I argue briefly for Greek and Latin, and Weep

Nov 8, 2011
In the order of knowledge, Latin and Greek have always played the role of a tree to the trunk, and many classicists would continue to argue that they do so. Training the mind to read Latin and Greek has the benefit that training the mind to read in any foreign language has (which is considerable), but it has more. For one thing, since Greek and Latin are exoskeleton languages, the reader becomes exceedingly aware of the structure of Language. For another, Greek and Latin humanities remain the foundation for all European humanities, perhaps especially French and Italian, but also English, German and the rest. For another, to know Greek and Latin is to stop window shopping at the Great Ideas Emporium and to walk inside and converse. No other languages can boast a continual 2500 year dialogue in every matter that has ever mattered to human beings. Was it Nock who said that to read Latin and Greek is to gain a mature mind. But in spite of the frequently disproved claims of Thorndike from the late 1800?s, perhaps the greatest benefit of Latin and Greek for those who seek utility is the habits of mind that the proper study forms in the student. Look at the great scientists from Roger Bacon through the early 20th century. Which of them was not classically educated. Math is a glorious element of classical education. There is a reason the Greeks developed it so far and so fast. However, if calculus is the new Latin and Greek, then civilization no longer exists. For civilization, tenuous as it is, is the property of a community that strives and to some degree is successful to embody the true, the good, and the beautiful in the thoughts, habits, and artifacts of its members. We always fail, but the Greeks showed us how valuable the failed attempt was. Without Homer, Plato, and Vergil, all the calculus in the world won’t feed a single soul. If you want great scientists, great statesmen, great mathematicians, great theologians, great philosophers, great poets, and great humanists, make sure that a significant number of your children study enough Latin and Greek to hate it. The more branches of learning, the stronger the trunk needed to hold them together.
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Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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Amen! truly.

But, Ryan, a few questions:

When you say, "We are not naturally born with all our ducks in a row. We have to be taught how this works. We have to be taught the proper way to view the world. This view is fundamentally contained in Scripture." I wonder, can't we just read the scripture in English, or Latin? Why Greek and Hebrew? I mean, I hear you when you say, "Through Word and Spirit, God retrains our brains to think the way they should—like him." But why are Greek and Hebrew necessary for retraining our brains?

How is reading in Greek different than reading in English? Can't "Word and Spirit" still retrain our brains though English, and Latin?

I've been wondering, isn't church tradition, even the church fathers, enough to retrain our brains to think the way they should, without worrying about reading the Bible the way it was originally written?

Which Greek curriculum do you recommend?

Maybe you can recommend some further reading on this subject? articles? blog posts?

and one more,

Do you think memorizing the Bible in Latin worthy of our precious time?


Thanks for the questions. You bring up a good point. As the Reformers taught us, the people can have sufficient access and knowledge of Scripture in their native tongue. In fact, this was not even new with them. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, it was very much the language of the people. And even before that, Paul (among others) freely quote the Septuagint (which is a translation of the Old Testament). Clearly, Scripture can sufficiently retrain our brains even in the vernacular.

So then, what is the value of the original languages of the Bible? Well first off, we could ask the same question of Latin and Classical Greek. Andrew has given various reasons, but essentially noting that they are the trunk/foundation of learning. If you want to branch out in knowledge, you need a strong foundation. But what I am saying is that if we are talking about a language that is the foundation of learning, this goes to the biblical languages. If we assume that some language is important to learn so we can grasp other things better, then what is that language? The answer is Greek and Hebrew. As I said before, these languages will provide a far better (because more biblical) foundation for whatever we wish to do.

The best curriculum I recommend is finding a teacher who knows Greek. Maybe this sounds unhelpful/impossible in your situation, but really, you need to learn from someone who knows the language. For a text, I would recommend (although I have not used it myself) Living Koine Greek (http://www.biblicallanguagecenter.com/books-products/koine-greek/). In general, I would say that if you are going to learn a language, you need to have practice doing several things: reading, speaking, and writing. You need grammar too I think, but if you just learn grammar, and you don’t at speak at all (or read), then you have severely limited yourself in the learning of a language.

