Latin: The Unbreakable Habit

“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


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