Is Latin useful?

In a discussion between Ralph Waldo Trine (a prominent New Thought Christian of his time) and Henry Ford (the most prominent industrialist of his time) (The Power that Wins, 1928), Trine laments the lack of usefulness in much of schooling at the time – in particular, he mentions learning Latin.

Here’s a problem with Trine’s thinking, with which I am sympathetic in broad outline (education should be useful), but which we can see in retrospect was flawed. Learning Latin at the time led to reading certain Latin texts about philosophy, history, theology, and so on. (Similarly with ancient Greek, Hebrew, and so on.)

Learning Latin was actually about learning about certain texts, and so connecting whoever learnt the language into that stream of civilization. Roughly speaking, there is no civilization without core stories. Remove those stories, you remove the civilization.

This is what has happened. Following on the kind of advice Trine gave, and so without a familiarity with the stories, we have removed ourselves to a significant extent from what was known as Western Civilization. For a long time, certain texts in certain languages developed the core of the tradition which flowered in science, art, exploration, commerce, and so on.

It might make sense to remove that core if you have another, equally or more so rich civilizational tradition to plug into its place. Something, perhaps, like Chinese civilization, with its deep and varied texts, figures, artistic traditions, and so on.

Here’s the problem. We have no replacement. Perhaps those at the time thought they would replace that lineament with something completely new, made up of science, the enlightenment, and so on. Yet, civilizations don’t work like that.

We now have something else, but we don’t really have a term for what we now have. People still refer to it as ‘Western Civilization’.

So, there’s a fairly stark choice. On the one hand, reject the current nothingness and connect to a real civilizational current – the most natural choice would be what was called the Western one, although other traditions could do if one felt so called – or collapse into a shallow civilization that really can’t do what it’s supposed to (such as modern, commercialized pop. civilization). Simply put, collapse into a ‘dark age’, which is what we are currently in and heading furthermore into as a society.

To put things another way, any given person has extremely limited time, so it’s probably a good idea to try to figure out which texts, and so on, are most important to oneself, and then start to explore and build on them.

It is interesting to note that Latin has been replaced with such highly useful subjects as … calculus! Classics in the Western tradition have been replaced with ‘new classics’ – which seem to me almost all obviously inferior texts that won’t stand the test of time.

One advantage of speaking the English language is that much of what is important in Western Civilization has been translated, repeatedly and to a high standard, so one can get started without a detailed knowledge of the source languages.

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