Monday, August 1, 2005

Back From Rome . . .

. . . in a manner of speaking.

I just finished teaching an intensive, on-line graduate course in Latin composition. I'm sure such a course seems hopelessly arcane to most people, but not only is it one of my favorite subjects to teach, I also think it's one of the most important.

Let me put it this way.

If you had the chance to get deep inside the thoughts and ruminations of a man who rose from the middle class to hold the highest executive office in a world-dominating, 700-year-old constitutional republic; a man who, while in office, uncovered and foiled a military plot to overthrow his government; a man who, while in political exile, tossed off a shelf full of sophisticated and learned philosophical dialogues; a man who lost his life by standing up for his republic against a violent political bully; a man whose decapitated head and hands were afterwards displayed publicly in Rome; a man whose speeches were recognized 2,000 years ago as works of astonishing power and eloquence, and are still so recognized today . . . as I said, if you could get inside this man's mind, wouldn't it be worth taking some trouble to do so?

Well, you can't really get inside Marcus Tullius Cicero's mind, read his speeches and letters, or contemplate his ideas on constitutional government, friendship, or philosophy unless you really know Latin. And you don't really know Latin unless you are so thoroughly familiar with its syntax, semantics, and idioms that you can actually use the language. That is, write it correctly and idiomatically.

It's an arduous undertaking, even for those who have had solid training in reading Latin. All of us were putting in 12-14 hour days. At one point late in the course, I was trying to get a student to "see into" a Latin construction, asking her to think about it in a Latinate (not English-speaking) way, and refused simply to give her a pat answer. After I had peppered her with a series of questions, I asked "Do you see what I'm trying to get you to do?" She shot back, "go insane."

Call me a classics geek, or a lover of Dead White Males, or "the most boring possible person you can imagine" (which is how John Cusack referred to classics professors in The Sure Thing), but I really do think it's very important that we stay in close touch with ol' Cicero, and Vergil, and Plato, and Homer, and the rest of those guys.

That's me: driving students insane for the betterment of Western Civilization.


Lenslinger said...

I was wondering what's kept you so quiet lately...

Vitae Scrutator said...

700-year-old constitutional republic

Um...are you really saying that Rome was a constitutional republic under the kings?

tossed off a shelf full of sophisticated and learned philosophical dialogues

Don't you mean ripped off?

David Wharton said...

"...are you really saying that Rome was a constitutional republic under the kings?"

Ah, classicists! Non-anal-retentives need not apply . . . but I did actually ponder that wording a bit (after all, I'm a classicist too). And I decided on the vaguer wording because there was continuity of government even going back to the kings (since a consul is a co-king with a one-year term). And the senate was functioning under Romulus . . . so my answer to your question is yes, sort of.

And, "don't you mean ripped off?" Well, since Cicero was totally open about the fact that he was just putting into Latin the common ideas of the Greek philosophers -- that's a definite "no."

Vitae Scrutator said...

"Co-kings"? Ummm...sure, I'll bet that's exactly how the Romans thought of it. I hope it's not too anal of me to point out that we know virtually nothing about the polity under the kings, so to call it a constitutional republic is, well, probably not anal enough.

that's a definite "no

LOL! Good one! Now, is that just unintentional irony, or is it genuine self-parody?

Vitae Scrutator said...

Scottie, stop being a troll.

Hey! I'm not trollling! I didn't know that being anal was orthogonal to having a sense of humor! I was just asking some questions. Haven't you ever heard of the Skeptical Academy?