At the time when the 15-year-old girl who was later to be Queen Elizabeth I was being taught by Roger Ascham, and reading such works as Plato’s Republic, you had to learn Latin and Greek if you wanted an education. The books most worth reading were only in those languages, whether history, drama, geometry, rhetoric or philosophy—or poetry in general.
In fact, most of the world’s literary resources were in Latin and Greek; the translations of them, some of which later would be familiar to Shakespeare, had hardly begun to appear.
So if the young Elizabeth was going to become one of the most educated women in Europe—which she was—then Latin and Greek were her basic tools.
That was 1548, less than seven people’s lifetimes ago,* but now things are different. There are translations of nearly all the classical works. So is there a need, in AD 2019, to learn the Latin and Greek languages?
The need is not the same; but all the same it is there. “Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can,” remarked Dr Johnson. Johnson was a wordsmith: Latin he took for granted.
Latin—and the possibility of Greek—is instrumental for a school that has academic intent. It is a tool for literacy and a lifeline to the process of communication for the child who has not as yet been made aware of language. It is more valuable than ever before, because it is now the only subject left that makes children aware of the processes of language, teaches them a critical approach towards words and raises issues of semantics.
A study that calls for a close inspection of the written word, for careful scrutiny, and for coordinated thinking in place of vagueness or guesswork, is a study that has a part to play in keeping people liberated. The skills that Latin demands are needed in a world where predigested thoughts and speech are rife.
Even if the study of Latin be continued for only four, three, or even two years, it has its effect. And so as a subject for study by a wide range of pupils, it is of the greatest value for clarity of writing, speech and thought.
Its value, and that of Greek, for reading Classical literature deserves a later post.
*See earlier post: De temporis lapsu