If you took an opinion poll, youd probably find that the large majority of Americas Latin professors are fairly standard-issue liberals, politically indistinguishable from the rest of the nations academics. But, somewhere along the line, the public praise of Latin seems to have become mostly the province of curmudgeons and grumblers. Of romantic conservatives and hopeless nostalgics. Of the fussy old men who stroll along the beach and conjugate, alone, stray tenses of the Latin verbs¯ amatus sim, amatus sis : I should have been loved, you would have been loved.
Amavi, tamen non amatus sum : I loved, but I was not loved. Ah, yes, theres a picture that expresses the pointlessness of classical languages these days: Latinity as a consolation prize for Victorian bachelors whose unrequited loves are pressed, like faded violets, in one of those nineteenth-century copies of Catullus, bound in limp, purpureal leather. Except, of course, that some of the things that Catullus wrote about werent much talked about by the Victorians, unless they used such Latin phrases as peccatum illud horrible, inter Christianos non nominandum . And thats to say nothing of the elegies of Ovid and even less of the epigrams of Martial.
In truth, the nineteenth-century translations of ancient writers were not as bad as twentieth-century caricature would paint them. Whenever the narrative of Petronius Satyricon got a little too racy, the book would simply switch to the untranslated text¯on the principle, I suppose, that if your Latin were good enough to catch what was going on, you were too well educated to be corrupted by it. Thats a principle I wish were still imposed, when I see the magazines in the back rack at the convenience store. But, then, I find I am becoming more and more of a curmudgeon as the years go by. Besides, think of the increased enrollment in classics courses if all sex ads had to read something like tutela valui , the Latin phrase reportedly sported as a belly tattoo by the meretrix honesta with whom Eliot Spitzer recently passed some time in a Washington hotel room.
The decline and fall of Latin is so nearly complete that its hard to remember just what it is that we have lost. In a radio interview this spring, Silvio Berlusconi remarked, My Latin is good enough that I believe I could even have a lunch with Julius Caesar. Its appropriate, I suppose, that the prime minister of Italy has luncheon-level Latin. The popes command of the language is pretty good, too, I hear, despite the fact that he started out life as a German. But outside of this pair in Rome, does anybody else still know the language of the Caesars? I mean, anybody on a prominent public stage?
There was a time, and not so long ago, when knowledge of Latin was taken as a fundamental mark of culture: that which distinguished genuinely educated people from, say, journalists and sociology professors. But those days are as gone as gone can be. When Rudyard Kipling published descriptions of Latin classes in his school stories, Stalky and Co ., in 1899, he was writing of a time when the entrance exams for the British imperial service and officer corps still gave thousands of marks for the mandatory Latin section. Nobody is held back now for anything by a lack of classical languages.
Which is good, I suppose. And yet, Latin was dropped from Western cultures picture of education for a number of reasons, none of which seem to have turned out particularly well. Thus, for example, practicality was often claimed as a reason to drop the Latin curriculum, but, in the end, concentrating solely on practical things turns out not to be particularly practical. Algebra isnt practical for most people¯when was the last time you were asked to derive the quadratic formula?¯but without it in the notion of general education, wed lose large swaths of the people who go on to higher math.
Latin was dismissed, as well, in the name of democracy and anti-elitism, though the objective standards of a classical education actually provided a path for social mobility. Latin was dismissed, for that matter, as unnecessary in the great advance of liberalism that would free us from the dead weight of the past. Something like this seems particularly to have infected Catholic schools, which preserved the Latin curriculum longer than the public schools¯only to fling it overboard in the 1960s and 1970s with even greater abandon than some public schools.
Theres a superior command of English granted by the study of Latin, but even to make that argument is to admit that Latin requires some practical result. For that matter, theres plenty to learn from the ancient worlds experience of politics, social life, and art, and yet, again, thats not, in itself, a reason to demand that students study Latin. Translations will do as well, if thats all we want, and the real argument for Latin runs deeper than mere practicality.
In fact, Latin was a measure of education, not a portion that could be added or dropped. Admittedly a somewhat arbitrary measure, though it kept us tied to the continuity of Western civilization. But without some such measure, the entire idea of education becomes vulnerable to the skeptics relativistic question of Whos to say? Whos to say whats right or wrong? Whos to say whats true or false? Whos to say what knowledge we should share?
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things .