In defence of Latin

An increased number of students reading Latin texts can only be a good thing, writes Tom Gardner.

Christopher Pyne’s announcement of federal government funding for classical languages brought out the same specious arguments about Latin on both sides. For some, Latin was dead and irrelevant, while for others, it could improve literacy or critical thinking skills, or help with learning other languages. Both arguments ignore the most salient and obvious reason for choosing to learn Latin: the ability to read Latin texts.

Most of our knowledge about ancient Rome comes from literary sources, which are usually in Latin. The language is therefore indispensable for the study of Roman history (not to mention other historical periods), such that classical languages are a prerequisite for ancient history honours at the University of Sydney. Few would disagree with the suggestion that we should have a cultural and academic understanding of Roman history, so it is surprising that Latin is scorned as irrelevant.

The Latin language is also worthy on its own terms. I would challenge anyone to read the Aeneid, or read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and say that this language is any less worthy of being taught. There are endless poems, histories, letters, and speeches worth studying simply for their literary value, each with their own beauty, and their own insights into philosophy and humanity. As the poet Martial says, hominem pagina nostra sapit: ‘my page has a human flavour’. Learning Latin is compelling because it allows one to listen to people from two thousand years ago, in their own words, and thereby better understand how they lived and thought.

The arguments against Latin education reflect the increasing vocationalisation of education and the economic rationalism of education policy. Latin doesn’t help you get a job and it doesn’t help you in international business. It doesn’t help the Australian economy. So throw it away.

This is the argument used to defund liberal arts and humanities everywhere. And it would seem like the kind of argument that would be quite attractive to a government such as this one, which is taking large amounts of money from both secondary and tertiary education anyway.

But Latin education is inextricably associated with the elite, conservative schools of English aristocrats. Australia has inherited the association of Latin with wealth, so that in Sydney, HSC Latin is taught almost exclusively at top private schools. Tony Abbott’s government, more than other Liberal governments, wants to signal its appreciation of elite tradition. That’s why we now have knights and dames, and that’s why the government is prepared to fund a dead language in a time of education austerity.

But whatever the motivation for this policy, I hope it will provide more Australian students the opportunity to read works of Latin. The value of this opportunity is implicated in the value of studying history or literature. Latin teaches us about political and legal theory, philosophy and history, love and grief. Cicero makes this point better than I could in his defence of reading:

haec studia adulescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur

These studies nourish youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, they offer refuge in solace and adversity, they delight us at home, but do not hinder us outdoors, they go to the countryside with us, they travel with us, they stay with us through the night.

That, I think, is reason enough to learn Latin.