With his new bid to reclaim Latin in contemporary education and culture—and to reassure us all that taking on a bit of Latin will not require us to become classical scholars—Harry Mount happily contradicts Pope’s warning that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Knowing a bit of Latin separates us from the herd, gives our minds a tad more to play with in idle moments, and helps hone our verbal and mental skill.
Mount’s point is that even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin is well worth having and taking the effort to acquire—and perhaps more worth acquiring than any number of other skills, like “creative writing,” say. Here we find yet another book promising to ease the way to gaining what is surely a tough linguistic facility, and the book comes fueled with a sometimes embarrassing strain for a madcap accessibility with populist, aw-shucks cheerleading that tries to pump us with the confidence that we too can learn Latin just as well as we too can learn to change our own oil. But this book should not be relegated to the Self-Help shelves. Faithfully and industriously used, it can initiate any diligent, curious adult into the mysteries of the tongue of Caesar and Cicero, Virgil and Horace.
Carpe Diem makes a fine handbook refresher for those who put in their time in Latin class many years ago, but those completely innocent of the language will be especially well served. Mount, a British journalist with a degree in ancient history, greases the skids with a farrago of common—we might say nifty—information about the Romans and their world. Certain sections, such as those on mythology and architecture, read nicely. But a few of his with-it chapter titles like “Back to Basics: Sex, Cases, and Word Order,” “Tuscan Columns and the Historical Importance of My Fair Lady: A Quick Cultural Tour of Rome,” “Verbal Abuse and the John Cleese Guide to Latin” go a long way, and he tells us far more than necessary about the classical roots of Animal House. Mount does too much of this populist prancing, but it’s all done divertingly enough, and when he gets to the point—leaning Latin—he’s sound and sure.
Mount lays out the elements of Latin grammar with a surprising thoroughness given the short compass of his book.
Mount lays out the elements of Latin grammar with a surprising thoroughness given the short compass of his book. In each chapter, he presents progressively thorny material directly and clearly, and he presumes no formal understanding of inflective languages. With relief we find that no matter how light the tone throughout the rest of the book, its formal instruction is not a cakewalk. Mount does not neglect difficulty; paradigms for fresh memorizing mark every section. It’s all here—the five declensions, the four conjugations, adjective and adverb formation, the peculiarities of clauses, tenses, and moods with indirect questions, conjunctions, the passive perfect, the ablative absolute, the subjunctive, and the rest—if not quite all the rest, since Mount wisely advises the reader to procure Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer as a handy reference once this guide is finished. Mount also gives readers nuggets of genuine Latin from Roman poetry and prose to translate with liberal help from adequate grammatical explanations and word lists. These nuts can be cracked, and the cracking will doubtless be satisfying to the novice. Probably one could not, upon completing the course of this book, pass a first-year Latin examination without distress—the lack of vocabulary alone would preclude it—but anybody who has stayed with it will go far toward comprehending the breadth, richness, and structure of the language.
Mount does not trot out that most tired case for learning Latin, which (in English-speaking countries) goes to the effect that it aids in learning English. It probably does for most people, but that benefit, such as it is, is neither inevitable nor predictable. No, he says, the “really useful thing about [studying] Latin is not so much that it will help you understand English as that it will help you understand Latin.” It justifies itself, abundantly. Further, and most helpfully, he knows that we properly learn Latin, first, for its piercing beauty and precision, and only secondarily for any putative use it may have. A classical training is, in this way, an intimate component of an aesthetic education.
Just so. Nor need we be deterred, he reminds us, by the charge so often laid on Latin as a “dead language.” No cultural artifact that has conveyed so much sublimity and so persistently resisted dissolution can be anything but perpetually relevant. For, as a crusty old Scotsman once put it, Latin is not dead—it has merely ceased to be mortal.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 3, on page 82
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com