By Juliana Stivanicevic
I get this question fairly often, usually from a friend who looks at me as if I have just announced that Game of Thrones will be cancelled indefinitely. Depending on who is asking and whether I’ve had enough coffee that day, the most honest and sincere answer I can give is frustratingly simple: Because I love it.
I initially decided to take Latin because of a conversation with one of my professors. Noting my idolization of Cicero, he asked in that masterful way professors suggest through question, “Why not learn Latin?” I had never even considered it—to be able to read the Verrine orations…In Catalinam…Pro Milone…for myself? As someone who keenly enjoys the craft of argument and holds a deep admiration for an eloquent piece of persuasive writing, to actually read my hero, the master orator, in his language—I still feel the same unconscious smile pulling at my face as I write this, even now.
Thinking back to that day, I notice a curious difference between my professor’s question and the question I began this article with: Why learn Latin? Why not learn Latin? The second responds to the first in a way that becomes very interesting if we attend not only to what “Why learn Latin?” really asks, but why it is even the question.
Like many before me in pursuit of answers, I turned to Google. I literally searched “Why learn Latin?” The first result, like the majority, discussed its virtues as improving SAT scores (acerbic…acerbus! Not bitter today, SAT), gaining a closer reading of difficult texts (oh, Tacitus), and a better understanding of English grammar (don’t split the infinitive finally explained). All of which are great—but to say that one takes Latin or should take it in order to achieve these things suggests that its value is widely recognized as a means to a quantifiable end.
Isn’t what is really being asked, What’s the utility of a dead language? We ask this question of Latin because it is how we have largely come to think of a liberal arts education in general, as something whose worth must be justified and defended. This is a shame, and we are the worse for it.
Why must an academic undertaking be a means to an end? How often do we students take a class only because we “must” for one reason or another? Let me be clear—if you’re thinking I’m about to give the starry-eyed “do what makes you happy” speech, stop. I am calculative, analytic, and ambitious to a fault, which is exactly why I know that when we only see the future in everything we do, we are blind to the present and our own presence in it. Our determination towards success insidiously limits and chokes us in our desperate fear to fail. Why not be brave? Why not pursue an academic undertaking because the pursuit itself is intrinsically wonderful? Indeed, why not take Latin?
Latin has been one of my greatest pleasures in college. The language itself is fascinating; upon first exposure to its structure and emphasis on order, I thought of course this is the language of empire, of the Roman civitas. When I read these ancient texts now, I am able to construct an image of a world that was, is, and will be the world in which we live. It is a world of heroes and fools, statesmen and slaves, gods and monsters, words and war, power, imperialism, nationalism, a world of mortals coexisting. There is something incredible that Latin reveals to us about the past, our past, which cannot be lost.
Maybe we are not worlds apart from the Romans after all. What I do know with certainty is that studying Latin has given me a special link to the past and a stronger sense of belonging to my present—and I’ve had an amazing time along the way. Cartago delenda est.
Juliana Stivanicevic is a junior at the University of California, Berkeley majoring in rhetoric. Berkeley is home to the Alpha of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.