Latin and classical Greek are not merely linguistic puzzles on a page. They develop one’s ability to negotiate real-life cultural barriers as effectively as any living language, while providing peerless access to the treasures of Western civilization.
Most Princeton undergraduates who study classical languages do so in order to be able to read ancient literature in the original. Understanding a text like Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Homer’s “Iliad” or Cicero’s “Speeches Against Catiline,” however, demands far more than linguistic competence. The central values and themes that underpin such works — kleos, pietas and dignitas — are alien concepts that resist simple translation into English. They, and the works of literature they illuminate, become fully intelligible only when approached with a deep awareness of Greco-Roman history and culture.
This ability to surmount steep cultural barriers in pursuit of common meaning and humanity is something every student of Latin and Greek can apply broadly to any international or intercultural experience. Granted, knowledge of ancient culture may not by itself prepare one to understand the idiosyncrasies of specific modern-day foreign cultures (although I shall argue shortly that it can in some cases). But the training in cultural consciousness one gets from studying antiquity lays an even more important foundation for cosmopolitanism: an acute awareness of how profoundly culture underpins the most basic ideas, thoughts and gestures in any society. Three months of living in Oxford hasn’t taught me every cultural quirk of the English, but I’ve managed to get along simply by knowing better than to think that I understand exactly what my hosts mean when they say such-and-such, even though we speak the same language. It was not studying Mandarin, French, German or Italian that taught me to think like this, but studying Latin and Greek, whose every sentence and line of poetry — because of its very deadness and alien nature — required rigorous cultural as well as linguistic translation to be made sense of and appreciated.
That is not to say knowledge of the ancient world is entirely useless. Far from it. The influence of classical antiquity is everywhere in the Western world — in the architecture and art galleries of many a European capital (and ours too), the political and cultural movements of modern European history and the present-day institutions of democracy and rule of law. Knowledge of classical culture does not only go a long way toward making us fluent in the culture of the British, French, Germans, Italians or Greeks; it makes us fluent in the culture of the West, broadly speaking, and competent in explaining the West to the East.
And what of the “American disease of monolingualism” which Massa rightly says we must combat? To be sure, knowledge of Latin or Greek won’t exactly make a monolingual American bilingual, even though it would certainly provide an excellent linguistic foundation for any modern language he or she should decide to take up. But we’d be poor ambassadors for America indeed if we knew little about our own nation’s intellectual and ideological roots, and these roots, like those of the Old World, reach all the way back to classical antiquity. Reflect, for instance, upon the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” after reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and it will become clear that Thomas Jefferson (who certainly knew his Aristotle) was not talking about the pursuit of personal satisfaction but rather about something entirely different and more exalted. A thousand other revelations await those who take up Latin or Greek.
No one denies living languages have an advantage over dead languages in the very narrowest sense of practicality: There are plenty of Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish speakers around to talk with, but no Romans (except for those who convene at the weekly Cena Latina in the Rockefeller College dining hall). But as to cultural instruction and cosmopolitanism in the broadest sense, Latin and Greek offer it as effectively as any modern language and more copiously than most. They rightly remain languages by which A.B. students can fulfill their foreign language requirement.
Veronica Shi ’11 is studying for an M.Phil. in classical languages and literature at the University of Oxford. She can be reached at email@example.com.