Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent. And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend one evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a traditional Roman festival and Latin poetry to a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse. And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up. Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place. And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread I am connected, to my mother, of course, at whose knee I learned to bake bread, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took many years ago of his bakery, and I have another photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I had painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mill and oven. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples. He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles. We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta. The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge. As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay. He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist. I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .


Mutterings on why Public School shouldn’t be Vocational School

Above all is the need for a thinking education in the humanities.  This need not be at a university, after all there are countless educated fools and many wise illiterates, but we ignore the experience of the ages at our collective peril.  A thinking education can reveal the arrogance of the categorical, demonstrate the insight of nuance, and stimulate a healthy skepticism of ideologues of whatever stripe; political, economic, religious, philosophical, whatever.  It can provide an escape from the necessarily limited bonds of individual experience to peer into the vastness of human diversity over time and in space and provide understanding of how the other guy thought and lived, thinks and lives.  A thinking education can, should, must lead one to penetrate the cant and doublespeak of much discourse, question the premises and assumptions of any assertion and assess its veracity accordingly. . .

Bill McAndrew, “From Mars to Clio: A Personal Journey” in Canadian Military History, Volume 22, number 4, Autumn 2013, p. 92.

I don’t think I can add much of importance to what McAndrew writes in the epigraph.  What follows is almost wholly anecdotal, and so, as I learned in school, of little evidentiary value.

I went to the public school in my neighbourhood in Ontario and Alberta in the 60s and 70s.  My grade three teacher had “B.A.” as well as “B.Ed” after her name.  My mother told me this was a good thing.  In school I learned how to speak and read French.  I learned grammar and spelling and arithmetic.  I learned algebra and geometry.  I learned about the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat. And I learned about the Jesuits.  I learned about the French and the English, about the fur trade, about those early Capitalists, the coureur des bois.  I learned about the structure of our Westminster Parliament, about our Constitution, about rights and responsibilities.  I read Shakespeare and Steinbeck and Blake — standards had dropped since my father’s school days: he read Shakespeare and Homer and Milton.  In grade 11, a brilliant English teacher (while completing his Masters thesis on symbolism in Hawthorne) structured the entire year around Star Wars, giving those who paid attention a fascinating grounding in source criticism.

At the University of Alberta I studied English although many friends had expected me to go into Science.  I began Old English and Latin in my second year.  My Old English professor was also in charge of developing the remedial English courses for first year students entering from Alberta high schools.  It seems that in those days far too many high school graduates couldn’t read their way out of a wet paper bag.  My professor would start each day with anecdotes about meetings with students or Department of Education officials.  The best one was when the officials told him educational standards in Alberta were as high as they’d ever been and he responded by pulling out archival departmental exams going back to the 20s.  There it was in black and white: in the old days High Schoolers were working in language and literature at a high University level compared to the early 80s.

So, at 21, in the summer of 1983, I had a Masters Degree specializing in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, I knew a good bit about the literary sources of Star Wars, I had been given a life-long love of Shakespeare, I knew how our governmental system worked, I had a fairly good grounding in the history of our country and the world at large, I was more or less bilingual and could read Latin and Old English and puzzle my way through Italian, Spanish and maybe one or two other languages if I had to.  I could also handle a shovel, pick, hammer, axe and, through no fault of the school system, I could milk a goat.

At no time in my primary or secondary schooling was I trained for any vocation (except that one typing class in grade ten).  Some of my fellows in high school took a vocational path and studied auto mechanics, welding, hairdressing, etc.  The rest of us were given a general, liberal arts education.

Now, more than three decades later, what has that undirected, non-vocational education done for me?  Well:

I’ve worked.

I’ve served people drinks, cooked them meals, sold them products, built things, repaired engines and hydraulics, mowed grass, calculated fertilizer levels, pruned trees, made porchetta, sourced products for businesses, made art and been paid for it, published scholarly articles, published non-scholarly articles and been paid for them, read a hell of a lot. . .

And, every day I use my high school mathematics, throw out a line of Shakespeare, build on the history and geography and civics I learned in school.

Some people argue that the Public School system was developed to serve Capitalism so it has always been a vocational school system. Well, I think a more correct view would be that the Public School system was developed as a way of producing citizens who would maintain a society in which they could thrive .  Who would argue against such a thing?  When leading citizens of Edmonton and Strathcona got together to create the first public schools in the two cities, guess what? Those leading citizens were capitalists.  They were real capitalists, not corporatists.  They were business owners risking their capital on ventures with no guarantee of return.  I don’t think that form of Capitalism, the real Capitalism, should be a dirty word.  That’s the kind of Capitalism that all the #BuyLocal #HundredMileDiet #FarmersMarket #Vegan #Freegan #Occupy people are screaming for.

And that’s the kind of Capitalism a general liberal arts education prepares a person for.  That’s the kind of education I had.  And that’s exactly the kind of education that Corporatism is uncomfortable with.  How many times have we heard Ministers of Education saying “We’ll be taking best practices from around the world to ensure outcomes which prepare our students for their place in the Global Economy!”?  No longer do they want to help our children to be good citizens, to be successful in their neighbourhood, town, city.  No longer is there even a desire to simply give our children something interesting and challenging to think about.  When people asked me what I was going to “do with” an English degree. I always said “I’d rather drive a taxi with a Masters degree than without.”  I don’t think many of them understood. Those who would understand the answer wouldn’t ask the question.

One morning all those years ago my Old English professor said wistfully “It used to be that a business leader would look at a B.A. as proof that a person had the flexibility to be trained for any position.”

Update, March 13, 2014: I forgot to mention that something that seems lost in all this discussion is that the term “Liberal Arts” simply means the basic knowledge and skills necessary to living as a free individual in a free society. If our political and educational leaders were truly interested in maintaining a free society and preparing our children to live in that society, they’d be working hard to have the Liberal Arts as strongly supported, fundamental parts of every child’s education in every grade. The fact that our leaders don’t do that work really says everything about their agenda for our society