Nobody has ever been able to explain why a Latin education should give that curious superiority to people, but it does. – Ernest Dimnet
It is not so much excellent to know Latin, as it is a shame not to know it. -Cicero
Although it is nowadays mostly forgotten, it is enlightening to recall that the Latin tongue is the cultural foundation of the Christian and even the post-Christian West. For hundreds of years the Catholic Church, Mistress of Western Civilization, expressed her wisdom, defined her laws and sanctified her people in that language. Even today, when she has lost something of her accustomed fluency, Latin remains her official tongue.
The formative cultural power of Latin retained its potency throughout the birth of the national vernaculars, the Protestant Revolt and the modern revolutions because the educated elite of the West realized and preserved the value of this cultural treasure. Thus not only within the Church, but also among many of those who had rejected her sway, Latin was esteemed.
Being either the root of or a weighty influence on the major languages of Europe, Latin acted like a valued family tutor who had retired to the background, but still remained influential. Just as such a mentor might remind the grown children of the common lessons of their childhood, so Latin provided a cultural unity for the nations of the West. It was only in the twentieth century with the educational establishment’s wholesale rejection of the Classics that this adviser was finally dismissed in favor of more up-to-date applicants. (In writing “Classics” we refer also to the literature of Greece, for, although we are Westerners, and therefore give precedence to Latin, we in no way mean to undervalue the importance of Greek and the culture of the Christian East. Nevertheless, it has been truly said that: “Latin, a man may in some sort master. Of Greek every man learns only so much as God permits.”)
This mistaken departure from the path of tradition has deprived generations of eager minds of a great benefit. How can we best characterize this benefit? It is, as we have said, a cultural boon, but what does that mean exactly? It has become conventional among those who would defend the importance of Latin education to list a series of practical benefits that can be derived from its study. Among these we often find such things as development of logical thinking skills, assistance in learning English grammar, greater ease in learning the Romance languages, and facility in building English vocabulary. While these are real benefits, they do not get to the root of the matter.
Every culture—whether Greek, Chinese, Spanish, English, or Latin—acts somewhat like a mirror which due to the angle at which it is set and imperfections in its surface reflects only some aspects of the inexhaustible fullness of reality while leaving others unreflected or only partially reflected. Thus each culture expresses in its arts, literature, and others institutions—but especially in its language—its own unique vision of reality. It is the language of a people which most fully expresses their cultural ideals while at the same time forming and reinforcing that people in those ideals. The German Catholic philosopher Theodor Haecker expresses this truth well with his concept of hertzwörter, heart-words:
The invisible and peculiar spirit of a people is manifest in all its outward and visible activities, but most clearly in the living body of its language. And in every such body of language we detect from time to time words that are its heart-tones, words that reveal to us by what things this heart sets most store, what is its constant care, what its hopes, its sufferings, joys, and desires. These heart-words, these intimate words in a language, are for that very reason the most untranslatable. If one is really concerned that they should be understood then it is best to leave them as they are, for really to understand such words one must first have mastered the whole language.
Thus it is the whole language of a people which best enshrines their cultural vision. The greater our mastery and deeper our internalization of their language, the more we put on the mind and heart of that people. Now the Greeks and their little brothers, the Romans are not just any people. They are a special people whose culture was prepared by divine providence for the reception and transmission of the Gospel. This is what the old liturgy taught in the postcommunion prayer from the mass for Holy Roman Emperor.
O God, Who hast prepared the Roman Empire to serve for the preaching of the Gospel of the Eternal King: present Thy servant our Emperor N. with heavenly weapons, that the peace of the Churches may not be disturbed by the storms of war. Through Our Lord.
While we no longer have a Holy Roman Emperor, the truth that the prayer teaches remains true. God in his providence prepared not only the Roman roads to convey his messengers, but the Roman tongue to convey his message.
Now we can understand more fully why we should spend time mastering the Latin tongue: because the Latin language is the incarnation of a worldview and this worldview even in its pre-Christian form enshrines a health, beauty and rootedness that have the power to mold profoundly the mind and sensibility of a student. Returning to Haecker’s concept of hertzwörter, we learn that a key heart-word of the Latin tongue is res, a word that may be rendered in English as thing. Yet, as he points out, translation cannot capture a words full range of meaning. In this word we find concentrated the whole Roman love and feel for the concrete stuff of reality. In fact when we speak of “reality” or the “real” we are trading on the semantic inheritance of the Latin res from which these English words, and many words of the European languages, descend.
Students study Latin every year at Gregory the Great Academy. In this four-year program very effort is made to thoroughly ground the student in the Latin language and ethos.