Latin Lives

Latin Lives

Is the revival of a dead language breathing new life into the humanities?


I’ve seen the past, and it works. To be more precise, I have heard Latin spoken, sung, read and rapped, and I have seen that it can change contemporary lives. I teach history at Princeton University. Every year, students from many fields take my seminars and write papers for them, and seniors write BA theses under my direction. Since 1975, I have read drafts, suggested revisions and assigned grades. Though always interesting and sometimes engrossing, this part of my job never overwhelmed me or swallowed a disproportionate amount of my time. The single most dramatic alteration in my working life occurred with the introduction of “track changes,” which enabled me to edit on screen and write legible comments for the first time.

Three or four years ago, something happened. I found myself rising before dawn every day in February and March, since that was the only way to work through the essays and thesis chapters that students were submitting: undergraduate scholarship based on untranslated manuscripts and rare books in Latin (and English, and French, and German, and Ottoman Turkish). Their technical virtuosity impressed me deeply. But so, even more, did the energy that powered it: the engagement, the passion, the deep love of and feeling for very distant realms of the past. In a long and happy career of undergraduate teaching, I hadn’t experienced anything quite like this outbreak—or epidemic?—of inspired work.

An infestation of undergraduate genius doesn’t have a single cause. To be a humanist nowadays, you have to be a refusenik. The students who have remained with us on the burning deck are not only intelligent but also independent-minded. The resources available to them are far richer than they were a generation ago. They can call the rarest of sources from the vasty deep of the Internet, or go to the library or archive that houses them and make their own digital copies. Even in the hours between midnight and 4 am, when the world quiets down and students do their most intensive work, they have access to a library without walls, bigger and richer than any that has ever existed. Other factors must also play a role. But it turns out that for a surprising number of students, Latin—and Latin study of a special kind—has been the fuse that sparked this explosion.

Many of the students who have robbed me of my sleep have spent a summer or two at the Paideia Institute—a nonprofit organization created by two young scholars named Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett. In classical Greek, paideia means education or upbringing—more properly the ideal method of education, which sought to form the mind, character and body of the young men who would serve their cities as active citizens and soldiers. This concept has grown and changed over time, as it was adopted, and adapted, by ancient Christians and modern humanists, and it still inspires Pedicone and Hewett—reformulated in a special, newly inclusive way. A few years ago, they and some equally committed colleagues started bringing high school and college students, and a few graduate students, to Rome, where they spend some weeks studying Latin. Summer study, a dead language, hours traveling on buses: it doesn’t sound exciting on the face of it, especially to anyone who knows how little studying takes place in many summer programs. But these summer experiences are different. A lot of Paideians come back in love—with something bigger than they’re used to, something bigger than what we usually offer them in schools and universities, and that love makes a huge difference in everything they do.

* * *

University humanists don’t talk, or hear, a lot about love, at least in connection with their disciplines. Curious—and exhausted—I wanted to know more. Last summer, I went to Rome, hoping to learn some of the secrets of Paideia. Some of the story I already knew: Pedicone and Hewett—and the colleagues they recruit each year—build from a single, shared experience that shaped their lives. All of them studied Latin with a legendary teacher, Reginald Foster, an American priest who worked for many years as a papal secretary, writing Latin documents. In Rome, many things change slowly, or not at all. Foster held the same position that the great Renaissance scholar Lorenzo Valla—famous for exposing the Donation of Constantine as a fake—occupied in the fifteenth century. He also shared the passion for Latin that inspired Valla to write the first modern analysis of classical Latin prose usage. For decades, Reginaldus—as generations of loving students called him—also taught Latin, for anyone who wanted to learn, at the Gregorian University during the academic year and in a separate program every summer. And he gave it a special twist.

Reginaldus could never stand the miserable, slow, passive way in which students in the modern world learn Latin. In Rome, as he has been known to say, things were different: “Every bum and prostitute in the city spoke Latin fluently.” From the start, he showed his students that they could do the same. Systematic exercises—all of which Reginaldus composed himself—made them use Latin actively, as they would use a modern language, from the first day. His pedagogy combined grumpiness, demands for improvement and occasional outbreaks of fury with an obvious love of students and Latin alike. Reginaldus labeled assignments ludi domestici, homeplay, rather than homework, and he meant it. Yet the play was serious, and incompetence provoked roars of denunciation.

