Though I come from a small, forgettable Midwestern town I had the good fortune to receive a top-notch education at the local state-run high school. In fact, my school was one of just a few (fewer than 10 or 12, I think) state schools in the entire U.S. that still offered Latin language study, which in Chariton, Iowa also entailed Roman mythology, civilization, politics, and military history. (We also had a toga party at the end of each year!)
My decidedly not elite or fancy high school years more than sufficiently prepared me for years of humanities, philosophy, theology, and liturgy. Studying Latin when I was young opened me to a cultural and intellectual patrimony that just a century ago most moderately well-educated people understood fully. Did you ever realize that in those 19th century one-room school houses (think Little House on the Prairie), young men and women learned Latin — and Attic Greek! — and it was entirely expected for them to compose metered poetry in those languages? That’s what education was in the Midwest, where nothing was taken for granted and privilege was rare and lean. That’s the kind of place I come from.
Learning Latin forced me to examine my experience of language and communication in ways I might not otherwise have done. So many things we take for granted and know without understanding. But with Latin I didn’t have that convenience. Structures, principles, relationships, purposes, and the necessarily culture-bound connotations that make sense unless you’re not part of the culture — these were the sorts of things I was able to start thinking about when I was just 15 years old. Later on in Rome, Reggie Foster did me the favor of insisting that I (and every other student) have always at hand at least three different English words to translate any given Latin word. Reggie knew all too well how lazy and complacent most seminarians can get and he wouldn’t have it! In fact, he would give any student a passing grade if they weren’t committed to learning but had to take the course, on the condition that he never see them again after the first day. I always sat in the very front row with rapt attention, much as Alexander must have done with Aristotle. When you’re in the presence of genius, you don’t waste a moment or a word or smile or joke. You savor them all. Did I mention that Reggie was also a Midwesterner?
A thought occurs to me. What if our language and alphabet and grammar for say, theoretical physics, isn’t actually as univocal and universal as we think? We are able to understand what we understand in the way we understand it in large part because of certain biological and physiological structures in our brains and in the relationship of our senses to our minds. Maybe science isn’t the universal language we’ve come to think it is. Or mathematics either.
But for now, we must content ourselves with whatever our best understandings are until we have something totally outside our place of experience to compare things with.
There’s an episode of Futurama (“The Duh-Vinci Code”) in which Professor Farnsworth ends up on the fabled Planet Vinci only to discover that while he’s a supergenius on Earth, he’s a dumb-dumb on Planet Vinci. There’s something worth contemplating in that Futurama scene.