn’t ‘come from Latin’. Even if we leave out the Normans, in a certain way it does largely come from it.

    To be first-rate in any language you need to have not merely a rote-learning of its correct usage, but sharp perceptions of its structure (’analytic’ knowledge of it, which is also called grammar) and of its history. All good Roman writers got this largely from fluency in Greek, a language kin to theirs, yet in some ways hugely different (so that the difference constantly plunged them in thought); and for centuries all good English writers got it from fluency in Latin, which is kin to English (& the actual origin of many things in it) yet hugely different.

    John Locke had a polemic similar to yours (in his first Essay about Education). He denied that either Latin or even grammar was needed for good English. He imagined that there existed a correct English ‘usage’, quite independent of Latin, that Latinless ladies could learn ‘by rote’ impeccably. He failed to discern that this very ‘usage’ was a thing shaped by many generations of writers, and most influential speakers, absolutely every one of whom knew Latin, and understood English in that light.

    It seems to me that today hardly anyone even notices this massive historical fact. It is important to grasp that these were not only the Shakespeares and Miltons and Caxtons but every country parson, doctor, lawyer, judge, even merchant, and so on. The entire middle and upper class knew Latin, almost as well as the entire Roman upper class knew Greek.

    This shaping of English by Latin was enormously complex, and took many centuries. If you take any text of, say, 1570 (almost any random thing in Hakluyt, for example) you see a strange jumble: dense subtle Latinate syntax combined, often, with an astonishing clumsiness, rawness, and protean freedom both in grammar and spelling. If any text of, say, 1670, you have hugely smoother, modern English — modern spelling, grammar, word order; a rather rapid, huge regularization (not to say, petrifaction) had occurred. But every bit of this shaping (both the earlier and the later) was done by people who knew Latin.

    I do quite agree with you that we too far often raise false expectations and that they are harmful. All your remarks about this are excellent. But I don’t think it ‘jingoistic boosterism’ to say that Latin can, even now, help anyone’s English far more than can any other language; and I think it ought to be said.

  3. Prof. Maurer —

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful and precise thoughts about learning Latin. I suspect we are more in agreement than might at first appear.

    Your ‘right reasons’ for learning Latin seem all real, very interesting, very worth pointing out; much less careful seems your polemic against what you think the wrong reasons. In particular, it is only half-true that English doesn’t ‘come from Latin’. Even if we leave out the Normans, in a certain way it does largely come from it.

    I hadn’t envisioned my comments in terms of polemic: I was more hoping to redirect the expectations of those setting out to learn Latin in such a way that they could actually achieve some of those benefits we agree are inherent in the process. When I said that English didn’t come from Latin, though, I meant it in baldly linguistic terms. I was trying to point out the fact that English really is not a descendent of Latin in the same way Italian, Spanish, or French are. I have encountered a number of people who believe that it is, including a large number of students who enroll in my classes. It’s a misapprehension worth correcting. At its most basic level, English was and is a West Germanic language in its fundamental structures and in its core vocabulary. One can still frame many comprehensible and useful utterances using only words of Germanic origin and grammatical patterns that were already in place before the Norman Conquest. One cannot do the same thing relying on only Latinate vocabulary or structures.

    Beyond that, the boundaries get murkier, and the distinction between syntax and style is a vexed one. You are of course absolutely right that many of the features of style, many of the more sophisticated syntactic structures, and many of the rhythms of modern English (especially early modern English) come from Latin, as well as the underlying patterns of thought that give rise to them. This is a large part of what I was driving at in the latter part of my posting. To tap into that, though, I think we need not only to have mastered elementary Latin, but to have read a certain range of Latin authors in their own language.

    One might adduce the example of a stew: a braise of beef simmered for hours in red wine, stock, and seasonings acquires a flavor and texture that owes something to all its ingredients. Still, the beef, qua beef, is not from the vine or the stockpot: it’s from a steer. I was not talking about the flavor of the mixture: I was talking about the most basic ingredient.

    To be first-rate in any language you need to have not merely a rote-learning of its correct usage, but sharp perceptions of its structure (’analytic’ knowledge of it, which is also called grammar) and of its history. All good Roman writers got this largely from fluency in Greek, a language kin to theirs, yet in some ways hugely different (so that the difference constantly plunged them in thought); and for centuries all good English writers got it from fluency in Latin, which is kin to English (& the actual origin of many things in it) yet hugely different.

