Friday, February 14, 2020

The usefulness of Latin

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Mass during the LMS Priest-training Conference in Prior Park.

Letter published this weekend in The Catholic Herald.

Sir,

On Richard Ingrams’ reminiscences of his classical education (‘The Perils of Latin’, Charterhouse, 7th Feb), it is indeed astonishing how much time many of our predecessors spent on Latin and Greek. It didn’t seem to do them much harm: this was, after all, the generation which invented the computer, space travel, and the nuclear bomb.

Cobbett’s rejection of learning ‘what can never be of any real use to any human being’ (quoted by Ingrams) is corrosive of a humane education. Even in the sciences, the vast majority of what children learn, once they get beyond the kindergarten level, is not going to be of direct use to them in adult life.


For a few, it lays the foundations for later specialisation. For the great majority, it serves as a pedagogical task which trains memory and reasoning, and gives an intellectual formation in the fundamental concepts and world-view of their culture. Latin and Greek are ideally suited to both roles.

Ingrams wonders if the Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was well-prepared by his classical education to deal with the Profumo Affair. MacMillan’s exposure to the intense interest among classical authors in the way lust can disrupt society would certainly seem more more relevant to that particular challenge than knowledge differential equations or the formation of the Himalayas.

In Boris Johnson we seem to have a Prime Minister not only educated in the Classics, but actually living them: displaying a combination of high principle, opportunism, and a complicated loved-life which could have taught Pericles and Julius Caesar a thing or two.

Sadly, this Classical education was shaped by the Enlightenment to connect modernity to the ancient world while bypassing Christianity and the ages of Faith. Boris would have benefitted from  the psychological insights of St Augustine, the subtle vision of St Thomas Aquinas, and the beauty and insistent faith of the Latin liturgical tradition.

Catholic schools and parents must do their best to ensure that our own children do not miss out on these key components of our religious culture.

Yours Faithfully,

Joseph Shaw
Chairman, The Latin Mass Society




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