Why Study Latin and Greek?

Studying Greece and Rome both reveals the basis of Western culture, while providing the study of a culture’s internal coherence.

I always suspected a massive plot behind the sudden demise of classical languages in Catholic schools and universities after Vatican II.  Admittedly, those studies were countercultural.  While knowledge makes a bloody entrance, in post-conciliar times, “the living was easy.”  We were exhorted to adapt ourselves to the times, and the times were clearly in favor of pot and free sex.  Why should students be forced into painful studies which would never be useful in the real world?  If the Baltimore catechism had yielded to constructing collages, and if experience formed the basis of theology, what did Latin and Greek have to offer?  Their demise fit in with the times.  Nonetheless, it seemed that the theologians willingly pushed the classics over the side of the Tarpeian cliff.  If their students did not have access to the primary texts, they would be in no position to question the new theological view of the universe; doctrine and morality would depend upon theologians’ experience.  What can be more absolute than experience?

The intervening years have taught us that experience is, not only multifaceted and susceptible to contradictory interpretations (even among theologians), but also painful and downright confusing.  Spin doctors everywhere try to convince us that we experience and want what they want us to experience and want.  Democracy declines into promises to fulfill needs both natural and induced. Even in the Church, we have come to realize that not everything can be tolerated.  How can we escape the whirlpool of relativism?

Beyond Relativism
The study of Latin and Greek will not solve all the problems of our cultural malaise.  But when people are looking for something beyond relativism and post-modernism, it may be opportune to examine again benefits of a “classical education.”

First of all, classical studies train the memory, and memory allows us to transcend the moment’s immediacy.  A good memory may even be of assistance in the business world, at least in remembering to send and collect bills on time.  Second, classical studies teach grammar.  English grammar tends to be terribly amorphous and protean in its complexity; it is terribly hard to pin down in rules.  Latin, being a dead language, suffers from no pressure group that feels itself slighted and demands changes, nor does the latest linguistic fad, driven by iPods, or some other technical marvel, insist upon being recognized as legitimate usage.  Latin rules are just there, simply laid out and unchanged for ages.  By learning Latin grammar, students perceive that language incorporates an intelligible structure.  Words have meaning, their proper use assisting communication.  Then, they can begin to identify a structure in the English language.  Third, along with the recognition of structure, comes the awareness that thought has rules also.  Grammar embodies a relatively systematic view of the universe.  Nouns represent enduring subjects of action, while verbs reflect transient actions, and adjectives modify nouns.  A basic philosophy inheres in language.  The proper use of language forces clarity of thought upon us.  Fourth, wresting with a Latin or Greek text binds a student to an objectivity beyond their subjective whims.  The text has a meaning which the student has to struggle in wringing it out.  Creative imagination in translation only goes so far.  For every mortal, objectivity is of greater moment than subjectivity.  There are limits in, as well as, to life.  Finally, an awareness of Latin and Greek roots helps tremendously in recognizing their cognates in English.  This not only encourages creative versatility in employing language, but also possesses tremendous value for recognizing vocabulary words on SAT exams.  Who can deny the practical use of the classics?

Profundity of Culture
More importantly, in the education of youth, the study of the classics encourages perception of reality’s profundity.  Anyone who has plodded through Gaul with Caesar for a year knows that the universe did not come to be in 1989, or even 1962.  Our culture is inherited, and it has deep roots.  Many things, which we take for granted, were not always so, and other things, which we dismiss as irrelevant ,were once considered central in people’s lives.  Our cultural values are transmitted by the two great streams of tradition flowing from Jerusalem and the Greco-Roman world.  Even if these traditions are being undermined today, their assailants presuppose, however unwittingly, some values that come from those streams.  Their defenders need to recognize how cohering parts cannot be removed from the whole without destroying their meaning.

