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Why Latin in School: Last Stop, Language and Literature

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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