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Timeo Classicos et Dona Ferentis

In Education on October 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Latin and Ancient Greek are strange things for our education system to value. They are, after all, languages that are no longer used by a large group of people – though the Catholic Church uses Vulgar Latin and there are a few dedicated Latin programmes on various radio stations – and the attitudes embraced by the majority of the texts are most unhelpful. One need not turn far to find mysoginist attitudes, or impassioned defences of slavery, strongly anti-democratic sentiment, and the most ungracious suggestions about atheism. The Greeks, from whom the bulk of the authors in the two languages are drawn, were also racist to a great degree, describing anyone who did not speak Greek as ‘a barbarian’ – literally, one who goes ‘bar-bar-bar’. In fact, considering all this, it seems pointless if not unhelpful to teach our children to read these languages.

As a classicist, however, I strongly disconcur. For all their cultrual faults, Greek and Latin must enjoy a special place in the Western tradition. For it was in these languages that the disciplines of history, philosophy, mathematics, science, politics and philology are first recorded. A N Whitehead once described all of Western philosophy as a ‘footnote to Plato‘ the first of the Greek philosophers. Though Plato’s range is broad and his ideas dense and provocative, this may be overstating the case. However, since he came first, he has had a profound impact on the way we ‘do’ philosophy, and this is equally true, if not more true in other disciplines.

Take Euclid’s ‘Elements‘. He started by defining 4 (comparatively obvious) axioms, and went from there to prove many geometrical results. This axiomatic method has not been greatly bettered by mathematicians; most famoulsy, Whitehead and Russell’s ‘Principia Mathematica‘ merely reduced Euclid to a less intuitively obvious set of axioms. Although the mathematics has advanced, the method of the ancient Greeks is still used.

The same is true of the historians. Herodotus and Thucydides, the earliest historians, travelled, gathered evidence from oral anecdotes, eyewitnesses and inscriptions, tried to discriminate among them, and try to fit a pattern to events, explaining what occured. This is essentially history. Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ is the first known attempt to analyse the constitutions of states, and say which elements are good or bad. People are still compelled by the rhetoric of Cicero or Demosthenes, enraptured by the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles, inspired by the epics of Homer or Virgil, enchanted by the poetry of Ovid or Catullus. This is because the ancients are no different to the moderns – the same thoughts and desires motivate both; but the expression of these is defined against the ancients, since the ancients set them down first. Even if someone does something ‘new’, we only say that it is new because it is not like what has come before; the ancients.

Aside from this, the reasoning of the ancients, and reasoning in their languages, still permeates are society. The New Testament was written in Greek, for instance, and many people hold that it is a good basis for living. Other ideas are more subtle. The idea of a ‘spiritual’ part of identity is first seriously postulated by Plato, and has been ingrained in many strands of theological thinking. The scientific method has its origins in Aristotle’s ‘organon’, where he proposes looking at many things to understand their nature. Notions of all-conquering and all-excusing love are fully developed in Catullus, and few have rivalled Thucydides’ insight into the causes of civil war. The ancients don’t merely define the debate, they also contribute greatly to it.

On a more practical note, the skills the study of classical language teaches are over-looked, since it is not immediately applicable. After all, English has dispensed with the case-system, and with noun genders. But, if we look laterally a Latin text, it becomes an exercise both in verbal and non-verbal reasoning. We reason non-verbally, since we know that the ending ‘-os’ in Latin (regardless of what the rest of the word looks like or means) denotes a masuline accusative plural, and so must go with the other word ending in ‘-os’. Consequently, we now know that that noun, descibed by that adjective, is the object of the verb (or an indirect object with a preposition). Classical language teaches these non-verbal reasoning skills, how to piece together things simply from how they look, without us actually needing to know what any of the words mean – something, incidentally, which it is impossible to deduce in English, since has almost completely abandoned inflection. But it is also verbal reasoning: Latin presents a sentence of the form:’ master into villa in order that dinner he might eat he went’. It is a basic test to re-order the sentence into meaningful English: ‘The master went into [his] villa in order to eat [his] dinner.’

But there are also higher-level verbal reasoning tests in classical language. The Greek ‘logos’ means ‘word’. However, Homer says, after a speech: ‘and all the Achaeans heard his logos’, whereas Plato might comment after a particularly good postulation: ‘your logos is very sound indeed’. It is a verbal reasoning skill to realise that ‘logos’ in Homer means ‘speech’ and in Plato ‘argument’.

Ultimately, the lack of immediate use for Latin and Greek is a deterrent for some. However, for those that choose to pursue them, it is obvious that the study of them, while it has its own pleasures (and who is not enchanted by the Odyssey in some way?), teaches skills beyond the ability to translate the languages themselves.

But even then, there is an more-or-less immediate use. Extending your Latin or Greek vocabulary will probably extend your English. Some are obvious: confligare (lat) – to set alight; conflagration (eng) – fire. tele (gk) – far; visum (lat) – to be seen; television (eng) – that which is seen from afar. Some are more convoluted: kunos (gk) – dog; which became the name of the ‘kunikes’ – a group of philosophers that refused to believe anything, and hence, cynic. Or even: persona (gk/lat) – theatre mask; while the same word in English has come to mean a personality that someone dons, not just a mask. And some are frankly obscure, take Stentor of the loud war-cry, who features in Homer. He has given us the word ‘stentorian’ – excessively loud. With around 60% (lat. per centum – for each 100) of the words in English having a Greek or Latin origin, it is not unsurprising that study of these languages vastly improves vocabulary.

Even beyond this, the features we identified as unattractive beforehand may not be so unattractive. Reading ancients defend their beliefs, so radically different, yet startlingly similar in places, causes us to reconsider our beliefs, and think of them in a different light. No classics teacher, to my mind, says that we should accept everything the ancients hand down; certainly not the gold-mining giant ants in Herodotus, at any rate. But thinking about what they believed and why leads to interesting perspectives on what we believe, and why; perspectives that, had we stifled debate, may not have come to light. Classicists are renowned for being adaptable to a ranger of exotic worldviews – partly because they have engrossed themselves in some radically different ones for their studies.

However, since Latin and Greek are not on the national curriculum, there has been a drop in uptake of these subjects at every level, excepting at university, where growth is only seen on courses that teach a language alongside history and literature from scratch. It was muttered that the last government had it in for classics – making it increasingly difficult for state schools to offer small class sizes (which account for the greater percentage of classics classes) and allowing classics exams to become monopolised under one body. This body attempted to change the examining structure leading to protests two years ago in London, and what looks now like a mounting volume of appeals against the board in Classical A-Levels. The subjects have gone from a staple of the English school system to a sideline.

Traditionally, classics has been seen as the preserve of the literate and well-educated. My contention is that education in the classics greatly assists one in becoming literate and well-educated. For sure, some people will not want to study Latin and Greek; they should not be forced to, just as people who don’t want to study philosophy aren’t forced to. But we should give many more people the option of studying these languages, given the incredible range of skills and profound impact upon our culture and thinking they have had.

[Apologies to Virgil for the title: see Aeneid II 49]


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