Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Quam ob rem linguam Latinam nosco

I am very fortunate to continue my directed study of St. Augustine's Confessions in Latin this semester. The professor and the other student are two of the most interesting people I have ever met, and each lesson truly is a pleasure.

Aside from the theological insights one can gain from closely reading any text by the great Latin doctor, which are considerable, the knowledge of that august language is an incomparable gift. Sadly, however, it is given extremely short shrift in modern education, if it is even mentioned at all.

It occurred to me today, after having translated with reasonable accuracy a rather lengthy ablative absolute that in studying the language, in learning to speak, read, and write it, I was becoming a part of a history that goes back more than 2000 years. Given the time and the proper instruction, I was able to communicate in the same language as some of the greatest figures in Western civilization. To be sure, it will be a long time before I'll be able to get through Cicero. But even in my own novice wanderings in the language, I have occasionally experienced this remarkable feeling or sense of the fraternitas Latinae, the brotherhood of Latin, a common bond between men and women that stretches on for centuries. These were the words mighty men used, even in our century, to delineate some of the noblest truths known to man. This is the speech which held the known Western world in thrall, the language of law, the soil upon which wise government was founded, the terminological heart of modern science and medicine and even philosophy. And as Chesterton pointed out, that particular brotherhood of man is far nobler when it crosses the deeps of time than when it simply bridges class.

It is an absolute travesty that, in an age where dissemination of information can occur instantaneously, the learning of Latin is deemed too difficult or undesirable. I submit with obstinate certainty that the number of people familiar with Latin 50 years ago was substantially higher than the number today. And they didn't have the Internet! Though perhaps that is why so many more knew Latin. The distractions of that time were of a different kind and degree. I am also not ignorant of the fact that the use of Latin in the liturgy also plays a huge part in this. Even with all of these things, though, it does not seem to me in any way reasonable that with our "sophistication", the increased time, money, effort, and emphasis put into education, and the command of resources almost instantly available to us, we should deem something in the main too difficult or not sufficiently rewarding.

What I fear most is that those great monuments of Western culture seem to be fading away before our very eyes. Instead of making a wider use of the tools we have, we increasingly focus on applying them to banal novelties. You can forget about reading anything by Cicero in a high school classroom, and in any but the more specialized classroom, save those of schools who have bravely stood by "Western Civ" or "Humanities" through the collective academic lobotomy known as the '60's, '70's, and '80's. In looking back at my high school curriculum, I found the following:
-5 books about racism
-1 book about gender bias
-1 book about AIDS
-a congealed glazing of Vomitguts, er, Vonnegut, that Catch-22 monstrosity, and some other crap I don't even want to remember
-the obligatory, over-done, under-treated Romeo and Juliet

Now it wasn't all bad; by junior and senior year we were reading "good stuff"- the Great Gatsby, Macbeth, Hamlet, et al. And there are plenty of books on racism which are great works- To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind immediately. However, reading books about racism which reinforce that racism is a bad thing will not make good citizens. Rejecting racism does not make you a good thing. Especially if that rejection is itself expressed in the opposite direction- racism is bad, and a product of the White Man (who, incidentally, sucks). The funny thing about the modern emphasis on multiculturalism is that, while it claims to offer a broader perspective, it actually offers a narrower treatment of human issues. In Sophocles' Antigone, one can detect several different major concerns- the relationship between governor and governed, the abuse of power, the primacy of divine or civil law, the problem of pride, the demands of piety, tragic hybris, and how right intention is often not enough to ensure right action. And that's a short list, without my thoroughly annotated text to supplement it. To say nothing of Aristotle, who quite arguably talks about everything, or Plato, or Thucydides... Do we get this from Invisible Man? For all its great literary value, do we even get that much from To Kill a Mockingbird? We don't get it at all from a banal incoherent train-wreck like Chinhua Achebe's shtick. In focusing solely on the narrow modern insistence on non-racism, we're completely ignoring the rest of the vast field of human social thought. And so what we produce are people who can use the rhetoric of a principled stand against racism, but in the meantime can do a complete end-run around us because we've all but forgotten the pitfalls of power. There seems to be an odd assumption that because a fellow isn't racist, he'll govern well. The Greeks and Romans were smarter. They were not deluded by the untenable notion that the faults of mankind were relative, determined only to their particular geosociopoliticoeconomic circumstances. They knew full well that all men shared the same intrinsic faults and failings.

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