In order to reap the full rewards of a classical education, schools should prize the classical languages as highly as they do the mathematical arts. The qualitative and the quantitative are essential aspects of human understanding, without which no one may be fully educated.

Every rule has a story. Perhaps you have read an old law and wondered how it began. Why is it illegal to cross the road on your hands in Hartford, CT? Why would Waterbury find it necessary to prohibit beauticians from singing or humming? (Okay, that’s wise.) At some point, someone acted foolishly and necessitated a law. Now, we no longer remember the original action and so the law seems absurd. Without knowing the reason for the rule, it stands little chance of surviving. Latin and Greek stand in such a precarious position, even within classical schools. Do Latin and Greek have any unique advantages which make them indispensable to a classical education, or are educators clinging to relics of the past?

Perhaps the uniqueness of the classical languages can be illustrated by an appeal to music. There are four qualities the musician influences: Pitch is the note which is played, duration refers to how long a note is played, volume is the note’s intensity, and tone or timbre is the unique quality of the note, often described as bright or dark. All of these qualities, including pitch, exist on a continuum.

Some instruments, like the piano, offer great control over the first three qualities, pitch, duration, and volume, but no influence over tone. No matter how one presses a key, the timbre will be the same. The duration may be quick or long; the volume may be forte or piano, but the piano reliably produces the same tone. Thus, different musicians could play the same melody with the same dynamics (volume and speed) and they would be indistinguishable. The piano also restricts pitch to real notes in the Western scale, unlike fretless instruments like the violin. Fingering is relatively simple, with the lowest notes played by the leftmost fingers and the highest notes by the rightmost. This structure and limitation provide for complex, polyphonic music to be played with (relative) ease.

An instrument like the guitar, however, offers a more limited range of volume, but a greater control over pitch and tone. By bending the strings, guitarists may play notes which are not strictly included in the Western scale. The guitarist also has great control over the timbre of the note itself. By plucking the string closer to the neck, the instrument emits a mellow, dark sound. By playing close to the bridge, the instrument becomes bright, sharp, and metallic. Every variation in string attack also produces a change in the tone of the instrument. This affords the guitar player a great degree of flexibility in shaping the music and applying appropriate tonal qualities to the notes. A number of famous guitarists could play the same melody with the same fingering on the same instrument and yet remain recognizable. The tone comes directly from the fingertips. This provides for the large variety of sounds produced by the guitar (see Hendrix’s national anthem), but also substantiates Segovia’s claim, “The guitar is the easiest instrument to play and the hardest to play well.”

In some respects, Latin and Greek correspond to these two instruments. Through its fossilized structure, Latin offers a great degree of precision much like the piano in respect to pitch, volume, and duration. As the layout of the piano is fixed—the keys and notes do not vary between instruments—Latin syntax is frozen to the Renaissance ideal. Through the relative time sequence of verbs and participles, as well as the subordination of other verbals, every clause is exactly ordered in relationship to the other. It provides a structured map for long and complex phrases.

R.W. Livingstone illustrates,

Compare the English and Latin forms of the following thought: ‘The siege had lasted six months, and food supplies were running low, when the consul left Capua and set about the relief of the town.’ Sex iam menses durante obsidione, ita ut frumentum deficeret, consul Capua egressus oppido ferre auxilium paravit.[1]

In English, all the verbs are rendered as main or independent verbs, while Latin subordinates and ranks each one according to its importance. The main action of the sentence falls on the single main verb, paravit, while the rest of the verbs (durante, deficeret, egressus, and ferre) give time, result, means, and purpose to the main action. This ability to subordinate complex thoughts into a rigid structure make Latin unmatched as an organizing principle of thought. It generates new categories of mind which can be translated into a suitable form in the native language.

In contrast, Greek offers much greater flexibility. Through the optative mood as well as a more nuanced use of participles, Greek is supple and lithe. As the guitar allows minute control of pitch and tone, classical Greek gives free expression to philosophy and poetry. The multiplication of small particles allows fine shades of meaning that are often overlooked in English translations (through no fault of the translators). Through the combination of vocabulary and subtle variations of tense and mood, Greek is an evocative language unmatched by any other. Again, Livingstone illustrates,

English says: ‘If you go, I will follow’; Latin, more logical says: ‘If you shall have come, I will follow.’ Greek by its optative allows us to express the greater or less probability of the event in question (ἔαν ἔλθῃς or εἰ ἔλθοις).… Greek is like an organ with more stops [2]

Note the musical illustration of Livingstone. The “extra stops” of Greek offer these specific “shades of sarcasm, scepticism, and emphasis that we express by an inflection of the voice.”[3] Like the guitar offers a variety of tonal palettes to express emotion, Greek with its numerous and nuanced terms imitates the variation of the voice to communicate meaning. Consider the number of different ways one could pronounce the sentence, “I wouldn’t like to go to the movies,” simply by altering which word is emphasized.