If you are learning Latin, then memorizing verses from the Vulgate would be excellent practice. The vulgate is also part of Latin literature. The Romans were not the sole possessors of Latin. Latin had a strong tradition in the West throughout the middle ages.

I’m curious about your comment about the church fathers, are you saying that it is more important to read them in the original languages than Scripture? Because many of them can be read in English, so it seems if the Bible in English is sufficient, then the church fathers in English should be more than sufficient, or Vergil in English, or Homer. If we have to choose one thing to read in the original, it would clearly be the most important book we have, which is the Bible.

Please let me know if you have more thoughts/questions. Thanks.



Thanks for the question. I have read some Vergil (with much help from notes!) in the original Latin, and several times in English. I am aware of his vast use of dactylic hexameter, his word-painting, uses of literary devices, and overall artistry and cohesiveness of his story. I wouldn't say, generally, that he is more beautiful than Scripture though. Would you?

Can you separate form and content? Sure. Not always, but sometimes. Should we? Sometimes, and sometimes not. We really need to be more specific to be helpful here. So I will take an example from Vergil:

So Vergil says in Latin:

Disiectam Aeneae, toto videt aequore classem,

Now, he is describing Neptune looking at the fleet which is scattered on the sea. Notice how the verb disiectam (scattered) and the word it modifies (classem) are at opposite ends of the line. His form here, reflects the content. The content is that the ship is scattered about, and so the words are scattered about. Now if I translated this fairly literary it would be something like this:

He sees that the fleet of Aeneas was scattered over the whole sea.

Notice that here that scattered and fleet are not as widely, or intentionally, separated as they are in the Latin. So, to some extent, I have changed the form/medium. And yet, I have not entirely destroyed the meaning of the passage. I have not entirely lost the content because I changed the form. The English translation does convey what Vergil was trying to convey to some extent. So yes, you can separate medium and content and still have meaningful communication.

Notice here, that I have only mentioned one aspect in which my translation differs from the original, but it does in so many more ways. It sounds different. It has a different meter (The English is devoid of dactylic hexameter). And the rest of the words are in a different order than they are in Latin. So in my translation I have changed a great deal of its form. And thereby, I have also changed some of its content. And yet, my translation can still convey meaning. Is it less meaningful? Yes. Less literarily compelling? Yes.

I suppose the heart of my question is actually this: is Vergil less beautiful because in a head-to-head competition, Vergil is actually less beautiful or because, categorically, since Vergil is not scripture, it is, by definition, less beautiful. That is, do you think that there is any possible literature that could be more beautiful than the Bible in their original languages?

If we compare the Aeneid and Scripture side by side, wholistically, and we ask, which is more beautiful? The answer is Scripture because 1) nothing could be more beautiful (as you say, by definition), and 2) Scripture's story is simply way better than the Aeneid's story (head-to-head competition). Since we are comparing them wholistically, the story of Scripture (regardless of any kind of style or language) is more beautiful than all of Vergil's style/story/language.

However, beautiful is a hard, ambiguous and abstract word, and so may just not be very helpful here.

Hi Ryan,

A few years ago I read Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, by Daniel Wallace. Remembering his first chapter, “The Language of the New Testament,” I re-read it this morning in order to articulate why I’ve always thought Koine inferior.

Specifically, I was thinking Koine inferior to Classical Greek.

“Classical Greek,” though technically referring to all four dialects, Aeolic, Doric, Ionic (Homer), and Attic, is normally equated with Attic Greek (the dialect of Athens). Because of the many literary works that come from Classical Greek, I have always assumed that Attic was, as Wallace points out, “a vehicle of refinement, precision, and beauty through which some of the world’s great literature was conveyed.”

I have been assuming that because Koine Greek was the common tongue, and that it was the second language of most its speakers, that it was inferior to Classical Greek. But Wallace, quoting Moule, points out that, “this new dialect, however, should not be perceived to be inferior to Attic. It was not a contamination of the pure gold of classical Greece, but a more serviceable alloy for the masses.”

