I’ve read your posts about Latin, and even read Andrew Kern’s thoughts. But I’m still on the fence. What convinced you (and still convinces you) it is worthwhile?
I received the above email via contact form back when my computer was fully functioning, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. There was more to it than this, but the above is the gist of it. I think it’s a great question! I also think there have been many apologies for Latin (and Greek!) written over the years, by people waaaaay smarter than I. But all of these other writings can’t actually answer the question, which asks what convinced me.
I’ve been asked to explain our choice before, so I’ll share with you some of the arguments I’ve used. They vary, depending upon the audience (and how quick my brain is working), but there is a slight chance they’ll be helpful. Either way, they will reveal what goes through my mind when someone asks me why we do Latin, or why anyone might want to do Latin.
The Argument from History
This is really an appeal to tradition. Charlotte Mason began Latin with her students in Year 4 (around age 10). Latin was studied by the vast majority of educated people (from the days of the Roman Empire onward) up until the mid-1900s. My own mother-in-law told me that she was given Latin in her school when she was a child!
Some people see this as a weak argument, but I really don’t. The world that studied Latin produced great thinkers and writers. Thomas Jefferson knew Latin. John Adams knew Latin. C.S. Lewis studied a number of languages, as did the rest of the Inklings. We can reach far back into the past and consider Thomas More, the Protestant Reformers, Shakespeare, Milton, and Erasmus, or we can look back only about a hundred years and point to T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and W.H. Auden. We can even point to the greatest philosopher of my lifetime thus far, Jacques Barzun (he died just shy of age 105 this past October).George Washington’s father died before George was able to be sent off to school in England (where he would have studied Latin), but this didn’t stop our first President from making sure his stepson studied Latin! It was assumed that Latin was integral to what it meant to be educated.
Latin and Greek are some of what the great men of the last two millennia have had in common.
The Argument from Grammar and Writing
There is really no doubt that Latin improves a student’s writing ability. It has even been said that it is downright silly to study grammar in our own language because it is so second-nature to us that it doesn’t help us much. It is hard for us to get outside our own language. But when we study grammar in a foreign tongue, especially in a highly inflected language, we gain much.
Personally, I think that studying a little Latin and a little English grammar works together better than studying a whole lot of English grammar without any Latin. I’m not sure why this is, but it is like the two subjects feed each other. I’ve never been brave enough to try Latin all by its lonesome, but I can say that doing the two together in small amounts is a truly powerful thing. For whatever reason, my student learns all of it better–and I don’t mean a little better. The difference that I saw, when we added Latin, was exponential.
The book Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons is just about the best modern apology for studying Latin (and Greek) that you can find. I keep meaning to share my quotes collection from this book. Someday I’ll get around to it! The only thing is, it might discourage you because it quotes scholars such as Roger Ascham, who thought that a Latin scholar without Greek is like a bird with one wing. In other words, it might make you feel like you need to do more than Latin, and our conversation here is whether to do Latin at all.
But if you can get past that, I still think you’ll see a good number of reasons for Latin, writing and grammar ability among them.
Studying Latin grammar has improved my own grammar and, compared to my students, I’m a very old dog trying to learn very new tricks. Almost immediately, I discovered myself thinking in grammatical terms that had never come naturally to me before. I understood sentences and how they worked in new ways.
Studying any language involves translation, and this aspect really improves the writing and grammar ability, in my opinion. Climbing Parnassus quotes Roger Ascham as writing:
Diligent translating shall work such a right choice of words, so straight a framing of sentences, such a true judgment, both to write skillfully and speak wittily, as wise men shall both praise and marvel at.
In translating, students must choose the right words, the most fitting words. One word is not as good as another. Simmons even said that the ultimate test of an English sentence is “will it translate?”
It has been interesting to translate separately from my son (only my oldest is currently old enough for Latin), and then come together to compare. Sometimes we differ from each other and from the answer key! What proceeds are long discussions about why we chose the words we chose. When was the last time you discussed the necessity of choosing the exact right word with a ten-year-old? Latin opens a world of opportunity for this sort of talk!
As Simmons wrote,
We yearn to be precise. And the precision we achieve, such as it may be, breeds a quiet confidence in our ability to say what we mean.
The Argument from Mental Formation
Simmons argues that a Latin education forms the mind. This is based upon much of what was already said in the grammar section above. We learn to form sentences properly. We learn to be precise. What we often forget is that sentences come from our minds. We say what we think. If we cannot communicate something clearly, we do not yet understand it well enough to do so.
