Consider Greek: A Dialogue

PARENT: I would like my son to begin studying a foreign language. I am considering Latin or ancient Greek, but I am leaning more towards a modern language. I know you are studying and teaching ancient Greek; what are your thoughts?

TEACHER: That’s great that you are considering ancient Greek and Latin! Why are you leaning towards a modern language?

PARENT: Well, I like the idea of learning a spoken language – he could travel someday and use it and it could be useful if he pursues missionary work. Plus, most of the benefits of learning a language, like increased vocabulary and deeper understanding of English grammar, can be achieved just as well with modern languages as with the ancient.

TEACHER: Why then are you considering the ancient languages?

PARENT: Well, it seems that in classical Christian schools most students learn Latin. I feel that this is something we should do if we are committed to classical education.

TEACHER: Why? Because you believe it is necessary to a classical education?

PARENT: Maybe. But also, I worry that he will always need to explain his education if it deviates from the more standard curriculum or that he will feel inadequate compared to his peers.

TEACHER: I think I understand. While Latin may be less useful than modern languages it has its own specific utility as a signal for the type of education received. And there is a growing community of classically educated students who study Latin and share this in common. In these ways, it is useful?

PARENT: Yes exactly.

TEACHER: And ancient Greek? By our working definition of usefulness, of the languages we are discussing it appears to be the most useless!

PARENT: Yes, I think so!

TEACHER: Is it important to you that your son reads ancient literature?

PARENT: Oh yes, absolutely.

TEACHER: Well, let’s speak about ancient Greek then. Consider all the ancient works that become accessible to the student of the ancient Greek language – the Homeric epics, the plays, the histories, the poetry, the writings of the Church Fathers, the New Testament.

PARENT: But, they could be read in translation.

TEACHER: Not all. Only a fraction of the writings of the Church Fathers has been translated into English.

PARENT: I didn’t know that.

TEACHER: But your point about translations is a good one. Is there value to reading texts in the original language if an English translation is available?

PARENT: I don’t know. Maybe. But even if there were, I wouldn’t know how to attach value to that. Ancient Greek is hard. I don’t know how to determine if it is worth the effort.

TEACHER: I can understand that. Most of the time we just take it on faith that we’re missing something in translation, but it’s hard to know what.

PARENT: Right, exactly.

TEACHER: Let’s see then if we can explore this within our own language.

PARENT: Okay, how do you mean?

TEACHER: Let’s work with this phrase for a moment: Jesus’ teachings on the hereafter. Can you replace the word hereafter with a synonym?

PARENT: Heaven?

TEACHER: Okay. The words hereafter and heaven are similar. How are they different?

PARENT: Hereafter feels more neutral across religions. Heaven feels more Christian. I think heaven describes eternal life while hereafter could also describe eternal damnation.

TEACHER: I agree. So, if I want to talk about how there was a pre-Christian belief that moral character in this life has eternal consequences, and that Jesus made this connection even stronger in His teachings, which word should I use in my original phrase, heaven or hereafter?

PARENT: Hereafter seems more fitting.

TEACHER: I agree. I think the word hereafter not only fits, but it furthers the point by activating the reader’s imagination. As you said, hereafter feels more neutral across all religions. When I read hereafter, my imagination, in an instant, pictures everything from the Pagan conception of the afterlife to Christianity’s. In an instant, and probably subconsciously, I think of the ancient Egyptians, I think of Aeneas, I think of Dante. One word, in context, has activated in my imagination this accumulated inheritance – a history, a collection, residing only in one word.

PARENT: Right, that’s true.

TEACHER: I am of the belief that there’s no such thing as a true synonym.

PARENT: I can see that. And I would think this is magnified across different languages.

TEACHER: Right! Consider the Greek word κόσμος. It means both “universal order” – hence our word cosmos – but it also means “adornment.” It was what women did when they dressed up and put make-up on their faces – hence our word cosmetics. Reading the word κόσμος in Greek will activate a set of feelings and associations that we have no access to with the English translation, “adornment.”

PARENT: That’s so interesting.

TEACHER: But I think there’s something even greater to consider. Literature is creative work. Is it like a work of art?

PARENT: Yes, definitely.

TEACHER: I recently read On Calumny by Lucian. It’s a description of a painting – this was a common literary genre before reproductions made paintings more accessible. On Calumny describes an ancient painting by Apelles which no longer exists; however, Botticelli, among other painters, later depicted it, based on Lucian’s description, so for our discussion, we can imagine that we have the original painting. I read the description, then I looked up Botticelli’s painting. The painting was recognizable because I had read the description of it, but it was different, so much so that I can say that I had no experience of the painting before seeing Botticelli’s painting. This is how it is with creative work – until you experience it, you have no experience of it, just something like it.

PARENT: Wow, I think I understand.

TEACHER: But you are correct – ancient Greek requires effort and time.

PARENT: Right, I did wonder if it is worth the effort.

TEACHER: Well, instead of looking at the time and effort as a cost, I wonder if we can see how it can be a benefit.

PARENT: How do you mean?

TEACHER: What do you do when you learn to knit?

PARENT: Knit?

TEACHER: Right. And when you train during pre-season for football?

PARENT: Play football.

TEACHER: Right. So, what do you do when you study the ancient Greek language?

PARENT: I see. You read ancient literature.

TEACHER: It is what you have been preparing for. Preparation creates the desire for game-time. Learning the language not only connects the student with the original ancient work, but it creates the desire for that experience, which, frankly, I think is more important.

PARENT: Yes, I agree.

TEACHER: And here’s another thing. The difficulty is humbling. Which is precisely the manner with which we should approach the ancients, with humility. And it creates speed bumps – there’s no way to speed through Aeschylus or Homer in Greek. Which again is precisely the manner with which we should approach the ancients.

PARENT: Right, I can see that.

TEACHER: I suppose the faithful student should, in time, achieve a fluency where speed will come, but that’s probably a ways off. And in the meantime he will have, by practice, made friends with the past.

PARENT: I think I will learn ancient Greek too.

TEACHER: My feeling exactly.

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