Why Latin? Learn it for the Hypallage!

For several years now, Latin has been making a steady and decided comeback. Not just classical schools, but private schools of various stripe as well as some suburban public schools, inner-city schools, and everything in between have Latin again as an option – sometimes even a popular one – in the curriculum. This semester at my college I am teaching “Latin 101: Beginning Latin” to an eager group of twenty-four students, none of whom are using the course to meet a language requirement; they simply want to learn Latin. The last time introductory Latin was offered here was nearly thirty years ago, when it died due to simple lack of interest. A few years ago several students circulated a petition asking for signatures from students “who would take beginning Latin even if it did not fulfill a language requirement”; they quickly amassed more than sixty signatures. Latin success stories from struggling inner- city schools to prestigious private academies are common enough, and, of course, the classical school movement essentially has made the study of Latin for its students a sine qua non.

Well-worn responses to the old “Why study a dead language?” have returned with vigor. We all know the pragmatic answers which once tried, in vain, to prop up dying Latin in school curricula of the 1960’s and 1970’s – Latin teaches logical thinking; Latin builds English vocabulary; Latin will raise your standardized test scores (thereby helping you get into top colleges, professional programs, graduate schools). In some classical circles, these answers likely mask another necessity-driven, usually unspoken, one – Smart young hires at small private schools can usually teach themselves enough Latin in order to teach elementary students, something they could not do for modern spoken languages like French or German. Many of us could probably give plenty of examples of the latter, even if the reality of it does not thrill us. I have, many times, taught upper-level “Reading Latin” to college students who could boast four or more years of middle or high school Latin (partly from teachers who more or less taught themselves Latin) yet who have not even encountered the Subjunctive Mood.

It is not easy to deny the validity of any of the above answers, even if the idealist in many of us probably balks
at the crass pragmatism at play. School administrators, teachers, and board members, no doubt, know they have to give the above answers (minus, of course, the final one) to inquiring parents. Such a message, in some circles, unfortunately tends to get absolutized. Once again, some administrators are heard arguing that Latin (and/ or sometimes Koiné Greek) is essential to learning logical thinking skills. There is rich irony at play whenever parents (who have never studied Latin) parrot this claim which they have heard from teachers and administrators (many of whom have never studied Latin either). To be quite frank, there are many very effective and efficient ways to learn logical thinking skills, to build vocabulary, and to soar on standardized tests without a single day of studying Latin. To suggest otherwise borders on the naïve, on the one hand, and the dishonest, on the other.

So, without muddying the waters by arguing that Latin should be required for all students, let me suggest some reasons why I love Latin (and Greek), and why the study of dead ancient inflected languages is an excellent pedagogical option. In doing so, I will try to avoid the Scylla of elitism and the Charybdis of populism. The former, which I see in some students coming from classical school backgrounds, is rarely backed up by substance (see note on the Subjunctive Mood above, for one of many examples). The latter, the essence of Americanism, ignores the fact that truly learning Latin takes sustained thought, hard work, and dedication, and most are not going there, even given the most energetic of teachers and supportive of parents.

First, the study of Latin exposes one to a truly foreign culture, a beautiful world outside of our own. In this respect, Latin does something that teaching modern languages generally does not. Learning any language is never just about grammar and vocabulary, but rather about getting access to a different world. While I refuse to pit learning Latin against learning French, and remain a firm believer in students learning modern languages, I would argue that there is a fundamental difference between the two in terms of foreign exposure. Modern languages, in spite of the occasional and very welcome exceptions (bless them!), are taught primarily in a touristic and consumeristic way. High school modern language classes are ultimately geared toward preparing you to check into a hotel, to rent a car, to order a meal, to buy a trinket. The point is to bring their world to me in a way I can negotiate it, touch it, enjoy it, take it home. The point is not to truly enter a foreign culture. There are exceptions, but the pattern remains, and implicitly or explicitly serves as a justification for requiring modern foreign languages in schools.

