The Classical Languages: A Tale of Two Cities

Olympia and Bluffton

If there’s one thing that makes classical education “classical,” it is the study of the classical languages: Greek and Latin. Classical education also involves reading the famous literature written in those languages, and studying the times when those authors lived. But a classical education is made classical with the classical languages. Maintaining the Trivium and the Quadrivium without teaching the classical languages can still prove very beneficial, don’t get me wrong. But a liberal arts education loses something when Greek and Latin are wanting. Unfortunately, that “something” can be difficult to identify; nevertheless, I’ll try my best to put my finger on it.

I can give four good reasons why students should study Greek and Latin. Someone more learned could likely come up with several more. I’ll give my four reasons as a comparison of two cities, the English city and the Greek and Latin city; let’s call them Bluffton and Olympia, respectively.

Olympia is easier to navigate, has clearer skies, serves better food, and boasts nobler citizens.

Easier Navigation

First, Olympia is easier to navigate, because Greek and Latin are inflected languages. This is in contrast to English, which is an analytic language. In analytic languages meaning depends greatly on word order. Take, for example, the simple sentence, Theagenes threw the javelin. If I change the subject and the object then we have, The javelin threw Theagenes, which – while good for a laugh – no longer communicates what I was trying to say. Or consider this arrangement: The javelin Theagenes threw. Is it saying something about a certain javelin that Theagenes threw? Is it saying that a javelin named Theagenes threw something? Is it saying that Theagenes threw the javelin? Using some common sense we could probably narrow it down to this last one, but I think I’ve sufficiently illustrated what an imprecise language English can be.

While an analytic language like English relies on word order to determine meaning, inflected languages (like Greek and Latin) have a different way of arranging words into meaningful sentences. I suppose the easiest way to introduce an inflected language is to point out the remnants of inflection that we have in English. See if you can identify what’s wrong with the following sentences: ‘Theagenes threw him javelin into the air over he head. The javelin fell back down on his.’

The pronouns are wrong! It should read, ‘his javelin,’ ‘his head,’ and ‘down on him.’ Thus we see in English that the masculine singular pronoun is inflected, meaning it changes its ending based on its role in the sentence: ‘he’ is the subject, ‘his’ shows possession, ‘him’ indicates direct object and pairs with prepositions (e.g. ‘to him,’ ‘from him,’ ‘through him’).

In inflected languages every noun, pronoun, and adjective works this way. They have separate endings for subject, possessive, indirect object, direct object. One almost cannot be imprecise without being flat out wrong.

An Example

Consider this sentence from Cicero’s De Divinatione: Quod enim munus rei publicae adferre maius meliusve possumus quam si docemus atque erudimus iuventutem? Here’s a word-for-word translation that keeps the word order: What for gift thing public bring greater better or can we than if we teach and instruct youth? If we read that sentence a couple of times we might get the gist of it, though as the translation stands we can hardly call it communication.

I’ll go through Cicero’s sentence word by word and demonstrate how the mind works through an inflected language. I glance at the first few words: Quod enim munus. Enim means ‘for,’ and is used in continuing and explaining a prior statement. Enim is also what’s called ‘post positive,’ meaning that even though it sets the tone for the sentence, it appears as the second or sometimes third word. In English, then, it would make sense to translate ‘for’ as the first word. While English has some words that can function as post positives (see the placement of the word ‘then’ in the previous sentence), the word ‘for’ is not one of them.

Next I see that Quod is a relative pronoun – ‘who, which, what.’ It is neuter in gender (nouns, pronouns, etc. in Latin can be masculine, feminine, or neuter). It is singular in number. It is in either the nominative or accusative case, and therefore I know that the ‘what’ is either going to be the subject of the verb or the direct object.

Since the relative pronoun Quod must refer to a noun, I go looking for a neuter, singular, nominative/accusative noun. And there’s munus! Munus can refer to a position, office, or duty. It can also mean ‘gift.’

But I need to figure out what role this munus plays in the sentence, and that means I need to find the verb. Possumus! There it is. Possumus is first person plural, present tense, from the verb possum, ‘be able.’ Here it means ‘we are able’ or ‘we can.’ This leads to the question ‘able to… do what?’ We need an infinitive: to read? to sing? to sculpt? There’s adferre, which means ‘to bring’ or ‘to offer.’ Now if ‘we’ is the subject then munus can’t be. It must be the direct object. I can begin translating, ‘For what gift can we offer…’

Next I notice that maius and meliusve are both neuter, singular, and nominative/accusative (I’ve narrowed it down to accusative, the direct object). Maius and melius are both comparative adjectives and describe the noun munus. The –ve on the end of melius is called ‘enclitic,’ meaning it sticks on the end of the word, but will get translated in English as if it comes before the word. Maius means ‘greater,’ melius means ‘better,’ and –ve means ‘or.’ Cicero writes about a gift that is ‘greater or better.’ I fit this into my translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer…’

Offer to what, or to whom? There’s rei publicae. Rei is a noun that means ‘thing’ or ‘matter.’ Publicae is an adjective that means ‘public.’ Rei and publicae are both feminine, singular, and in the dative case (which marks indirect object, or in this sentence the beneficiary of the gift). The translation ‘public thing’ doesn’t make much sense, but I note that the two Latin words together give us the English word ‘republic.’ I add this to the translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic…’ (Latin has neither the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘a, an,’ and therefore we can supply them where needed in translation).

