Getting Ready for Living Latin in New York City

John Kuhner |

The better you know Latin, the more it resembles the city — always bigger and more diverse than you realized.

The past two years I have put together the reading packet for Paideia’s Living Latin in New York City. The packet is probably too much of a muchness for most of the participants: it’s a rare person who can not only catch up with a few dozen friends, but also hear ten lectures and read over a hundred pages of Latin and Greek in a weekend. But it’s my business to read through all the texts, so I get a chance to not only read but ponder a selection of readings from across two millennia put together by some of the best Latin scholars in the world.

What continually amazes me is that I learn about an entirely new author at every living Latin event I’m involved with. After twenty years I would imagine that this would eventually stop, but in fact it seems the pace of things is picking up. This year’s Living Latin in New York City features poetry by Juan Latino — Ioannes Latinus, a.k.a. “Johnny Latin” — a 16th century African Latin poet who became “chair of grammar and the Latin language” at the cathedral of Granada (I would never have suspected the cathedral had such a post). Not only was he of African descent, he specifically writes about the phenomenon of being black at the royal court of Spain, which he thinks was about equivalent to being a white man at the court of Ethiopia:

Quod si nostra tuis facies, Rex, nigra ministris
Displicet, Aethiopum non placet alba viris.
Illic Auroram sordet qui viserit albus,
Suntque duces nigri, rex quoque fuscus adest.
But if our black face pleases not your ministers,
King, a white face pleases not the men of Ethiopia.
There the man who appears white is of no account,
And the leaders are black, and there is a dark king.

Then I also discovered the philosopher Anna Maria Van Schurman, who wrote a tome called the Problema Practicum, in which she discusses, in the dialectical mode of Aquinas, the question of “Num Feminae Christianae conveniat studium litterarum?” whether the female Christian should study literature; amongst others she adduces a proof from desire, namely:

Cui natura inest scientiarum artiumque desiderium, ei conveniunt scientiae et artes: Atqui foeminae natura inest scientiarum artiumque desiderium. Ergo:
Majoris ratio patet, quia Natura nihil facit frustra.
Minor probatur, quia quod inest toti specie; inest etiam singulis individuis. Atqui omnis homo (ut exserte statuit Philosophus Metaphysic. lib. I cap. 2.) natura scire desiderat.
Sciences and arts are appropriate for any person who has a desire for them; but by nature there is a desire in the female for sciences and arts; therefore: the major premise is clear, because Nature makes nothing in vain [namely, a desire]; the minor premise is proved, because anything that is found in the whole species is found in all the individuals. But every human being (as the Philosopher eloquently states in the first book of the Metaphysics, chapter 2) by nature desires to know.

And then there are the familiar authors but unfamiliar works, such as Karl Marx’s Latin oration comparing the Austria of his era with ancient Rome’s best days; or passages from familiar authors which are not often read, such as Cicero writing about Odysseus and the Sirens. It seems there is always something new to discover, and something to keep me coming to such events.

I wrote about some of the discoveries I made at a living Latin event (the Academia Latinitati Fovendae conference) in this month’s New Criterion. It’s a piece I hope will be widely read within the Classics community. In part it highlights the work done at the University of Kentucky, where Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova have been working to reverse the curricular shrinkage affecting the Classics. As the discipline has come under attack, Classicists have been engaged in a decades-long tactical retreat to fewer, better authors, so that today it is no exaggeration that most education in the Classics probably revolves around the life and work of fewer than ten individuals, and at the high school level fewer than five. I understand the impulse: “we have so little time, we simply have to rush to Vergil and Ovid.” But I think we have good evidence that this approach is self-defeating. As great as any one writer may be, the nature of the human personality is such that any one author can hope to attract only a percentage of the students out there. If we want more students, and more passion for the discipline out there, five or ten writers won’t be enough.

At Living Latin in New York City, I’ll be lecturing on a document written (in Latin, of course), by another one of the Latin language’s luminaries, Fr. Reginald Foster. In his idiosyncratic style — very different from Vergil or Cicero, of course — Foster barks at the Latin world in his “Fosteriana Docendi Via” that

Oportet quaque in schola PRAEBEATUR lingua Latina omnibus in partibus
TOTA. Oportet quaque in schola VIDEATUR litterarum Latinarum historia
MILLENARIA. Oportet quaque in schola FOVEATUR discipulorum
familiaritas cum Latinitatis auctoribus CUNCTIS.
In every school the WHOLE Latin language should be OFFERED in all its parts. In every school the TWO-THOUSAND-YEAR history of Latin literature should be SEEN. In every school a familiarity with ALL the Latin authors should be ENCOURAGED.

This is classic Reginaldus — in a style that is entirely peremptory, he’s making the point that we shouldn’t be forcing people to do things — just offering, displaying, and encouraging, and not picking and choosing: offering it all up in a kind of egalitarian free-for-all. And it’s classic Reginaldus in that he believed — with a fervency I’ve never seen in any other human being — that every person was to be valued and every person’s story should be respected. He treated the janitors at the Vatican with the same respect he would accord to bishops and cardinals. He made friends with busdrivers, cooks, store clerks, anyone he came into contact with. And he treated the authors the same way — as human beings, all of whom had value.

As a writer, I’m always curious to hear about a good story. It seems to me that Juan Latino and Anna Maria Van Schurman might have some pretty good stories to tell, and that they happen to tell them in Latin seems to me yet another addition to Latin’s uniquely rich treasury of stories. I wrote about this aspect of Latin in my New Criterion piece:

“There is a certain cosmopolitan aspect of ancient Latin literature,” says Tunberg when I interviewed him later in his office. “But when you look at Latin over its entire history, it is truly cosmopolitan. In fact, it is unique among all world languages — there is no other language that has been used by so many different types of people, in so many different places, for so many different purposes. And for so much of that time it was nobody’s native language — everyone was coming to it on an equal footing.” Petrus Kibe Kasui had to come by his Latin the same way the Englishman Newton or the Swede Holberg or the Mauretanian Ioannes Leo (thought to be the original for Othello, and who wrote a Latin account of his travels in Africa) had to come by it — by acquiring it as a second or third language.

Those of us who have kept up a Latin practice for a long time know that Latin’s vast reserves of history and memory offer something uniquely stabilizing and important to modern life, which seems constantly in danger of total superficiality and transience. But what fewer people know (and far too few practice) is that Latin, via its incredible diversity, may well have a fashionable path back into the heart of modern culture. But to get there we need to be reading more of these authors, in the classroom and out of it. Luckily in a few weeks we’ll have the chance.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


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