Plato's Academy

While the study of Greece and Rome reveals the basis of Western culture, its distance from the present also permits the study of a culture’s internal coherence.  In every culture, social and familial structures, religion, philosophy, art, poetry, politics, military strategy, and economics produce a unified Weltanschuung.  If one element changes, other aspects soon follow.  Internal developments in Greece and Rome provide an interpretative template for the internal movements of our own culture.  If anyone wonders at the success of rock bands in the 1980s, which destroyed, on stage, their guitars, with automobiles, and other instruments, he need only observe the overall culture’s stress on formless immediacy.  Forms and structures no longer were relied on to mediate meaning.  It was the epoch of existentialism mutating into postmodernism, theology based on experience (feelings), with religion reduced to individual “spirituality” (priesthood as a service industry), free sex, escalating divorce cases, abortion (actions without implications), drugs, the politics of entitlements, formlessness in art, loud, technology-driven music with satanic overtones, and a military removed from the populace.  The lack of formal constraint, or discipline, leads to endless desires and their consequent frustration.  Finally, frustration engenders unhappiness and rage.  Not without reason did the best of the ancients adopt the maxim, “Nothing in excess,” while striving to hold the balance between form and matter, finite and infinite, in philosophy, as well as in their lives.

Seventy years earlier, when Amy Lowell wrote, “Christ! What are patterns for?” in reaction to the devastation—cultural, institutional, emotional, and moral—of World War I, she was questioning the moribund Victorian age’s structures that end in death.  For the Victorian age was losing its faith in the Bible and (Protestant) Christianity.  As Yeats simultaneously noted, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Preparatio Evangelica
Christianity, especially Roman Christianity, brings order, reason, and discipline into the world. For a modern Christian, Christ’s significance for civilization can be transmitted through the study of classical culture.  The Greeks and Romans were highly intelligent and critical observers of reality, without Christ, and they reported the human condition with sharp eyes, unwavering gaze, and often broken hearts.  The possibilities and limitations of human existence are spelled out with unrivaled clarity.  A miracle of anonymous grace, alone, can explain how they looked so clearly at the human tragedy, held out so long in its face, and, thus, achieved the magnanimity of which human nature is capable, even in its frailty and failure.  The ground was prepared for the Gospel’s fructifying seed.

Homer stands at the beginning of Greek civilization.  He tells how Achilles, so confident in his pride, realized that the heroic code of public honor is surpassed in love for a friend, even when that entails sure death.  Hector, greatest of the Trojans, sought to protect family and city in a doomed cause; facing Achilles and death, he stood firm.  Only in the grief of Priam and Achilles, before death—man’s universal lot—is a common humanity acknowledged, and pity grounded.  But is death the last word spoken?  Is there no greater mercy?

The Odyssey recounts an adventure rivaling the fantasies of science-fiction, as cunning courage conquers all odds.  But Odysseus knows the price he pays in the battle against gods, men, and others, in his long wanderings.  Through them, he longs for home and domestic peace.  Perceptively, the Church Fathers employ him as a paradigm of the Christian, assailed by temptations and strife, on the return to his true home.  Unlike Tennyson, who fancied an aged Odysseus perpetually striving and wandering beyond all bounds, Homer knew that the heart desires a place of rest, and that age should bring wisdom around the hearth.  Though man surpasses the finite, he can only rest in the finite, so there has to be a goal to striving.  Is not Christ the concrete “real and always beyond?”

Pindar glorifies the athletic exploits of beautiful youth in its moment of triumph, but he realizes that beauty rends the heart all the more piteously because, like everything mortal, beauty passes.  Even his inspired poetry cannot hold the moment forever.  No wonder that Herodotus praises the wisdom of Solon, who counts happy only the dead—who, having lived a prosperous life with family and honors, fall in victorious battle; or, if young, perish in the triumph of great effort.  Does not Christ make His death both a victory, and the entrance to rebirth into a life without end?