    I suppose at some point we might differ on who qualifies as a good Roman writer: I would certainly agree with you that a majority of the writers of the classical period had their style and their sensibilities refined by Greek; still, if we are able to believe the scant surviving sources, Cato the Elder was regarded as a better-than-average orator in his prime, but only learned Greek late in his life. Most Western mediaeval authors had no access to Greek, and I still consider some of them great writers as well. Augustine and Bede qualify as rather good stylists, I would argue. Similarly, I really do believe that there have been competent — even great — English stylists who have not come to it by way of Latin or Greek. None of that need diminish the importance and power of a good Latin education — it merely suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, and that however great the utility of a given tool may be, it does not ipso facto guarantee that the job cannot be done in any other way.

    John Locke had a polemic similar to yours (in his first Essay about Education). He denied that either Latin or even grammar was needed for good English. He imagined that there existed a correct English ‘usage’, quite independent of Latin, that Latinless ladies could learn ‘by rote’ impeccably. He failed to discern that this very ‘usage’ was a thing shaped by many generations of writers, and most influential speakers, absolutely every one of whom knew Latin, and understood English in that light.

    Ah, you cut me to the quick. To be identified with Locke, of all people…

    It may well have been the case in Locke’s day that everyone who had a reasonable claim to being educated had come to it by way of Latin. I suspect that was not absolute, however. (It’s possible to make the same claim today, but to do so seems unduly dogmatic: we risk defining the set we want to measure by the measurement we intend to use.) I’m not sure there is such a thing as a complete education, or a complete mastery of any language — just as I am not sure that there is only one way to arrive at a superior level of competence in English. The English usage and grammar to which we are heir is a monumental edifice, and too big for any one person to control in its entirety.

    Most of our students and their parents would probably subscribe to the notion that there really is a standard of correct English usage “out there”, but that that is formally defined by a regularized grammar. To me that seems at least somewhat questionable in itself, or at least naive, though in practical terms I support it and enforce a fairly strict standard of grammar and style in writing assignments. I appreciate what you’re saying about the dynamism that goes into the make up of a language, however: as a mediaeval Latinist myself, I have spent a certain amount of time reflecting on the ways in which the solecism of one generation becomes normative for the next. Viewed in that light, of course, language becomes dauntingly huge, which is probably correct, and amorphous to boot. Surely in our speech there are threads that, could we but trace them, find their way back to the first articulate utterances on the planet. We cannot hope to trace them all, or to distinguish them from one another, but the whole deserves a certain amount of respect — even awe — all the same. This may look like an admission of defeat, and I suppose in some respects is. At the same time, it seems worth going down trying to assimilate it as best we can. It is the chief repository of human experience in our world.

    Haec ubi dicta, I think you may be over-hasty in linking my position with Locke’s and then attacking mine by exploding his. I think there is a kernel of truth to his claim, but in general I would argue that it is a reductive and trivial truth. It takes no account of that vast common pool of language heritage. There I think we are in complete agreement, and always have been.

    I’m still in favor of Latin, therefore, and I would say without hesitation that it’s the most reliable way I know for people to learn grammar in English. There are really two reasons for that.

    One is that the best way of learning anything is by comparison. Here the advantage of Latin is not specifically that it’s Latin, but that it’s not English. This aspect of its utility probably increases in direct proportion as it differs from English. It is more useful than French or Spanish or German precisely because it differs more from English. (I suspect there is a maximum feasible extension for this principle, too — it seems likely (even leaving the historical influence of Latin on English aside) that it’s more useful in improving one’s English than, say, Hebrew or Xhosa or Vietnamese, because they differ so greatly that there are fewer points of reflection. In other words, stretching is good, but it’s possible to go beyond the breaking point. But that’s probably a discussion for a different day.)

    The other is that Latin is not only a language that has been used widely and well, but that it’s been analyzed with remarkable precision for two thousand years and more. That is a benefit that no other language, with the possible exception of Greek, can boast at the same level. (It may also be true of Mandarin Chinese: I don’t know. I can’t think of another that might qualify.)