In our modern globalized world, moreover, even those who truly immerse themselves in a contemporary foreign culture begin to see how foreign it is not. Discussions about western pop stars, western “restaurants” (is McDonald’s a restaurant?), western politics, western television shows, western movie stars, western sports figures, etc. tend to dominate. By contrast, note what happens when even a beginning Latin student encounters a line from Vergil, Livy, Cicero, Ovid, or Seneca. No longer is the student thinking about how to order a sandwich or how to find the train station (as important as these are), or talk about One Direction or American Idol (as important as these aren’t), but rather he is pondering a question about natural law, the nature of friendship, or the role of the divine. To the extent that some of this is not explicitly foreign, it at least remains timeless. Emphasis on Rome as part of something we call Western Civilization can blind us to how truly different those people were from us in worldview. Even a brief study of Roman religion or cosmology would show the gulf between us and them. Through the study of Latin we can encounter a glimpse of the beauty and sheer variety of human creativity across time and space – and the Roman world is a truly foreign place.

Second, the study of Latin can teach us about grammar in a way that spoken language does not necessarily do. This argument has a long history, but we should not forget it. With spoken languages, most of us learn by imitation, by hearing. Is it, “If I were you, I would be glad to study Latin” or “If I was you, I would be glad to study Latin”? Our first impulse is to hear which one sounds correct (admittedly, a poor method if our community / family / peer group does not take grammar seriously). With Latin, understanding Tense (e.g. Present, Imperfect, Future, Perfect, Pluperfect, Future Perfect), Mood (e.g. Indicative, Subjunctive, Imperative), Case Usage (Direct Object, Indirect Object, Subject, Means, Manner, etc.) comes from learning how the grammar works. No one who has ever taught Latin (or Greek) at any level has not frequently heard “this really helps me understand English grammar a whole lot better.”

To be sure, all languages, ancient and modern, have a rigorous grammatical logic. Learning Latin, though, is rarely if ever about learning by hearing and imitating, but necessarily about understanding the grammar intrinsically and extrinsically.
that they use the logic of Latin every day to think about relationships between words, about syntax, about grammar. All of this comes in addition to learning vocabulary terms (which might or might not help one on the SAT). Additionally, grammarians and philologists have long noted that languages tend to devolve over time in terms of grammatical complexity. The earlier phases of a language (and what are French, Italian, and Spanish but living Latin?) tend to be the most complex, again giving us insight into the rich beauty of human creativity in ways not necessarily observable in current forms of any language.

Finally, Latin expresses itself in ways which are impossible in non-inflected languages such as English. Of course, English does things that Latin (and Greek) cannot (like make an art form of rhyming poetry, for example), but inflected languages show us, again, a beauty and creativity which we cannot ever experience in English or any language readily accessible in American educational systems. To illustrate, I will take an example from an Attic Greek text and then move to a Latin counterpart. Early in my studies of Attic Greek, I was assigned a section from Book Two of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The scene was a dark, rainy, night battle in a city. Like many parts of Thucydides, the passage was very difficult, but this one seemed more intractable than any passage I had yet encountered. Word order, of course, in highly inflected languages, is far more flexible than English, which depends closely on the order of words in a sentence (another point to support the argument in the previous paragraph, incidentally). Even with flexibility, though, there are patterns into which Latin and Greek sentences generally fall. One learns where to look for the verb, the subject, the object(s), modifiers, etc. When they are not where one expects, it is for a purpose such as emphasis, and one learns to recognize this. The Thucydides passage, though, was convoluted well beyond my neophyte powers of recognition. Verbs were positioned where I expected nouns; modifiers were far away from words they were modifying; participles flew at me from odd directions. I began to get frustrated, angry, exhausted as I tried to translate the description of this night battle.

