August 5, 2021

Having been a dyslexic child with slap happy teachers, I learnt to despise Latin. I can still remember the lick of that long ruler far more clearly than I can the apparently sweet taste of Horace or Livy. Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Amant, ad nauseam. Love had nothing to do with it. Whack if you got it wrong. Whack if you weren’t concentrating. From the age of seven onwards, Latin was the reason my prep school marked us with red lines on the back of our legs — in order, socially, to mark us out as different from the plebs.

Now Boris – who was learning his Latin at a prep school just up the road from mine — has decided that everyone should know what the word pleb means. He has earmarked £4 million for Latin teaching in state schools. Levelling up, Boris calls it. Cynics, however, might question whether this is little more than some culture war distraction from a general asset stripping of the humanities, with university arts subjects, for instance, facing a devastating 50% cut in funding. A paltry £4 million hardly disguises the continual shift in education away from cultural subjects towards market-useful STEM subjects. Arachis hypogaea is the Latin for peanuts.

Now I really should be passionately against all this Latin revivalism, however modest. Not only was Latin the language of regular childhood thrashings, in adult life it has become for me a kind of shorthand for the crucifixion of Jesus. Christianity began life as a small offshoot of Judaism, persecuted by Roman imperialism. In first-century Palestine, Latin was the language of the oppressor. And it was the Romans that crucified Him. The whole logic of the Roman world order was to destroy everyone and everything that posed a threat to its totalising rule. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is not some clever compromise division of all that there is into the earthly and the heavenly.

All things belong to God, without remainder. And crucifixion was the Roman’s signature punishment, designed to terrorise those who defied their hegemony. With crucifixion, “the symbol which had spoken of Caesar’s naked might now spoke of God’s naked love”, as NT Wright memorably put it. Amo, Amas, Amat meant something very different now.

Of course, all this came to be obscured when the Latin world hijacked His religion, making Rome itself the capital of Western Christianity. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and so the language that may have been used by Roman soldiers as they poked him with their spears and taunted Him with insults — or, at least, the language they took their orders in — became the official language of the faith itself. The Roman Catholic church, otherwise known as the Latin church, buried all this. Originally, at least, Latin was the language of the enemy.

So, given that I harbour theological instincts that would make Ian Paisley blush, how come I think Boris is really onto something with this whole Latin experiment? Because, primarily, it represents a small move against the thoroughly depressing idea that education exists simply to serve the needs of employers. What I like about Latin is precisely its relative uselessness, the very thing that its opponents also point to as a reason not to like it. Shouldn’t we be learning Mandarin, or Spanish, they argue? Useful subjects, ones that will help us negotiate new trade deals and induct us into the up-and-coming language of global power.

I know that there are those who insist that Latin is, after all, terribly useful — being the root of so many other languages, useful for doctors etc. But that misses the point. As the Bishop of Worcester recently pointed out, education is like friendship, something that is valuable in and of itself, and not for what else can be gained by it. Education that is designed to meet some specific economic end is not education but training, the instrumentalisation of something that should be loved for its own sake. Latin is perfectly suited for this end.

Even more surprising, I also find myself in some sympathy with those Roman Catholics who have recently been told that the use of the Latin Mass is to be restricted, with the present Pope seeking to bring what he takes to be dissident congregations more closely under the control of his Bishops. It seems that Latin worship has become a redoubt for all those who would stand against the progressive theology of the Second Vatican Council. And while I do not share this view — and it’s not really my fight — the church should be a broad enough tent to accommodate those who want to worship in the traditional language of the Latin church. Latin confers a kind of dignity to worship that that stands in sharp contrast to the whole direction of modern liturgy that too often just wants to get all chummy with the divine, talking to God in the same way one might talk to your mate. Latin sets God at a distance, which is no bad thing in an age that has consistently prized immanence over transcendence.

Yes, of course, good and brave men died to give us religion in the vernacular. William Tyndale was burned at the stake for daring to translate the Bible into English. I am delighted that within a few years of his martyrdom, the English Bible was officially sanctioned by church and state. But the culture war of the Reformation is over. No one is forcing us to worship in Latin anymore. That fight has been well and truly won.

Latin, then, has always been the location of culture wars and I have many reasons to hate it. But these days, I no longer feel the need to repeat that old schoolboy dictum: “Latin is a language as a dead as dead can be, it killed the ancient Romans and now is killing me.” Latin stands out in the modern curriculum not as a marker of social privilege, nor as the language of imperial authority, but as a refusal to allow education to be co-opted by market-obsessed philistinism. Some languages are all the better for being dead. Which is why, notwithstanding the memory of all those lines on the back of my legs, I too hope that my children will one day learn the language of what I used to call ‘the enemy’.