    Just for the record: I specifically said that one could be taught grammar in English, and I still think it’s theoretically possible. That’s a hypothetical claim, though. I am not convinced that it’s being done or that it ever has been done. It’s not something that happens anywhere today that I’m aware of. This is sometimes taken as a mark of the benightedness of our times, but I’m not sure that it’s really been vastly different in the past either: I have searched in vain for a really good grammar of English that would function on the level of Allen and Greenough or Smyth (to say nothing of something like Leumann-Hofmann-Szantyr), and have come up with nothing. Even Curme’s two-volume grammar of English says shockingly little about the syntax of the subjunctive, for example; current school texts such as Warriner’s barely begin the discussion, and they’re frightfully vague. It’s small wonder that the subjunctive, which is as good an example of a tool of thought of the kind you’re suggesting, is in such a lamentable decline.

    It seems to me that today hardly anyone even notices this massive historical fact. It is important to grasp that these were not only the Shakespeares and Miltons and Caxtons but every country parson, doctor, lawyer, judge, even merchant, and so on. The entire middle and upper class knew Latin, almost as well as the entire Roman upper class knew Greek.

    This shaping of English by Latin was enormously complex, and took many centuries. If you take any text of, say, 1570 (almost any random thing in Hakluyt, for example) you see a strange jumble: dense subtle Latinate syntax combined, often, with an astonishing clumsiness, rawness, and protean freedom both in grammar and spelling. If any text of, say, 1670, you have hugely smoother, modern English — modern spelling, grammar, word order; a rather rapid, huge regularization (not to say, petrifaction) had occurred. But every bit of this shaping (both the earlier and the later) was done by people who knew Latin.

    While I am somewhat skeptical of the absolute terms in which you couch it, I suspect we are very substantially in agreement. Let us grant that skeptics could probably come up with at least some exceptions to the rule (parsons, judges, and doctors would of course have known Latin; I suspect there were some merchants who did not), and then dismiss it as a fairly trivial set. Ben Johnson’s comment about Shakespeare’s having small Latin and less Greek probably tells us less about Shakespeare himself than about Jonson; it at least suggests that deficiency in these areas was a known phenomenon, and that one’s learning was routinely measured in precisely those terms. In the main, therefore, your point here is well taken. I have over the last few years been particularly impressed by the truth of exactly this point, especially in reading works from the English Renaissance. Even in the (affectedly popular) sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney, I have been struck repeatedly by the extent to which appreciation depends on at least some grasp of the Latinate mindset beneath his language. (I fleetingly considered producing a kind of Latinist-looks-at-Sidney edition of the Astrophil and Stella, but I probably don’t have sufficient credibility in English academe to make that project particularly worthwhile.)

    I really do think, however, that I address what you’re talking about in the latter part of my posting, when I discuss the primary benefit of learning Latin being the opportunity of reading Latin authors in Latin, and grappling with the patterns of thought that they represent. I think, moreover, that your examples back me up. What we see in Hakluyt, Milton, Sidney, or Pope is not the product of the grammar curriculum in and of itself: it’s the product of deep immersion in the writings of great Latin authors who deployed those categories of grammar and thought in their actual expression. They were saying something that these later stylists were drinking in not merely for the fact that it admirably exemplified various Latin constructions, or even entirely because of its style, but because they wanted to know what it said. The phrases of Vergil and Cicero that come to mind for me come from reading them in context — not from having studied them as exemplary snippets. Even the clerks and the tradesmen of your example — anyone who had the benefit of a grammar-school education — were encountering more than grammatical instruction. They were reading the authors themselves.

    I do quite agree with you that we too far often raise false expectations and that they are harmful. All your remarks about this are excellent. But I don’t think it ‘jingoistic boosterism’ to say that Latin can, even now, help anyone’s English far more than can any other language; and I think it ought to be said.

