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Why Study Latin, Pars prima

Humans do things for one of two very general reasons: one, because it is honorable and/or two, because it is advantageous. In a world of “men without chests” there is no honor (we laugh at it, “and are surprised to find traitors in our midst”, as CS Lewis said), so we are left with nothing but advantage, which we summarize under practicality, usefulness, power, etc. This is the world Machiavelli was building.

Seeking advantage is good and honorable, as long as it minds its place. When it replaces the honorable as the ultimate value (as in theories like Pragmatism, Utilitarianism, Progressivism, etc. or in the common practices of the petty tyranny that runs our inner lives as well as the world around us), it becomes both dishonorable and self-deluding.

It becomes self-deluding because the human soul is created for honor and hungers for it like the body hungers for water. Nor is it dishonorable to do so. The question is not whether you should seek honor, but from whom you should seek it. As Jesus asked the Pharisees, “How can you believe when you seek the honor that comes from each other and not the honor that comes from God.”

The quest for honor is the soul’s yearning for the great well done. Our Lord suggests that we believe what we believe based on who we want to honor us, something important to remember when engaged in apologetics. But the utilitarian philosophies that run our political structures and our schools dishonor the quest for honor.

I describe these dual motives because I want to write about why we should study Latin and I’ve been struck by the extent to which its defenders have turned to utility and away from honor.

The argument of those who defend Latin on the basis of its utility is that this is what people care about. I wonder. Watch TV commercials. How many products advertise themselves for the practical advantages you gain from them and not for the honor you’ll get?

Perhaps that is because most product don’t offer any practical advantages (the great exception is power over others, such as sexuality and money) so they have to turn to the pettiest of honors. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

Promised practical benefits or utility are usually the solution to anxiety. I understand that parents are anxious about education. For the most part, we didn’t receive one growing up in spite of the years we spent in school, so we know the scam of schooling intuitively and we also know that in an ever-growing domain of life you have to perpetuate that scam to get a job. This makes us anxious.

But we are still told to be anxious for nothing and that only one thing is needful. Everything changes when we believe that. We are called to faith, not fear. We are called to be “more than conquerors” not timid. Educators speak of transforming our culture, but then we let the culture tell us how to teach. You can’t transform something by conforming to it. Here is one place where it is better to die than to surrender, even as a school.

Back to my point: why study Latin?

We can identify two categories for the reasons to do so, the honorable and the advantageous. These are not in conflict unless the advantageous rises up against the honorable.

For example, children should honor their parents because it is right to do so. That is, it is honorable. And yet, interestingly, this is the first commandment that includes a promise: that it may be well with you and you may inherit the land. In other words, if you do the honorable, you’ll gain advantages. This is not the product of a mechanism that turns inputs into outputs. It is the faithfulness of a promise-keeping God.

So why study Latin? You’ve already been told the advantages: improved language skills, SAT scores, understanding of grammar, college admissions, trained mind, look smart at cocktail parties, put down the big shot who doesn’t know it, etc. Good stuff all. Well, at least, mostly.

But I want to explore the reasons derived from thinking about the topic of honor. There are three, those oriented toward

1. Love of God

2. Love of Neighbor

3. Virtue

I’ll explore each over the next little while.

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