Somehow it all worked. Students who had spent years at good schools and colleges, learning how to read thirty or forty lines of Latin at a time and looking up every word, found after a summer with Reginaldus that they could read the hardest Latin texts on sight—and not just read them, but translate them into English or paraphrase them in Latin, and hear their power and their melody, their wit and their scorn, as they did so. Reginaldus worked a kind of magic. He transformed Latin from a set of puzzles to be solved into something to be known, possessed and loved.

From the outside, Latin looks like a truly dead language—one not so much embodied as embalmed in canonical texts written more than 2,000 years ago. Within a stunningly short period—less than a century—Cicero and Livy built models of literary prose, Lucretius and Virgil composed didactic, epic and pastoral poems, and Catullus and Horace crafted lyrics, all of which became absolute standards. In them—as Jürgen Leonhardt shows in a recent, and excellent, history of Latin—the written language reached its definitive form. These works became the models that later writers imitated and struggled with for centuries. They became so exemplary, in fact, that even the language they were written in froze. Latin syntax and grammar ceased changing, as they had for the two or three centuries before these men wrote. Eventually, Latin became a written language, pronounced only in such places as churches and schools or on formal occasions like royal entries into cities.

A language can fall out of everyday use, its forms can cease to change, and yet writers will still use it to do new things. This happened, as Leonhardt points out, to Sumerian and Hebrew—and it happened to Latin too. People all over the Mediterranean world and beyond continued to use Latin after Virgil and Cicero—and they did so in endlessly creative ways. Early in the third century, Perpetua, a Christian woman at Carthage, composed a graphic Latin diary of the visions that sustained her as she waited to die in the arena. Two hundred years later, Augustine wove, in his Confessions, an intimate history of his own development into a Christian. In the twelfth century, Peter Abelard and Heloise exchanged passionate Latin letters about love and philosophy. A hundred and fifty years later, Thomas Aquinas built massive Latin structures of Christian doctrine, complex and consistent as Gothic cathedrals. Later still, Desiderius Erasmus devised his own brilliantly original form of Latin prose and used it to launch sharp satires on superstition and passionate arguments that Christians must seek peace.

* * *

Pagan and Christian, ancient and medieval, Renaissance and Baroque: for Reginaldus, it was all Latin. And he assigned his students samples of all of it, along with the classics. Students who had seen Latin as a strange set of linguistic puzzles, to be translated forty lines at a time, not only started reading; they came to see what they read not as the product of a few marmoreal Roman geniuses but as the work of real men and women from many times and places, a deposit of more than 2,000 years of artistry and history and tradition. Reginaldus’s courses became famous. Young students and experienced teachers, high school students and retirees took them. Renowned historians would come back every summer for a tune-up before heading into the archives.

Halfway through the summer of 2008, the twenty-third year of his Latin course in Rome, Reginaldus had to be hospitalized. Pedicone, Hewett and another former student of Reginaldus, Leah Whittington, who now teaches English and classics at Harvard, led the course for the remaining five weeks. Eventually, it became clear that Reginaldus would not return to Rome. He retired to Milwaukee, where, happily, he is now teaching actively again. So his disciples set out to rebuild his program—and to put it on a new foundation. Reginaldus’s method remains the groundwork of their teaching, and he himself is present in the conversation every day, as the ruling spirit. They celebrate him with inspiring loyalty. But they have also found ways to build an infrastructure—something Reginaldus’s courses lacked. Paideia’s staff members teach in modern, air-conditioned classrooms rather than a sweltering convent cafeteria, where the students once sat at desks built for Italian 5-year-olds.

