In Defense of Latin: Per Angusta ad Augusta
Nautae caelum et terram vident is a humble Latin sentence. It means, “The sailors see the sky and the land.”
It’s simple, yet it involves interconnecting thoughts and the ability to organize them in a systematic, coherent manner.
This sentence is relatively complex in the knowledge and skills it requires. To translate it, you must identify the syntactical attributes of each word, define each accordingly, and assemble them in English.
A young student and I recently tackled this together. We took it on a hike to parse and translate each term. We explored along various trails, set up camp, and spent time around a fire.
We bantered about derivatives, such as nautical, celestial, terrestrial, and video; we entertained ourselves with synonyms, like boatmen, seaman, and shipmates; we fiddled with word order (which in Latin is malleable), coming up with “The mariners see the earth and the skies”; we speculated about how we might make our translation more poetic, as in “The seafarers behold the heavens and the earth.”
We spent roughly fifteen minutes charting out and exploring with this unassuming sentence. Afterward, we devoted more time to evaluating what we’d learned. What facts had we recalled? What knowledge had we put into action? What skills had we practiced? What ideas had we contemplated?
I wanted the student to appreciate and savor the benefits of Latin. When we were done, his eyes were wide with enchantment at all that he was accomplishing.
So, what had he achieved? In answer, below is my defense of Latin, which I shared with him through the lens of the mundane Latin sentence above.
Etymology Leads to Chronological Humility
Latin word roots constitute a significant and rich portion of English vocabulary. This is one benefit virtually every list contains.
Latin also forms the basis of Romance languages, so of course Latin provides a boost when learning, for example, Spanish, French, or Italian.
In addition, as an inflected language, Latin is helpful for further study in areas such as ancient Greek or Russian.
Beyond that, however, Latin can open the eyes of students to the fact that— although we have many rules for speaking and writing with the aim of good communication—language is in fact a fluid, living entity with branches whose origins stretch into deep antiquity.
This is an excellent way of combating chronological snobbery.
Students gain important chronological humility when they see that even everyday words reach back millennia, following the grooves and nuances of great cultures and empires, the narratives of people lived out through peace and war, art and literature, politics and economics, philosophy and theology.
Resist every urge to study Latin in a vacuum. Answering the call to delve into Latin roots will be fruitful in myriad other areas of study.
As Nicholas Ostler writes in Empires of the Word, language provides:
access to a vast array of knowledge and belief: assets that empower us . . . to stand on the shoulders of . . . ancestral thought and feeling. Our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past, and showing our meanings also to future fellow-speakers. . . . [L]anguages guard our memories too . . . [they] are the most powerful tools we have to conserve our past knowledge, transmitting it . . . to the next generation.
Grammar Nurtures Mastery of Speech
Another often referenced benefit of Latin is that it’s a powerful way to establish the bedrock of language grammar.
A student who’s learned Latin will not likely be confused—in any language—by parts of speech; seem confounded by various verb tenses; struggle with the tension between the objective and subjective; or stare blankly when asked the difference between the active and passive voices.
Not only does this help students grasp the grammatical foundations of other languages, but such insight helps students appreciate the complexities and subtleties of their mother tongue.
Latin education is a potent way of helping students perceive how they can be masters of their own speech: using it respectfully, excellently, and with intentionality.
Students can begin to use language the way an artist wields paint.
Classification Produces the Good Life
Latin is a superb example of a system of classification: what one looks like and how it behaves; how it builds and integrates; and how it may be used to bring order and meaning to the world.
A student who grasps Latin will recognize the value of classification—from the classification of animals, to the interconnection of mathematical fields, to the value of a road map.
Latin helps students see how human beings, individually and communally, function well because of classification. We naturally order and arrange the world around us. We build intricate layers of systems which facilitate how we think, believe, and act.
This encourages students to construct the best and soundest systems so that they, and those around them, may live a better life seeking the Greek ideal of Eudaemonia, the condition of human flourishing—the Aristotelian “good life,” if you will.
Self-Education Encourages Integrity:
If you examine the procedures needed in active translation, you can identify important elements of the general process of self-teaching.
With your students, you can become conscious of the acquisition of information; the practice of following tried and true methods in making use of knowledge in the comprehension and articulation of a truth; and the habit of contemplating that truth and considering its relationships with other truths.
When such self-teaching is practiced frequently, perceiving these truths as microcosmic reflections of transcendent Truth becomes second nature.
Consistent practice of this produces reliable habits of self-education and behavior grounded in truth. In other words, action with integrity.
Analysis Serves Synthesis
Our society emphasizes analysis. It’s “scientific,” “mathematical,” “logical,” and “precise.” What our culture doesn’t often do is pinpoint the reason that analysis is important in the first place—which is to engage in fragmenting for the very purpose of reintegrating.
The point of analysis is synthesis. Breaking things into their parts isn’t for the sake of the parts, but for the sake of better perceiving, comprehending, and appreciating the whole.
