Friday, August 7, 2015

A Few Reasons To Become Fluent In Latin

Spinoza. If you're not reading him in Latin you're reading a watered-down translation and you're missing a lot, as you are with any truly great writer whom you're not reading in the language in which he wrote. In the volume to the right of my laptop as I write this, the Tractatus theologico-politicus,

there are many quotations from the Bible, and the citations from the Old Testament are given in Hebrew along with the Vulgate Latin, and I know I am missing something because my Hebrew is still so weak and I have to lean so heavily on the Latin translation. The ever-friendly and helpful Spinoza felt for readers like me, and so he published a Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae for those of us Latin readers who are weak in Hebrew.

Guido da Pisa. He was a contemporary of Dante and wrote an extensive Latin commentary on the Inferno, fascinating stuff for Dante fans.

Of course, of the relatively small volume of work which Dante himself published,

almost as much is in Latin as in Italian. Even Dante's famous tract in which he defends the practice of writing in Italian, is written in Latin, interrupted by only a very few verses from the most illustrious of the Italian vernacular poets.

Dante published his worked in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. From his time to the present, it may be that Italians wrote Latin less often than Europeans in general. And that may be in very large due to Dante. I don't know. The key words in the 2nd and 3rd sentences of this paragraph are "may be." When it comes to letters and official pronouncements, Popes and Italian republics continued to communicate in Latin; otherwise, there is a very great amount of Italian. And most of that Italian ain't exactly Dante if you catch my drift. So curse Dante for contributing to the decline of Latin, and with it, to the decline of civilization!

Excuse that outburst. Despite Dante, Latin was still in extremely widespread use as late as the 17th century. Besides Spinoza, Descartes and Leibniz and Hobbes and Milton wrote quite a lot in Latin. Milton also wrote quite a lot in Italian. (Dante may be directly to blame for that as well.)

But as late as the 20th century many things were still written in Latin, and I don't mean only Catholic things, although Catholic clergy did write a huge amount of Latin up until the 1960 and Vatican II. But also very many non-Catholic academic things, and not only academic Classicists (who of course still write in Latin now and then up to the very present), but also, for example, botanists and mathematicians. The persistence of the use of Latin in those fields is reflected by things like the continued use of Latin in taxonomy and in the names of mathematical journals.

It wasn't all that long ago that educated people were expected to be able to read Latin. The decision to just let that requirement slide and dissolve and die out has only been spreading for a few centuries now. And that decision is a huge disaster, and because of it a typical 19th-century college graduate could do all sorts of things which a typical college graduate today can't do, and in that respect they were much better off back then. I keep hammering on this subject in this blog, and I'm sure I'm boring some of you, but the thing is, I'm right.

If you're paying close attention, you've noticed that I don't come out and say "I'm right" all that often with no if's or but's. You may also have noticed that this is the only way in which I say that there were good old days: knowledge of Latin, and that's all. Other than that I mock and deride nostalgia. So don't confuse me with the conservatives with whom I have in common an enthusiasm for Latin and a wish to see its study restored, and absolutely nothing else.

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