Paideia’s programs have multiplied. Classical scholars take high school Latin teachers to Gaul—well, to France—to follow Julius Caesar’s invasion. The trip gives new life to the teaching of his Gallic Wars—another work traditionally taught as if it weren’t about real people fighting and dying in real places. High school as well as college students come to Rome for five-week Latin sessions. Those who have a good background in classical Greek can spend a similar period in a pretty seaside village on the north coast of the Peloponnese, reading and speaking Attic Greek and performing in a Greek tragedy.

That much I knew when I arrived in Rome in late June. But the experience was richer and stranger than anything I had expected. On my first evening, students and teachers met for dinner in an ancient Roman cellar—a restaurant in the basement of Pompey’s theater. Latin texts were read and discussed. Latin songs were sung, including an account of Caesar’s career, set to “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” The enthusiasm and hilarity that accompanied all of this didn’t remind me of any Latin class I had ever taken. Nor did the fluency with which students read Latin. For the next few days, I attended classes, sat in on discussions and went on trips. And I began to see how the magic works.

Paideia—like Reginaldus’s summer course before it—is simultaneously easy and demanding. The students don’t do a lot of required homework, and they don’t memorize as many forms as Reginaldus’s pupils did. They are still assigned those ludi domestici, on which some of them put in a lot of work. In practice, though, they seem to spend most of their time in classes and on trips reading Latin or doing exercises that they haven’t seen before. Everyone ends up reading a lot of Latin aloud—and being corrected; suggesting Latin ways of saying things—and being corrected again; and translating—and being corrected yet a third time. Paideia may not demand the expenditure of midnight oil, but it asks for—and receives—a wonderful kind of concentration. It also requires public, active performance, which is always judged. Day by day, the language becomes real.

A central principle, for Paideia as for Reginaldus, is that reading ancient texts in the places where they were meditated and written gives them a special impact. This idea has a Roman pedigree. Cicero describes himself and his Roman friends studying Greek philosophy in Athens. They imagine that they might bump into Socrates or Plato and argue about the merits of their favorite Greek thinkers within sight of their haunts and their monuments. Paideia turns Cicero’s evocation of a beloved past into a powerful pedagogical method. One day, we went south by bus to the abbeys of Monte Cassino, where Aquinas studied, and Fossanova, where he died. Standing under shade trees on the great hilltop at Monte Cassino, students read and translated an account of the great theologian’s early life. Sitting in the chapel at Fossanova, we all did our best to sing a hymn that Aquinas himself had composed. A lost world rose around us.

On another, sunny day, we walked along the rocky surface of the Appian Way, the road that leads out from the city to the southeast. Sitting in the shade, we read a satire in which Horace vividly describes the miseries of traveling—on the Appian Way. In the course of the full five weeks, students read Seneca’s discussion of gladiators in the Colosseum and recite the Sibyl’s prophecy in her cave, work through Cicero’s oratory in the Forum and read Horace’s poems, barefoot, by the Bandusian Fountain, to which he dedicated a lovely ode.

Cicero, it turns out, was right. There’s something magical about reading these texts in their places—and seeing what the places themselves have meant over the centuries. As we read Horace, who rants like an ancient Paul Theroux about life on the road, we saw travelers walking by in pairs, just as Horace had. Hewett, who led the class that I sat in on, pointed them out as eagerly as he explained the details of the poem’s geography and terminology. He also took time to evoke the French painters of the seventeenth century who walked the Appian Way to leave the hot city for the countryside that they loved more.

I have been reading Horace, off and on, since my last year in high school. But I never felt his humor or appreciated his powers of observation as I did, sitting on a stone wall in the sun and listening to bright young Latinists arguing about the precise way to translate difficult words. Past and present didn’t just meet: they intertwined. Instead of heavy dictionaries, the students used smartphone apps to find definitions and parallels to support their arguments. Paideia has nothing against computers, or even distance instruction: those who want remote access can have it, via Telepaideia. But the heart of the enterprise is very old: to find the sort of contact with a living, human past that the Romans themselves knew how to find.

* * *

Paideia’s emphasis on the long term fits its Roman habitat perfectly. Latin culture was born old. By the time that Romans and immigrants began to compose ambitious literary works, the city had existed for several hundred years. It had been besieged and sacked by foreigners and fought over, often viciously, by natives. Latin literature was new, but it embodied and transmitted the values of an ancient society. There is something profoundly right, accordingly, about treating Latin, as it developed in Rome and survived after Rome fell, as a coherent millennial tradition.