Now we come to the second part of the sentence. Quam translates in a comparative sense, especially given that we had comparative adjectives in the first part. I’ll translate it ‘than.’ Si usually means ‘if,’ though here with quam I’ll translate it ‘than that.’

I look at docemus atque erudimus. Atque is easy: it means ‘and.’ Docemus and erudimus are both first person, plural, present tense from the verbs doceo and erudio. Docemus means ‘we teach,’ Erudimus means ‘we instruct.’ So: ‘…than that we teach and instruct…’ Iuventutem. This is a feminine noun, singular, and accusative, from iuventus. It’s the direct object of the verbs. It’s also the word from which we get the English ‘juvenile,’ and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that in Latin the word means ‘youth.’

And now I can understand the whole sentence, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic than that we teach and instruct the youth?’ Once someone is proficient in Latin or Greek he can fly through this whole process rather quickly and naturally.

The Roads of Bluffton and Olympia

You see how hard the mind must strain to read a language as foreign and inflected as Latin. It gets even more fun with Greek when there’s an entirely different alphabet. These languages form the mind, and we might think of it like designing a roads system for a city.

The roads system in the English city of Bluffton is the work of several different contractors: Sir Anglo Saxon, Monsieur French, a Germanic gentleman. The contractors did not collaborate. Each did his work having inherited one thing from his predecessor and handing on something more or less altered to his successor – when there weren’t two different contractors trying to do the work at the same time.

English had been an inflected language. Through the years reliance on word order has mostly replaced case endings, though, as noted, we still have inflected pronouns. English usually conjugates verbs by adding words to the beginning of the verb rather than changing the ending of the verb itself, e.g. I walked, you walked, he walked, we walked, you walked, they walked. Yet in the present tense we get, I walk, you walk, he walks. And good luck telling if ‘you’ means ‘you’ singular or ‘y’all’ plural.

The centuries of construction and reform have left the Bluffton roads system with a good deal of internal inconsistency, which in turn offers great opportunity for confusion. Randomly a lane becomes right-turn-only, some streets suddenly strike a dead end, the roads angle and curve and meander about – so much concrete and so difficult to get where I want to go! Theagenes used to go with his friends to the stadiums with the javelins in order to throw them. Whether he threw the javelins, the stadiums, or his friends, no one knows.

Olympia has a far better roads system. The case endings form an elegant series of parallel north-south streets. The verb declensions form a complementary set of east-west streets. The intersections follow orderly syntax. Overall the roads of Olympia are predictable and consistent. As foreign as they may seem they are simpler to navigate because they make sense as a cohesive whole.

The student’s understanding of language – and I don’t mean a specific language, but the very essence of language – the student’s understanding of language will become more and more precise and orderly the longer he spends navigating the streets of Olympia. Or in other words, the Greek and Latin languages form the mind of the student in their image: they are straightforward to navigate, and they train the mind to navigate language in a straightforward manner. They are orderly and precise and they train the mind to be orderly and precise. This formative benefit of Greek and Latin is their chief benefit.

Clearer Skies

The second advantage of Olympia over Bluffton is that Olympia has clearer skies, that is, a more lucid vocabulary. I’m going to list a few English words. As you look at each ask yourself, ‘How would I define this word if someone asked me to do so?’ 1) Reconciliation, 2) Ostentatious, 3) Metamorphosis, 4) Catastrophe.

In Olympia this is an easy business:

1) Reconciliation, from the Latin verb conciliare, which means ‘to bring together.’ The prefix re– means ‘back, again.’ Put the prefix on the verb, and reconciliation means ‘bringing back together.’

2) Ostentatious, again Latin, from the verb tendo, which means ‘stretch,’ plus the preposition ob, ‘in front of.’ Put them together and you have ‘stretching in front of,’ or more simply, ‘displaying.’ An ostentatious person is showy, stretching and craning (sometimes literally) to get within sight of others.

3) Metamorphosis, this time from Greek: the preposition μετά (meta) ‘change,’ plus the noun μορφή (morphe) ‘shape, form.’ Hence metamorphosis means ‘a change in form.’ The Greek verb μεταμορφόομαι (metamorphoomai) comes up in Matthew at the Transfiguration of Jesus. (Interestingly ‘transfiguration’ is the same combination of ‘change’ + ‘form,’ except from Latin instead of Greek).

4) Catastrophe, which we know means something bad that happens. In the Greek, catastrophe comes from the preposition κατά (kata) ‘down, against,’ plus στροφή (strophe) ‘turning,’ hence a ‘turning against,’ or a ‘downturn.’