In the great tragedians, the philosophical problems of our race are portrayed and suffered on stage.  Does not Aeschylus present the dilemma of original sin, as Atreus’ crime reverberates through successive generations?  Once the balance of justice has been upset, no human can set it right. Every claimed right is opposed by a contrary right, and the calamity continues to bind humans in fate’s bloody net, until a supra-human solution arrives.  To untangle the skein of this Greek primordial sin, Athene, a deus ex machina, arrives, establishing a court of justice, the Areopagus. She empowers the court to weigh rights and, in case of equibalance, to decide for mercy.  But the Areopagus will soon condemn Socrates, the most just of Athenians.  Human justice necessarily fails before claim and counterclaim.  Contemporary sophists, the ancient version of spin doctors, teach the art of twisting words to gain points in debate, making the stronger argument the weaker, and the weaker the stronger.  If true justice is to be realized, God has to intervene, definitively, with a justifying justice that stops every human mouth.

Aeschylus touches the problem of providence, and freedom to sin, when Cassandra predicts unheeded (by Apollo’s curse) the unfolding tragedy.  That same problem reappears, relentlessly, in the Oedipus cycle.  Oedipus, the good man, tragically flawed, is predicted to kill his father, and marry his mother.  Fleeing that fate, he fulfills it, his stubbornness submerging all in ruin.  The man wise enough to outwit the Sphinx by relying on his own light, is reduced to self-inflicted blindness, while blind Tiresias is manifested as the true seer.  Human wisdom stumbles before the complexity of reality, and the mystery of providence.  Finally, the blind Oedipus finds peace in the knowledge that all has been destined by Zeus.  Because he can reconcile himself to his doom, he brings blessings to the land where his body is buried.  Later, his daughter Antigone appeals to the gods, who have implanted in men a natural law empowering them to resist all civic pressures that destroy familial piety—a bond that stretches beyond the grave.  Does not Christ bring blessings by his predicted death, willingly accepted?  Is morality grounded in a reality transcending death?  Do we not see the light in Christ’s light?

Sophocles is very aware of the tensions between traditional religious values, which he upholds, and the Sophistic skepticism invading society.  But Euripides reflects the questioning of the younger generation, that experiences the material glory of the Athenian empire, and the “good life,” without restraint.  As conventions and customs break down, his plays highlight the role of passions in human affairs, showing how destructive they are.  Yet, he has no answer since even the gods are infected; indeed, their jealousies and quarrels contaminate their worshippers.  One may ascribe concupiscent tendencies to the “inspiration” of competing divinities, but that provides neither peace nor meaning to those whose lives are torn asunder by desire, and have to suffer manipulation and deception by clever human protagonists.  Aristophanes’ biting lampoons uphold the values of the old guard and the old gods; he penetrates and punctures the superficiality of “modern” values and fads, but he is the last stand of a society under duress.  Nothing positive can be offered to refurbish the old ways.

Athens is squeezed, externally, by Sparta’s disciplined persistence, as well as, internally, by political disarray.  During the Peloponnesian War, as Athens’ fortunes wane, democracy devolves into demagogy.  Pericles’ ideal citizen-soldier sacrificing his life for the city-state’s common good, is transformed into a rabble seeking the perpetuation of entitlements, and, in their deprivation, scapegoats.  Thucydides, a cashiered general and politician, describes cynically the crumbling of Athenian politics.  Instead of justice and generosity, the much-lauded prerogatives of a free people, he reveals, at the root of political life, the quest for power and vengeance.  A lurid fascination grips his readers as he traces the all, but inevitable, decline of democracy: the tilted bias of every warped decision, responding to disaster, generates further disasters.

Human pride is humbled and democratic dreams destroyed.  The Bible’s wisdom is apropos: “it is better to seek refuge in the Lord than to trust in man” (Ps. 118: 8).  But the Lord reveals himself to Israel alone, and Greek religion is collapsing under its internal inconsistencies, as well as the acerbic attacks of rationalist philosophers.