Think about algebra, which comes directly to English from medieval Latin. Isn’t it often considered a prime example of analytical thought? Yet the Latin word itself comes from the Arabic word al-jabr, which means “restoration” and “reunion.” The intention of doing algebra is not to disintegrate, but to bring about fusion—to discover the “solution”: to reach resolution.
Our Latin sentence above was broken down into parts, it’s cohesion purposefully disrupted so that it could be put back together in a new way that would be accurate, meaningful, helpful, and beautiful.
Hypotheses Facilitate Freedom
Current educational practices focus on regurgitating “correct” responses, which misleads students into believing there’s only one collection of “right answers” in any given inquiry.
This simply isn’t the case. There’s “big T” Truth—but there are also many reflections of it which are “small-t” truths.
For example, there can be more than one proof for a problem in logic or geometry; there can be more than one way to architecturally design a building; there’s more than one insightfully authentic reading of a story, play, or poem—or indeed, of creating any one of them. The trick isn’t to narrow things down to one legalistic answer-set, but to be able to tell which “small-t” truths are accurate reflections of the Truth.
A humane and appropriate education is the practice of making “educated guesses”—that is, hypotheses: Based upon what’s known, students can put forward a variety of “likely” answers and assess them. It encourages students to think beyond limits, explore, postulate, and then test.
Students must do this consistently when working with Latin: They make hypotheses about how to translate and then draw conclusions which may be evaluated for congruency with Truth and Reality. Latin becomes more sophisticated as study deepens, and this becomes increasingly demanding.
In this way, students become explorers, inventors, and creators, able to strike out on their own in the realm of ideas and possibilities.
Does this mean they will sometimes succumb to error? Yes. But it also sets them free with the means to elicit and tend to Truth.
Epiphany Generates Discipleship
“Aha!” moments are times of insight when truth dawns. Epiphanies are “light bulb” moments when suddenly things become brilliantly and beautifully clear.
We shouldn’t condescendingly think epiphanies arrive only on grand occasions. On the contrary, each time a student puts together a nice translation of a Latin sentence she may experience such epiphany, perceiving how it all flows and fits together—how clarity is, indeed, achievable.
“Aha!” moments are addictive in a good way. The more we experience them, the more we want them. That’s the power of truth: It’s compelling, it makes us desire it, and it draws us to itself the more we are exposed to it.
Those bright flashes of epiphany, found even in the most unexpected and often common places (such as a seemingly insignificant Latin sentence), are Truth courting us, wooing us, and making us its disciples.
The Scientific Method Bestows Discernment
Making good decisions follows on the heels of making educated guesses.
The combined inductive-deductive process of the scientific method rests upon observing the information available, formulating a hypothesis about it (inducing), and then implementing a method of assessing its accuracy (deducing).
This process is not limited to science. It’s a mode of thinking leading to increased knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in any area.
Every time students form a hypothesis about the content and structure of a Latin translation and offer an interpretation, they practice making an “educated guess,” assessing it for its soundness, and deciding upon the best final rendering.
This rehearses sound judgment and good discernment.
Poetry Shapes Aesthetics
Beginning Latin resembles logic, or mathematics, in the way the grammar must fit together like an operational puzzle to reveal a comprehensible result.
As mastery of Latin increases and more advanced material—such as classic Latin literature—is encountered, a student must become increasingly poetic in his translations.
A student learns to take what is “good Latin” and morph it into “good English” (or vice versa), somewhat like the way a musician transposes a piece of music from one key to another.
It’s an art (capturing and expressing) that emerges from a science (parsing and defining).
In students, this process nurtures the habit of incarnating aesthetic beauty: “Good” English is rarely simple, literal translation—it must also capture the nuances of the meaning, rhythm, image, and intention of the original.
Harmony Yields Nobility
Ultimately, the layering and interweaving of all of the above produces harmony which gives birth to nobility.
Students come face-to-face with the unity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. They are encouraged to perceive them and practice them all regularly in:
Ontology: Etymology, humility, grammar, mastery, classification, and the good life are all ways of existing fully in Reality and Truth.
Virtue: Self-education, integrity, analysis, synthesis, hypotheses, and freedom are paths through which students learn to exercise and acquire good habits of upright living.
Wisdom: Epiphany, discipleship, the scientific method, discernment, poetry, and aesthetics are all aspects of practicing and exercising sagacity.
These benefits of traveling the challenging paths of learning Latin demonstrate that through wrestling with difficulties, nobility may be obtained.
But just what is this “nobility”? It’s what’s achieved when David Hicks writes in Norms and Nobility that education is:
fundamentally a normative. . . . It judges man as an end, not as a means; it cultivates the human spirit by presenting a complete vision of man as he lives and as he ought to live in all his domains. . . . It teaches the student how to fulfill his obligations to himself, to his fellow man, and to God and His creation.
It may certainly be argued that there are other classical paths to these high places, but few roads can accomplish the breadth and depth of what Latin offers so efficiently, effectively, and entirely.
Latin education equips men and women to live with honor. As the Latin proverb says, “To high places by narrow roads”—also rendered, “Through difficulties to honor”: Per angusta ad augusta.
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