image by sarah mccoy photo

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Latin: a sine qua non of a real life?

With budgets and schedules and calendars everywhere stretched thin, it's common to hear people wonder whether there's really a point to all the nice-if-you-have-time endeavors.  Sammy just wants to get into film school and Sarah just wants to be famous (because that's a thing) and Josh just wants to play college ball.  And they all mostly want to make money to spend on the detritus of a superficial life, so they don't have time to waste on things they'll never use, like music theory and geography and...Latin.

The thing is, a lot of time the defenses I read for such subjects sound shallow even to me.  I think this is because even the defenders of the "nice but unprofitable" sometimes underrate these pursuits by buying into the fallacy that each is isolated, and that utility is the measure of worth.

The real question is: what is your goal?  Read on and you'll see that really, this isn't even about Latin.

                         &quot;<a href="" rel="nofollow">Apotheosis of George Washington</a>&quot; - painting in the dome of the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building - Wa...

But first, those weak arguments.  You've probably heard that Latin is behind more than half of English words.  And that medical and law fields use Latin terminology.  And that Latin helps with Romance language acquisition.  But if you don't plan to study English or law or medicine, you may think it doesn't apply to you.  And why tackle a really hard language like Latin as preparation for a comparatively easy language like Spanish?

If you can shrug off these arguments, it's because they aren't great ones.

Latin is an inflected language.  That means the function of the words in sentences are indicated by changing word endings.  In English, this is less noticeable, and our English classes are now taught in such a way as to prevent most students (even English and journalism students, in my experience) from really knowing anything about word function anyway.  But a ridiculous number of languages are inflected, so learning Latin doesn't just prepare you to learn Spanish or recognize legal jargon on TV dramas.  It creates the conceptual capacity for the construction of ideas, across languages.

Second, Latin is a beautiful language.  Russian is inflected, so you could learn about word endings through its study, but its literal translation into English resembles cave-man speak.  Latin, on the other hand, gives us all the powerful, punchy stuff that we want to put on coins and flags and ironic t-shirts.

When you study (study, not survey) a thing that achieves beauty painstakingly, you learn to appreciate beauty, and to identify the source of powerful expression.  Eventually you may learn to produce such expression yourself.  We are no longer a society that stares at the stars and spends time contemplating...anything.  We are a society that stares at phone screens and taps impatient feet at downtime.  So now more than ever, to sit and delve into layers of complexity is to train your mind in the skill of wondering, to rediscover awe.


Lastly, Latin is really, really difficult.  And doing difficult things builds character.  Beware the tendency to assign value based on future remuneration.  This is where that question comes into play.  When you start to portion out your hours and days and years and dollars, you betray your underlying goals.  If you have time for only those activities and investments that feed directly into your career,  your title, your bucket-list, your sense of accomplishment, then your goals are as small as you, and your rewards will be too.

But your humanity is bigger and more corporate than your personal goals.  And difficult things done in a pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness separate humans from production-bots.

You don't have to study Latin, and neither do your kids.  But find a way to cultivate a hunger for benefits that aren't quantifiable.  What doesn't affect your paygrade might still make you better.