This can be a tricky conversation, but I think it has merit. Latin and Greek — and any other highly inflected language (I have been told Russian fits this description) — is much more precise than English, which has lost most of its inflection over time. This has benefits for the mind, and not just in the area of writing. Just like when we study logic, when we study an inflected language, we are training our minds to think more clearly.
How is this possible? Well, we are not yet very experienced in Latin, but I’ll tell you what I’ve observed so far. In Latin, all of the words in the sentence must agree with one another, and to such an extent that word order isn’t completely necessary. Words are male or female or neuter, singular or plural, in various tenses, and so on. If a noun is female and plural and in a certain tense, the pronoun that replaces it must be all of these things. The verb for this noun must also be all of these things. Nouns change their forms when they are the direct object, and then again when they are the indirect object. Obviously, we see some of this in English, but our language is a shadow in comparison. The result is that we actually refine how we think about the world. We get more particular, more precise.
Latin is, in short, a mental discipline.
The Argument from Spiritual Formation
When I was a very young undergraduate, I still went home for the summer. I remember going to our church’s college group meeting, and there I ran into an old friend who was studying various “dead” languages at a Bible college. I remember that he told me that reading the Bible in translation was like looking at the back of a tapestry. Sure, you can get a sense for it. And from that sense, you can even come close to imagining what the front really looks like.
But it isn’t the same as coming into firsthand contact with the glorious tapestry itself.
Since then, I have noticed that pastors who have never studied Greek can be downright dangerous. They do not see, for example, that the pronoun in the sentence they are interpreting — which appears in the English to be referring to a noun in close proximity — is actually female, whereas the noun they think it is referring to is male. In the Greek, they’d be forced to hunt further up the page and try to identify the female noun to which the female pronoun of necessity must be referring to. But, being stuck in the English, they aren’t even aware of their mistakes.
In the vast majority of passages, this probably doesn’t matter. But when we consider that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, having pastors who can read in Greek — and even Hebrew — matters a bit more than we initially thought, does it not?
Over time, I have begun to extrapolate the implications of this idea that we are trapped at the back of the tapestry. Does this mean we don’t really know Plato … or Aristotle … Socrates … or Plutarch … and on and on? Just like with the Bible, most of the time I think this really doesn’t matter.
I think a world opens up to us when we can read the original. Some of our children will perfect their Latin (and, I hope, their Greek) well enough to behold the genuine article. And they will be blessed. They might even be changed. This is what I mean by spiritual formation — the soul here is formed by its first-hand encounter.
The ability to read a great work in the original language is not just a mental feat. It is a spiritual one. It likely expands the soul in a way which few things can.
There is a reason why, for example, in Roots of American Order Russell Kirk used certain Latin words rather than English ones. (Pietas comes to mind.) There is a reason why, when I talk with other Christians about the need for a distinctly Christian education, I use certain Greek words (paideia and nouthesia). It’s because there are no English equivalents.
In other words, these words do not translate directly into English. Therefore, when we read them in translation, we read a truncated form of the words. We read a watered-down version, or a translator’s interpretation (or best guess).
This is why my friend called it the back of the tapestry.
Translation is a messy, inexact business at times. Someone, somewhere — at the very least the greatest men and women among us — should be taking the pains to read the originals and defend our culture against grievous misunderstandings. In the process, they will be fed spiritual food to which the rest of us have no access.
I cannot think of a greater gift I could offer to my children.
We Build Men
Tracy Simmons tells us in his book that in 1931, Albert Jay Nock delivered a series of lectures on the state of education in our country in which he concluded that
[the American academy] had ensured with their curricular experiments that the United States might never again see a generation quite like that of the Founding Fathers.
We forget that, whatever education we adopt, it forms a generation. It forms a kind of man.
I do not pretend that what I am offering my children is even close to the caliber of education given to those who founded our country. But if you want to know why they were so great — and why our Republic was created as it was — I would point you first to the education these men received in their youth. Our country is the fruit of little boys agonizing over Greek and Latin, of reading Plutarch and Euclid and Cicero (and the Bible!) in the original languages. We have reaped, for generations, the fruit of this education. And each year there is less upon the tree because, frankly, it hasn’t been fertilized or pruned very much in over a hundred years.
I consider our adoption of Latin (and we plan to offer Greek to a couple of our children as well — all of them if they wish) a step in the right direction. It is the homage I pay to the tradition of great education. It is an act of faith — my hope that my grandchildren will receive something even better, and my great grandchildren after them.
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