Magazine article The Spectator

Natale Christi Hilare et Faustum Annum Novum!

Magazine article The Spectator

Natale Christi Hilare et Faustum Annum Novum!

Article excerpt

Journalists are paid to be thought-provoking, but something very odd comes over them when they unfold their thoughts on the subject of Latin.

Neal Ascherson, for example, once argued in the Independent on Sunday that he had been taught Latin at Eton as 'a rite of exclusion for those outside, a ceremony of submission for those inside', with a view to 'subordinating the will on a mental barracksquare' and producing people subservient to authority. Further, it prevented him learning Slavic languages. He concluded that Latin was 'part of England's fake heritage, part of that pseudo-ancient landscape which I call Druidic. And it should be left to fall down.' There is something faintly risible about someone who has been to Eton drawing conclusions applicable to all from his own educational experience. But if that was how Latin was taught at Eton, it can hardly be the subject's fault. Blame the staff at Eton who taught it and invested it with those characteristics. Latin can no more decide how it will be taught than geography or nuclear physics can.

How, likewise, can Latin be responsible for the curriculum not offering Slavic languages?

Latin does not construct the curriculum.

Humans do.

Last year Sir Simon Jenkins in the Times went down a similar path. 'I studied classics to A-level [at Mill Hill]. I found them enjoyable, irrelevant and a dreadful cost to my wider education, which I have struggled to rectify ever since.' Sir Simon is now 63. Is he really still 'struggling to rectify' the 'dreadful cost' of learning Latin and Greek to the age of 18?

Blimey. As for the subjects being 'enjoyable' but 'irrelevant', I have always thought enjoyment the most relevant thing in the world.

Last month in this magazine Paul Johnson questioned a friend's belief in 'a Latin revival' on the grounds that 'I haven't heard anyone saying anything in Latin recently'. He then listed a number of Latin quotations that he was tired of having to explain to people. The piece was not hostile to the study of the subject -- Johnson had much to say, rightly, about the glories of mediaeval Latin -- but the argument that only a return to quoting Latin tags would demonstrate a revival in the subject strikes me as trivialising it. It is as if the purpose of Latin is to give you entry to a secret club.

And then up pops Harry Mount's Amo, Amas, Amat, which appears to argue that Latin should not be learnt unless you are prepared to master all the technical vocabulary that goes with it. You may be able to translate delenda est Carthago and analyse it as a gerundive with the verb 'to be', but unless you also know that it is an example of the passive periphrastic, you have not, according to Mount, learnt Latin properly; velle alterum, Mons. It is up to Mount to explain what purpose useful to the learner is served by that term in relation to that particular construction.

The real point about all these pieces is that, far from saying anything new or interesting or controversial about Latin, they sing an ancient tune, now hundreds of years old, which has created the blind prejudices against the classical languages that the responses exemplify.

In her wonderful Latin, or the Empire of the Sign Françoise Waquet begins by arguing that in the Renaissance a classical education was felt to have eternal value, shaping the whole man and preparing him for the most important profession of all -- life, because the ancient world seemed to offer the perfect model for living. No one asked, precisely, how; it was simply assumed. In other words, men grovelled in untimely worship before what is, after all, merely a language with the same unquestioning, sanctimonious fervour as they do now before The Arts. …

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