Monday, August 24, 2015

Ciceronianism: The One Thing Upon Which CS Lewis And I Agree

Until 2 1/2 weeks ago I had been studying Latin all by myself. Which is a very strange and unnatural way to study a language. By their nature, of their essence, languages have to do with communication between people. A language lives through interaction between people.

Then all of a sudden I found something which I had only imagined until then: a group of people communicating with each other in Latin. An online community, writing back in forth in Latin. And also sometimes in English. I felt very nervous about exposing my own feeble attempts at Latin composition to this group, and it turns out I had some reason to be nervous. By simply reading Latin, which is what I had been doing on my own for years, I had had no practice in translation, or original Latin composition, and much less in speaking Latin.

And I had some unrealistic notions about the state of the Latin language. It's not quite as alive as I had thought. Specifically, spoken Latin is not nearly as alive as I had thought. 2 1/2 weeks ago I published this blog post, in which I commented upon Father Reginald Foster's estimate that the number of people in the world who speak Latin is around 100. I wrote that surely either his estimate was drastically low, or that he had been mis-quoted. I had just assumed that in the many places where Latin is studied, a great emphasis is put upon spoken Latin -- not just recitation, but conversing in Latin as people converse in vernaculars when taking courses in those vernaculars.

And I posted a link to that blog post in this group of people I had just found who wrote back and forth to each other in Latin. And the response from the group at first was very negative. They explained to me that Father Foster's estimate was in fact a reasonable one. I hadn't been wrong about the number of people who read Latin, but I had been very drastically wrong about the way that Latin is generally taught. Generally speaking, very little emphasis is placed upon spontaneous conversation in Latin. In fact, some instructors actually discourage efforts at such conversation, calling it a distraction from the study of ancient Latin texts.

That sounds like a dying language to me. Some of the members of this online group agree with me about that, and favor the few exceptions to the rule in academia where students are encouraged to converse spontaneously in Latin.

Oh, and after the original who-are-you-to-question-one-of the-world's-leading-Latinists negative response, after I made it clear that I had seen through my previous false assumptions about Latin being taught just the same as Spanish or French or English and that I appreciated the feedback and expertise and experience of the others, they quickly became very nice and welcoming. They're real menshes.

In that group I read the first thing written by CS Lewis which I either liked or agreed with, but it had nothing to do with religion. It was in one of his letters, quoted online in the group. He said he disliked the way many Italian Renaissance humanists insisted that the way to write good Latin was to imitate Cicero. Lewis said that they buried living Latin under the mausoleum of Ciceronianiasm. I are completely agree. I don't even like Cicero. It's not just that those Italian Renaissance writers were all imitating one ancient writer, which already was bizarre and unnatural enough -- they were all imitating a mediocre ancient writer. Sallust, Horace, Ovid and a lot of other ancient Latin authors are miles better than Cicero. Even Vergil, the 2nd most-overrated ancient Latin author.

Encouragingly, some major figures in Renaissance Italian literary life strongly opposed the slavish imitation of Cicero --

-- Poliziano, for example, when rebuked because he did not, in his writing, "express Cicero," replied, "So what? I'm not Cicero. But I do, in my opinion, express myself." ("Non exprimis, inquit aliquis, Ciceronem. Quid tum? Non enim sum Cicero; me tamen (ut opinor) exprimo.") -- while discouragingly, some people even today -- the editor of the I Tatti volume Ciceronian Controversies, for example -- think that the Ciceronians were really on to something and are misunderstood.

So I'll gladly take the support of Lewis on this issue.

Now, when it comes to my further opinion that Cicero was a perfectly ordinary mind, a common rabble- and jury rouser, there, as far as I know, I stand alone. I mean, surely, some other people somewhere at some time have also found Cicero mediocre and the fuss made about him perfectly appalling. But whether all of those people together plus me add up to 100, I don't know.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steven,
    ich denke, es gibt einen wichtigen Grund, warum moderne Fremdsprachen anders unterrichtet werden als z.B.Latein, nämlich der unterschiedliche Zweck, der hinter dem Erlernen dieser Sprache steckt. Das Erlernen einer modernen Sprache soll in erster Linie die Fähigkeit vermitteln, sich mehr oder weniger flüssig mit Einheimischen unterhalten und auseinandersetzen zu können. Der Fokus ruht daher neuerdings auf einer spontanen, schnell abrufbereiten Sprechfähigkeit.
    Beim Erlernen einer alten Sprache wie etwa Latein aber, sollen wohl formulierte, niedergeschriebene Texte gelesen bzw. übersetzt und in ihren jeweiligen Kontext eingeordnet werden, Texte, die sehr viel mehr an Grammatik und komplizierter Syntax enthalten als gesprochene Sprache, etwa seitenlange Sätze voller Partizipien und Gerundien mit dem Prädikat am Ende des Satzes. Dieser "passive" Umgang mit Sprache erfordert ganz andere Fähigkeiten als das "aktive" Sprechen.
    Im übrigen ist auch das gesprochene Latein nicht ausgestorben (es ist also nicht tot), sondern es entwickelte sich über das Vulgärlatein zu den Romanischen Sprachen wie Italienisch, Französich und Spanisch. Wer hobbymäßig jetzt Latein spricht, spricht das, was wir Vulgärlatein nennen, an dem aber die meisten Sprachwissenschaftler der sog. Hochsprache nicht sonderlich interessiert sind.

    Viele Grüße