And it’s not just the language that Paideia treats in this richly historical way. The program, as one alumna wrote me, “reveals and peels back layers of history, even within the program itself, as you are adopted into a peculiar academic genealogy (beginning with Reginaldus), somewhat as Romans were always adopting each other. By the end, with our T-shirts, we were all ciceroniani, which is what Reginaldus called his students. And then there is the way the program shows the layers of the landscape of Rome itself, from the archaeological to the textual. You arrive in Rome—often for the first time, if you’re 20—and as your knowledge of the landscape grows with trips to espresso bars and nighttime bars, you start to see the way the loci of Latin literature overlap with those of the city…. Paideia gives you double vision.” Another former student evoked Paideia’s unique “collapsing of modern Italy and ancient Rome.” In an age of instant messages and flashing images, Paideia teaches lessons about a past that, as Faulkner taught us about that of the South, has never died.

The Latinists who teach at Paideia take very different approaches to their work. Pedicone, whip thin and given to bouncing off the walls, pulls students with him into activities that range from arguing about the meaning of texts to singing “Yellow Submarine” (“Navis Lutea”). He lives, plays and raps in Latin. Hewett walks a slower, more reflective path, binding texts to the long history of the city and the language—though he can be as quick as Pedicone to make fun of everybody’s bad pronunciation. Daniel Gallagher—a cleft-chinned and charismatic priest who now writes Latin documents for the pope—brings a striking intensity and seriousness to the classroom. Leah Whittington wasn’t teaching this year—but a former student vividly described her fluid, natural Latin and the joyous “Optime!” with which she greets an elegant use of unusual Latin words. Every one of their colleagues—including some dedicated teachers from American universities—has a distinctive approach (and sense of humor). They’re united, though, by the example and the method of Reginaldus, who taught them all. And they share a passion for Latin and for communicating with students that is—let’s just say—not always as evident in universities as it is in this little, intense world. The mix becomes even richer thanks to other Foster students, Paideia alumni and Latin-speaking friends of the staff who appear from time to time—as well as restaurateurs who have welcomed Paideia groups year after year, offering Italian hospitality at its most appealing.

Pedicone and Hewett describe their institute as a humanities start-up. That’s a sunny, optimistic term, one rarely heard in connection with the humanities, except when someone tells us that massive open online courses will transform higher education. And it fits. Paideia has five universities as institutional members—Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton. They support Paideia by sending students to study and faculty members to teach in its programs. There are also high school members, and some inspiring projects—especially Aequora, a collaboration created by Paideia’s alumni board and a Brooklyn nonprofit, Still Waters in a Storm, which provides an after-school sanctuary for children in Bushwick. A friend who visited writes: “Latin is currently in vogue as a paternalist form of social reform (cf. Boris Johnson), but there could not be anything less old-school than the classroom of 3rd graders, none of them white, to whom Liz Butterworth [a Paideia alumna who holds a fellowship with the institute] and her high-school helpers were teaching Latin conjunctions.”

But the institute exists, for the moment, in a world of its own. You don’t go there to earn a credit or a grade, though those may well come in the future, but to learn a set of skills—ones that seem the quintessence of the impractical, skills with no market value. And that, in turn, explains a big part of Paideia’s impact. Students go because they want to, and come back because they’re addicted. Alumni join the current group for a day or two. Sometimes it’s just to recharge spiritual batteries. Sometimes they take things in a direction of their own. One of my history students led an impromptu tour of Rome’s obelisks, commenting in Latin about the seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who helped Bernini create two dizzyingly dramatic Baroque monuments. Paideians work hard. But they experience the work as pleasure and want more of it.

