Long Live Latin aspires to something different than the many grammars, manuals, and lexicons that Latin has inspired during its long life: not to aid, primarily, in understanding the technical mechanisms of the language, but to assist in teasing out its pleasures, in poetry and prose, written and recited. It will deepen any reader’s appreciation of Latin, even those who have little knowledge of it.
The case for Latin is all too often boiled down to a utilitarian norm: Latin will help you expand your vocabulary, think clearly, and read carefully. But Gardini, a native Italian and a Professor of Italian and Comparative Literatures at Oxford, professes a simple and essential love of Latin for what it is, not for what it can do. He delights in every aspect of the language—its own ancestors (Etruscan and proto-Indo-European), its authors, its descendants across the European continent, its phonics, and the now-widespread alphabet it employed.
This fine book weaves philosophical and social history together with Latin’s linguistic development. It shows, for instance, how the semantic and syntactical shifts in Latin during the medieval period are bound up with burgeoning Christendom, its worldview, and its priorities. Words are borrowed from Greek, and new idioms are created to describe a new moral landscape:
Language has [in the medieval period] progressed in its science of the inner self. It is more deeply introspective, more open to moments of self-examination. Which gives rise to an entirely new critical approach to emotions and states of the soul; a psychoanalytical language with the power of a high court: to dictate the laws and conditions of the inarticulate heart; a topography of the spirit, no less, which evolves through daring intellectual excursions.
Using Augustine as his chief exemplar, Gardini also shows how the study of classical Latin itself became Christianized. St. Augustine placed, in his Confessions, “the learning of Latin under God’s purview (I.14.23). To study the alphabet becomes a religious act, in that it draws the child closer to the truest truth. God is grammar (I.13.22). Ethics is meter (III.7.14).”
Cogito—the verb later used as the first word of Descartes’ famous formulation, cogito ergo sum—was another Augustinian innovation. There are several different verbs used to describe thought in classical Latin: sapio, which originally meant to taste and then abstractly came to mean to sense, and puto, which meant to prune or arrange and came to mean to consider, are a couple of them. But it was Augustine who proposed that cogito, which is the frequentative of the verb cogo, “I collect,” would best capture the mechanism of thought.
Long Live Latin emphasizes the plasticity of tradition, beginning with the recognition that all Latin works have likely been corrupted at some point. Most ancient texts have been passed down in several distinct lines of provenance, nearly always with at least slight variance between versions. Preservation of what we hold dear is not necessarily certain, and perfect preservation is not possible. Nor, Gardini argues, is it necessary or even desirable in establishing the founding documents of a tradition.
The classical tradition is not a retrospective interpolation of contemporary scholars and their guesses as to the collective concerns of the ancients, but something that Roman authors were already aware of and consciously working within. Poets frequently referenced and were deeply influenced by their forebears. Ennius, fondly referred to by other poets as the pater noster of Latin literature, stands out in this respect—for his unique artistic awareness. The self-conscious innovation of Ennius, Gardini argues, separated him from the “mere Homeric impersonators” that came before him. Like the Greek Theocritus, who forged the bucolic tradition which Virgil later inherited and practiced in Latin, Ennius gained fame by looking to the past and knowingly differentiating himself. His successors did the same: Gardini notes references by Ennius to the opening of Hesiod’s Theogony and, in turn, references to Ennius by Cicero in De re publica and by Lucretius in De rerum natura.
Tradition, then, does not aspire to fossilize favored ideas and literature in amber. It is an imperfect process of record, remembrance, and recollection: “Continuity is not a necessary requirement of what we call tradition. To transmit, to pass on, is far from a linear process and follows no fixed path or program. . . . The beauty of Latin is the beauty of what’s been salvaged and guarded from the flux of life.” One need look no further than the path some ancient texts have taken into contemporary times to appreciate the truth in these words. Cardinal Angelo Mai, a philologist working in Milan in the first half of the nineteenth century, is remembered as a great reader of palimpsests. In 1819, Mai discovered that beneath a commentary of St. Augustine on the psalms had been written a fourth- century manuscript of much of Cicero’s De re publica, which had been thought lost to the ages.
In an age in which many colleges have become little more than diploma factories, to have a tenured academic admit to enjoying learning a subject purely for its own sake, without ulterior motive or obvious career benefit, is refreshing. And Gardini makes quite clear that it is not necessary to justify Latin with reasons for studying it beyond itself; its own beauty is enough. The book is straightforward and guileless in its aim and opinion. It is a love letter to an ancient tongue.
But love has its uses. Gardini, touching on the most renowned voices of Latin, writes: “Virgil moves me; Tacitus draws me towards cruelty; Lucretius sends me whirling and drifting and sinking; Cicero has me dreaming of perfection in all—thought, speech, behavior. Seneca teaches me happiness.” One must look backward to move forward. Although these Latin works grow older all the time, they never cease to offer something unique to each successive generation. Tradition is not stagnant, and is no more dead than Latin, which is to say, it is not dead at all.