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Why Latin & Greek Must Be Studied


This article was originally published in March, 2009.  Much of this article is adapted from the early 20th century Jesuit scholar Robert Swickerath’s extraordinary book, Jesuit Education: Its History and Principles, published in 1903. Unfortunately, the book is no longer in print.

The Classical Liberal Arts Academy maintains the rigorous classical language studies of the Catholic schools of the past and when we use the word “past” we are not thinking 1950s past, but 1600s, 1200s and 500s past. We require that every student complete courses in classical Latin and Greek and believe that education is not sound without them.

This position obviously raises questions among families, especially due to the fact that very few adults have ever seen true classical liberal arts education in action and all are unfamiliar with its results. In this article we will address the reasons why Latin and Greek must be studied by Catholic students.

I. Reasoning is Developed through Classical Language Study

The fundamental difference between classical and modern education is found in the method or instrument of learning. In modern education, it is believed that scientific observation is the ultimate method of learning. In classical education, it is believed that logical inquiry is the ultimate method of learning. If you do not share this conviction, then you should not be interested in a classical education, especially that offered at the CLAA.

Since the instrument of learning is Logic, all studies are oriented toward the cultivation of this art. The essence of Logical reasoning is found in the syllogism which applies a known general proposition (rule, principle, fact, etc.) to a specific problem at hand to produce a new proposition (conclusion). This art is learned systematically in Logic, but is also learned in the other classical subjects when they are taught rightly.

In studying modern languages, students are not led to cultivate this art. In fact, in some Latin programs, the necessary methods are abandoned and replaced by modern methods (induction). For example, the Lingua Latina program teaches students to read Latin as they learned their native language, which is great for learning to read the language, but fails to achieve the higher goals of classical language study. We do not study Latin for the language alone. We also employ the study of the classical languages as a part of our overall progress in the art of Logic. Consider the point as explained in Swickerath’s Jesuit Education (1903):

“They are not the language of common life. They are not picked up by instinct and without reflection. Everything has to be learned by system, rule, and formula. The relations of grammar and logic must be attended to with deliberation. Thought and judgment are constantly exercised in assigning the exact equivalents of the mother tongue for every phrase of the original…Only the law of thought and logic guides him, with the assistance of a teacher to lead the way, and reassure his struggling conception.”

Thus, the classical languages when taught in the classical manner, promote the greater goal of logical training. Programs that fail to use deductive methods fail to achieve this important goal.

II. Because History Speaks to Us in Greek and Latin

One of the greatest intellectual shortcomings of modern students is their ignorance of thoughts and perspectives outside of their own experience–especially those of the wisest and holiest men of the past. We must avoid the tendency to imagine the influence of the English language to be more than what it is. The use of English as an international means of communication started only 100 years ago, whereas Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church for over 1900 years.

It would make sense why liberals might wish to erase the history and culture of the Romans, or why Protestants and atheists might wish to ignore the middle ages, but there is no justification for Catholic students to be denied their religious heritage and source of the finest Christian culture.

Moreover, by failing to walk the path of the liberal arts, we cut ourselves off from the tens of thousands of Christian students that did so throughout history. Those Christian students of the past grew up to become the politicians, priests, poets, philosophers and theologians whose works now sit on our library shelves. We could have had a much deeper fellowship with them and we could have read them with a shared educational experience, as they were able to read the men who lived before them.

Quoting Matthew Arnold, Jesuit scholar Robert Swickerath warns us:

“Expel Greek and Latin from your schools, and you confine the views of the existing generation to themselves and their immediate predecessors, you will cut off so many centuries of the world’s experience, and place us in the same state as if the human race had first come into existence in the year 1500.”

Again, Latin teachers miss the point and develop modern means of teaching the language. Some write their own readings, others use “cool” Latin resources like the “Cat in the Hat” in Latin. This trouble is not caused by the children (who rarely ever object to classical history) but the teachers who are off course and not only fail to enter into the study of wisdom themselves but also keep those out who would enter.

III. Classical Literature is the Source of Culture and Taste

To pretend to admire the finest culture and taste while denying the value of the educational system that produced them is a puzzling reality in our generation. Without the classical liberal arts curriculum and the culture it produced there would be no Bach, no Mozart, no Shakespeare, no Dante, no Michelangelo, no Rembrandt–nor the rest–to admire. History would have been filled with the earthly, aimless, self-centered art and culture that surrounds us today.

By supplying our children with this education in classical aesthetics we free them from the darkness of modern literature, art and music and reconnect them with the world’s most sublime culture, that of classical Catholic Christianity.

