• Mr. Burton Gildersleeve

Why study Latin?

Updated: Apr 17

It’s a question as likely as April rain. Many Academy students ponder it, though only before they’ve taken the class, and rarely out-loud. Not out-loud because it would be unwise to ask such a question, often undisguised in its grumbling, to Dr. Paulson, who stands before you armatum, brass-headed cane in-hand. And only before the first lesson is it pondered because Latin, to the surprise of those same students, quickly becomes their favorite class.

But those of us who have never studied Latin – and even some of us who have – still ask: Why study Latin? Since you’re rather unlikely to hear the language at The Firebrand, Sweet Peaks or frankly anywhere, it is a real and honest question. We might then very well ask: Wouldn’t French or Spanish or German or Chinese – or even Russian, for that matter – be more practical?


The usefulness of Latin hasn’t always been in doubt. In a letter to a colleague, Thomas Jefferson once wrote he would not exchange his thorough Latin education for “anything which I could then have acquired, or have since acquired.” And Jefferson is not the only President who has gleaned much from Latin; of the 42 presidents since, 30 have studied Latin, many at the university level[1].


Still, you might wonder: But of what use is Latin? That is the crux of our question, and the answer is a resounding, it depends.


It depends entirely on the desired end of our education. A discipline’s use is only as good as its ability to take you to your end goal. If you recall a recent article of ours, our goal at WCA is this: To form wise and virtuous young men and women. And Dr. Paulson would quickly tell you, just as would Jefferson, that to wisdom and virtue is exactly where a Latin education, when done well, will take you.


How does Latin take us to wisdom and virtue? To start, languages – and Latin is no different – exist such that we might communicate with others. So the utility of the language hinges entirely on the answer to this question: With whom do we wish to communicate, and why? In the case of Latin, no, we will not speak it with any living being. But by Latin we will communicate with authors whose work is still very much alive.


Students will find timely wisdom in De Brevitate Vitæ (On the Brevity of Life) by Seneca, will have their senses and consciences enlivened by Virgil’s Aeneid, and will identify and self-reflect with Augustine in his Confessiones. Now, students could read such works in a ready-made English translation, sure; but such a reading would be lacking in its intimacy and depth, and would in turn be incomplete. The wisdom of those works is in their words, and their words are in Latin.


Therefore the main point is this: while indeed Latin students will improve their SAT scores, prepare for medical or legal studies, better understand English grammar, and learn to think systematically, the study of Latin’s most lasting and meaningful purpose is that the serious and thoughtful student will grow in wisdom and virtue via intimate conversation with history’s wisest and most virtuous men and women. It is a slow and steady undertaking and by all means a difficult and trying one. But isn’t that the way of all things worth doing?


Sapere aude, as Horace once urged. Or as our Latin students might translate: Dare to be wise.


[1] The presidential figure was adapted from Harry Mount’s article on Latin that featured in The New York Times in 2007.