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.