Consider Greek: A Dialogue

Mar 11, 2021

PARENT: I would like my son to begin studying a foreign language. I am considering Latin or ancient Greek, but I am leaning more towards a modern language. I know you are studying and teaching ancient Greek; what are your thoughts?      

TEACHER: That’s great that you are considering ancient Greek and Latin! Why are you leaning towards a modern language? 

PARENT: Well, I like the idea of learning a spoken language – he could travel someday and use it and it could be useful if he pursues missionary work. Plus, most of the benefits of learning a language, like increased vocabulary and deeper understanding of English grammar, can be achieved just as well with modern languages as with the ancient.   

TEACHER: Why then are you considering the ancient languages? 

PARENT: Well, it seems that in classical Christian schools most students learn Latin. I feel that this is something we should do if we are committed to classical education.    

TEACHER: Why? Because you believe it is necessary to a classical education?

PARENT:  Maybe. But also, I worry that he will always need to explain his education if it deviates from the more standard curriculum or that he will feel inadequate compared to his peers.

TEACHER:  I think I understand. While Latin may be less useful than modern languages it has its own specific utility as a signal for the type of education received. And there is a growing community of classically educated students who study Latin and share this in common. In these ways, it is useful?

PARENT: Yes exactly.     

TEACHER: And ancient Greek? By our working definition of usefulness, of the languages we are discussing it appears to be the most useless!

PARENT:  Yes, I think so!

TEACHER: Is it important to you that your son reads ancient literature?  

PARENT: Oh yes, absolutely.

TEACHER: Well, let’s speak about ancient Greek then. Consider all the ancient works that become accessible to the student of the ancient Greek language - the Homeric epics, the plays, the histories, the poetry, the writings of the Church Fathers, the New Testament.

PARENT: But, they could be read in translation.    

TEACHER: Not all. Only a fraction of the writings of the Church Fathers has been translated into English.

PARENT: I didn’t know that.  

TEACHER: But your point about translations is a good one. Is there value to reading texts in the original language if an English translation is available?

PARENT: I don’t know. Maybe. But even if there were, I wouldn’t know how to attach value to that. Ancient Greek is hard. I don’t know how to determine if it is worth the effort.

TEACHER: I can understand that. Most of the time we just take it on faith that we’re missing something in translation, but it’s hard to know what.

PARENT: Right, exactly.

TEACHER: Let’s see then if we can explore this within our own language.

PARENT: Okay, how do you mean?

TEACHER: Let’s work with this phrase for a moment: Jesus’ teachings on the hereafter. Can you replace the word hereafter with a synonym?

PARENT: Heaven?

TEACHER: Okay. The words hereafter and heaven are similar. How are they different?

PARENT: Hereafter feels more neutral across religions. Heaven feels more Christian. I think heaven describes eternal life while hereafter could also describe eternal damnation.

TEACHER: I agree. So, if I want to talk about how there was a pre-Christian belief that moral character in this life has eternal consequences, and that Jesus made this connection even stronger in His teachings, which word should I use in my original phrase, heaven or hereafter?   

PARENT: Hereafter seems more fitting.

TEACHER: I agree. I think the word hereafter not only fits, but it furthers the point by activating the reader’s imagination. As you said, hereafter feels more neutral across all religions. When I read hereafter, my imagination, in an instant, pictures everything from the Pagan conception of the afterlife to Christianity’s. In an instant, and probably subconsciously, I think of the ancient Egyptians, I think of Aeneas, I think of Dante. One word, in context, has activated in my imagination this accumulated inheritance – a history, a collection, residing only in one word.

PARENT: Right, that’s true.  

TEACHER: I am of the belief that there’s no such thing as a true synonym. 

PARENT: I can see that. And I would think this is magnified across different languages. 

TEACHER: Right! Consider the Greek word κόσμος. It means both “universal order” – hence our word cosmos – but it also means “adornment.” It was what women did when they dressed up and put make-up on their faces – hence our word cosmetics.  Reading the word κόσμος in Greek will activate a set of feelings and associations that we have no access to with the English translation, “adornment.”

PARENT: That’s so interesting.

TEACHER: But I think there’s something even greater to consider. Literature is creative work. Is it like a work of art? 

PARENT: Yes, definitely.

TEACHER: I recently read On Calumny by Lucian. It’s a description of a painting - this was a common literary genre before reproductions made paintings more accessible. On Calumny describes an ancient painting by Apelles which no longer exists; however, Botticelli, among other painters, later depicted it, based on Lucian’s description, so for our discussion, we can imagine that we have the original painting. I read the description, then I looked up Botticelli’s painting. The painting was recognizable because I had read the description of it, but it was different, so much so that I can say that I had no experience of the painting before seeing Botticelli’s painting. This is how it is with creative work - until you experience it, you have no experience of it, just something like it. 

PARENT: Wow, I think I understand. 

TEACHER: But you are correct – ancient Greek requires effort and time.

PARENT: Right, I did wonder if it is worth the effort.  

TEACHER: Well, instead of looking at the time and effort as a cost, I wonder if we can see how it can be a benefit.

PARENT: How do you mean?

TEACHER: What do you do when you learn to knit?

PARENT: Knit?

TEACHER: Right. And when you train during pre-season for football?  

PARENT: Play football.

TEACHER: Right. So, what do you do when you study the ancient Greek language?

PARENT: I see. You read ancient literature.

TEACHER: It is what you have been preparing for. Preparation creates the desire for game-time. Learning the language not only connects the student with the original ancient work, but it creates the desire for that experience, which, frankly, I think is more important.

PARENT: Yes, I agree.

TEACHER: And here’s another thing. The difficulty is humbling. Which is precisely the manner with which we should approach the ancients, with humility. And it creates speed bumps – there’s no way to speed through Aeschylus or Homer in Greek. Which again is precisely the manner with which we should approach the ancients.

PARENT: Right, I can see that.  

TEACHER: I suppose the faithful student should, in time, achieve a fluency where speed will come, but that’s probably a ways off. And in the meantime he will have, by practice, made friends with the past.

PARENT: I think I will learn ancient Greek too.

TEACHER: My feeling exactly.

Monique Neal

Monique Neal

Monique Neal lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and homeschools their four children. 

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

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