Homo doctus in se semper divitias habet.
(A learned man always has wealth within himself.)
My life is littered with failed attempts to learn foreign languages. If there is such a thing as having a “knack” for learning languages I don’t have it. As my wife, kids, and I try to bring Latin more fully into the folds of our homeschooling adventure, I have discovered I am about as adept at learning Latin as a stump─though I think the stump may have me beat. But I am still hopeful, not so much because of what I see in me, but because other ordinary people like me have struggled with learning Latin and have succeeded. And though you should take everything I say with a grain of salt, I do believe three things about learning Latin:
- Learning Latin is a struggle, will always be a struggle, but it’s still possible to succeed. Plus it is worth the struggle for a host of reasons, not least of which are the value of doing hard things and the connection one derives with the past.
- Success is measured not so much in the mastery of Latin, but of Latin “mastering” you, that is, Latin entering one’s soul, setting down deep roots, and bringing about an ordering of the mind.
- The study of Latin is based on memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work.
Remember that famous speech president John F. Kennedy gave in 1962 about going to the moon? In that speech he said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard[.]” I love that. I love the idea of doing hard things. Not only do I dream about difficult adventures, I also dream about climbing mountains, reading thick books all the way through, and changing the world for the better. And of course I want to be like Christ. But in truth I am less inclined to actually do hard things. Hard things take great effort and are fraught with risk. It is so much easier to dream than to do.
Regardless, I have been diving into Latin and truly enjoying it. I am no expert in how to study Latin; I fumble, stumble, and get back up, but it’s really amazing how interesting Latin is. I feel more connected to history and old ideas. I see the roots of English and of all that French I struggled with during my school years. I am relearning valuable grammar lessons that have been buried too long in the recesses of my brain. And I sense the powerful order that Latin exudes. I want to be classically educated. I know I will never have the foundation and depth in Latin and the classics as C. S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers did, but I have more affinity with Lewis now that I have been scratching the surface of Latin.
And yet, for how much I enjoy Latin, it is also difficult work. I know studying Latin has always been difficult work, but I plead a special case─I am a card carrying member of Generation X, in other words I have trouble with memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work, particularly when it comes to something that is not obviously utilitarian or immediately pleasurable. But I have come to believe that Latin is good for me, and not merely good in the way eating vegetables or getting regular exercise are good. Studying Latin is a training of the mind, which is inseparably tied to character. True education is about formation not information. In other words, to be classically educated is to be molded into the kind of person, with the kind of mind and mental habits, that can appreciate truth, goodness, and beauty. The rigor inherent in studying Latin produces minds that can think well. It also inculcates minds with capacities to express good thoughts well. I do not say this from experience, rather I look to my betters, to those who have drunk deep from the classical well. In a nutshell it’s all there in Tracy Lee Simmons’ book Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. He writes:
We recognize classical culture now not only by alabaster images of stony ruins, but also through thick gauze of verbal brilliance. The men whose words and ideas we remember best were citizens of a republic of letters. They had learned to think and speak and write with precision and flair. They tried not to say something new; they tried to say something worthy, and to say it perfectly. (Simmons, p. 76)
How far I am from this ideal is so sad it’s almost humorous. Again Simmons:
While knowledge of truths may come first in the pecking order, one cannot get at those truths without the knowledge of words. Classical education sought to provide a training in words so as to grant an entrée to those truths. And the training began with Grammar, Usage, and Composition. Notice we say “training” here, not “education.” For education, rightly understood, is launched with training and drill. The educated mind must first know how to do, how to form and build, something. Education is the result; training is the method. Grammar, Usage, and Composition lend the starter sets for constructing that educated mind; they are the bricks and mortar, hammer and nails. But master architects draw the plans, not amateurs. (p. 162)
I now see clearly the poverty of my early education. Perhaps I am a bright guy, but most of the time I’m just hanging on. I know my education is built on a spindly foundation. My poor habits haunt me. My mind is narrow and feels truncated. My monolingual brain lacks the flexibility it should have. But it’s never too late to start, so I have begun.
Fortunately it is not too late for my children to start learning Latin either. As a father I have great responsibilities in fathering, and I have decided (actually my wife and I) to make Latin a central subject in our homeschooling curriculum. I want my children to grow up embracing the wonder of creation. I want them to love what God has made and given to us for our enjoyment. Words and things go together and are inseparable. I firmly believe that language is not merely a pointer to things, not merely a universe of sounds signifying objects, not merely a wrapper around creation. Rather, creation springs out of language. God spoke and the world came into being. It is only through the creative word of the author that a world is constituted. (I am borrowing this idea from Peter Kreeft who got it from J. R. R. Tolkien.) Language both creates and is the door into creation. Adam understood God’s creation and then himself by naming the animals─which required attentiveness and contemplation. Real things are found in words. Language goes to the very beginning, to the origin of things. Wonder of language and wonder of creation go hand in hand. Those who lack linguistic wonder will lack ontological wonder.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger said in his Introduction to Metaphysics: “Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language, in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things.” (Heidegger, p. 11) I think Heidegger is right. We ought to be careful with language. We ought also to be intentional.
This sounds highfalutin and perhaps it is. But here I am, mediocre student of Latin with big dreams, thinking I will teach my children a language which I do not yet know. As a father I must lead by example. Thus I must commit myself to memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work. Given my natural (fallen) tendencies perhaps prayer should come first. And along with prayer should be humility. But even here I should back up a bit. First things are critical. As C.S. Lewis put it: “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” (Lewis, p. 280) Latin is a second thing. In fact, the habits of mind that studying Latin produces are also second things. We do not teach Latin merely for the habits. We teach Latin because the habits of mind help our children to understand creation that much better. Grammar is a window unto the Creator, and through that window we see something of the glory of God and His goodness and His love for us and, of course, the story He is telling. (Remember Friedrich Nietzsche said, “[W]e are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”) We do not teach Latin for its own sake, nor even for the various benefits that come in its wake. We teach Latin so that we can know God and make Him known that much better.
Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961.
Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. 21 May 2012.
Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2002.