Then it hit me – I was being brought into the thick of the battle! Nothing was where I expected it, just as the fighters in the dark, rainy streets did not know who was on what side as they came upon a person in the dark chaos, slipping and falling through the wet streets. Was that a foe or a friend rushing at them? Nothing was where they expected. Such was the beauty of the passage – I could translate the words (eventually), but more than that, I could feel the action. Latin does the same, because it can. Working in a similar way would be Cicero’s famous descriptions of conspirators where he employs word order which illustrates immediate danger, yet allows the reader to picture the conspirators in the hills around Rome, in the city itself, and, ultimately, in the Senate house itself.

Rhetoric, of course, was the basis of higher education in Rome, and Latin (and Greek) formed the essential structure from which to launch their verbal fireworks. While modern education is oriented toward “facts,” education in the ancient world was oriented toward the rhetorical presentation of facts. Originality, for them, was primarily not a matter of thinking up new material,
but rather handling old and well-known material in a rhetorically new and interesting way. All classical literature was thus rhetorical, and relied on picturesque means of conveying a message. The tropes and figures for doing so were more or less canonized by the Romans.

To truly appreciate these tropes and figures, it is necessary to encounter them in the original languages, for much depends on word order and grammatical inflection. I would maintain that this goes well beyond simply “Vergil reads better in Latin just as Camus reads better in French.” Just to give one example, how about Hypallage?4 Vergil’s Aeneid (6.268), Ibant obscure sola sub nocte per umbram (“they set off through the shadows, the dark ones, beneath the lonely night” is but a poor shadow of a translation) represents a brilliant double Hypallage. Or, turning to the Silver Age, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (3.4), iam medium curru Phoebus diuiserat orbem / et proprior Nocti fessas quatiebat habenas (“Phoebus in his chariot had already passed mid orbit, and, nearer to Night, was shaking his weary reigns”). No doubt J.R.R. Tolkien’s own classical language training inspired his own Hypallage (The Hobbit, chapter 11): “The others went down the valley and up the newly found path, and so to the narrow ledge. Along this they could carry no bundles or packs, so narrow and breathless was it, with a fall of a hundred and fifty feet beside them on to the sharp rocks below.”

So, why should we study Latin? Certainly it can help teach logical thinking and build vocabulary, and perhaps boost standardized tests scores. But why stop there? In a word, why not extend to our students the offer of encountering a beautiful and creative world otherwise currently beyond their ken. Latin is not for the select few any more than is algebra. Yet neither is it for everyone, just as astrophysics is probably not for everyone. But it remains a window into a lovely foreign world, and we would do well to emphasize this aspect more often. There is nothing elitist about all this. Hard work brings with it rewards, and beautiful ones.

More Than a Subject: the Purpose, Place and Power of Language

Picture a city, established long ago through the wisdom and virtue of those who founded and built it, but gradually weakened by the long neglect of that wisdom andvirtue. Now it finds itself assaulted by a tyrannical and temperamental enemy whose weapons consist of deception, envy, and confusion.

What should they do, return to the forgotten virtues, or forsake them entirely and learn instead to think and act like the attacker? Could they win with the second option? If they did, would such a city be worth living in?

Language has been under assault for a long time. For one thing, the logic of technology is to reduce reality to something it can manage, but language can never be managed. Furthermore, the dual philosophical attacks of Relativism and Utilitarianism (“meaning is determined by usage alone”) have severed the fruitful bond between language and both the things it names and the insights it prompts through its generative forms.

I was asked, “Why subject children to the agony of learning to sustain a line of thought in well-ordered written paragraphs in the computer age which has redefined human communication and freed us from linear thinking. Isn’t it akin to teaching children to build catapults in the age of the nuclear guided missile?”

One is struck by the use of weapons technology for the metaphors, typical of the modern thinker even in this post-modern age. Power, it assumes, is found in machines and techniques.

There are better metaphors with which to think about education. For example, it was once common to think of education as a tree. We still speak of the branches of learning, and, occasionally, of the fruit of study. It is less common to mention the trunk of the tree of learning.

