First Things First: Classical Languages and the Soul, Part 2

Jul 14, 2020

Previously, I developed the idea of the latent tension between the active and contemplative life. We must live in the world and work for our bread, but there are higher things than food and clothing. This is how Jesus directs his hearers in the sermon on the mount. “Do not lay up treasures on earth… but in heaven.” “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Classical education prizes the goods of the soul above goods of the body and rightly orders loves by placing them in their proper hierarchy. The contemplative life is better than a life of activity, yet it is necessary for us to work (and work is a good). 

In the study of classical languages, however, the emphasis is entirely on the pragmatic. Many schools following Dorothy Sayer’s essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, attempt to establish the study of Latin on secondary goals. Studying Latin increases English vocabulary and the student’s understanding of grammar and syntax; it trains the mind in logical thinking, allows students to learn other Romance languages, and improves SAT scores. Some additional benefits like appreciating culture or understanding the Roman mind are also proposed. All of these are useful reasons for studying a classical language, but they are not sufficient to fend off pragmatism. 

These reasons speak solely to language’s contribution to the active life. Seldom are languages learned for their own sake. This is a mistake. Latin or Greek are not tools in order to gain some pragmatic end but treasures in their own respect. They allow one to read the great works of history in the original language and context. These works have endured because they are beautiful and good, yet that magnificence is dimmed by translation. Languages ought to be taught as a delight and a treat, not a roundabout method of teaching grammar or boosting SAT scores. Is not beauty more than grammar and truth than a large vocabulary?

If the secondary pragmatic ends are the only reason for learning a language, classical schools are foolish and inefficient for teaching Latin or Greek. There are far easier, effective, and direct ways of increasing vocabulary or test scores. Learning a true Romance language is a surer way of learning other Romance languages. There is no need to spend multiple years on Latin to gain a rudimentary understanding of English grammar. Simply substitute a one-year Latin roots course and spend more time teaching English. Teaching classical languages cannot be justified on the basis of such secondary goals. It’s like heating your house by oven; it helps, but that’s not what an oven is meant for.

However, an oven does heat delicious food and gather the family around in warmth and fellowship. Likewise, Latin does not facilitate conversation with others but allows the student to read Latin. That’s why it still exists (now). There is a wealth of literature from the past simply waiting to be explored and enjoyed. Our modern conversations are ephemeral and fleeting, but the great works of Virgil or Cicero have endured for 2000 years. The truths and virtues they express are infinitely more valuable than being able to ask, “¿Donde esta el baño?” Disparaging old languages because they are “dead” is a bit ironic considering their continued vitality. The great works of the past still possess a gleam and vigor undimmed by the passage of time. But one who would wish to pass the threshold into the treasury of immortal literature must pass through the gate of language.

Strangely, if pragmatic use is the primary concern, modern educators ignore that many students won’t use the modern language they study and will entirely forget it after a few years. Instead of a rigorous and deep study of a highly structured language with timeless content, schools subject their students to sloppy conversational methods about trivial subjects. What happened to pragmatic usefulness? Students are clearly not learning these languages for their utility if they never use them outside the classroom. 

As Lewis remarked, “put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both.” Once the school abandons the pursuit of higher goals, it plunges itself into the earthly pursuits of money and material goods. It creates dabblers who cannot raise their vision to a higher unity of the good, true, and the beautiful. Schools that cut off classical language study too early are creating shallow learners focused only on the pragmatic and moving on to something “useful.” We must always ask, useful for what? If nurturing the soul on goodness, truth, and beauty is the true aim of education, then there is no substitute for the classical languages. 

In the conflict between activity and contemplation, the pragmatic is swallowing the beautiful. A pillar of classical education is the priority of the soul above the body. The classical languages are a mountain path leading us towards the better things. If schools are going to continue to teach classical languages, they should learn to love these languages because of their beauty and grace in expressing eternal ideas. Otherwise they might as well catch up to their progressive counterparts and only teach modern languages through conversational methods.

Read Part 1...

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman teaches at Charis Classical Academy in Madison, WI.

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

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