The uniqueness of Latin and Greek (apart from their immortal literature) is their ability to order and shape thought and word unlike any other language. They are the gatekeepers of the trivium arts. One cannot think logically or speak persuasively if one has not mastered language, and the surest road to mastery of subordinate and contingent relationships of language and fine shades of meaning in words are the classical languages. Modern languages may teach simple grammar such as direct and indirect objects or verb tenses, but because of the entropy of language (compare modern Greek to classical Greek), they lack simultaneously the complexity and order of the classical languages. This is one of the great benefits of studying a “dead” language; they don’t change! One should study cadavers before performing surgery on a living thing.

The structure of complex relations of time, cause, and circumstance provided by Latin is often overlooked when defending Latin study.[4] If one is thinking of simple grammar—subject, verb, object—there is little advantage of classical languages over modern ones. Yet language possesses far more possibilities. Latin provides additional relationships of nouns such as a genitive of material or origin; a dative of reference, result, possession, or the double dative. Students are often confused by the multiplicity of options for Latin cases because they are unused to thinking in these categories. Once students begin learning the subjunctive mood, the relative time of participles, and the various relations of cum and ut clauses, their minds will develop new possibilities for language. The mental linguistic discipline provided by Latin study is unmatched by any modern language.

If a classical education aims to recover the trivium arts, it cannot abandon long, sustained study of Latin. This means syntax and reading. Because Latin is vital to mastery of the trivium, removing Latin from high school should be regarded in the same fashion as eliminating math. Latin organizes thought and word with logic and style unlike any other discipline. By reading, translating, and composing in Latin, students become more rigorous in their thinking and communication. This effect on mental development cannot be replicated by any other language or subject. Not only do advanced Latin classes expose students to the great minds of history (Virgil, Livy, Cicero), but they also train students in “linguistic logic”—the ability to decode and construct complex relationships of thought to be expressed in speech.

Modern languages cannot provide these benefits for two reasons. First, they are often taught through conversational or natural methods which start with small, simple phrases and often gloss over grammar altogether. Students learn to say something without understanding the mechanics of the language. This method of teaching gives students an instrument and instructs them, “just play.” It has no discipline of scales, notes, sheet music, or chord composition. Second, modern languages lack the complexity and structure of the classical languages. For this reason, they are easier to learn and understand, yet, because they are simpler, they cannot develop the same mental discipline and order as the classical languages.

Modern languages might be likened to a recorder, an instrument with a long history and which can be played with great skill and beauty. However, young students begin with recorders for a reason. Similarly, there is depth and beauty in the great literature of modern languages, yet they, as languages, cannot develop the same habits of mind like the Latin and Greek classics. Most are familiar with Bach’s pieces for the organ or violin, but not the recorder. These instruments are more highly esteemed for their music and sound.

It is essential that schools recover the basis for the classical languages and give their students more than a smattering of conjugations and vocabulary. Latin is the linguistic counterpart to math, for without Latin no one can master the language arts. Advanced syntax and reading courses are essential to unlocking the full potential of the human capacity for language. The greatest benefits of the classical languages are lost if students do not read Cicero, Virgil, Caesar, or Livy. Classical education prizes the great books in the original languages. Only in the 20th century has that idea been abandoned to our detriment. “The idea that Latin and Greek can be equally well read in translations is a favourite opinion with those who do not know the languages at all, but few, if any, experts will share it.”[5] In order to reap the full rewards of a classical education, schools should prize the classical languages as highly as they do the mathematical arts. The qualitative and the quantitative are essential aspects of human understanding, without which no one may be fully educated.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] R.W. Livingstone, A Defence of Classical Education, (Macmillan: London, 1916), pg. 218-219.

[2] Ibid., pg. 220.

[3] Ibid., pg 219.

[4] Latin and Greek are more similar to each other than to modern languages. Yet, because English shares the Latin alphabet, Latin is often a more accessible starting point. Thus, schools, if they only choose one, are more likely to select Latin.

[5] Livingstone, pg. 214.

The featured image is a detail from The Parnassus (1511) by Raphael (1483–1520) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email