So, Ryan, I’m glad you asked me. Inferior is the wrong word. I guess I meant simpler. Koine Greek is more simple than Classical Greek. Koine Greek tends towards shorter, simpler sentences. Wallace writes that Koine “replaced the precision and refinement of classical Greek with greater explicitness.”

Maybe I was assuming that because the NT books were never meant to be “literary works,” like the works from classical Greeks golden age, that the language, the Greek of the NT, was of lower quality. For some reason I've been thinking that longer, complex sentences are superior to shorter, simpler sentences, and that if we read complex sentences we will be "smarter" than if we read shorter sentences. But now that I think about it, I see that that is stupid. Even if the truth is complex, it can be communicated in simple sentences, even by non-literary types.

Wallace breaks down Koine Greek into these three categories that I find helpful:

Vernacular or Vulgar: “This is the language of the streets—colloquial, popular speech.” (stuff we'd find in the trash, like shopping lists)

Literary (e.g., Polybius, Josephus, Philo, Diodorus, Strabo, Epictetus, Plutarch): “A more polished Koine, this is the language of scholars and litterateurs, of academics and historians. The difference between literary Koine and vulgar Koine is the difference between English spoken on the streets and English spoken in places of higher education.”

Conversational (New Testament): “Conversational Koine is typically the spoken language of educated people. It is grammatically correct for the most part, but not on the same literary level (lacks subtleties, is more explicit, shorter sentences, more parataxis) as literary Koine.

Ryan, I’ve written too much already, but I thank you again for asking the question. I need to keep thinking about this. But I know one thing for sure, although I dream of someday being able to read Plato (and even Homer!!!), my first love is the Bible, so I want to learn to read it.

I like what you said, "The Bible teaches us how to live and think in this world."

Thanks for that anecdote, Gail! Great post, Andrew.

Combining your post, Andrew, with Gail's comments, reminds me of a conference talk that I've started brainstorming on the benefits of Latin III (and beyond). It seems that far too often we stress Latin I and II (namely, morphology) as the reasons for taking Latin, but I think you, Andrew, hit at the strength of Classical Languages as a core part of our curriculum. Like many schools, our school emphasizes the skills of the three Language Arts and nourishment of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness at our mission and vision for classical education.

I would argue that these two facets come into sharp focus in the advanced classes of Greek and Latin. Not only do we have the richness of reading and discussing the very best literature in their original languages (and you have NOT read Homer or Vergil until you've do so in the original; I'm constantly overwhelmed by the beauty and richness of their poetry), but the skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric are truly exercised only in the advanced classes. Too often I hear advocates claim that they are sharpening their students' minds by having them chant morphological endings, but we can do far better than that.

Grammar skills are truly exercised by wrestling with the syntax of Cicero or contemplating the nature of language that advanced study requires. My students consider morphological exercises (mood! tense!) far easier than analyzing complex subordinate clauses or contemplating the different ways the Romans expressed purpose. Advanced study forces students away from the simplistic word-for-word translation (pater = father) and towards an analysis of the structure of the sentence (e.g., purpose clause) and how English speakers would express the same ideas as the Latin author.

Of course, coming to this realization makes me acutely aware that my students see the most benefits of Latin and Greek when I, as their teacher, have guided them to the point of actually reading the language and not simply talking about the language, but that would probably be the second half of my talk.

Thanks again for the post, Andrew. I love when you write about Greek and Latin.

Amen, Gail!

"...make sure that a significant number of your children study enough Latin and Greek to hate it."

My children have all hated it at the beginning (more or less). They didn't start loving it until they had studied it a while (2-3 years). So don't let them quit until they've studied past the hatred.

