Spoken Latin and the Politics of Bland Triviality

An opinion piece written by Ian Mosley appeared today in the Christian Humanist outlet Mere Orthodoxy. While not as wildly offensive as a number of other essays written in a similar mode, it nevertheless represents a kind of apparently gentle conservatism that bills itself as essentially reasonable because it is somehow wholly dispassionate and above the fray of politics. In particular, I was struck by this paragraph describing the experience of a spoken Latin conventiculum:

At these events, politics is usually a non-issue. Ardent left-wing activists happily read and discuss Augustine and Erasmus in the original Latin alongside trad-Catholic reactionaries. The medium of an ancient language is somewhat helpful here, because the hot-button buzzwords and slogans people most readily divide over are difficult to translate. It’s much easier to discuss things like family and favorite foods.

Putting aside the question of how the political views of the participants in these conventicula are so readily identified in an environment purportedly free of “hot-button” or political topics, the scene envisioned here is one of the vacuous insipidity characteristic of a morning talk show. While I didn’t learn Latin to talk about contemporary politics, I also didn’t learn Latin to talk about my favorite foods – a topic much better suited, in my own case, to the swear-enhanced superlatives of gritty colloquial English.

Mr. Mosley has also betrayed his own empty cynicism by writing that it is “buzzwords and slogans [over which] people most readily divide.” That is to say, the mode of expression itself, and not the horrific reality underlying it, is what divides people. The New York Times may consider hiring Mosley when David Brooks or Brett Stephens get tired of wiping their asses on broadsheet and handing it to the editor, because he has already mastered the art of the dispassionate and reasonable oracular pronouncement delivered by a man who clearly feels that nothing is at stake for him socially or politically. Politics is never a “non-issue.” In the most trivial sense, the groups of scholars and Latin teachers which make up many of these conventicula are subjected to constant threat of reduced funding or even elimination of classical language instruction at both secondary and post-secondary institutions for political reasons. My own Latin program received a severe blow this year thanks to a potent cocktail of budget restriction and the easy expendability of anachronistic irrelevance. But I will wait patiently for Victor Davis Hanson, or Brett Stephens, or even Ian Mosley to suggest that the decline was somehow related to identity politics or critical theory.

It is worth considering the subtext Mosley’s thesis here, though, because it is often repeated in conservative appeals for a more manly and muscular approach to the classics. Hanson and Heath are perhaps the chief exemplars of this, but I have even heard such apparently apolitical figures as Reginald Foster claim that a part of Latin’s attraction lies in its resistance to bullshitting and jargon. This is patently untrue. Medieval and scholastic Latin is replete with unintelligible jargon, mostly developed for expressing abstract philosophical ideas, and poorly suited to the rather clunky and concrete mode of Latin expression. One can already anticipate the counter-argument that Medieval Latin represents a degradation from Ciceronian purity – you don’t find jargon in classical Latin. There may be less of it, to be sure, but there is also far less abstract jargon in Chaucer’s English than in that of today.

It is also worth considering that the tradition of Latin theology (which I would assume is important to someone who cites Augustine with such unseasonable frequency) is not only dependent upon the development and importation of highfalutin philosophical jargon into Latin, but also helped to speed it on to the labyrinthine incomprehensibility of Scholasticism. Some of the more traditional fuddy-duddies have claimed that the reason why it is impossible to translate contemporary English “buzzwords and slogans” into Latin is because they don’t mean anything. But the problem is that they mean too much for Latin to handle. Much of the conceptual content behind the slogans and buzzwords here decried stems from centuries of history and philosophical thought which occurred subsequent to the point at which Latin ceased to be a living language. Modern Romance languages possess their jargon, slogans, and buzzwords for contemporary political and social issues because those languages evolved in tandem with the societies which employ them. Our politicians and social commentators can’t quite keep themselves from fucking up every day even while using the entire apparatus of their native language; I shudder to think of what they would be reduced to if all they had to work with was the thought available to Cicero.

Anyone who has walked through a Renaissance villa knows that the political reception and use of ancient literature is not some peculiarly modern phenomenon. The classics were not read simply for the extraction of ornamental mythic tales or decorous Latin tags. People read Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus for the intrigue and political conflict, and made use of that reading not just to understand the politics of their own time, but also to frame and develop their contemporary political narrative. Cosimo de Medici might return from exile and put an end to the pretense of Florentine liberty, but he could bill himself as a modern Camillus. Anyone who wanted to kill a political leader could paper over the ugliness of political assassination by commissioning a bust of Brutus or a painting of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Yet I don’t recall that I saw much by way of classical reception focused on anyone’s favorite dinner.

People take the trouble to read Augustine and Erasmus in Latin because they were active figures who tried to influence their world by engaging that world in their writing. People still love to read Tacitus because he talked honestly (i.e. cynically) about the political history of his people; indeed, the main criticism leveled against him is that he simply wrote against tyrants when it was safe, and did little to oppose them in practice. But Apicius’ cookbook isn’t flying off the shelves (or really even in print) because no one learns dead languages just to idly toy around with artificial parlor talk.

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