For many people, Latin is useless. I won’t enter into a discussion on the meaning of “utility,” a concept with variations and stratifications that are centuries in the making, and which itself merits an entire book. What I will say here, however, is that those “many people”—civilians, politicians, professionals in every field—have a sadly (and dangerously) limited idea of education and human development. What their focus on “utility” betrays is the belief that, in the end, knowledge amounts to know-how, that thought should be immediately adapted toward a practical aim. But if that were the case, knowledge would hardly be useful: we’d have surgeons, plumbers, and not much else, given that machines are growing more and more responsible for satisfying our primary needs. Eventually the surgeon or plumber will disappear too. And if such is the fate of knowledge, that it be surrendered to machines—or, as we put it more often these days, to technology—what exactly will there be for humans to know? Of course, we’ll have to learn how to build the machines and keep them functioning, and to dispose of the remains when they become obsolete, and to procure the materials necessary to build new machines.
In short, all in service of machines, with the idea, no doubt, that machines are fundamental, the only truly useful thing, the all-encompassing solution . . . But what about the rest? Those needs that aren’t immediate, that aren’t practical or distinctly material, and yet are no less urgent? The so-called spirit? Memory, imagination, creativity, depth, complexity? And what about the larger questions, which are common to other essential domains of knowledge, including biology, physics, philosophy, psychology, and art: where and when did it all begin, where do I go, who am I, who are others, what is society, what is history, what is time, what is language, what are words, what is human life, what are feelings, who is a stranger, what am I doing here, what am I saying when I speak, what am I thinking when I think, what is meaning? Interpretation, in other words. Because without interpretation there is no freedom, and without freedom there is no happiness. This leads to passivity, a tacit acceptance of even our brighter moods. One becomes a slave to politics and the market, driven on by false needs.
Then there are those, perhaps a smaller group, who maintain that Latin does in fact have a purpose. Latin, according to this camp, teaches us how to reason and instills a certain discipline, which can then be applied to any other task. So Latin is just like math. I can’t tell you how many times I heard this growing up, and how often I hear it still! They defend Latin by granting it the merits of other branches of knowledge, while ignoring its own unique merits—without recognizing that Latin offers something that math can’t offer, just as math offers things that Latin can’t.
Neither argument—that of the “usefuls” nor that of the “uselesses”—is quite what engenders and nourishes a love for Latin. The objection given by the uselesses is just as weak as that of the usefuls: that Latin’s purpose is to train the mind. Its rich morphology for jogging the memory, its syntax for stimulating our logical-deductive capacity, and so on . . . All true. But if Latin is this alone, an exercise gym, it would be all the same to study other complex languages, such as German, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese, which have the added benefit of being still in use. And wouldn’t algebra serve just as well to reinforce our memory and logical skills? Or chemistry? Even a mystery novel might do the trick!
The frail argument offered by the usefuls has, for decades, helped to prop up shaky pedagogical and rhetorical methods, only adding fuel to the fire of the uselesses. The structure won’t hold anymore. No, the study of Latin—demanding, challenging, exhausting, and, like a good hike through the mountains, restorative in and of itself—must not be treated like a cognitive boot camp. Next we’ll be going to the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum to sharpen our vision and to La Scala to improve our hearing. Divers and ballerinas have beautiful physiques, no doubt, but they’ve built those muscles so they can dive and dance, not to look at themselves in the mirror. When we study Latin, we must study it for one fundamental reason: because it is the language of a civilization; because the Western world was created on its back. Because inscribed in Latin are the secrets of our deepest cultural memory, secrets that demand to be read.
One other minor contention against the usefuls and the uselesses: Latin is beautiful. This fact undergirds all that I will be saying in these pages. Beauty is the face of freedom. What all totalitarian regimes have most strikingly in common is their ugliness, which spreads to every aspect and form of life, even to nature. And by the adjective “beautiful” I mean to say that Latin is various, malleable, versatile, easy and difficult, simple and complicated, regular and irregular, clear and obscure, with multiple registers and jargons, with thousands of rhetorical styles, with a voluble history. Why give ourselves practical reasons for encountering beauty? Why impede ourselves with false arguments about comprehension? Why submit ourselves to the cult of instant access, of destination over journey, of answers at the click of a button, of the shrinking attention span? Why surrender to the will-less, the superficial, the defeatists, the utilitarians? Why not see that behind the question “What’s the point of Latin?”—perhaps posed unassumingly—rests a violence and an arrogance, an assault on the world’s richness and the greatness of the human intellect?
I would like to put the reader on guard against one more noxious cliché. Even among specialists one hears the term “dead language” thrown around. This characterization arises from a misconception of how languages live and die, and a hazy distinction between the written and the oral. Oral language is linked immediately with the idea of being alive. But this is a bias. Latin, even if it’s no longer spoken, is present in an astounding number of manuscripts—and writing, particularly literary writing, is a far more durable means of communication than any oral practice. If, therefore, Latin lives on in the most complex form of writing we’ve yet imagined, namely literature, is it not absurd to proclaim it dead?
Latin is alive, and it’s more alive than what we tell our friend at the café or our sweetheart on the phone, in exchanges that leave no trace. Think of it on an even larger scale. In this very moment the entire planet is jabbering, amassing an immeasurable heap of words. And yet those words are already gone. Another heap has already formed, also destined to vanish in an instant.
It’s not enough that the speaker is living to say that the language he or she speaks is alive. A living language is one that endures and produces other languages, which is precisely the case with Latin. I’m not referring to the Romance languages, which were born from spoken Latin, or to the massive contribution of Latin vocabulary to the English lexicon. What I mean to say is that Latin qua literature has inspired the creation of other literature, of other written works, and, as such, distinguishes itself from other ancient languages: those that, even with a written record, are truly dead on the page, since they served in no way as a model for other languages.
Dante would never have composed his Divine Comedy without the model of the Aeneid, nor Milton his Paradise Lost; Machiavelli could not have written his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy without Livy’s history; nor Castiglione his Book of the Courtier without the paradigm of Cicero’s De oratore; Shakespeare’s rise would have been inconceivable without the influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We could fill hundreds of pages with such examples, coming from every age, even our current one, and from every cultural tradition on earth. Written Latin gradually became the voice of the past, and this voice struck up a dialogue with posterity. And there’s no truer or more moving representation of this conversational power, I believe, than Machiavelli’s letter to his friend Vettori. Machiavelli, having been expelled from the world of politics, describes the consolation he finds in reading the ancients. But reading, in this letter, becomes an exchange, a dialogue, and it takes on the appearance of a real, physical encounter. Here, the books stand in for the authors, alive and well despite their temporal remove, and his study becomes the magical space of an initiation ritual. In his words:
[. . .] once properly attired, I step into the ancient courts of ancient men, where, a beloved guest, I nourish myself on that food that is mine alone and for which I was born; where I speak to them without inhibition and ask them the reasons behind their actions; and in their humanity they reply; and for four hours I feel not a drop of boredom, think nothing of my cares, am fearless of poverty, unrattled by death; I transfer all of myself into them. (Letter to Francesco Vettori, December 10, 1513)
One’s encounter with the ancients, we note, even has its own dress code. It’s not a private matter but a public ritual. Note also that Machiavelli calls this encounter a “conversation.” A metaphor, of course—not a fly could be heard buzzing in his study, I imagine. And yet that silence has all the power of a real verbal exchange, resounding and alive, though bound within the perimeter of his mind.
However unique Machiavelli’s “conversation” appears to be, we all do something similar when we approach a classical text: we participate in the growth of tradition. Our very act of reading is not simply a private practice, but posits itself within the overarching temporality of cultural transmission, which takes centuries. By reading, we are not just living today: we are living in history, transcending our biographies and entering a much broader chronology.
Despite this similarity, we must also remember that the culture to which Machiavelli belonged, the Renaissance, was profoundly Latin. Indeed, the Renaissance came about as a direct result of the revival of Latin antiquity, developing in strict dialogue with its texts, even when the authors chose to express themselves in the vernacular. Of course, Latin was also crucial to the development of vernacular literature before the Renaissance, and to some extent we could even claim that there was a revival of the Latin classics in the Middle Ages, before the times of Petrarch. Dante is a case in point. His Divine Comedy could never have been written if Dante the author had not elected the pagan Virgil as a teacher of his textual double, Dante the Pilgrim. Though Dante remains an exception in his century, and his relationship with the Latin classics is conditioned by a strict Christian censure, the fact remains that the father of European vernacular literature conceived of his poem as a companion piece to Latin’s greatest epic. Today, more than ever, the Divine Comedy strikes us as a magnificent and exemplary fusion of ancient and modern.
Over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, science grows in influence. Religion’s grip on society weakens and, even in a persistently Christian climate, a passionate interest in rediscovery takes hold, giving new clarity to the once clouded perception of antiquity. The recovery of Latin texts becomes a field of study in and of itself, bringing about shifts in pedagogical thinking and literary taste, and elevating grammar to the science of sciences. One thinks of Lorenzo the Magnificent, or of Aldo Manuzio’s editorial work, founded entirely on the spread of Graeco-Latin antiquity. A new religion sweeps the world, one might say, a perfectly human religion: one of textual precision and purity; a cult of the word as a living, evolving trace of man’s existence. The university, the library, the private study all rise to the level of sanctuaries. Texts are carefully analyzed and annotated, combed through for even the subtlest glimmers of meaning. The interpreter bows humbly before the author’s complexity, allowing it to resonate—as exemplified in the Florentine lectures held by Agnolo Poliziano, one of the most brilliant minds that Europe has ever produced (his teachings receive international acclaim, prompting the admiration of such prestigious personalities as Erasmus of Rotterdam).
Whether annotating Persius’s Satires or Virgil’s Georgics, Poliziano scrutinizes each and every word or expression that he deems worthy of consideration, determining its exact meaning and textual form. His preferred method is to illuminate a single linguistic element by turning to passages from other ancient authors, even those distant in time from the author being analyzed. He situates and considers each individual word within a network, a civilization, or a tradition, and only there can its true meaning emerge. It’s not a case of establishing, as did Dante, how Christian Virgil already was. With Poliziano, the task is to establish who the author in question truly and specifically was, what the words of the Latin language mean in relationship to ancient culture as a whole. No longer is it a search for oneself in the other, but for the other as other, as a historical product, perfect and beautiful in his historical completeness. Beauty and truth become one, to put it in John Keats’s words. In his letter to Vettori, Machiavelli reveals a respect for the ancients on par with that of Poliziano, if less technical.
Knowledge is described as “food,” or nourishment, a source of life. But what’s most striking in the letter quoted above is the verb trasferire (to transfer): that need to enter the world of the ancients, the very opposite of the desire to haul them into the present age. To enter into contact with the ancients requires a transference of oneself, as clearly indicated by the Latin preposition trans: this is an effort to understand historically, to step out of one’s individual identity and approach the other. Only then can the past take on meaning and give pleasure. Mere pastism? An inability to live in the present? Not at all. In the next paragraph of this same letter, Machiavelli goes on to describe his work on The Prince, one of the most innovative texts of all time. In fact, he even intends to intervene in the present with this treatise, providing drastic solutions to the current crisis.
The Renaissance is philology, the scientific study of ancient words, their forms and meanings. But it is also the defiant response of those who, centuries later, felt themselves caught in the same ceaseless, destructive current, the same perishability that Latin sought to oppose and from which, in part, it has managed to escape. Through the passionate study of antiquity, the present discovers its own historicity and attempts to moor itself against time’s ruinous momentum.
Excerpted from Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language by Nicola Gardini. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 12th 2019. Copyright © 2016 by Nicola Gardini. Translation copyright © 2019 by Todd Portnowitz. All rights reserved.