Thoughts on Latin

News: Commentary
by David Nussman  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  August 17, 2022   

Reasons for Catholics to study the mother tongue

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Back in January, we published a piece by Raymond de Souza — a regular Church Militant contributor — about the importance of Latin in the Catholic Church. I decided to follow up with further thoughts on the topic.

It would be good for more Catholics to consider learning Latin. Of course, it may not be feasible for everyone. But for the right person in the right situation, it can be a very fruitful decision.

Let me sketch out a few reasons why.

Latin and the Ancient Romans

A background in Latin equips you to read ancient Roman texts in their original language. That means reading the works of guys like Cicero, Horace and Virgil.

The writings of these men, and those of their ancient Greek predecessors (like Homer, Sophocles and Plato), helped shape Western culture. Their writings inspired much of the literature in later centuries, as well as countless musical compositions, paintings, sculptures and other works of art.

Image
Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus,
Octavia and Livia
, 1790. An example of art inspired by
the ancient Romans.

All those fellows I named above lived before the coming of Christ. They did not worship the one true God. So you might be wondering why their writings are of interest to Catholics.

Despite the fact that these authors were non-Christians, the early generations of Christians saw a lot of value in their works.

By way of example, let's take Virgil's Aeneid.

Some aspects of the Aeneid exemplify the virtue of piety (i.e., rendering what is owed to God, homeland and family).

Other passages in the Aeneid raise interesting questions about just war theory. For example, was Aeneas justified in killing Turnus in Book XII?

And if we talk about ancient Rome, we must mention those of the Church Fathers who wrote in Latin.

For example, imagine reading St. Augustine's Confessions in English, finding the translation a little weird, and cross-checking it with the original Latin. That's what learning Latin can enable you to do.

Latin and Medieval Christendom

It's easy to think of Latin solely as the language of ancient Rome. Certainly, that's how it began. But for roughly a millennium after Rome fell, it retained a prominent spot in the lives of many people throughout Europe.

Image

A page from a 15th-century missal. The start of the
canon of the Mass: "Te igitur clementissime Pater ..."
("To You, therefore, most merciful Father ...")

Latin was — and still is, in fact — the official language of Holy Mother Church.

For century after century, countless priests of the Roman rite offered Mass in Latin. Clerics, monks and nuns prayed the Divine Office in Latin.

Lingua Latina was also the language of diplomacy and intellectual life in medieval Europe. University lectures were conducted in Latin. Most texts being studied and referenced at universities were in Latin. Official documents were often written in Latin. The medievals were composing poems in Latin, debating philosophy in Latin, taking travel notes in Latin, et cetera.

A thorough knowledge of Latin would help you read certain texts in the original tongue. But even a cursory understanding of Latin can deepen your comprehension of theological writings.

For example, a beginner to St. Thomas Aquinas will encounter the word "quiddity." If you know Latin, you can get a general idea of what that word means without having to Google it, based solely on its etymology. (It comes from the Latin "quid," meaning "what." Therefore, "quiddity" is the "what-ness" of a thing.)

Latin and the Liberal Arts

Latin did not keel over and die as the medieval era wrapped up. Latin studies continued — some would say flourished — during the Renaissance. Even in the so-called Enlightenment era, Latin remained a key part of education. 

Sure, Latin's use as a spoken language, as a common tongue of communication, slipped away over the centuries following the close of the Middle Ages. But my point is that it was still being taught in schools. In fact, it retained a prominent role in liberal arts education until the 20th century.

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The liberal arts as we know them today are a hodgepodge of practically anything that's not a "hard" science like biology or chemistry. They're essentially a random assortment of fields, ranging from philosophy and history to environmentalism and underwater basket-weaving.

But the liberal arts historically were a more narrowly defined curriculum, covering fields pertaining to mathematics and language. At the university level, a defining feature of any liberal arts education for centuries was the study of Latin — for by learning Latin, one also learns about grammar, rhetoric, history, literature and more. Often, institutions of learning taught ancient Greek alongside Latin, for many of the same reasons.

Latin and Western Culture

Speaking of literature — below is a list of people whose writings might be familiar to you. (I emphasized people of interest to Catholics, though not everyone listed is Catholic.)

  • St. Augustine of Hippo 
  • St. Jerome
  • St. Anselm of Canterbury
  • St. Isidore of Seville
  • St. Bonaventure
  • St. Thomas Aquinas
  • St. Robert Bellarmine
  • More popes than we have time to name
  • Dante Alighieri
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Isaac Newton
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Emily Dickinson
  • E.E. Cummings
  • Robert Frost
  • Willa Cather
  • T.S. Eliot
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • C.S. Lewis

They all have one thing in common: Each was familiar with Latin.

This list could actually be greatly extended. For brevity's sake, I chose some of the more prominent examples.

Some of the people listed — such as St. Augustine of Hippo — spoke Latin as a native tongue and wrote virtually exclusively in it. Other people on the list may have been less proficient, but at least had some familiarity (like Longfellow).

If you study Latin, you will find yourself in good company.

Rather than just including authors of literature in the sense of poetry and novels, I included all manner of important historical figures — saints, scientists, political leaders and more. My point is, if you study Latin, you will find yourself in good company.

Obviously, you're not under any moral obligation to know Latin. As I mentioned at the start, learning it won't be feasible for everyone.

It's not my purpose to persuade everyone to read Latin. Rather, it's to encourage those who are on the fence about studying Latin to take the leap. And perhaps, parents and educators might even decide to incorporate Latin into curricula, nurturing young minds.

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