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Anthem Classical Christian School choice for Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas private schools NWA



by Joshua Shaw

Why do we read Shakespeare? Because his writing is beautiful? Because he is witty? Because he is simply so “important” for the development of the English language? All these answers are but partial: John Milton, as I tried to show in the last parent Scones and Scholé session, argued for a more substantial reason.  

More than exercising our wits, and astounding us with his own, he asserted that Shakespeare, if carefully read and heard and watched, could reveal to us our own character, could – in other words – impart to us self-knowledge. And self-knowledge, said John Calvin famously, was one of two kinds of wisdom really worth having (the other being, of course, the knowledge of God, though he was not sure which came first). Coleridge echoed Milton’s sentiment when he stated, “Every man sees himself in the First Folio, though he does not know it.” (The First Folio was the first edition of Shakespeare’s works).  Shakespeare himself, in the words of the character Hamlet, stated that art was as a “mirror held up to virtue and to scorn.”  Self-knowledge, wisdom, virtue and vice – these were the great ends and aims of Shakespeare’s art. 

At Anthem we of course have a lot of fun reading and acting out Shakespeare – that is how it should be – but we set our sights higher than “fun” or “culture” or “getting smart”: self-knowledge, wisdom, will equip us for life as parents, friends, citizens, and workers better than any other intellectual attainment. And education for all of life is what we are about here at Anthem. 


Why do we study Shakespeare in school?

On Shakespeare” by John Milton 

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones 

the labor of an age in piled stones 

or that his hallowed relics should be hid 

in a star-ypointing pyramid? 

Dear Son of Memory, great Heir of Fame, 

What needst thou such weak witness of thy name? 

Thou in our wonder and astonishment 

hast built thyself a livelong monument. 

For whilst, to the shame of slow-endeavouring art 

thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart 

from the leaves of thy unvalued book 

those Delphic lines with deep impression took, 

Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving 

dost make us marble with too much conceiving 

and so sepulchred in such pomp dost lie, 

that kings for such a tomb would wish to die. 

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by Joshua Shaw

Milan and Florence are wonderful, but if you are going to Italy, the final stop is Rome. Roma Aeterna. It has to be.

In other words, though words and grammar are necessary tools in the writer’s (and reader’s) toolbelt, words exist to express a meaning which, through its architectural work, grammar renders clear. In great works of literature, these things – words, grammar, meaning – form an organic, beautiful whole. This whole is what we strive to grasp in the learning of a language. And while every major European language holds achievements of the highest order, none (besides, perhaps, Greek) displays both the breadth and depth of opportunity that Latin does.

Latin contains, in its Golden Age, literary treasures on par with any in world history: Vergil’s Aeneid, Horace’s Odes, Cicero’s orations, dialogues, and letters, to name a few. Indeed, even in the so-called Silver Age – Latin's “second best” – we find many works equal to the best of other languages: Livy’s History of Rome, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Seneca’s Epistles, Martial’s Epigrams. The influence of these and other writings on the medieval and modern period cannot be overstated: Shakespeare’s debt to Seneca and Ovid, Milton’s debt to Cicero and Horace and Vergil; our founders’ debt to Livy; the debt of “natural law” theorists to Roman jurisprudence (and Cicero) generally; the debt of CS Lewis to Vergil and Boethius – the list could go on indefinitely. No modern language – German, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish – can contend. The more we realize that the present grows out of the past, even as the future out of the present, the more we will see the need to busy ourselves with the seminal works of the past.

Rome. Why Latin in Schools

Were we to end here, we would have already made a case for Latin over against other modern options. (Of course – it need hardly be said – there is no rule against learning both!). However, the weight of Latin in the scale of decision has not yet been fully felt: it was also the language of Western Christendom for about 1500 years. This was, I submit, the unknown prophecy in the language of so many Roman inscriptions: Roma Aeterna,“Rome is eternal.”

Who invented the theological term – thus transmitting to us the thought – the Trinity? Answer: Tertullian, an African Latin writer of the 2nd century. What about the martyrdom of Perpetua, one the earliest pieces of literature written by a woman? Who devised the schema “city of God” and “city of Man”, which informs our understanding of the earthly and heavenly kingdoms, political and celestial realms, to this very day? Augustine did in his City of God. He likewise first spoke, in Western Christianity, of “ordering our loves,” creation “ex nihilo,” and “original sin.” Then there are the two most important works of devotional literature ever written: the same man’s Confessions and Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, both in Latin. Bede, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, John Calvin, Martin Luther – these are only a very few of the men or women who wrote theological or philosophical works of the greatest importance in Latin.

