That he whose soul would touch the very past
Must build himself a delicate consciousness
Out of the dreams of old civilizations,
Must see with ancient eyes, not wisely peer
Through glasses of the last half-hundred years…
—Owen Barfield, “The Tower”
In a white-clapboarded, old New England congregationalist church, I once joined a festive mid-summer community dinner. The church stood at the end of a village green, with a bell tower soaring up to the highest point in town. At the other end of the green was a cemetery filled with lichen-covered gravestones, commemorating pious churchgoers of yore.
I happened that evening to be sitting at a long table next to an English professor from one of the ‘seven sisters,’ small liberal arts colleges spread across the region. She was asking me about my work, which, at the time, was teaching at a small classical school. As I described the school’s curriculum, her eyes got wider. When I mentioned the classical language requirements, which were quite rigorous, I was afraid her eyes might fall out of their sockets. “What is the possible reason for requiring this?” she asked, the same eyes suddenly narrowed, as though only a nefarious, regenerate motivation were possible for such a backward notion as requiring high schoolers to learn Latin!
A strong argument could be made that Latin is the paradigmatic classical subject. Within it is contained the secrets of the Trivium. Its linguistic matrix gave birth to the Quadrivium. Latin is also paradigmatic to classical education in another way. Its telos or goal – as Aristotle puts it, “that for the sake of which” it is studied – most thoroughly evades the pragmatic, political, utilitarian calculus that dominates contemporary education. Hence the popping eyes of my interlocutor at the midsummer village dinner.
“Yes, but–” Latin teachers everywhere are raising their fingers in admonition as they read my words, protesting: “Latin study has plenty of practical uses! It will help students get higher SAT scores and gain greater knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary. It trains the mind in comprehending complex, abstract systems that will be useful in their careers. And the Romance languages….”
Granted. But is Latin study necessarily the best or most efficient way to achieve these ends? Coding, calculus, medieval heraldry, and Egyptian hieroglyphics are also complex systems. Students could study only Latin roots (and add in Anglo-Saxon ones) of English words rather than toil over the language as a whole. Requiring a class on test-taking strategies might produce better SAT results than four years of Latin, with a lot less fuss. These goals, therefore, cannot really provide a convincing telos for Latin study. If they are genuine benefits of Latin study, they are so as incidental rather than inherent qualities. They must be subordinated to a more central telos inherent to Latin itself.
What is this telos? In graduate school, I once asked a professor to lead an independent study on Augustine. After learning that my Latin knowledge was merely rudimentary, he refused. “Language is the structure of thought,” he said: without understanding Augustine’s language, his thought would escape my comprehension. Much was said in the professor’s few words, as I learned years later, after mastering enough Latin to read the Confessions. To put his statement in more theological terms – indeed, in terms the church fathers use about the Trinity – language is the image of thought; word is the image of mind. And, just as the divine Word is the eternal image of the Father, so are human words, human language, reflective of the mind that begets them.
In reading a translation of the Confessions, only the barest kernel of meaning comes across the divide between languages and epochs. Augustine’s power, passion, vulnerability, even his playfulness (he has an irrepressible love of wordplay) – all these are barely, if at all, expressible in modern English. His genius is a Latin one, and his mind was formed to that medium. Reading one of Augustine’s sentences in the original is like watching a skillful dancer, muscles flexing and contracting as she gracefully dances across the stage in flowing, powerful movements. Reading the same sentence in an English translation is like watching a robot’s jerky attempts to do the same moves.
Am I only saying that “the original is better than the translation”? This is a point often made by Latin defenders, and one with which it is hard to disagree. I do want to make this point, but I also want to go further down this line of thought. After all, that argument could be made of any language, and still does not tell us why we should study an ancient one. If language reflects the mind that begets it, it reflects not only the individual mind that is writing or speaking, but the common or social mind that shares that language. A language reflects a set of shared meanings common to a people who use it. The concert pianist may be a virtuoso, but he shares the same notes as the rest of the orchestra.
Studying any language gives us unmediated access to the original texts, granting us closer communion with the mind of the author and his world. Studying an ancient language grants us not only this, but much more. As it develops over time, language reflects changing modes of thought. The passing of time does not merely reveal new ideas to the world, but new ways of thinking. Real acclimation to the pre-modern past, therefore, allows us to break free from the prejudices of modernity – most of them unarticulated even to ourselves, so fundamental are they to our contemporary outlook.
By immersing our minds in the ancient past, we step outside of the present, even if only briefly, and inhabit another world-view. In learning an ancient language, we begin not only to learn about the past, but to participate in its own way of thinking. We begin to “see with ancient eyes,” as Owen Barfield puts it. We begin to hear the past speaking with its own voice.
Author John Carr, after attending the Graduate Institute at St John’s College, taught humanities, Greek, and Latin for several years in classical schools. He recently left the classroom for a remote homestead in the green mountains of Vermont, where he and his wife homeschool their four children.
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