The conventional curriculum, however, presents branches of learning lacking both trunk and roots. But the classical curriculum attended assiduously to trunk and the roots, allowed the branches to grow naturally from the trunk, and watched those branches bear fruit.

source of life, rendering it as fruitful as a branch lopped from a tree. It is a liberating art reduced to a specialized subject. But writing cannot be a mere subject, it must be an expression of rhetoric, and rhetoric must be recognized as the focal point and organizing principle of the whole tree of learning.

Therefore, the argument I offer in this article is that writing is at least as important as ever, and for this reason it must be taught correctly. Writing is important for two reasons, each of which I will develop while considering what it means to teach correctly. First, writing is the practical integrating principle of the curriculum. Second, writing is an art of truth-perception.

To realize the significance of these two values, let us consider how to teach writing correctly in five areas, each drawn from the heart of the Christian classical tradition. Writing must be taught according to its nature, its purpose (i.e. for the right reasons), its modes (i.e. in the right ways), its parts, and its relations (i.e. it must be given its proper place in the curriculum).

According to its nature

First, to teach writing correctly, we must understand what it is, and the most important thing we must understand about it is that it is a Liberating Art, not a mere “subject.” To be precise, writing is an element flowing through the three language arts contained in the classical trivium. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the trivium does not consist of isolated “subjects,” but rather of the skills that flow through and, in fact, enable what we call subjects (though this is an unfortunate use of the word).

The liberating arts are arts of truth perception, and writing is a tool those arts use extensively. Therefore, the second biggest mistake a school can make with writing is to treat it like a specialized subject, equal to any other, when it is truly an art on which every other study depends.

Thus writing must be taught as an art that enables students to perceive and reflect on truth and that enables the subjects, activities, and artifacts that compose the rest of the curriculum. It must not be treated like a specialized

The trunk of the tree is the seven liberating arts. Writing severed from this trunk does not abide in its activity or an isolated subject, but as the heart of the classical trivium.

According to its purpose

Next, writing must be taught for the right reason. Wisdom instructs us to distinguish purpose from blessings. It is for us to faithfully fulfill our commission; it is for God to bless according to His wisdom. When we approach teaching writing classically, our goal must not be to seek the known benefits that writing usually provides, but to faithfully fulfill its God-given purpose.

Only love of God and neighbor provide an adequate motivation and sufficient purpose for writing instruction. Well-ordered thought is a fine way to express love for your neighbor. Disordered thought is self- indulgence.

Since, above all, our odyssey requires wisdom and virtue, cultivating them is the secondary purpose of writing instruction. A virtue is a human ability (a faculty) refined to a pitch of excellence. Language is a faculty given to us by God to glorify, know, and enjoy Him and to bless and love our neighbors. Writing is a means to transform our use of language from a natural ability into a virtue. No lesser purpose will reveal the extent of its power or achieve its full benefits.

In addition, writing should be taught to teach us how to think and communicate. It is the most effective way we humans have ever come up with to practice thinking, explore our thoughts, and communicate them with each other.

Thus writing must be taught to the end that the writer is better able to love God and neighbor, both of which are nourished through the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.

According to its modes

To these noble ends, writing must be taught according to its modes, or in the right ways. Once again, this means, not as a specialized activity or isolated subject.

Specialized writing courses want to take a single path – and that a shortcut – to good writing, but there are six paths on which the student must travel, some of which are not usually considered “writing.”

These six paths are:

  • The Literary Path: writers must read the best

    writings available to them,

  • The Linguistic Path: writers must learn a

    foreign language,

• The Theoretical Path: writers must study the principles, elements, and forms of writing,

• The Critical Path: writers must master the rules and customs of good writing (e.g. Spelling, grammar rules, rhetorical conventions, etc.),

• The Practical Path: writers must practice the coached exercises that discipline their raw skills.

• Life: the aspiration to write requires that the writer live a little and pray a lot, or at least open himself to inspiration.

In other words, learning to write takes a very long time with consistent coaching, examined experience, and wide learning.

According to its parts

Furthermore, no one can learn to write well unless he is taught its elements (the practical path). Writing embodies three canons, or elements, of classical rhetoric: Invention, or coming up with something to say, Arrangement, or ordering what has been discovered, and Elocution, or expressing the materials appropriately.

