Why Study Latin and Greek?

In my previous article about what classical education is, I mention that learning the Latin (and Greek) language, is paramount to a classical education. Studying Latin to fluency is the one thing that makes an education classical. Being able to read, write, and speak Latin, being able to translate from Latin to Greek to English and back again, being able to read the ancient authors—Greeks, Romans, and Church Fathers and Doctors—in their original language is the whole point of a Classical education. In this article I hope to explain to your satisfaction why this is so historically, and more importantly, why this is a good thing!

Many people have only a practical mind when it comes to education, but what we must realize is that utility with regard to education only goes so far (usually to the trades, which is great for some individuals, and is a decent “education” in America, being better than many in this world receive, because not all are academically inclined).

However, I enjoyed reading this article about classical education, because it shows the extreme length that modern educators have gone to in order to reform what used to be an exceptional education for those who could afford or acquire it. This mostly refers to the idea that children must be taught only a little about twenty distinct and purposely separated subjects each year instead of just learning to think, speak, and calculate well. As Mr. Erik Ellis says:

“Ancient, medieval, and early modern education had an oratorical orientation, recognizing that it was training leaders rather than experts. People who had been taught to imitate the classical authors, to analyze and understand their language, to construct valid arguments, and to make them persuasive, and who had committed to memory the virtuous and vicious deeds of their noble predecessors had all the skills necessary to build civilization and inspire their peers to virtuous action.”

So, although I am reluctant to do so, I will start with the “practical” reasons to learn the Latin language (the Greek slightly less so), but I am also going to give reasons for Latin that are not about utility, especially because, let’s face it, true scholarship in Latin is almost dead and hardly anyone is left alive who can write or speak the language, so Latin can hardly be useful in the same sense that it was useful to historical education as you will see below. However, we can try to keep the traditions going just like the monks in the dark ages, who kept the Romans and Greeks alive and made the Middle Ages the glorious and academically rigorous times that they were.

The number one practical reason to learn Latin is to fully learn and understand grammar. The knowledge of grammar is necessary for communicating effectively, but it is also essential to understanding and identifying fallacies and errors in writing, speech, and advertising. Learning Latin is how children used to learn English grammar, which can be somewhat complicated since it is uninflected (which simply means that the form of the word changes to fit its use in the sentence, like this example: “he flies” or “they flew” or “I have flown”), but when you learn it through translation, the second language helps to clarify the grammar and the syntax, or what is going on in the sentence.

As I mention elsewhere, I only remember learning grammar in public school in eighth grade, and I remember it so well because I enjoyed it, but all children used to learn grammar at increasing difficulty over multiple years, hence the term “grammar school” to mean what we now call elementary school; modernists had to change the name since we don’t teach grammar in it anymore!

Now, before I move on to point two, you may still be asking why we need to learn grammar. Truly, the answer is as simple as this: it is necessary in order to speak and write well. Grammar is important to communicate effectively and also to appear and to be professional. One of the top job search sites, Indeed, even has a whole article dedicated to “31 Common Grammar Mistakes” to help your resume appear more professional, but if we would have learned grammar in grammar school, we wouldn’t need remedial training in order to get a job!

Two, in order to understand and use language properly, you must know and be able to define its roots. While only a quarter of English is derived from the Germanic language, over sixty percent of our vocabulary has Latin and Greek roots. So by learning the Latin (and Greek) language children will be able to better understand and retain what they hear and read.

Latinate words are the ones that tend to be longer and more difficult, while Germanic words tend to be short and easy, for example: dad vs. patriarch, pig vs. porcine, home vs. domicile. When you learn that pater is father, porcus is pig, and domus is house, you intuitively know what patriatch, porcine, and domicile are without having to be taught, but more importantly, you also have an idea of what paternity, patrimony, patricide, pork, porcupine, domestic, domesticate, and domesticity mean, too! These, and more, are known, all with just the knowledge of three Latin words. If you care to view more, there is a whole Wikipedia article on Latin derivatives of English words.

Three, Latin is the language of law, medicine, and science. The lexicons of science, medicine, and law get ninety percent of their words from the Latin language. Therefore, learning Latin makes learning science (or law or medicine) vocabulary easy, and “vocabulary” irrelevant as a subject or separate text (which some homeschool curricula companies offer).

