Why Latin, Pars Quattuor: Civilization

Last night at dinner (I’m at NCHE) the question of why one ought to study Latin came up. Since it was dinner conversation and not a workshop, topics came and went, some unfinished, some barely started. In this case, a young man named Mark offered a good reason for Latin study.

He said that his family values languages like French and Spanish, so they study a bit of Latin to help them learn those languages, and he asked if that is why people study it.

I opined that, indeed, this would be a benefit (from the Latin “done well”) of studying Latin. But I added that things also have a purpose that goes beyond the benefits they provide us. I suggested that when we do things for the benefits but ignore the purpose, eventually, the purpose being lost, the benefits go with it.

Compare this with, for example, a college. It offers a number of practical benefits to students, such as finding a spouse, extending your high school sports career, being trained for a job, finding yourself, etc.

But the day a college sees itself as existing for any of these reasons, it has sealed its own doom. It might well supernova, the way an economy typically expands rapidly before going into depression, but having lost sight of its purpose and nature, it will disintegrate. For an illustration, look at the college or University closest to you.

So it is with every gift God gives us. His gifts include an implied stewardship because they are given with purpose and because they are good, much like giving a child a puppy or a toy places a duty of stewardship on the child.

There are many benefits to Latin study. Learning other Romance languages is among them. You can probably come up with many more. I’ve heard of these, by way of example:

  • Build a vocabulary
  • Learn your own grammar
  • Prepare for medical studies
  • Prepare for legal studies
  • Get and be able to tell clever jokes*
  • Improve SAT scores
  • Get into a better college
  • Discipline the mind
  • Think better
  • Get the foundational vocabulary for a number of other studies, including history, theology, philosophy, plumbing, etc.

Perhaps you can think of more.

I would even accept all of these as valid reasons for an individual to study language, just as I would accept going to college to find a spouse or play football as valid reasons for an individual to go to college. That is between the person and His God.

But if a school or home school teaches Latin for these reasons, it will fall short of what it could achieve and it will not (and probably should not) last – unless the student comes to discover higher reasons.

Why study Latin, then?

Why, to learn it, of course.

As absurd an answer as that sounds, it’s important to remember. If your goal isn’t to learn Latin, then you almost certainly won’t. Or maybe I should say, if your goal is not to teach Latin then you almost certainly won’t.

So the question then becomes, “Why would I want to learn/teach latin?”

Not meaning to provoke you, I still need to clarify something before answering the question. What do I mean when I say “learn Latin” or “teach Latin.”

Do I mean that everybody is morally bound to learn Latin? Certainly not.

Do I mean that every school is morally bound to teach Latin? Probably not. Probably every American school, but not every school in every time and every place.

Only schools that want to “educate” their students, as opposed to “training” them, should teach Latin. But I’m not sure how you can be an educated person in the 21st century if you can’t access the documents that make up over 60% of what makes us who we are.

If you value the western tradition, including the classical, medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and even Romantic heritage, what you value can’t be sustained without a lot of people knowing Latin well enough to communicate and think in Latin.

To the Christian, this is particularly relevant. You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic to have an unbearable weight of debt to those who communicated in the Latin language.

  • Luther’s 95 theses? Latin
  • Calvin’s Institutes? Latin first, unless I am mistaken. Then French.
  • Correspondance among reformers and with the Roman church? Latin
  • St. Augustine? Latin
  • Apostolic fathers? Latin or Greek
  • Most church music? Latin

Until the 1880’s, most high school students in America studied Greek, Latin, and math. When they graduated, they went on to college to prepare for law, politics, or the ministry.

In the 1880’s, industrialists started developing a new form of college, designed to sustain the sort of world they could understand and dominate. Many of them were convinced the classical tradition wasn’t needed for such a world. As a result, colleges stopped requiring Greek and Latin as entrance requirements (yes, entrance requirements).

What do you suppose happened next?

Exactly. Since you could get into a college without Latin and Greek, high schools stopped teaching Latin and Greek. Consequently, those colleges that did still value the classical heritage were put on the defensive and were compelled to defend themselves in the courts of the pragmatists. Even they seemed to fail to grasp that a “worldview” shift had occurred.

The “market” gradually came to dominate education, which is another way of saying “appearances and appetites” or even “even and strife” came to dominate education.

Now think about this. If you are a high school graduate, and you are choosing a college, does the education you have received so far affect the vocations you might consider? Let’s say, for example, that you have never picked up a basketball. Are you likely to think you might want to become an NBA player?

Now what if you have never studied Latin? What options are closed or at least more intimidating to you? How would you regard the ministry? Today it probably wouldn’t have any impact on your thinking. If you can lead a devotional, manage a congregation, and practice some counseling you can be a pastor.

In the 1880’s you were expected to know theology too. It was understood that to know theology you would need to know the languages of theology, so to get into a seminary you had to know Latin and Greek.

But students were graduating from high school not knowing Latin and Greek, so if they were interested in theology they would have to go to college to learn grammar. The barrier of time and expense was formidable, so the ministry began an immediate decline and many would argue that the decline continues. More and more, the ministry has become the domain of management, marketing, and therapy. Not many Americans know the difference between an Orthodox and a heterodox doctrine and not many care.

That happened because schools stopped teaching Latin and Greek. Read that again.

Schools stopped teaching Latin and Greek because a paradigm shift had taken place, where the Christian classical understanding of truth and nature and purpose were replaced with a naturalistic perception in which truth is relative, nature is fungible, and purpose is, as Spinoza once wrote, “the hobgoblin of superstitious minds.”

It’s not that everybody needs to learn Latin and Greek. Only those who will engage in politics, law, theology, medicine, entertainment, philosophy, education, natural science, ethics, and the learned professions.

Not every society needs to be permeated by people who know Latin and Greek, only those that love freedom and truth.

I have no idea if Latin and Greek are innately superior to other languages. I only know that they are the languages in which people thought about the things listed above for over 2000 years. To lose that heritage is to become impoverished, homeless, and destitute.

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