A few comments but first, why do you think Koine Greek is inferior to Homeric Greek? Because I think, when speaking in the abstract, Koine Greek and even Biblical Hebrew, are far superior to Homeric Greek

But in thinking about ranking languages, a lot has to do with your goal. If you want to read Homer, you should learn Classical (not Koine) Greek. If you want to read the Old Testament, you should learn Hebrew. If you want to learn about Western Civilization, then Latin would be best. So a lot depends on what you want to do.

The reason I say that the Biblical Languages are superior, is because it is more important to read the Bible in its original than it is to read Vergil. The Bible teaches us how to live and think in this world. Christians are supposed to be very very familiar with the word of God. Whereas Vergil does not teach us about the way the world should be. Vergil has literary/story/western civilization value. If want to learn about these things, then sure, learn Vergil, but of course recognize that his "perfect" use of dactylic hexameter is not necessarily the best model in the world of what it means to be human. It is simply his preference. And it is a fine preference to have. But Scripture actually gives us more than preference, it actually shows us the real world. It gives us a picture of what we should be. It shows us far more beauty and perfection that Vergil ever could.

Ryan, when speaking on the beauty of Vergil are you speaking theoretically or from experience having read Vergil in the original Latin?

Is it possible to separate the content from the medium?

While giving Latin its due, it seems that Biblical Greek and Hebrew are far more important for training the mind, developing character, and preserving civilization. Just take the first one of these: training the mind. What better way to train the mind than in the language and style of Scripture? Scripture surely sets before us a unique worldview, one that is radically different from ours. We, as fallen human beings, have to learn the correct worldview, the correct way of thinking. We are not naturally born with all our ducks in a row. We have to be taught how this works. We have to be taught the proper way to view the world. This view is fundamentally contained in Scripture. Through Word and Spirit, God retrains our brains to think the way they should - like him. So then, here it seems that while Latin and Greek can give us access to the classics of western civilization, and even the church fathers, the Biblical Languages (of which, admittedly, Greek is a part) give us a closer connection with the most important word to us - the most important formative influence on our world and our thinking.

Ryan, thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. I like your advice about finding a teacher who knows Greek. That seems best. Also, I looked into Living Koine Greek a few years ago; I will give it another look. But one concern I have is the limitation of learning/teaching only Koine Greek. Recently I heard a classics teacher whom I trust and respect say that Koine Greek is just a worn-out language. I wonder why God chose to communicate the most important news the world has ever known in such an inferior and common tongue; it seems like God would choose the most beautiful and perfect language to communicate Jesus' words. Do you have any thoughts about this mystery?

I agree with you, the Bible is the most important book we have, and we should learn to read it.

I found this quotation about Erasmus in my archives and thought it appropriate to share here:

His conquest of Greek was a veritable feat of heroism. He had learned the simplest rudiments at Deventer, but these evidently amount to very little. In March, 1500, he writes to Batt: ‘Greek is nearly killing me, but I have no time and I have no money to buy books or to take a master.’ When Augustine Caminade wanted his Homer back, which he had lent to him, Erasmus complains: ‘You deprive me of my sole consolation in my tedium. For I so burn with love for this author, though I cannot understand him, that I feast my eyes and re-create my mind by looking at him.’ …

He finds the language difficult at first. Then gradually he ventures to call himself ‘a candidate in this language’, and he begins with more confidence to scatter Greek quotations through his letters. It occupies him night and day and he urges all his friends to procure Greek books for him. In the autumn of 1502 he declares that he can properly write all he wants in Greek, and that extempore. He was not deceived in his expectation that Greek would open his eyes to the right understanding of Holy Scripture. Three years of nearly uninterrupted study amply rewarded him for his trouble

Nothing testifies more to the enthusiasm with which Erasmus applied himself to Greek than his zeal to make his best friends share in its blessings. Batt, he decided should learn Greek. But Batt had no time, and Latin appealed more to him. When Erasmus goes to Haarlem to visit William Hermans, it is to make him a Greek scholar too; he has brought a handbag full of books. But he had only his trouble for his pains. William did not take at all kindly to his study and Erasmus was so disappointed that he not only considered his money and trouble thrown away, but also thought he had lost a friend.

from Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation