When I was in high school, I had Latin in 9th and 10th grade. Our Latin teacher had a curious personal custom. He sacrificed annually, in honor of Great Caesar, on the Ides of March, the male student in each class who had offended him by doing the least work and/or being the most disruptive influence. He sacrificed additionally one female student from each class whose selection, I fear, was based only upon his own capricious whim and covert sexual attraction.
The sacrifice consisted of the victim being bent over a desk and receiving three strokes of a paddle, delivered by a six foot, 250 lb+. Latin teacher laying on the strokes with a will and putting his weight behind them. (I won’t name him.) Mr. X’s paddle was a four foot long piece of 1 1/2″ thick pine, produced in our high school’s wood shop by General Curriculum students, who did not take Latin, but admired Mr. X. The paddle was roughly in the form of a Roman gladius, and its surface was scored by a series of regular lines, because it was generally believed that a blow from an uneven surface was more painful.
Mr. X had a fixed policy of assigning the duty of construing the day’s Latin assignment on the blackboard in strict and completely predictable order, going up and down the aisles of desks. Two or three of the smart kids would always actually do the Latin, and it was our recognized duty to supply the translations in advance to the person who would be going to the blackboard.
Readiness to translate correctly was really vital, because Mr. X would apply his dreaded paddle to anyone who failed to write out the day’s assignment correctly on the blackboard. It was rare, but every once in a while some truly feckless idiot would neglect to seek out Kenny Hollenbach, Jack Rigrotsky, or yours truly, and would arrive at the blackboard, chalk in hand, unprepared.
Mr. X typically broke the current paddle over the defaulter’s posterior, and the mental defectives in shop class would gleefully commence the fabrication of a new, yet more elaborate, edition of the famous paddle.
Every March 15th, two 9th and 10th grade Academic Curriculum sections would look on with the same sadistic interest of Roman spectators at the gladitorial games, as Mr. X conducted his sacrifices. I can recall that he struck the pretty strawberry blonde with the well-developed embonpoint so hard that he raised dust from her skirt. We were a bit puzzled that girls actually submitted to being beaten with a paddle for no reason, but all this went on undoubtedly because the legend of Mr. X the fierce disciplinarian had enormous appeal in our local community. The whole thing was fascinating, and it all made such a good story that everyone, student and adult, in their heart of hearts, enthusiastically approved.
Mr. X would never be allowed to get away with that kind of thing today, alas! In Hades, poor Caesar must do without his sacrifice. And it is my impression that Latin instruction has rather overwhelmingly also become a thing of the past. Kids today learn Spanish. Modern languages are easier and thought more relevant.
Tim de Lisle would not approve. He recently argued that Latin the best language.
If you work with words, Latin is the Pilates session that stays with you for life: it strengthens the core. It teaches you grammar and syntax, better than your own language, whose structure you will have absorbed before you are capable of noticing it. Latin offers no hiding place, no refuge for the woolly. Each piece of the sentence has to slot in with the rest; every ending has to be the right one. To learn Latin is to learn rigour.
The price for the rigour is the mortis. Soon enough, someone will helpfully inform you that Latin is a dead language. In one way, sure, but in others it lives on. It is a vivid presence in English and French, it is the mother of Italian and Spanish, and it even seeps into German. More often than not, the words these languages have in common are the Latin ones: it remains a lingua franca. The words we take from Latin tend to be long, reflective, intellectual (the short, punchy words we didnâ€™t need to import: live, die, eat, drink, love, hate). Business and academia, two worlds with little else in common, both rely more and more on long Latinate words. The European Union speaks little else. Ten years ago, for another article, I had to read the proposed European constitution. It was a long turgid parade of Latin-derived words. The burghers of Brussels were trying to build a superstate out of abstract nouns.
Management-speak and Euro-blather are Latin at its worst, but learning it will still help you cut through them to find clarity. It is a little harder to bullshit when youâ€™ve learnt Latin (though quite possible to bluster, as Boris Johnson proves). And if you stick at it you discover, after no more than eight or nine years, that this is a glorious language per se.
Its literature has stood the test of millennia: Ovid is diverting, Lucretius is stimulating, Cicero is riveting. Horace can be a dragâ€”like a bad weekend columnist, always wittering on about his garden and his cellar, except when coming out with quotable drivel about how sweet it is to die in battle. But his contemporary Virgil is majestic. He set himself the most daunting taskâ€”giving Rome its own â€œIliadâ€ and â€œOdysseyâ€, in a single epic, while staying on the right side of an emperorâ€”and pulled it off. I did French and Greek too for years, and enjoyed them, but nothing quite matched up to the pleasure of reading the â€œAeneidâ€ in the original.
Hat tip to Bird Dog.
I think Mr. de Lisle is quite right about the benefits to one’s writing skills of the study of the classical languages in one’s youth, though personally I do not admire (or have good) Latin at all. I had two years of high school Latin, and I still have great difficulty in figuring out who is doing what to whom in the typical Latin sentence. I much prefer Greek, and I would far rather read The Iliad in the original than The Aeneid.