TO THE POINT: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 1966
Rather to my surprise, but considerably to my pleasure, the study of Latin has been reviving somewhat in our better high schools, these past few years. Once upon a time, every properly educated person knew his Latin authors. That day may not come again; yet I trust thatmore and more schools will give students the opportunity to know Vergil, Cicero, and Livy.
A New York high school student writes to me, asking why Latin should be studied. Here, in a few words, is my reply.
Sometimes an inadequate reason is advanced for this study: it is said that Latin “is good intellectual training.” Though this is true enough, it is equally true of any other genuine school discipline. One might say the same of Sanskrit or Chinese.
The real reasons why Latin ought not to vanish from the curriculum are several. First of all, we study any body of literature in order to acquaint ourselves with great thoughts and noble phrases. Latin literature is one of the chief foundations of our culture, and it cannot be perfectly understood in mere translation. Lucretius, Horace, Vergil, Cicero, Seneca, Catullus, Apuleius, Livy, and a half-dozen other Latin authors still matter a great deal. And through acquaintance with these writers, we learn of the grandeur that was Rome; we come to understand Roman order, justice, gravity, frugality, fortitude.
Second, the knowledge of Latin teaches us much about our own English language. Only if one understands Latin roots does one become master of many English words, using them accurately and forcefully.
Third, an acquaintance with Latin is essential for the undertaking of important vocations and professions. The writings of the fathers of the church and of many Christian philosophers are in Latin, and so any competent clergyman or serious layman ought to be able to read such works in the original. Law and medicine must be confusing to any student who cannot grasp the meaning of the innumerable Latin terms in these learned professions. Our natural and physical sciences—physics, botany, and chemistry, to name only three—depend in part upon terms and classifications in Latin.
Fourth, Latin still is an international language. Knowing Latin, one can acquire a mastery of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and some other tongues without great difficulty. In the Catholic Church, at least, Latin remains a direct means of communication among people of vastly different nationalities and ethnic groups. (African bishops are much distressed at plans for diminishing the Latin liturgy of the church, because Latin is the only language which African Catholics possess in common.)
For these and other reasons, it is more important to know Latin than to acquire facility in any single modern foreign language. An American student who becomes tolerably acquainted with Latin is most fortunate; for English is the tongue most widely known throughout the modern world, and also English literature is the richest body of humane letters. Knowing both Shakespeare and Vergil, both Samuel Johnson and Marcus Tullius Cicero, both the King James version of the Bible and St. Augustine, any young American is well on the way to wisdom.