The trouble with these boys is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the optative.” So grumbled the grim old classicist after marking some “milk-and-watery entrance papers”. For CS Lewis, the optative (a grammatical mood in classical Greek expressing desire) represents a rigorous, technical and content-based approach to education that begins with “hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody”, while the Parthenon encourages a personal response to culture and literature in a vaguer way, which “begins in ‘Appreciation’ and ends in gush”.
Although Lewis wrote “The Parthenon and the Optative” about changes in English teaching in the 1940s, the division of opinion about what and how we should be teaching exists today also amongst Latin teachers, as I discovered when I was involved in recommending GCSE reform for the think tank Politeia. A meeting of Latin school and university teachers split exactly down the middle between the two approaches, and the split was acrimonious. Amongst the devotees of the Parthenon was a distinguished classical professor, who argued that universities could teach the languages, from scratch if necessary; all secondary schools simply should engender enough interest in the classical world to ensure a supply of applicants for universities.
But surely Latin is of intrinsic value to the school curriculum, not simply a gateway to university studies. In my experience, the language itself is what pupils find enjoyable and the “hard, dry things” which attract them to study it to GCSE and beyond. Those opting for it relish its rigour and precision. Although languages are conventional and man-made (ciconia in Latin, gólya in Hungarian and storch in German point to the same reality: stork), the underlying universal grammar behind them is not. It reflects the logic of the human mind and the intelligible structure of our world.
Although grammar can be taught through any language, as an inflected language, with grammatical function expressed through word-endings, Latin illuminates the inner logical working of language in a concrete and obvious way. The famed concision of Latin writers also helps focus on the relations between the concepts the words express. Apart from the obvious links with English and Romance language vocabulary, it is the deeper understanding of the logic of language itself – universal grammar – that pupils generally value.
Defenders of Classics often point to the ineluctable dependence of modern civilisation on its Greek and Roman roots. For a Catholic school, however, there is an aspect of this inheritance often overlooked today. The Church has always given full recognition to human reason. She draws the philosophical underpinnings of the faith almost entirely from ancient Greece and Rome. These underpinnings, or praeambula fidei, are often neglected because of a certain fideism, but are of prime importance in the solid formation of young people. Pupils generally don’t understand the distinction between faith and reason, and that many things seen as Church teachings are simply reiterations of what can be known by reason. Truths about the existence of an infinite God known as the cause of finite effects and the underlying principles of human nature, morality and the natural world are part of the philosophical patrimony of the classical world, preferably through texts studied in the original languages. Without reason, religion becomes an emotive affair, divorced from the real world. Pupils tend to see morality as “religious” teachings bafflingly proposed by the Church. This can encourage a view of a voluntarist God setting arbitrary hoops for humans to jump through like trained Collies. It is no surprise that so many give up the practice of the faith.
Even a cursory reading of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, not to mention Saints Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas, reveals that happiness is our end and that the natural law is fundamentally a relation of cause to effect to that end. Moral behaviour is simply rational behaviour. Revelation presupposes this foundation and then perfects it on the supernatural level. Understanding thesenatural principles, pupils find it easier to understand the truths of Revelation because they fit into a world impregnated with intelligibility and order.
A truly Catholic education involves going beyond the current examination specifications. The Renaissance emphasised literature to the exclusion of other writing. Plato is studied in Greek, because his style is “literary”. Aristotle’s is not, so he is not studied. It had a prejudice that only authors from a strictly defined classical period are worth studying. The vast treasury of medieval Latin is ignored. In a Catholic school, why not have a programme that includes Tertullian, St Jerome and Prudentius, with St Justin Martyr and St Basil, if the pupils are fortunate enough to study Greek?
A thorough grounding in the language needs to prepare the way for this. The “hard, dry things” must come first.
Dominic Sullivan is head of Classics at the London Oratory School
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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