Does Latin "train the brain"?
Spurred on by Eric Dickens’s comments on my last blog, I return to the topic of the moment, or at least to one currently exercising correspondents to the Times: the value of a “classical education”.
Eric suspects that the “bureaucratic spirit” of the modern university has “swept aside <my> enthusiasm” for proselytizing the study of the ancient world among the young. Boris Johnson, he hints, is doing a better job in this respect.
So let’s see if I can (enthusiastically) hit the nail more firmly on the head. What IS the point of learning Latin?
There are several reasons often touted that seem to me wide of the mark. (Sorry – a typically academic way to kick off; but these do have to be disposed of first.)
You do NOT learn Latin because it helps you to understand the spells in Harry Potter, or to read the slogans on pound coins. That may be a side benefit, but frankly you’re not missing much in life if you don’t get all of Harry’s wizardry.
You do NOT learn Latin because it helps you learn other languages. Again that may be a knock on effect. But if you want to learn (say) Spanish, it’s better to get on with it, not learn Latin first to make it easier. (Besides, I always feel that any subject that tries to justify itself by claiming that it helps you learn something else is on the way out.)
You do NOT learn Latin because it hones your critical and logical thinking. True I rather like S.H. R. James’s jingle that “Latin trains the brain” (just as I am touched by Stephen Dalzell’s plaudit for the sheer uselessness of the language). But Latin is only one of many subjects that does this. If we gave our kids three lessons in formal logic each week, we’d probably soon notice a difference in their critical power.
No, you learn Latin because of what was written in it – and because of the direct access that Latin gives you to a literary tradition that lies at the very heart (not just at the root) of Western culture.
Virgil’s Aeneid and Tacitus’ Annals (to name only two) are as mind-opening and life-changing works of literature as Hamlet, Paradise Lost or Anna Karenina. It is worth learning Latin just to be able to read them.
But more than that, the Latin Classics are so embedded in the Western literary tradition, that as a culture (I’m not necessarily talking about individual readers here) we would be lost in our own world if we could not access them. What would we make of Dante or Milton, for example, if we could not read them side by side with Virgil? (For that matter, I’m always amazed that moderns historians seem happy to work on figures such as Gladstone when they don’t know a word of the classical languages that were his daily bread and butter.)
Won’t translations do? Up to a point, yes. And let’s be honest, most people in this country for the last 500 years or so have consumed their Latin literature in the vernacular. Like it or not, Latin has always been an elite subject. But translations aren’t a complete substitute for two reasons.
First, if we let Latin drop entirely, who is going to be able to understand all the “new” Latin that continues to be discovered by the page, if not the volume-full – much of it (like the Vindolanda letters) from Britain? Or are we going to keep a handful of boffins on the job, translating the new stuff as it appears?
Second, translations never quite get you to the real thing. They are always versions, recast for whatever audience, time or place they have in mind. Try picking up any Victorian translation of Virgil and ask yourself if the Aeneid would still be read today if that was the only version we had. Literature can’t survive in translation alone.