A friend recently asked me, as people often do, why my students have signed up for Latin. (Her tone indicated this was a nutty choice in 2011.) I offered all the usual reasons. Some are interested in law or medicine and believe that Latin will help them with the vocabulary of their professions. Music majors want to decipher the Latin words they are singing. History scholars have an interest in classical times, and aspiring theologians hope someday to read, say, medieval Latin texts. Often, of course, students have to fulfill a language requirement, and my class fits into their schedule. Distressingly, too many have told me recently that they’re giving Latin a try because Spanish was too hard for them. I do not like hearing this.
I could go on, and sometimes do, about the practical benefits of Latin. It increases your vocabulary, gives you a solid footing in grammar, prepares you for studying other Romance languages, introduces you to great texts and great ideas of Western culture, and helps you understand allusions to classical mythology. (See Nike.) This is all true and important.
None of it, however, has anything to do with why I really teach Latin. I teach Latin because it’s fun.
Not for everybody, of course. For some people, Latin is torture. It is to them as statistics is to me. People have different sorts of minds, and I don’t regard those statistics people as Philistines. For me and for others, crazily, untangling a gnarly Latin text is enjoyable.
Today, one of my older students referred to his weekly Latin assignments as a spiritual exercise. We’re not reading church Latin, by the way. We’re reading the outrageously scatological novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius. He meant that the discipline of sitting with his Latin text every week was both bracing and meditative. I said, “It’s satisfying,” and he seized on that word.
“Yes,” he almost shouted. “It’s satisfying. I’d rather do my Latin on a Sunday afternoon than watch the Browns.”
What would you rather do than watch the Browns? What do you like that other people think is crazy?