For example, the elemental table is made up of a bunch of letters that seemingly have nothing to do with what they represent, until we learn that aurum is Latin for gold, argentum is Latin for silver, and ferrum is Latin for iron. Then, we can quickly memorize the whole table. A scientific concept can be hard enough in itself, but having to memorize vocabulary at the same time makes it much more difficult, so when the child already has an understanding of the new terminology used, they will be able to study science faster and easier, thereby learning and retaining more information.

Four, as I mentioned above, I have to keep repeating this, it is that important, the foundation of a classical education is the Latin and Greek languages, literature, history, and philosophy. An education cannot properly be called classical if you do not teach (at least) Latin. Now, it could be a great education, and certainly better than public school, but it is not a classical education without the Latin language.

Five, classical literature, although obviously having been translated into English many times, is most properly and best read in its original language (mostly Greek for the epic poems, plays, science, and philosophy, and Latin for almost everything!). Learning the language of the original work is necessary to read that work in its original form. Some great works in Greek are The Illiad, The Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and many other academic and historical writing from men such as Hippocrates, Euclid, Plutarch, Ptolemy, just to name a few. As for Latin, we have The Aeneid and other writings of Virgil, Cicero, Caesar, Livy, and the many texts written in the Middle Ages.)

Six, Latin is the language of education. People in the early Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment, as well as many educated in the early modern era (1800s and early 1900s) were fluent in Latin, not because it was the language of the culture, but because it was the language of academics.

For most, especially in the earlier ages, their primary school education was mostly in Latin (and mathematics), as mentioned in this article. They did not study the broad range of topics that modern children do, and yet, we think of them as some of the highest and best educated men in all of history, like St. Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Galileo, Nicholas Copernicus, or Isaac Newton (whose writings, by the way, except Shakespeare, are all in Latin!).

Universities, like Harvard even as late as 1869, according to this article, (you can see the entrance exam for Harvard from 1869 here) expected Latin and Greek fluency for entry into the school and only spoke Latin in the lecture halls. The Catholic grammar and high schools taught Latin to children up until the 1960s and even the some of the old one-room schoolhouses taught Latin, as evidenced in literature like Anne of Green Gables.

People in ages past were much better educated than we can ever hope to be, since our primary schools have been dumbed down, necessitating our secondary schools, colleges, and universities to be dumbed down as well. You can get a bachelor’s, a master’s, or even a doctorate degree at most schools today and still not even have as good of an education as did our ancestors in their basic high school education right up until the modern times; the Harvard entrance exam proves that!

Seven, Latin is the language of the Church. Letters, council documents, canon law, textbooks and manuals, hymns, prayers, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, the ancient Fathers, the Doctors, and of course the Vulgate Bible are all written in Latin. Much of it has not even been translated, necessitating a working knowledge of Latin in order to read and understand it. To pray, chant, or sing in Latin is a beautiful practice, but can be arduous for those who do not understand anything they are reading. Learning the language makes this practice more meaningful.

Finally, Latin strengthens and trains the mind. As one great man I know said, “Latin really separates the men from the boys.” With its superior (to modern languages) and logical structure, Latin strengthens the mind by its consistent and cumulative nature, just the way math does. To understand better why this is so, I recommend An Apology for Latin and Math written by the late Cheryl Lowe, founder of Memoria Press.

As I mentioned in a previous article, Latin training should, and always used to, start early. Do not feel daunted by teaching something you do not know. Many Latin curricula presume you are learning alongside your child, and are very easy to teach from. I am a firm believer in Memoria Press curricula and I start my children in second grade. They study Latin every year after that, and by high school will be reading Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil’s Aeneid in their original language. That is the power of slow-and-steady training.

This is part of the “Core Four”, a series of four articles written to explain the scope and content of this website, why it is called Fundamentally Classical, and why you should homeschool your children classically.

  1. What is Education?
  2. What is Classical Education?
  3. Why Study Latin and Greek? (You’re here!)
  4. Why is Memory Work Necessary?

Love your children; give them an education they will thank you for: give them a Fundamentally Classical education, and make sure you include Latin (and Greek)!

7 responses to “Why Study Latin and Greek?”

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