Not long ago, while I was working online, an advertisement popped up. It posed a simple question. “Which Latin author do you prefer?” The advertisement, in the form of a survey, gave four choices. I could choose Cicero, Ceasar, Virgil, or Livy.
I prefer none of those writers. Actually, that isn’t true. I like Cicero. But, still…Where was Jerome? Where was Aquinas? Where was St. Brendan? Why were there no Christian authors in the advertisement?
Latin textbooks emphasize ancient authors and almost completely ignore the Vulgate, the most famous Latin book of all time. Textbooks also ignore Medieval, Christian, and Scientific authors. Isaac Newton wrote Principia in Latin, but it is not likely you will discover that information Latin textbook. Instead, you will read, almost exclusively, about classical Roman authors. Learn Latin from a school textbook and you may end up thinking the only people who wrote in Latin were Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil!
So, why do textbooks pretend that classical Latin is the only Latin? Why does the famous Wheelock’s Latin quote Cicero, and Caesar ad nauseam, but rarely Christ?
I honestly cannot say.
I suspect there are a myriad of reasons.
Textbooks written for the American public school system are, I am sure, discouraged from quoting the Vulgate. After all, the Vulgate is the Bible, and the Bible is underemphasized in the American Public school system.
With the Vulgate out of the way, what are the students left reading?
They read the “classics”. This is the Latin of Caesar and Cicero, Tacitus and Livy. If you are busy reading the “classics”, you get to skip the Bible. There is just one little detail Latin teachers often fail to mention.
You may never get to the “classics.”
An insignificant number of students ever make it to the classics. Most students are eager to drop Latin the first chance they get.
Skipping the easier Latin of the Vulgate is a major mistake. I am not the only one who believes this. Dorothy Sayers, an English writer and a good friend of C.S.Lewis once wrote:
“It is being borne in upon me with more and more force and with every year I live that the greatest single defect of my own Latin education, and that (I expect) of many other people, is the almost total neglect of those fifteen Christian centuries.
She goes on:
And it is my belief that the classical texts of the Augustan Age are simply far too difficult. They were difficult even in their own day, in the sense that they were elaborate, literary, and highly artificial. The language of Cicero was not spoken in the streets, nor even, I fancy, in the drawing-rooms, of ancient Rome. The legions did not tramp their way to victory chanting the Hellenic, quantitative measures which delighted the ears of the cognoscenti assembled at poetry-readings or exchanging culture in the baths.
Teachers do not, as a rule, ask foreign children to plunge immediately into the study of English by way of Donne and Euphues without any help at all from the current English, whose syntax and vocabulary are so much nearer to their own….
Yet this is the way in which, for the last four hundred years or so, we have started English boys on the learning of Latin. It can, of course, be done. It was done in a more leisured age, and for one sex only of a privileged professional class, and in schools which concentrated on the teaching of classical languages and on uncommonly little else.
But I doubt if it is the right way of going about it today. And it is not the way in which it was done for the first fifteen centuries of our era.”
Unfortunately, Dorothy Sayers words fell on deaf ears. We ignored her advice then, and we continue to ignore her advice today.
So, what can we do? For starters, we can stop being surprised when our students grow tired of Latin. As soon as they have learned Latin grammar, we hand them a copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. We hand difficult texts to our students and we are stunned at their discouragement.
Here’s an idea. As soon as the students have learned Latin grammar, let’s hand them the most famous Latin book in the world. Let’s hand them the Vulgate.
It’s much easier to read.