After a lapse during the "relevance decades" of the '60s and '70s, Latin is riding the crest of a new wave of popularity.
Traditional arguments in favor of studying Latin still ring true: Latin is good mental discipline, it builds one's English vocabulary, it is a solid foundation for learning romance languages, and it is valuable in the professions.
But this generation of adolescents (whom Mister Rogers likes just the way they are; to whom The Electric Company has given the power) needs a snappier set of persuasive tactics in order to believe that Latin is as tradeable a social commodity as Jordache jeans, Bass weejuns, Led Zeppelin T-shirts or Adidas sneakers.
Aeneas patrem portavit et filium duxit (1).
It is never a bad idea to do something just to make one's parents happy. When Dad discovers that Sis or Junior wants to study something as old-fashioned as Latin, smacking of Dad's own treasured teenhood, the Old Boy's capacity for warmth and generosity toward Junior or Sis might just escalate dramatically.
(Depressed and preoccupied by Troy burning all around him, Anchises brightens noticeably when his son Aeneas offers to carry him from the doomed city. The old man is thereafter a valuable source of practical advice on the journey from Troy toward prophesied Italy. Later he has nothing but good news to predict during Aeneas' visit to the underworld.)
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (2).
Maybe because it is a dead language, Latin draws a special breed of teachers. Their eyes light up at the thought of teaching a new grammar form because of its potential for the corniest strategems. (First declension: coca cola, cocae colae, cocae colae, cocam colam, coca cola, etc. Second declension: hocus pocus, hoci poci, hoco poco, hocum pocum, hoco poco, of course.)
Latin teachers always have strange jokes to enliven those afternoon classes when declensions and conjugations are hanging as thick and motionless as dust motes in the air.
What does the Roman skier's mother say to him every winter morning?
Semper ubi sub ubi (3).
The Latin teacher knows it is specious to establish the importance of a lesson by means of its relevance. Relevance--the practical, humdrum aspect--is by definition the lowest standard by which a topic can be deemed interesting and important.
Instead, the Latin teacher, by force of personality, exercise of wit, rigor of drills, whimsy of examples, must make each moribund rule or form come to life. In later life one finds that the memory of most teachers fades into obscurity, but Latin teachers--and a few others--remain vivid.
There is a comradeship born of shared misery--summer camp, the Marine Corps, a statistics course, the first year of law or med school and Latin I--which binds a group together. Only with fellow Latin sufferers can the passive voice endings--r-ris-tur-mur-mini-ntur -- become a rhythm-and-blues chant.
It is positively uplifting when you are 14 to be part of an in-group so cohesive that shared inanities from a dead language are hysterically funny to the cognoscenti and incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Latin students know something no one else knows, privy to such ancient epigrams as:
Insanus medio flumine quaerit aquam (4).
Ex auribus cognoscitur asinus (5).
Aquila non capit muscas (6).
In other words:
Possunt quia posse videntur (7).
All of Latin grammar is taught in a year and a half. That tidbit gives a student a feeling of mastery not experienced anywhere else in his/her schooling. The rule system in Latin grammar is closed: There are no problems to which there are no answers. That approach to information, in a world where all other subject matters are constantly growing, changing and self-contradicting, is comforting.
To say that all problems in Latin have answers is not to say that the answers are easy to find. Chess and bridge--indeed all card and board games--are also closed systems. They are fun to play because the answers frequently hide themselves behind the rules. Learning how to make the rules transparent is a skill one can transfer to other fields. The rules of Latin grammar are generally not per se transferable, but the stance is.
Again precisely because Latin is no longer growing or changing, students can have a sense of combat and supremacy in learning the language. The rule system is skeletal, the vocabulary sinewy. Sentence parts are, to change the metaphor, like Leggos, they can be built up, torn down, rebuilt at will, with the learner in command, so long as the rules are followed.
Students who take the most aggressive and manipulative approach toward their Latin assignments have the greatest success and sense of accomplishment. They beat this old warrior on its own terms.
Nosce te ipsum (8).
With ancient Romans dead and buried, modern students talk about virtues and vices of the Republic and the Empire, but they learn about those of their own civilization. The Romans, students quickly realize, were supremely ethnocentric. If you were not a Roman, you were barbarus (-a, -um)--foreign, strange, barbaric, primitive, an aggressive subhuman enemy to be civilized.
How outrageous of the Romans, students declare, to impose their language and culture as the prize--or punishment--given to the tribes and peoples whom they subdued.
But wait, says someone, our rich American culture has made English the standard, blue jeans the costume, rock music the rhythm of the world.
But that's all right, says someone else, because English, jeans and rock are what everyone wants.
How do we know? asks a fourth.
So what's the difference between ours and Roman imperialism? asks the fifth.
The bell rings. Heard in the hall: Is this class Latin I or world history?
Verbum sapienti sat est (9).
In Latin class you tinker with a language and the teacher forces you to make fine and inconsequential distinctions.
That rara avis (10) insists there is a world of difference between the two sentences "I was influenced by your speech" and "I was influenced by your father." Or between "I will support your candidacy with enthusiasm" and "I will support your candidacy with money." Or between "If you praise me, that makes me happy" and "If you were to praise me, that would make me happy."
The subtle distinctions required by the ablative case and the subjunctive mood in Latin are not required to the same degree in English. But the logical distinctions between inanimate and animate, between manner and means, between simple and contrary-to-fact conditions are distinctions upon which worlds of meaning rest in every language system.
Ars longa, vita brevis (11).
Ancient literature often has the capacity to capture in brief forms essences for which modern scholarship must pile up mountains of documentation. Epigrams were a particularly respected Roman literary form. We fill libraries to document what Cicero says in a sentence:
Ut corpora nostra sine mente, sic civitas sine lege suis partibus uti non potest (12).
Roman literature particularly comes to terms with the continuing struggle between the public and private faces of the active individual. In a few stanzas of a single ode, Horace epitomizes that dilemma and at least a year and a half of the nightly news:
Still you work to perfect the pattern Of government,--the world's anxious sentry keeping Watch on the farthest east, Cyrus' old kingdom And the uneasy Don for plots of war.
But God in his wisdom Has hidden the outcome in impenetrable darkness, And he laughs when we mortals Show inquisitive apprehension. Better to have a level mind that deals with Here and Now, As for the rest, look on it as a river--One moment calm and tame, the next------!
Call him happy who every evening can say "Today I have lived." Tomorrow Jove may blot the sky with clouds Or fill it with pure sunshine. But he cannot devalue what once has been precious Nor tarnish or melt back The gold the visiting hour has left behind.
(Bk. III, No. 29)
But we must not forget:
Facta, non verba (13).
Statistics provided by Educational Testing Service suggest the immediate practical value of starting and staying with Latin. The SAT verbal score average for those students taking the Latin Achievement test in 1980 (568 points) was 144 points higher than the national average for all students. On the SAT Math exam, Latin Achievement takers scored 122 points higher (mean score 588) than the mean for all students.
There possibly may be a causal relationship (Latin helps you score higher on the exams which matter); there only may be a correlate relationship (smart kids who do well on their SATs take Latin and stay with it long enough to take the Latin Achievement test). Either way, it looks smart to rise above the pack.
Dies veritatem aperit (14).
If all of this persuasive ammunition fails to convince Sis and Junior to squeeze one more academic subject into their schedules, comfort yourself that at least you've tried. Perhaps someday they'll study Greek.
At the very least, they'll smile indulgently when they hear you giving the same advice to their children.
Rhoda Trooboff teaches junior- and senior-high English and Latin.