    I definitely agree: I would say so too (and I do). My use of ‘jingoistic boosterism’ may have been insufficiently circumscribed. I meant it to characterize those who will enthusiastically embrace any argument that leads to the conclusion they favor, irrespective of its intrinsic validity. Heaven knows we see that kind of thing on all sides in the political arena today. I didn’t mean to suggest that it was jingoistic to argue that learning Latin can aid one’s mastery of English. That much is indisputably true. I do mean to say that it’s naive to clamor for something without knowing what it is or what it entails, if only because it tends to lead one to believe that one has got hold of the thing itself when one has merely acquired the trappings. It’s like those people who buy expensive running shoes and fancy sweats on the assumption that their mere possession will confer the health benefits of regular daily exercise. Cuculus non facit monachum. Some (certainly not all) proponents of classical education seem all too credulously to assume that the beneficial secondary consequences of a year or two studying Latin will rain down upon them, causing SAT scores to soar and job opportunities to sprout like so much grain in the field, when they have completed no more than an elementary course, but have never really engaged the language or its literature on their own terms. There are some benefits from spending even a month with Wheelock, but the real benefits of a classical education only begin there. Those benefits are largely the outgrowth of opening their minds to what Latin authors have to say, as much as (or more than) a discrete harvest of grammatical facts that can be packaged up and kept quietly in reserve. It’s not in asserting ownership of those grammatical categories, but in using them, both in reading and in writing, that the transformation takes place. The larger glibly-advertised benefits of learning Latin — glib not because the claims are false, but because many of those making them don’t really understand what they’re claiming — don’t come from a pass through Wheelock, but from wrestling with the words and phrasings of Vergil and Cicero, Sallust and Tacitus, Ovid and Horace.

    We live in a quick-fix culture that likes to achieve things in quantized packages, and then move on to something else with perceived short-term gains. We want ten percent returns on our investments by the end of the quarter. The study of Latin is remarkably resistent to that kind of approach. Yes, you’ll start learning some things about English right away. Getting the difference between the nominative and accusative clearly in mind may forever break you of saying, “Aunt Myrtle came to visit Tom and I.” I fervently hope so. But its real and enduring benefits come from long immersion, and just the kind of remolding of one’s thought as you suggest. Just as there is no such thing as a good five-minute braise of beef, there is no instant classical education. It’s going to take a while. One of the reasons that the authors you mention, from Caxton through Milton and beyond, achieved so much more based on their Latin than did (for example) the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century schoolboys who also routinely had Latin folded into their curricula, is precisely that they were not generally learning Latin just to be learning the structures of a language in the abstract. Is there a benefit to doing that? Certainly there is. But in Milton one detects not just the cadences of the grammar-book, but the reflection of an accurate and extensive encounter with Latin authors.

  4. Karl Maurer says:

    We do I think basically agree. There is a difference in emphasis caused, I think, by different purposes: yours of trying to pin down something amiss in much pro-Latin propaganda; mine of insisting on the main fact itself, that first-rate English needs Latin. I am relentless (so e.g. http://udallasclassics.org/whyClassics.html) because in spite of all ‘boosterism’ there is now a massive ignorance of rewards that used to be self-evident. The study of Latin has nowhere near the place it should, and could easily disappear from the high schools altogether.

    Several months ago a friend of mine (James O’Donnell) referred in an email to a “trans-national Latin culture that flourished for a long time”, and I said this:

    Actually, the full depth of it never dawned even on me till last summer, when I was translating Hobbes’ Latin autobiography. How strange to watch him constantly palpating everything in thought in two languages, so hugely unlike each other, and so different in historical point of view, English and Latin (not even to mention Greek; Hobbes’ Greek was first-rate). It gives his thoughts a kind of palpating, exploratory, stereoscopic quality — a kind of independence from language — which I can’t see how you could get in any other way. But what really drove this home to me was not even Hobbes; oddly, it was reading Aubrey’s notes and noticing that lazy Aubrey, too — the very paradigm of a normal man of his time — had had a good classical education and was constantly thinking in Latin.

    As with all other knowledge, fluency in Latin is like a tree that only sometimes bears palpable, heavy fruit. It does so when the English writer has (a) genius or (b) love (for as Simone Weil said, attentive, subtle love is kin to genius). In students who lack either, it bears no ripe heavy fruit! Those are always the majority, in Latin as in everything else. But for Latin, as for other studies, the merely ‘interested’, whose motives are dubious, are needed, in order for the teaching posts and courses even to exist. Those people need the ‘quantized package’ (as you call it). All our difference in emphasis, perhaps, comes just from this: that I am a college teacher sensitive to the perishability of the formal courses, which I see under ever greater stress; and you a home-school teacher, who don’t think you need them.

  5. [...] 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 [...]

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