Latin: The Unbreakable Habit

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“The abuse
of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic
abuse of the word.” (Pieper, Abuse
of Language, Abuse of Power
)

When
words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.

We
do not often think of these two statements as reasons to study Latin,
but they should at least be considered. The widespread misuse of
words is a sign that a tyrant is manipulating the language. Orwell
says, eventually language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our
thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes
it easier for us to have foolish thought.” A tyrant wants nothing
more than the sheep-like masses to readily accept foolish ideas.

When
the meaning of a word is divorced from reality, it becomes meaningless,
and the language decays. One way to spot corruption in language
is to use the habit, which every Latin student learns and keeps
with him, even after he has forgotten the endings of every declension.
He cannot break the habit of asking, “What does this word mean?
How is it being used?”

Traci
Simmons, in his book Climbing
Parnassus
explains how translating Latin forms this habit.

Every
lesson in Latin is a lesson in logic… Taking the simple two-word
Latin sentence Vellem Mortuos (“I would that they were dead”)…
the sentence aright requires fourteen intellectual turns. A student
must know 1. the person, 2. tense, 3. voice, 4. number 5. mood
of the verb…6. it comes from volo, meaning 7 u2018I wish': and that
8. the subjunctive has here a particular shade of meaning. As
to mortuos, he must know that it is 9. the accusative, 10. plural,
11. masculine from 12. mortuus, meaning 13. dead; 14. the reason
why the accusative is necessary… a student who slips up on any
one of these steps is bound to make a lovely mess when he comes
to translate… In Latin you must be absolutely right, or you
are not right at all…Can anyone seriously maintain that such stiff
training in just expression leaves no salutary marks upon the
intellect of someone who, having successfully run its gauntlet,
becomes captive to the habits of a precise mind?

Someone
“captive to the habits of a precise mind” would not tolerate empty
words, political spin, or other sophistic devices in public discourse.
He will have a heightened awareness of the decay of language. I
am surprised that I have never heard a Latin teacher give this as
a reason for studying Latin. High school Latin teachers and university
professors give several unsatisfying reasons to study Latin: reading
the Aeneid
in Latin, a student might see that one's first commitment is not
to oneself but to others; studies show students, who study Latin
for at least two years, score higher on the verbal portion of the
SAT; Latin can train a person to think in an organized way. These
reasons do not take into account the Orwellian state our language
is in right now.

Other
classicists have humanitarian and aesthetic reasons for studying
Latin. Simone Weil says that students, who have learned to concentrate,
will be “better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help
required to save him at the supreme moment of his need.” ("Reflections
on the Right Use of School Studies
.") One of my professors
says, to study the classics, is like being in close contact with
beauty, ultimately making oneself more beautiful. I am surprised
that this reason still sways relativistic college professors, who
think beauty is whatever you want it to be and believe all cultures
are equally beautiful.

Nevertheless,
the quintessential reason to study Latin is to make identification
of misuses of our language a habit. American English is in distress,
and a distressed language is an indication of tyranny. Weil was
acutely aware of this connection. “To clarify thought, to discredit
the intrinsically meaningless words, and to define the words of
others by precise analysis – to do this, strange though it
may appear, might be a way of saving human lives.” Weil's reasoning
does not seem strange at all given that abuse of political power,
stealing life and property, goes hand in hand with a sophistic abuse
of language.

We
have many “intrinsically meaningless” words, having no clear root
in reality. Weil explains, “On inspection, almost all the words
and phrases of our political vocabulary turn out to be hollow.”
Blended families, gay marriage, smart bombs, surgical strike, the
war on poverty, war on terrorism, proposition nation, diversity
and tolerance. All are saccharine names of bitter concepts used
to expand the power of the state. We must form the habit of asking
ourselves, when confronted with these terms, “What do these words
mean? How are they being used?”

With
this in mind, the fluffy reasons given by government schoolteachers
for not teaching Latin seem suspicious. Latin is too hard to learn;
students should learn a practical modern language instead. The language
of a patriarchal, oppressive culture has no place in a modern curriculum.
Latin is for elitists whose children have the time to spend on idle
pursuits. Latin is an artifact from a dead age to be left behind.

While
in class earlier this summer, I finally heard a more satisfying
reason why Latin is taught in so few schools. The professor said
that educational elites killed it, because they want to keep it
for themselves. They see no need for the masses to learn it, to
become captive to the habits of a precise mind, stewards of correct
English and alert to tyrannical abuses of language. Later in class,
after a student incorrectly used a word he had defined earlier,
another student inquired about this. After the professor thanked
the student for pointing out his classmate's error he went on to
say, “That is the sort of precision we appreciate in a physicist.”
Why is precision thought of as a virtue in the sciences and not
the humanities? This student had been in this same professor's advanced
Latin class this past year, and was well known to him. He should
have known this student simply could not control that unbreakable
Latin habit of asking, “What does this word mean? How is it being
used?"

I
was not surprised at this. Latin students are dangerously armed
with a precise mind; they are hard to confuse, or brainwash by slick
and sloppy uses of language. Like broken cogs on a tyrannical wheel,
they get in the way of propaganda; they resent the misuse of language.
Words are worth the fuss. Chesterton says it best:

What
is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel
over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't
any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee
instead of an angel wouldn't there be a quarrel about a word?
If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to
argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving
your ears? The church and the heresies always used to fight about
words, because they are the only things worth fighting about”
(The
Ball and The Cross
).

The
educational elites have been successful at suppressing the debate
over words; they have tried to keep the masses ignorant of how to
communicate reality precisely, and how to spot the misuse of language.
Because of this, it has become easy for the state to expand its
tyranny by infecting the language with meaningless words. If more
people were armed with Latin, perhaps we would have had a revolution
by now.

August
26, 2003

Mary
Colalillo [send her mail]
is a sophomore at Purdue University, majoring in mathematics and
classical studies.


        
        

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