IV. The Classics, in Translation, are not the Classics

When we look at the dozen or so English Bible translations on the shelves of the local book shop, we find all the proof needed to know that reading literature in translation is not a desirable option. The notion that one’s native language is sufficient for the transmission of any ideas is one that flowed from the anti-Catholic spirit of the Renaissance and Reformation. It gave schismatics and heretics a means of drawing common people way from the Church, which always maintained that the loftier subjects must be handled in their original languages. This was not a means of keeping the masses in ignorance, but keeping the ignorant from teaching subjects they had never studied!

Even Protestants, who promoted the mass production of Bibles (and their own commentaries) in modern languages, acknowledge that the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture is rightly applied to the original language texts only. Why then the commitment to English translation rather than classical education? If the energy, time and resources spent to produce these English translations were invested in classical education, we would have children in no need of the English translations!

The same is true of non-biblical literature. The value of many of the classical writers is in their use of their own language. There is no rival among us to Virgil or Homer for poetic mastery, therefore who is to turn their language into another without doing harm to its quality? It would take one equal or greater to the classical masters to move their thoughts and words into another language. No such master exists. St. Jerome, who knew something about the effects of translation being the official translator of the Latin Bible, said in a letter on “The Best Method of Translating”:

“If any one imagines that translation does not impair the charm of style, let him render Homer word for word into Latin…and the result will be that the order of the words will seem ridiculous and the most eloquent of poets scarcely articulate.”

Rather than pushing students into literary studies before they are prepared to appreciate them rightly, we would do better to teach them to read and use the original languages in their youth and give them the real thing when they are ready for it. This, however, is unacceptable to modern men and women who prefer to seem rather than to truly be well educated.

V. Classical Literature is Morally Superior to Mathematics

The argument may be made that mathematics may be just as effective as classical languages in developing logical thinking, but logical thinking is not the only benefit of classical language study.

When classical languages are employed as the primary means of cultivating logical thinking, the material through which the languages are studied is full of excellent moral instruction. Students study the Sacred Scriptures, the prayers and songs of the Church, the moral instruction of the philosophers, the virtues of the heroes of classical literature, etc.. The minds of students are filled with noble examples, inspiring stories and sublime language.

What comparable benefits can be found in a mathematics-based education?

VI. The Classical Languages Enable Mastery of Modern Languages

As if the advantages above were not enough, it must be admitted that those who have demonstrated the greatest skill in modern languages (especially English) were those who first studied the classical languages. We may recommend to our children Shakespeare, Milton, Tolkien and the rest, but they would recommend Homer, Cicero, Virgil and Horace to us.

The exercise in translating the expressions of history’s greatest speakers and writers into our own language is the most effective means of developing mastery in the native tongue. Consider the eloquent explanation of a 19th century superintendent of schools:

“The blacksmith’s arm becomes mighty through his ponderous strokes of the hammer on the anvil. The very facility of the acquisition of the modern languages precludes the possibility of discipline. Put Latin into our schools, and the puzzling problem of English Grammar will be nearing its solution, for the why that meets the pupil at every step, the very laboriousness and difficulty of the task, will open the intellect, develop the powers of discrimination and adaptation, enlarge the vocabulary, enable the student to write a better English essay, use a more terse and trenchant style of speech, and grasp with more avidity and keenness any promulgated form of thought, than if he should spend quintuple the time on the study of the English Grammar alone.”

Furthermore, the English classics contain such constant allusion to classical literature that the ignorance of such makes the understanding of the English classics next to impossible. Consider Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost:

“As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream.”

Do you know English? Go ahead and explain what Milton’s talking about. You won’t be able to unless you’re familiar with classical literature. While this is indeed English, no student ignorant of the classics would be able to make sense out of a single line of it. An education in modern English leaves you unable to…read English literature.

Conclusion

To be frank, an education that is limited to one’s own language is no education at all. Sure, a student can learn some modern science, mathematics and history from textbooks, but the moral, aesthetic, linguistic and philosophical benefits of education will be lacking.

We have discussed five important benefits of classical language study: (1) logical development, (2) historical continuity, (3) culture and taste, (4) inferiority of translations, (5) moral superiority to mathematics, (6) mastery of modern languages.

Moreover, it is not merely the subject studied, but the method by which it is studied. To achieve the benefits listed above, the classical languages must be studied deductively. Students must learn rules and principles that belong to a complete system of Grammar that is then applied, logically, to translate the languages precisely. Programs that fail to maintain sound methods compromise the overall quality of the subject.

While this may be overwhelming, we can assure you that all of the benefits gained through history by the proper study of the classical languages are available through the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.

 

 

 

 

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