Illa vox et imploratio “Civis Romanus sum,” quae saepe multis in ultimis terris opem inter barbaros et salutem tulit.
—Cicero, In Verrem
Meritorious is that course of education which, during the academic formation of the youth, desires that the student carefully study the ancient classics in Greek and Latin.
—from Pope Leo XIII, Ea disciplinae, On the study of languages in an undergraduate education
To be without Greek or Latin is barbarism.
To the end of his days, the bullish Theodore Roosevelt contended that one thing was necessary for an individual to be educated to such a standard that he had a chance to lead in the world of politics or daily affairs. That “essential element” was “classical training.” There was never, until very recently, any opposition perceived between the liberal learning that came from the careful study of Latin and Greek and the often practical actions that students inevitably undertake beyond the college years. In the Catholic tradition, the recovery and preservation of Greek and Latin learning remains central—indeed, the very foundation of an education.
The so-called practicalities of life aside, mastery of Greek and Latin has long been viewed as part of the traditional self-mastery that marks a liberal education. As the New England author James Russell Lowell observed, translation of Greek or Latin “teaches, as nothing else can, not only that there is a best way, but that it is the only way. Those who have tried it know too well how easy it is to grasp the verbal meaning of a sentence or of a verse. That is the bird in the hand. The real meaning, the soul of it, that which makes it literature and not jargon, that is the bird in the bush.” Through translation from the classical languages we learn “the secret of words,” and from the secret of words we come to “real meaning.” Through the reading and speaking of Greek and Latin, we ask the students to ascend ad astra per aspera—to the stars through worthy exertion.
In the first year, students take four hours of language, which allow for a more humane pace of study and for an exploration of the spoken and written dimension of Greek and Latin. The emphasis in the first year is on correct diction and a firm understanding of the structure of language. Such a pursuit draws the student towards a consideration of his own language and the structure of his own thought.
In the second year, even as more advanced forms and style are learned, the students will begin to read real literature—original authors that he encounters elsewhere in the curriculum: Homer, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas More. No longer will the students be confined by the limits of their own English tongue, but the inner chamber of ancient and medieval thought will be unlocked and made available to them. Furthermore, the language of Greece and Rome will be studied on site in Roma aeterna. The inscriptions that marked the ancient monuments of the Forum and solemnly grace the churches and museums of the city will not be mute to the attentive student. In the eternal city, students will enter into a two millennium tradition as they read Cicero, Virgil, Livy, Augustine and others, perhaps on the slopes of circus maximus or perhaps under the shade of the olive groves at Villa Serenella, our Rome campus.
There are many who contend that a good education can be attained without the study of classical languages. After all, are not the great works of the Western civilization readily available in translation? What is more, many Christians contend that such languages are no longer needed to understand their faith. St. Thomas More himself had to wrestle such criticisms. “No one has ever claimed,” he admitted, “that a man needed Greek and Latin, or indeed any education in order to be saved.” Nevertheless, the humanities and the reading of Latin and Greek prepared the soul for virtue, according to More (animam ad virtutem praeparat). “Anyone who boasts that he can understand the higher subjects without an uncommon familiarity with these languages will in ignorance boast for a long time before the learned bother to listen to him.” Greek and Latin are particularly indispensible for advanced work in philosophy and theology.
Classical languages shape the contours of intelligent thought and articulate conversation. When Samuel Johnson was told that he should stop seasoning his English with Latin and Greek expressions, he replied, “No, sir, it is a good thing; there is community of mind in it.” The study of classical language at the College is meant to encourage such a community of mind. It is not simply that the correct use of expressions such as in medias res, tertium quid, or deo volente unites the student with his predecessors in felicitous speech. Rather, it allows him to sink his mind deeply into something other than his own age and the limited surface of informal language. Pius XII once remarked to students that Latin and Greek “remain without equal for the exercise and development of the most valuable qualities of the mind—penetrating judgment, breadth of intellect, subtle analysis, and the gift of eloquence. Nothing helps us to understand Man…Nothing can teach us to weigh the value of words, to grasp the nuances of an expression or the logic of an essay and the strength of its argument as well as the exercise of reading and composing in classical languages.”
It is understandable, therefore, that the College encourages the use of Latin and Greek beyond the two-year language sequence. After all, if it is worth our study and if we contend that the encounter with these ancient tongues enlivens and transforms the student, why would we let that knowledge wither after the sophomore year? Who would desire to abandon the hard-won gains of four semesters? During the upper division classes of the Junior and Senior years, therefore, faculty will regularly introduce and reinforce the class readings with selections in their original and supplement discussion with on-the-spot translations of related texts. Such is the common tradition lost to most institutes of higher learning and most students of classics after their undergraduate days. In the early days of American education, the tested hierarchy of studies remained firmly engraved on men’s minds. Alexander Hamilton, on march with the Continential Army, used to copy out Greek passages from the orator Demosthenes and the biographer Plutarch into the regiment’s pay book. Thomas Jefferson admitted he disliked giving time to the daily newspapers for that took “time from Tacitus and Homer and so much agreeable reading.” C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien regularly composed in Latin, and still within the leadership of the Church one finds men who speak it with grace. Such is the habit of serious reading that Greek and Latin offer. There is no reason to believe that a dedicated student cannot in his later years at college and in the many years that follow continue to read authors in the classical languages for spiritual inspiration, edification, and sheer pleasure.
Beyond the choice made over which language to study formally, special attention is given within the academic program to Latin. The rudiments of it are encountered by all in the Way of Beauty program. The deep substructure supporting the later musical achievement of Bach, Vivaldi, or Haydn—or of modern composers such as Arvo Pärt—remain a cryptic link without a firm acquaintance with Latin. Without an appreciation for Latin, that link will break and large swathes of western music would be only partially comprehensible for the student.
More profoundly, without Latin the western liturgical tradition can confront the individual like some dark prehistoric ritual, perhaps mysterious and compelling, but nevertheless unpossessed and alien. For those interested in solemn worship and the beautiful linguistic forms of western Christendom, Latin will have particular interest as a well-spring for deeper communion with both the past and present. We find ourselves in agreement with a recent statement by Pope Benedict XVI, that in “the multiplicity of languages and cultures, Latin—for so many centuries the vehicle and instrument of Christian culture—not only guarantees continuity with our roots, but continues to be as relevant as ever for strengthening the unifying bonds of Faith for those within the communion of the Church.” Thus, students at the College will find that there are regular opportunities to participate in the living liturgical language of the Church.