Reflecting on the value of learning other languages, the great German poet Goethe famously remarks that wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen – “he who is ignorant of foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” In the case of Latin, we can be more specific. To Goethe’s wise observation I would propose the following addendum: in the western world, anyone who is ignorant of Latin knows nothing of himself.
In fact, everyone knows a little Latin. Its roots pervade our language and culture. If you have ever studied American law or government, read the periodic table, or even told the time (AM and PM stand for ante or post meridiem – “before” or “after noon” – respectively), you have engaged with the Latin language. The very alphabet we teach our children is – with very minor alterations – that of the ancient Romans.
But these details barely scratch the surface. The deeper you study Latin, the more you will discover that it is, so to speak, the DNA of our civilization and the medium of our cultural
identity. Through it, all the most foundational observations in theology, philosophy, math, and science have been transmitted. Indeed, it was not only the ancients who wrote in Latin: it was also the early Church Fathers, including Augustine and Jerome; the scholars of the Middle Ages, such as Aquinas and Dante; many writers of the Renaissance, including Petrarch and Luther; and most scientists of the Enlightenment, such as Copernicus and Newton. In short, for the greater part of 2000 years, most individuals who had anything important to write did so in Latin. Even as this standard dwindled, great thinkers continued to be molded and influenced by Latin publications of all ages. Our Founding Fathers, for example, were thoroughly steeped in the language of the ancient Romans – especially John Adams and Charles Carroll, the latter of whom ranked the works of Cicero second only to the Bible.
In one way or another, therefore, our country, our sciences, our literature, our arts, and our faith all have roots in Latin. That is to say that without the Latin language we would not live how we live, know what we know, read what we read, find beautiful what we find beautiful, or believe what we believe – and it is, I think, the sum of those things that make us who we are. It is our shared Western Heritage.
To learn Latin, in other words, is to obey the age-old command: nosce te ipsum (“know thyself”). As it stands, most of us are aware of our roots; everyone knows a little Latin. But in order to know ourselves better, to understand how we have developed over the past 2000 years, and to converse directly, as it were, with the greatest philosophers, scientists, and writers of our past, we must dive deeper into the original lingua franca of our civilization.
Mr. Dalton Sala
Upper School Latin Teacher