Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Devil Knows Latin

The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition
© 1999 E. Christian Kopf
327 pages

Earlier in the week I read The Devil Knows Latin, which like Who Killed Homer? contends for the value of a classical education to western civilization.  His argument, appropriately enough, is trinitarian; he argues on behalf of tradition itself, argues for the classics' place as the bedrock of the western tradition, and argues for Latin and Greek's importance in imbibing the west's heritage most fully.  Kopf is a partisan of the west who regards attempts at emphasizing multiculturalism in education as dodgy; not because other cultures don't have value, but because they cannot be appreciated piecemeal.  A cultural tradition is, like a great house or a city, a thing built across the ages by succeeding generations; the work laid down by the dead is used and advanced by the living; each piece connects to the other. One generation of Greeks makes written stories out of another's myths;  Shakespeare takes those stories and makes them the background for his own; even a 'modern'  mind like Freud uses Greek mythic language to communicate his ideas. Attempting to teach culture through random stories from across the world would be tantamount to constructing a house by grabbing diverse elements -- a Japanese roof, Igloo walls, French doors -- and pushing them all together.  It doesn't work, and nor does modern western education work in presenting children with a slate of wholly seperate subjects without connection to one another. Kopf's understanding of education is more integral; for him, subjects should be learned together, like Roman schoolboys learning philosophy or history as they translate or read Latin in their mastery of it.

Regrettably, Kopff doesn't dwell on the Greek worldview the way Hanson does, though a conviction that education is less accumulating facts and more the cultivation of an individual undergrids his perspective.  The book doesn't have the cohesion its author admires; between an essay on the importance of language and several fascinating pieces of movie and literary criticism lays an argument for protective tariffs.. This is really more a collection of articles, linked by highbrow cultural defense.  If The Devil Knows Latin succeeds, it is in its first argument for culture, specifically the fact that culture is not a thing in itself, with its own life, but something which depends on the living to preserve and build upon.  Russell Kirk made an identical argument in America's British Culture, where he sweetened the pot by  contending  that  the classical tradition was one that Americans of all ethnicities and religions could use to bind one another together, instead of falling apart in cultural balkanization. Though I'm an ardent lover of the classical tradition, for me The Devil Knows Latin will be more memorable for the movie reviews.  Hanson's work, which predated this by a year, is much superior.

For the curious:  the title is taken from the story of a bishop who insisted a child be baptized in Latin instead of English, because "the baby doesn't know English and the Devil knows Latin."

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education, Victor Davis Hanson
The Roots of American Order and America's British Culture, Russell Kirk. Both not only include reviews of the west's classical heritage, but stress the importance of cultural continuity.


  1. Nice quote....

    I broadly agree that Classical education is a good thing - not that I had one (being poor back then). I think its very important that we know our own culture best - though we certainly shouldn't be ignorant of other cultures. I don't think we actually need to read Latin & Greek - at least not everyone. There are many fine translations of the classics in English which do me fine at least! I'm also not great with other languages... [grin] I definitely think that a fair knowledge of classical philosophy and myth is a good thing. Both explain a great deal about the world we live in today.

    I honestly don't rate my compulsory school education very highly - but then again I went through what is know as a 'Comprehensive' system which at least temporarily ousted a more stratified older system - some friends went to Grammar schools which did teach Latin. My schooling was considered to be 'good enough'. But knowing a little bit about the present education system I think I went through a sort of late golden age compared to now.

  2. This sounds like a worthwhile defense of the Roman contribution to the Western heritage. I was fortunate to have learned some Latin in High School and even more fortunate that my Latin teacher was an enthusiast for Classical Culture. Her enthusiasm inspired me then and my reading in Greek and Latin classics (in translation) has continued to enrich all my other reading.

  3. Speaking of Greeks, Cyberkitten, I read "Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations" this week. A recommendation of yours, I think!

    He didn't dwell on the importance of reading the classics in their original languages too much, and I don't see them making a comeback in 'conventional' education. What he calls the sacred tongues -- Hebrew, Latin, and Greek -- will be kept alive more by seminaries than anything else, I imagine. Latin is more robust than people give it credit for...even today we like to quote it, even if it's as simple as "carpe diem".

    @ James: Do you have some particularly favorite translations? I keep meaning to read the Aenid in particular.

  4. It is sometimes surprising how much Latin we still use. Even at work we have mini-projects called Ad Hoc's..... Of course if you're a lawyer or a doctor you'll be using Latin on a daily basis..... [grin]

    Yes, "Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations" was my recommendation. Did you like it? Not much philosophy coming up I'm afraid. Mostly history (nothing strange there!) and politics in the pipeline... and, of course, political history!!!

  5. I did! I should get a review out for it on Wednesday or so.

    I thought I was going to keep clear of politics a bit, but an author I've read a lot of (Joseph Ellis) has produced another bit about the American Revolution, this one on the influence of four men (Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay) on effecting a Constitutional convention that would bind autonomous states into a firmer union. There's other material to read before that, finishing "The Spice Route", which was hidden behind the couch for several weeks!


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