Invention might well be the pith of the trunk of the tree of learning because it provides the most fundamental and universal tools of thinking: the questions that we ask no matter what we are thinking about. These questions, which comprise both material and formal logic, are the tools of perception, which is partly why I argued earlier that writing is a tool of truth-perception: what we perceive depends on what we ask.

In addition, the topics of Invention equip students to read at ever higher levels by teaching them to ask their own questions. Students answering text-book questions are necessarily reading at a low level, if only because they are not engaged in self-directed reading. Giving them the tools of Invention enables them to read well on their own.

The second canon of rhetoric is Arrangement, which teaches writers the structures of the various types
of writing, enabling them to write and to read ever more challenging compositions. Arrangement tends to be boring; however, it is one of the areas where love of neighbor most manifests itself in the writer’s character.

The third canon of rhetoric is Elocution, which consists of schemes, tropes, and revision. The forms learned through Elocution reveal the generative power of limits. By learning about subordinate clauses, the student is enabled to pursue a raw thought in multiple directions.

By learning about parallel structures, he learns to explore relations between real things (not just words). By learning how to rhyme or use alliteration he experiences the sensory pleasure of words and is often surprised by the insights generated by the coincidences in words. By learning how to generate similes and metaphors he learns about surprising relationships between the things that make up the universe of images created by the Good Creator.

According to its relations

I have insisted repeatedly that writing is a liberating art, not a mere subject. I have also argued that, as a liberating art, writing is the foundation for every other subject. What I am trying to stress is that writing is not and cannot be a class or subject but that it is the very core, the only appropriate integrating activity, of the curriculum. Nothing else flows between the subjects without mingling and confusing them. Not only is it appropriate for writing to be used in the subjects, it is writing, or at least the trivium, that makes the subjects possible. The Trivium, therefore, is the trunk of the tree of learning.

I should perhaps clarify what I mean by a subject. Indeed, the very word subject is a vague and almost meaningless substitute for what the classical tradition called arts (ways of making) and sciences (things known). The liberating arts are liberating because they are used to make knowledge, knowledge can only be of truth, and truth liberates us. Arts > Truth perception > Liberty.

Subjects don’t concern themselves with such idealistic matters.

Think for example of history. If you see it as a subject, and most students do, then it’s easy to see how you could regard writing as unnecessary. You just need to learn a lot of information about history and go on to the next subject. But if you see it as a moral science, as the classical tradition does, then you need to think about the questions it raises, not simply remember information. You need to apply the liberating arts of reading and writing, logic and dialectic, and rhetoric to the issues raised in historical

studies. That way, you learn to perceive the sorts of truths history teaches which can strengthen a nation’s liberties, not through indoctrination but through truth.

When you begin to think, you need to write.The decline of writing in the school curriculum, therefore, is a product of the loss of the classical curriculum and a cause of the loss of freedom.

One could go on, and comment on how writing prepares the writer to speak, supports his memory, and disciplines the mind in a dozen ways while opening to him the “realms of gold” about which Keats sang. But I am out of space. I will only say that this gold is the Christian classical curriculum and that writing prepares the student to love and feed on it.

Our duty is to teach writing as a thread of classical rhetoric, for the right reasons, in the right modes, including the right parts, and in the right relations. God will attend to the blessings that will flow from that according to the measure of His good will, though some of them are bound up in the nature of writing and can be realistically expected.

It takes a long time with intensive coaching over many years to learn how to write. All six paths have to be walked intelligently. All three canons must be mastered. The relations between writing and other subjects and artifacts needs to be recognized and nourished. But the blessings it contains are more than any student or teacher will ever know.

A closing thought: it wasn’t hard for me to purge my mind of the ideas that poured into this article. Most of my time went into putting it in order so you could follow
it and think about these things for yourself. I hope it was worth the trouble because it was done out of respect to you, my dear reader/neighbor.