This practice of analyzing English words according to their original language roots is called etymology. Most dictionaries include a brief etymology of each word. If you want to have some real fun go to The benefit of knowing Greek and Latin is that etymology becomes second nature. One sees an abstract word and can put some form to it by recalling Greek and Latin roots. These roots give concrete imagery to otherwise unclear words (consider again ‘ostentatious’). Therefore Olympia has this advantage over Bluffton: there are fewer clouds and clearer skies.

Better Food

The third benefit of Olympia is that the city serves better food. There is a great feast: the best literature that has ever been written. This feast is not consumed with the mouth, but with the eyes and ears and mind and heart. Nor is this feast gone once it has been consumed. Contrast this with most of our modern English literature (if we can call it that): electronically delivered, only ever half-digested, written with the assumption that it will quickly be forgotten and replaced with more salty, sugary, deep-fried mind-fat. Not so with classical literature. Reading Homer’s Odyssey once is like eating a salad at a seventy-five course meal. This literature is meant to be read, and re-read, then read again, without ever being exhausted.

Allow me to list some of the types and names of dishes served daily in Olympia. Broadly speaking, this is the best political, philosophical, moral, historical, poetical, theatrical, and all around beautiful literature the world has ever known. More specifically, here are Aesop’s Fables and Plutarch’s Lives, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Herodotus’ Histories and Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Aeschylus’ Orestia Trilogy. And here are the accounts of the Holy Gospel, and the Epistles of St. Paul, a wonderfully nuanced board: in many ways simple compared with classical Greek literature, yet with such depth and flavor that they are always new, like freshly baked bread. And this list doesn’t represent a tenth of the hearty fare of Olympia.

The food is rich, and vastly different from the pseudo-romantic, emotionally-manipulative, and sex-crazed word salad that characterizes our day. At first we might not know what to do with the literature of Olympia. “What? Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited how many years for her husband to return from the war, she has a house full of eager suitors, and she doesn’t take up with any of them?” But then we realize that Olympia doesn’t know what to do with us. “Seriously? ‘Follow your heart’? ‘Live, laugh, love’? These are the great philosophical and ethical teachings of your day? What about duty, friendship, self-sacrifice, good, evil, right, wrong, the depravity of man, mastering the appetites, contemplating the afterlife, and the million other things that human beings were made to learn about and ponder?” So yes, the food is rich, it fills to the full, and Cicero is ordering for you. But most of us could use just such a mind-diet.

Nobler Citizens

Finally, Olympia has an extraordinarily illustrious populace, nearly the greatest of any city that ever was, second only to that of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (and many are citizens of that city too). The citizenry have all learned at least something of the classical languages, many have mastered them, and they are all well-versed in classical literature. Olympia has such people as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, Martin Luther, John Milton, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton.

They are all part of the same community and conversation. They reference great classical works and expect everyone else to know what they’re talking about. They have inherited a rich tradition, been formed by it, and have added to it. Some call this the Great Conversation: great for its temporal length, great for its subject matter, great for its esteemed participants.

In this conversation it seems that every deep question has received thorough treatment, every hard matter concerning human nature and relations has been asked and debated. Much has been answered, much remains a mystery. But you can bring up anything you like, so long as you come with an open mind and leave the thought police of your day outside the city gates. The population of Olympia is wise, not politically correct.

Olympia, or Atlantis?

So there stands Olympia with her orderly roads, clear skies, delicious food, and noble citizens. Participating in the life of this city forms one’s mind, clarifies thought, and sharpens expression. This mental formation is Olympia’s chief benefit, though also the most difficult thing to prove by argument.

The world used to be full of trustworthy people who could vouch for the great benefits of studying the classical languages. But those eloquent voices have faded. Parents and teachers used to urge at least Latin on their children in the same way they made them eat their vegetables: “It’s good for you.” And the parents and teachers were right. I could extol Greek and Latin until my breath would blow no longer, but the fact remains: no argument can convince someone to take up the classical languages. And that’s because, as with any city, you can never realize how wonderful it is until you go there and see it for yourself. The benefits of Greek and Latin are only grasped when those benefits are yours.

One generation used to pass down the classical languages to the next, knowing children and grandchildren would thank them later. Yet Olympia has become the lost city of Atlantis. How do we recover this city? Learn the classical languages. Walk up and down the conjugations and go back and forth along the declensions. Breathe the clean air and bask in the clear daylight. Nourish your mind with ancient nectar. Pull up a stool and rub elbows with giants. Study Greek and Latin. Become a citizen. And bring your children with you.


The book “Climbing Parnassus” by Tracy Lee Simmons was a great inspiration for this article, particularly his emphasis on the formative value of the classical languages. You can learn more about the book and purchase it at this link: Climbing Parnassus. I highly recommend it.

Painting: “Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens” by Leo von Klenze, 1846

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