The Impasse of Philosophy
By the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens is devastated, supporters of the arts are impoverished, the Sophists flee to fleece richer patrons, and Socrates, alone, remains to take stock of his city.  He remains since he does not look for ultimate meaning in any city of this world.  His reality is found in an ideal realm, transcending everything material.  Looking back upon Achilles as the incorporation of manly virtue, he does not fear to leave this life to find a better world elsewhere.  After the conservative reaction to defeat dooms to death this most sagacious Athenian, Plato seeks to immortalize his teacher by deepening and transmitting his insights.  Fortunately, Plato’s love of Athens, and its accomplishments, prevents his philosophy from turning into a Buddhist fuga mundi; he recognizes that men still have obligations in this world, even if their aim is to be purified of its material dross.  Aristotle seeks to anchor thought more solidly in this world by finding intelligibility in motion, yet, beyond his Physics, he writes his Metaphysics, because the principles of intelligibility apply to more than physical realities.  Much as he is fascinated by this world’s structures, he has to affirm a “prime mover” beyond the world, because this world does not make sense on its own.  But Aristotle realizes that Athens’ sun has set and, lest his city sin again against philosophy, he moves off to Macedon to train the young Alexander.  Phillip, a half-barbarian, already dominates Greece.  Though Demosthenes recalls the glory of freedom, without which no true man wishes to live, his rhetoric is not strong enough to resist the juggernaut from the north.  Athens’ life subsides into an academic center, far removed from the center of real power. The philosophers turn to the Stoic’s grin-and-bear-it pantheism, in which private virtue alone is to be cultivated, or, to the Epicurean enclosed garden, where the gods do not enter, and pleasures are to be nurtured, but never in excess.  Vitality seeps out of Greece as reality’s challenge is muffled.  Homer has become a myth. The God of the Hebrews does not thunder from the mountain peaks, calling for the honor of his name, and transcendence of the world.  There is nothing left to love with all one’s heart; only the human remains.

Roman Revival?
With the Romans’ love of the little city as the center of the world, a primitive vitality is temporally restored.  Men again love the place of their birth, fighting to protect it.  Family, moral duty, and service are inculcated into Roman youth.  The struggle for survival with Carthage brings Rome onto the world stage, leaving her mistress of the Western Mediterranean.  Upon meeting the Greeks, the Romans are wary.  During a visit to Rome, Carneades, a prominent Greek philosopher from the Athenian Academy, entertains the youth by proving one thesis one day, and its contrary the next.  The youth are enthralled; their wiser fathers immediately banish him.  Nonetheless, Rome’s conquest of Greece brings the two cities into closer contact. With rhetoric assuming increased importance in the Senate and the courts, young Romans often complete their education in Athens.  There, they learn various philosophical positions, as well as rhetorical skills, a smattering of art appreciation, preparing themselves, like Pontius Pilate, to govern the world.  In first century, B.C., Rome adapts much of Greek culture, undergoing a moral decline under the pressure of riches and power. The Roman Republic is transformed, on the anvil of civil war, into the Roman Empire.  Its authors reflect that change.

Catullus celebrates the pleasures of illicit love with his Lesbia.  But, he soon learns that an adulteress need not remain faithful to any man.  From his agonized heart, there arises a cry for truth and fidelity.  Sallust moralizes in composing history, despite the less than edifying witness apparent in his politics and life.  The powerful speeches and elegant philosophical treatises of Cicero testify to a valiant effort to preserve the Republic, maintain moderation, and uphold traditional values.  His speeches almost succeed at concealing the novus homo, the “new man,” concerned for his position, seeking acceptance from Roman nobiles(high born, nobles).  Yet, love for his daughter, who died at a young age, as well as his final, courageous stand with the Republic against Augustus, make us realize how complex and torturous are the windings of the human heart.  There has to be a justice from beyond this world.