What about hymns? The “Gloria Patri,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “O sacred head now wounded,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” or “O Come all ye Faithful,” are only a few of the Latin hymns spanning the 3rd to the 18th centuries.

But tradition did not end with the medieval and early modern periods. Our own English and American ancestors studied Latin carefully until the end of the 19th century. Once we have seen that we do not only make our community, but – more fundamentally – are made by it, and are born into it, the more we become conscious of our obligation to cultivate our inheritance.

What you from your fathers inherited hold purchase yourself: possess it completely. (Goethe)

“All is a purchase, all is a prize,” another has said, and it will cost us something. Latin costs us something and we would do well to reckon up the cost before setting out on the monumental labor. I think it is a worthy undertaking. Do you?

“A heavy work and hard we have before us,” wrote Cicero, “but to one who loves, I don’t suppose it will be difficult to do at all.” This is the golden key: it is a love of Latin words and wording, language and literature, to which I shall invite my students daily.

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by Joshua Shaw

In the previous post we saw the importance of Latin words for the full employment of our language. If a student only gets a deeper appreciation of the English language roots, this is a win, no matter what some may say. If you get off in Milan, you are still in Italy. But if you can push on and wait till the Tuscan hills appear on the horizon and the countless cities-on-hills seem to grow out of the mountain tops and then, wonder of wonders, the Florentine Duomo rockets above the surrounding cityscape. This we’ll liken to the lovely Lady Grammar.

Lady Grammar explains why Latin in schools

Lady Grammar, it has been said, holds the keys to the liberal arts; the father of American Classics said that every author and every student has a grammar in their heads and that one must adjust to the other; and Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right-hand man and the praeceptor Germaniae (“teacher of Germany”), said that theologia vera est grammatica quaedam divinae vocis (“true theology is a certain grammar of divine speech”).

Grammar matters.

The lady who wrote the flagship essay of Classical education, Dorothy Sayers, said, “I always thought it cruel to be made to learn grammar in an uninflected language.” But what does “inflected” mean and how could this be cruel?

As my students know from their Latin Catechism, an “inflected” language is one whose endings, beginnings, or stems change or “bend” according to grammatical roles.

In other words, nouns and adjectives tell their number (singular or plural), gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) and case by their various endings. Case is a technical word for the “job” of a noun in a sentence (subject, object, indirect object, possessor, etc.). English has a few fossils from former days when our language too was inflected: “whose,” at the beginning of this paragraph, is the “genitive” of the relative pronoun “who” - it tells possession. Consider our pronouns and how and why they change: I, me; we, us; he, him, etc.

Now, for the second claim of Ms. Sayers, think about these two sentences: I gave her a nasty look and I kissed her. “Her” does not change, but the meaning does. In the first sentence her is an indirect object, whereas in the second it is a direct object: in Latin the words are different, ei and eam. You know simply by the way a word looks what its job is.

This scenario repeats itself a thousand times over with verbs as well as nouns. To have to learn the different meanings of “her” in these two sentences (and all other examples) without a different inflected ending is what Dorothy Sayers called “cruel.” Because she knew Latin, she found it so much easier to understand the grammar of English; how to use it well; how to read it well and understand a sentence like the following (which my sixth graders have memorized):

...Only he who girds the earth in the cincture of the sea divine Ulysses ever did envie and made the fixed port of his birth to flee.

Who or what is the subject of the main clauses? Who is the object? There are sentences in Shakespeare, Milton, and Paul the Apostle much harder than this one. It matters how we interpret these things (in all great texts, the Bible not least) and the careful study of Latin grammar will make us grammar ninjas.

It is in this context that one can understand the apparently baffling statement that “Latin is a logical language.” No language is logical in the sense that all its forms and meanings make sense according to some universal rule (as the rules of logic). That’s like calling a rock logical. Huh? Yeah, exactly.

But once you accept the basic data of Latin (as of the universe): that puella is girl in the nominative singular, puellae genitive and dative, puellam accusative, and puella (long a) - once you accept all this, you can begin to manipulate the language according to its internal logic. In fact, to understand and, further still, to produce intelligible Latin, you must apply this logic. For example,

If this is the nominative ending and its singular, then it must be the subject; if singular, then my verb must be singular; if masculine then any adjective modifying it must be masculine, singular, and nominative, etc. etc.

Few things have taught me the rigor of inexorable logic like countless hours of reading, studying, writing, or translating Latin.

But again, as my Latin professor would say with a grin, “These are only the ancillary reasons for studying Latin. The real reason is the language itself.”

Next stop, Rome and the lingua Latina.

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