Why Study Latin
(Reprinted from The Classical Teacher)
Have you ever wished you had a good answer for those people who ask why you would spend your valuable education time studying Latin when you could be spending it on something more “practical”?
There are three reasons Latin has long been considered the one master subject before which all others must bow.
First, Latin teaches English better than English teaches English. “The study of one’s own language,” says classicist Charles Bennett, “is achieved incomparably better by the indirect method of studying another language … It is because translation from Latin to English … is so helpful to the student who would attain mastery of his own language … that I find the full justification for the study of Latin.” In other words, education based on the study of the child’s own language is inferior to one based on Latin.
Second, the mental discipline Latin instills in students makes it the ideal foreign language to study. Latin originated with the Romans, and their character pervades the language they created. The Roman, says R. W. Livingstone, “disciplined his thought as he disciplined himself; his words are drilled as rigidly as were his legions, and march with the same regularity and precision.”
Latin is systematic, rigorous, analytic. Its sentences march “serried, steady, stately, massive, the heavy beat of its long syllables and predominant consonants reflecting the robust, determined, efficient temper” of the Romans themselves.
Latin is clearly superior to other languages in this regard. Like English, modern languages are “lax and individualistic,” reflecting the modern temper of those who speak them. Thinking that you can get the same benefit out of studying them is, in Livingstone’s words, “like supposing that the muscles can be developed by changing from one chair to the other.”
Third, Latin is the ideal tool for the transmission of cultural literacy. Latin is, in fact, the mother tongue of Western civilization—a language that incorporated the best ideas of the ancient Greeks, and which then, after the conversion of Rome, put them into the service of Christian truth.
Rome fell into ruin, but the dying language of the disintegrating empire was infused with new life. Harnessing the power and precision of the old Latin, Christianity transformed the tongue of conquest into the tongue of conversion, and Latin became the very language of the Christian faith for over a thousand years.
Christian Latin takes the intellectual discipline of classical Latin and adds another element: simplicity. Although the basic grammar and vocabulary of Christian Latin are the same as the classical, Christian Latin authors emphasized the transmission of Christian truth, striving for clarity and simplicity above all else. Because Christian Latin is easier to read, it is the perfect gateway to the more difficult classical Latin of Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil.
In fulfilling the three-fold path of the Trivium, the second stage being Dialectic, the students in grades 7 through 9 understand the relationships of the facts in and across all subjects. As students begin to reason abstractly and question authority, teachers help them see God’s order through Socratic questioning and the study of formal logic. Connections are made throughout the day as students are drawn into lively discussion and debate. Logic, the art of reason, is one of God’s most precious gifts and a hallmark of classical education. Logic will emphasize the structure and beauty of reason and will sharpen the students’ thinking skills and heighten their understanding of God, the Creator of reason.
Students are now ready for the final stage of the Trivium. Having laid the foundation of knowledge in the Grammar Stage and built understanding in the Dialectic Stage, the students are poised to enter the Rhetoric Stage. As the students mature as individuals, they are taught how to synthesize and apply their knowledge significantly and persuasively. The study of rhetoric is one of the distinctives of a classical education. As defined by Aristotle, rhetoric is “the discovery of the available means of persuasion in any situation whatsoever.” Students will research, discuss, and write about a variety of classicical and contemporary topics. The Senior Thesis is the culmination of a student’s training at St. John’s Academy. Senior Thesis is an opportunity to apply the Trivium to an independently chosen area of inquiry. Much of the year will be spent in individual research and writing punctuated with frequent mentoring episodes with faculty.
Much of the Classical Christian “movement” can be attributed to this article written by Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This article provides the basis for much of what we do at St. John’s Academy.