The students who choose Paideia stand out in many ways—not least for the sense that learning can be joyous, which makes many of them a delight to teach. Especially striking, though, as one of them remarked to me, is the fact that so many of them “feel called to be high school or university teachers.” The old term “calling” is just right here. Paideians whom I have met see teaching as a vocation—a high one, whose object is to touch souls as well as to train minds. And one of Paideia’s central purposes is to cultivate this vision. The program provides its students not only with Latin, but also with downtime and ample opportunity to talk, with one another and the teachers, about teaching and Latin and what it all means.

On bus trips and over coffee, under the shade trees and in cafes, the students have many chances to chew over the state of the humanities. They hear and tell horror stories about the university’s woes—the pressure to publish, for example, which can squeeze the joy from the lives of brilliant young academics. But they also hear stories that convey, so much more vividly than manifestos, how the humanities—and their teachers—can change lives. Some seem to become more determined as they learn more about the difficulties that they may confront (I said they were refuseniks). All of them have a clearer sense, by the end of the summer, of the worlds they hope to enter. Otium—leisure for thought and discussion—was prized and honored in ancient Rome. Paideia gives its students just that, and they use it as they should.

* * *

Classics, in the English-speaking world, used to go with privilege, white and male. Some Paideians—not all of them white or male or rich—come from excellent private schools. Some pay the full fees, which are not cheap. But the institute’s backers have already begun to provide scholarships. Classics departments help out when they can. Admission to all Paideia programs will soon be need-blind. Paideians are male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight, white and nonwhite, glinty-eyed conservative and bleeding-heart liberal (and if you think that last match is easy to broker, you haven’t been on a campus lately). There’s something about Latin that compels and enchants them all—as Latin once gave the African playwright Terence, who came to Rome as a slave, a way to explain what cosmopolitanism means. “Homo sum,” one of his characters says, “humani nihil alienum a me puto”—“I’m a human being, I don’t think anything human is foreign to me.”

One afternoon on the bus, Pedicone and Hewett began to tell stories about Reginaldus. Great teachers generate anecdotes—it’s how they live on, how the meaning of their work is passed on across the generations. They spoke, with loving astonishment, about how far he seemed, in person, from a model of charisma. Reginaldus was utterly unadorned. He wore a suit like a Maytag repairman’s uniform, spoke roughly with students who disappointed him, and made no effort to win anyone’s favor. As they talked, I remembered seeing him in the Forum on a blazing hot Roman Sunday. The sun reflected off his bald pate as he spoke Latin, in a ringing voice, to a group whose members seemed to be melting.

Students listened intently. Questions came. A Chinese classicist who had taught herself English, and then Latin, recalled a famous text by Erasmus, “The Silenus of Alcibiades.” Here the great humanist described Alcibiades’ verbal portrait of Socrates as a Silenus: an ugly figure, shabby and unattractive on the outside—yet full of treasures for those who could see within. Listen hard to Reginaldus, Hewett and Pedicone explained, and you hear that he is not teaching you about conjugations and declensions, but something much simpler and much deeper. Latin can save your life. Latin is infinite, and infinitely rich. We come to an end, but Latin doesn’t. Studying it gives us perspective, vision and inspiration. It’s not that every Paideian becomes, or should become, a professor. The humanities don’t work that way. Studying Latin, the way Paideia teaches you to do, makes you more human, in a special sense that can make you decide to pursue careers of many kinds. One of Paideia’s mottoes is: “Lingua Latina non est piscis mortuus”—“The Latin language is not a dead fish.” It sure isn’t.

Paideians choose Paideia. But Paideia also changes them. It brings them things that an ordinary education, even a good ordinary education, may not: the joy of hard-won competence and discovery, a sense of the depth and power of tradition, a grasp of the music of poetry. It teaches them that what they study matters, because it can change lives, and it makes them hope that if they become the humanists they want to be, they’ll change lives too. I don’t know if Paideia will always have the impact it has now. I don’t know if these students, who come back from Rome and Greece and throw themselves into scholarship, will find everything they hope for there. For the moment, though, I know what awaits me in a few weeks: sleepless nights, exhausted mornings and boundless pleasure. The joy of Latin, the joy of scholarship. Who’d have thought it? Reginaldus, for a start, and his disciples. Maybe more of us should start listening to them.

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