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Why do WE study Latin?

“The Latin program aspires to train students to construe original Latin texts in order to decipher the design and intent of the author, thereby enabling them to apply these same skills to the rhetoric of their own language or any other they should choose to study.”

The above is the mission statement I crafted for the Latin program at Grace Academy of Georgetown.  But what does it really mean? To what end or purpose does it guide us?  There are many treatises out there, many essays, articles and even books on why students should study Latin.  They emphasize the importance of vocabulary building; they quote rising SAT and GRE scores, and other nameless standardized tests; they mention problem solving skills and the taxonomy of the sciences.  They woo a courting of the many romance languages, and they stress the relationship between ancient and modern civilizations.  I know these articles quite well, for I have read them a hundred times and delivered the speech myself another hundred.  And yet, one night I lay awake in my bed wondering, but why do WE study Latin?  I know why the language fascinates me.  I know why it is useful.  I know that it has been part of classical education for ages, and therefore must have a benefit past fancy and practicality.  Dorothy Sayers calls subjects “mere grist for the mental mill to work upon.” (The Lost Tools of Learning, Sayers)  What advantage does this particular grist provide for our mills?  Is it really just a better, more expanded vocabulary?  Or is there something more?

Ms. Sayers states quite firmly in her essay that Latin ought to be a subject of great emphasis in the School of Grammar “because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences . . . .”  (ibidem)  We have all grasped this quite firmly.  It is this benefit that shows itself so strongly in the academic tests.  Many classical schools tend to stop here, or begin phasing Latin out here.  Ms. Sayers does not.  In the same sentence she continues to say that, “it is the key to . . . the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.”  (ibidem)  Students in the School of Grammar are not yet reading such literature.  Such literature appears in the Schools of Logic and Rhetoric.  I believe that what is implied here is that the study of Latin vocabulary and inflected grammar is not an end unto itself, but these lessons are to be applied and used to study such literature.  Should we then study this literature in English, having learned all of our Latin?  No.  We ought to study these works in Latin.  Why?

If we do advance in our study of Latin past the School of Grammar, past the learning of vocabulary and grammatical forms, what does it look like?  In the School of Logic, discursive reasoning replaces exercises of observation and memory.  The key subject becomes Formal Logic, but this does not mean that Latin is no longer important.  In fact, nowhere does Ms. Sayers even dare suggest that Latin studies ought to cease until the School of Rhetoric.  Instead she states that now since we have, “our vocabulary and morphology at our fingertips; henceforward we can concentrate on syntax and analysis (i.e., the logical construction of speech) and the history of language (i.e., how we came to arrange our speech as we do in order to convey our thoughts).”   (ibidem) What better means to study syntax and analysis then studying the prose and poetry in classical Latin?  Who better to learn from about the arrangement of speech to convey thought than Cicero, Seneca, Tertullian, or Augustine?  Now that we have taught students the tools of Latin grammar, let them use those tools to feast upon a banquet table of literature.  Let them learn the use of figures of speech, the meter of poetry, the reasoning in prose, by studying the masters of ancient literature.  Let them see the transition of history through the writers of the time instead of through the glasses of a commentator.  Then let them analyze the diction and syntax of these writers in order to learn how they were able to convey thoughts and ideas so well that their work stood the test of time.  Let students hold up the work of such masters next to those who followed in their footsteps: writers like Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis, poets like Milton and Dickinson, theologians like Edwards and Sproul.

I believe the purpose, the “Why” of studying Latin is (as our mission statement declares) “to train students to construe original Latin texts in order to decipher the design and intent of the author, thereby enabling them to apply these same skills to the rhetoric of their own language or any other they should choose to study.”  The verb “construe” derives from the Latin construere (to put together).  It means to

  1. to give the meaning or intention of; explain; interpret
  2. to deduce by interpretation
  3. to translate, esp. orally
  4. to analyze the syntax of; to rehearse the applicable grammatical rules of

To construe original Latin literature means more than just translating.  It means that the student rehearses the applicable grammatical rules, analyzes the syntax, deduces an interpretation, and finally gives the meaning or intent of the author.  This means the student learns never to take language or rhetoric at face value; never to take someone else’s interpretation for granted.  He learns instead to dig deep into the speech of the author to discern his design, his intent, and to learn how he communicates his thought.  If students can learn this with Cicero and Caesar, how much more can they accomplish this with modern day politicians and their rhetoric?   If they can find and interpret the beauty and goodness in the poetry of Vergil and Ovid, how much more clearly are they able to see beauty in Milton and Shakespeare?  If students can learn to construe the writings of Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, how much more can they construe the writings of modern theologians, so that they are equipped to discern truth and not be, “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” (Ephesians 4:14, NKJV)  In learning to construe language through Latin, students learn to read texts, documents, and even scripture for themselves; not taking someone else’s translation/interpretation as immediate truth.

Yes, Latin is grist for the mill of the mind.  It is not only the grist of vocabulary, it is the grist of language: how it is put together, how it works; how to define terms and make statements; how to construct arguments and detect fallacies; and most importantly, how to express oneself. (Sayers, paraphrased)   By studying Latin in the context of those who used her best, who mastered her vocabulary and her syntax, students learn how to construe language.  In doing so, they acquire the tools to produce language themselves, to articulate thought and defend argument.  The purpose, therefore, of teaching Latin grammar is to prepare students to read or construe Latin literature.  The purpose in teaching them to construe Latin literature is to prepare students to apply the same skill to the literature and the rhetoric around them, so that they may find God’s truth, His beauty, and His goodness and hold tightly to it.

Quotations taken from “The Lost Tools of Learning” by Ms. Dorothy Sayers.

2 Responses to “Why do WE study Latin?”

  • Hello, I found your blog and noticed your obvious commitment to Latin and Greek. I too am committed to the preservation and teaching of Latin and Greek. To do my part, I started my non-profit organization, Classical Braille. I have been transcribing and embossing Latin and Greek works into braille to give away for free to the visually impaired. I have taken on this project so that everyone can have access to these works which I myself care so deeply about. I am contacting you to ask for either support, a plug to my website (classicalbraille.com), or advice on where to take my project so that it reaches the most people possible.
    Thank you for your time and consideration.

  • Karen Moore:

    I would love to post about your braille work. Please write something up and send it to me at moorelatin@hotmail.com. I would be happy to include it here on my blog site.

    blessings,
    karen moore

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