Living as a paid poet under the Empire, Horace’s aurea mediocritas (golden moderation) is far different from Cicero’s.  He is content to let the political and military battles rage, so long as he enjoys a quiet retreat, with the little pleasures of domestic life without a wife.  Ovid revels in clever superficiality—art for art’s sake—if not for seduction (how postmodern!!), and finds himself banished from Augustus’ Rome.  The bitter Tacitus records the decline of emperors, twisting the facts to match his aristocratic and senatorial pretensions.  Suetonius is content to publish a scandal sheet.  Seneca writes cool prose, and colder poetry, in preaching stoic detachment. Yet, he amasses a fortune until Nero mandates his suicide.  Above them all, hovers Virgil.  However much this Mantuan poet appreciates the bucolic joys of planting and harvest, he also knows the price of empire—the unremitting effort of “pious Aeneas” (from Virgil’s Aeneid) to fulfill the divine will in the midst of loss, heartbreak, and incomprehension.  Family and race, divinities and friends, create the ties of fealty to which Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, must dedicate his life.  Rome’s destiny is bound to such service in the art of empire, “imposing the custom of peace, sparing the conquered, and vanquishing the proud.”  Yet, however self-sacrificial Aeneas’ intentions, Virgil knows that they will always be misunderstood and resisted.  At the Aeneid’s conclusion, Turnus’ “life flees, enraged with lamentation, down to the shades beneath;” Italian peace is not yet attained.  Virgil’s majestic sorrow, before the human dilemma, touches the heart.  We need a place to call home on earth; yet, every home is endangered.  To preserve the walls of peace, the task and toil of empire continue; there is no rest on earth.

The Church of Christ
Rome fell, but the task of Rome falls to the Church now, through which Rome is reborn.  The Catholic Church strives always to maintain moral norms in a fallen world.  Duty continues, but the Church is greater than Rome.  For she alone, in her very structure, combines the love of the concrete—in which all human ties and values are rooted—with a universality of vision wider than the world.  Infrangibly tied to her origins in Palestine, she lives for her mission of extending Christ’s reign to the ends of the earth and into heaven’s eternity.  At the heart of the Church, rests the blessed Eucharist, the infinite God, offering himself, in limitless love, but in a finite sign.  In faithfulness to her Lord, she reproduces his ontological structure: infinite God in a human nature.  The human is good, in all its frailty, because the good God loves his creation to the shedding of his blood.  So the Church defends and preserves the human, be that the tiny life of the newly conceived child, the majesty of Michelangelo and Mozart, or the genius of Aquinas and Newman.  All that is good in a human being is taken up, thereby, into Christ’s sacrifice.  Only God can conquer sin; he does so by laying down his life. The Church, believing in the resurrection, knows that her task is beyond her own powers.  Unlike Rome, she lives to affirm a reality greater than herself, offering God’s concrete salvation to the world.  In his mercy, she learns, ever anew, the humility of service and the exaltation of love.

Would it not be worthwhile to return to the past for the sake of our future?  The values of the past must be appreciated in their context, in order that our civilization might still nourish itself from the streams of tradition.  In addition, recognizing the contingency of success, and the frailty of humanity, we may appreciate, all the more gratefully, the salvation scandalously won for us on a hill outside Jerusalem.  In Christ, the center holds.

Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ About Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ

Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ, currently teaches theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He previously taught at Fordham University, the Gregorian University (Rome), and the Pontifical College Josephinum. He was also invited professor at St. Joseph's Seminary (Yonkers) and Seton Hall University. He served on the International Theological Commission, various Roman commissions, and as consultor to the USCCB Doctrine Committee. He has published two books, edited two others, and produced more than 150 articles on philosophy, dogmatic theology, Scripture, history, and spirituality.


  1. “It seemed that the theologians willingly pushed the classics over the side of the Tarpeian cliff.”
    Brilliant line! A tip of the biretta to you, Father!

  2. Avatar Robert Tovar says:

    Father, your article is not only timely but necessary. The study of ancient text is as important as the language itself. Knowledge of true meaning in respect to words is based on origin. We have gone past intent and definition only to make way for vulgarity and slang. I encourage study but would be just as content with everyone having at least the ability to know where to look if a word or phrase is questionable. God Bless.

  3. Avatar Christine Mooradian says:

    A most brilliant discussion on the value of studying western civilization, including the ancient languages. The question “Why did Christ come to earth at the point in history that he did?”, is clarified by Fr. John McDermott.

  4. Avatar Michael Elohim says:

    Excellence of form and substance are reconciled in this enjoyable and enlightening essay, Father! If you haven’t done so already, you and your readers may enjoy Allen Bloom’s thoughts on classical education as an antidote for relativism and nihilism.


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