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A Brief to the People: A response to David Warren

Having written hundreds of “briefs to princes” in the Vatican’s “mere Latin translation bureau,” I feel obliged to respond to David Warren’s recent appeal [1] for a daily Latin newspaper. If someone is willing to put up the money, I will send the first edition to the printer tomorrow.

My motivation, however, would be far different from his. Rather than offering “a little elitist island of sanity and spiritual calm,” I would want the paper to generate as much lively discussion and debate as always has and always will be generated in, around, and through Latin. I would want to aim the paper at the populus and not just the principes.

Yet even if I shared Mr. Warren’s desire for a limited audience, he is mistaken in thinking that “a newspaper in Latin would pass right under the progressive radar.” Anybody involved in classics knows the extent to which progressivism has permeated the field.

Mary Beard, a brilliant classicist at Cambridge, is constantly raising her progressive voice on issues ranging from immigration to feminism to terrorism. Donna Zuckerberg just published a fascinating book entitled Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age [2]. I admire these women, even though I disagree with them fundamentally on several fronts.

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Be that as it may, they – and others like them – could devour a single-folded broadsheet in Latin faster than most conservatives.

Warren’s attitude toward Latin actually represents one of the factors that had contributed to its demise. It’s for the smart, the sophisticated, the sane. It’s a secret code that separates those who are right from those who are wrong.

But Latin has never been that way, nor should it ever be. I have had the pleasure of teaching Latin to students from many different schools at several colleges and universities: some public, some private, some Catholic.

Those with a solid foundation in Latin generally come from very secular, progressive families. There are Catholics, of course, and these broadly fall into two groups: those who love to talk about the importance of Latin but can barely locate a subject, let alone an object, and those who are extremely proficient in Latin thanks to exceptional homeschooling.

Unfortunately, the latter group is significantly smaller than the former. My colleagues in the Vatican Latin Office and I first proposed that Benedict XVI open a Latin Twitter account after we had received a barrage of letters – in Italian, Spanish, English, French, German, and Polish – asking, “Why in the world doesn’t the pope tweet in the Church’s official language?” Failing to do so would mean throwing “western civilization” (if I may be permitted to use that term) out the window. And they are right.

So we did begin tweeting in Latin, and we quickly discovered that Latin was something that – pace Warren’s expectations – “could be read by almost anyone.” Granted, a portion of those following the pope on Twitter in Latin do so simply for the sake of novelty, but internal canvassing revealed that the majority knew at least some Latin.

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Perhaps most telling is the fact that comments and retweets on the Latin account are far more civilized, thoughtful, and humane than those on the vernacular accounts. And just maybe that provides an alternative model to the nasty polarization that’s almost universal elsewhere on social media.

Warren quotes my incomparable teacher and predecessor in the Latin Office, Fr. Reginald Foster: “If you don’t know what time of day it is, or what your name is, or where you are, don’t try Latin because it will smear you on the wall like an oil spot.”

Well, it turns out that a whole lot of people want to be smeared on the wall like an oil spot. They are yearning for the “mental order” and “intellectual consistency” duly praised by Mr. Warren.

Latin does indeed “privilege” reason and “intellectual consistency,” and that is why every attempt should be made to spread not just knowledge of Latin but also command of it. It should promote argumentation, not stifle or hide it. It can and should be read by almost anyone precisely because it is a civilized, focused way of broaching “dangerous” topics.

Fr. Foster has always adamantly insisted that his courses are not about religion, theology, philosophy, let alone “literary theory.” But anyone who has attended his courses has been forced to think and learn about these topics and many more. Yes, even literary theory.

You can do any of those things, Foster insists, but only if you know Latin first. The Paideia Institute [4], built upon Fr. Foster’s legacy, was founded “to provide opportunities for rigorous and intensive study of Latin and Greek from all historical periods, to inspire students to form close personal relationships with the classics through extraordinary learning experiences, and to increase access to and engagement with the classical humanities across all sectors of society.”

The instructors and students are a rag-tag group of secular atheists, inquisitive agnostics, reactionary and radical Catholics, and everything in between. The discussions (often held in Latin) that take place at Paideia events invariably probe life’s deepest questions, but they do so because, first and foremost, they aim at understanding and mastering the Latin text.

It is true. We need a Latin newspaper since, as Warren claims, it would facilitate “exchange between persons of diverse linguistic backgrounds” and restore “genuine cosmopolitanism.” But beware: if you want to join the “Latinosphere,” you will find anything but an elite group of like-minded conservatives. You will rather find every race, class, orientation, and opinion under the sun.

The difference is that these people are willing to enter into a sympathetic, humane dialogue based on historical, practical, and theoretical knowledge gained by reading really good books in the original language.

Thus a Latin newspaper would be a magnificent catalyst for such sanity, but a sanity that welcomes diversity and relishes good argument.

 

Image: A 2nd-century relief showing a teacher and three pupils [found in Neumagen near Trier in southwestern Germany]

Daniel Gallagher is the Ralph and Jeanne Kanders Associate Professor of the Practice in Latin at Cornell University. He worked in the Latin Section of the Vatican Secretariat of State for ten years.