Books, Arts & Manners

Why Study Latin?

A priest touches an old book of the gospels, written in Latin, at San Gregorio dei Muratori in Rome, in 2007. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
A professor makes the case in a new book for the beauty and logic of the language.

Oxford professor Nicola Gardini urges people to read and study Latin. He believes that Latin is the antidote for the modern age, which seems transfixed by the spontaneous, the easy, and the ephemeral.

His new book, Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language, argues that Latin combines truth and beauty with the timelessness of art. People should study Latin for all the reasons people should read literature.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine (354–430 C.E.) “placed the learning of Latin under God’s purview,” Gardini writes. Augustine believed Latin drew a child closer to God, “the truest truth.”

Gardini argues that Latin contains the logic and precision of math. He uses Caesar’s De bello Gallico as an example of language trying to “re-create the world mathematically and geometrically, its sentences organized according to precise cause-and-effect relationships.”

The syntax of Latin stimulates logical reasoning, Gardini says. Its morphology jogs memory. Most important, Latin is the language of civilization. “The western world was created on its back. . . . Inscribed in Latin are the secrets of our deepest identity.”

According to Gardini, those secrets are concerned with the power of words to enhance thought. Words, he says, are humanity’s greatest gift, and literature heightens the value of that gift. Referencing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Gardini says that Latin is able to link the smallest blip “to the cosmic order, which . . . invests all with . . . a profundity that stretch[es] beyond the terrestrial.”

Early on, Gardini discusses Nicolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) and his warmly felt connection to Roman literature. Author of The Prince and the father of modern political theory, Machiavelli, Gardini says, occasionally took a break from politics and read the Latin classics.

As Machiavelli describes it, he didn’t just read, he encountered the authors of these ancient books: “I speak to them without inhibition,” he wrote in 1513 to a friend, “and [I] ask them the reasons behind their actions; and in their humanity, they reply.”

Machiavelli’s approach evidently inspired Gardini, who crafts each chapter so that it feels like an encounter. Offering numerous personal anecdotes from his own life, Gardini’s writing is warm and conversational yet scholarly.

His text considers the form, style, purpose, influence, and themes found in the works of these authors; quotes liberally from their work; and offers Gardini’s own translations while noting the rhetorical devices and figurative language appearing in the original Latin.

Calling his book both an ode and an essay, Gardini defends Latin from those who consider the subject superfluous. He is especially drawn to Latin’s poetic qualities and frequently comments on the musicality of the language with its figures of sound as well as its metaphors, which he says have an almost magical effect.

Studying Latin, Gardini says, taught him the importance of discrete sounds and syllables. It showed him “the importance of musical language, the soul of poetry.” Words he used every day began “disassembling in my mind and swirling around like petals in the air,” Gardini writes in a nod to poetry

Gardini suggests that his book is for a general reader—especially for young students. But it’s hard to imagine many young students from the U.S. responding well to the “critical and aesthetic genius” of a writer like Horace (65 B.C.E.–8 C.E.) or to his Ars Poetica, excerpts of which Gardini translates and discusses. As Gardini observes, “There’s nothing easy about Horace’s Latin, even when it’s dictated to by occasion.”  Yet Horace’s advice for poets would resonate in today’s university writing courses: “Poetry is like painting: some things catch you / more if you stand in front of them, other things from a distance.”

The book is somewhat hard to follow because Gardini doesn’t present his material in chronological order. The authors don’t appear as they would in a history of Latin literature. Instead, he shows them in media res, in what he calls, “linguistic instances, . . . as examples of what Latin has gained at a certain moment . . . and handed down to its long—and still living—tradition.” But this is a quibble with an important and informative book.

Currently, Gardini teaches Renaissance literature, which he describes as heavily dependent on Latin. Given that college semesters consist of approximately 22 classes and that Gardini is a visiting professor (at Oxford University, Columbia University, etc.) it’s conceivable that this book, which contains 22 chapters (each focusing on one writer or one quality of Latin), was inspired by a syllabus that he created for a Latin literature course.

Latin, as Gardini points out in the early chapters, is used in science, law, and formal documents—and in religious worship, which is where Gardini first heard the language when his mother recited the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and other prayers. Gardini, though, doesn’t appreciate church Latin as much he does literary Latin, which is the focus of this book. He emphasizes the influence that Latin literature had on figures as diverse as St. Jerome, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Castiglione, Dante, Milton, Nietzsche, J. D. McClatchy, Margaret Atwood, and others.

Gardini is passionate about his subject and tends to be wordy. Wishing to inspire passion in his readers, he repeats himself several times, each time becoming (metaphorically) louder. He seems fond of alliteration and points out that this figure of sound as well as repetition were favorites of Roman poets. He seems to prefer the Roman poets over its prose writers.

Gardini begins with a discussion of Old Latin authors, mentioning the playwright Plautus (250–184 B.C.E.), whose comedies influenced dramatists through the ages including William Shakespeare (in The Comedy of Errors), George Bernard Shaw, and Bertolt Brecht. Gardini also notes that Cato the Elder (234–149 B.C.E.) produced a vast body of work, but only a farming manual, De agri cultura, survives. Gardini considers the work the beginning of Latin literature and an influence for “the giant Virgil” and his Aeneid.

Poetry, Gardini says, represents the human word at its finest, and in a chapter on Virgil’s Eclogues, Gardini argues that the word “umbra,” meaning “shadow,” is “the most beautiful word in the Latin language.” In the word, he says, “the semantic and emotive ambivalence of Virgil’s Latin finds its most eloquent symbol.”

Gardini admires the poet Catullus (87–54 B.C.E.), considering him to be one of the greatest influences on Western poetry. Today, only 116 of his poems survive, including “The Death of Lesbia’s Sparrow,” which Gardini calls “one of the most celebrated texts in Western literature.”

Although Gardini mentions the inspiration of goddesses, the only woman quoted here is Sappho, whose poetry influenced the father of Latin (and all) poetry, Ennius (239 B.C.E. –169), who is noted for the epic poem Annales. Gardini calls Ennius “the linguistic conscience” of Latin poetry.

“Of all the ancient writers,” Gardini says, Seneca (4 B.C.E.–65 C.E.), “the Stoic philosopher, is the one who has most taught me how to live.” Gardini uses as testimony excerpts from Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius. For example: “All we are surrounded by is one and it is god; and we are its allies and its limbs.”

“Virgil [(70 B.C.E. to 19 C.E.)],” he continues, “moves me; Tacitus [(56 to 120 C.E.)] draws me toward cruelty; Lucretius [(94 to 52 B.C.E.)] sends me whirling and drifting and sinking; Cicero [(106 to 43 B.C.E.)] has me dreaming of perfection in all—thought, speech, behavior. Seneca teaches me happiness.”

Looking at Cicero, Gardini notes that Petrarch considered him “the supreme father of the Latin language.” Cicero’s Latin, according to Gardini, is “self-describing and self-analyzing”; it debates and speculates while thoroughly examining every aspect of a discussion. Cicero disdained excessive imagery but appreciated the just-right metaphor—“stimulating our imagination and engaging . . . our senses, particularly our vision.”

Above all, Cicero advocated clarity of expression, as can be seen in his advice to writers and orators: “Oratio . . . lumen adhere rebus debet.”

Or, as Gardini translates it, “Language must shed light on things.”

Diane Scharper teaches memoir and poetry for Johns Hopkins University’s Osher Program. She is the author or editor of seven books, including Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability.

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