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Latin for Politics: When the World of Spoken Latin Goes Woke

August 5th, 2019 | 9 min read

By Ian Mosley

Up until recently, the spoken Latin community has been preserved from the relentless focus on ideology that characterizes much of the academy. Enthusiasts have gathered at small conferences called “conventicula” (a pretty comprehensive list of events in summer 2018 can be found here) to chat in an ancient language and discuss seminal texts in their original form.

At these events, politics is usually a non-issue. Ardent left-wing activists happily read and discuss Augustine and Erasmus in the original Latin alongside trad-Catholic reactionaries. The medium of an ancient language is somewhat helpful here, because the hot-button buzzwords and slogans people most readily divide over are difficult to translate. It’s much easier to discuss things like family and favorite foods.

But there has been a drive lately to bring the spoken Latin world into line with the orthodoxy of academic Wokeness—turning all study into a constant critique of race, class, and gender—with a predictable reaction from the Western civ devotées. It remains to be seen whether the community will be able to chart a course forward governed by common loves rather than mutual antipathies.

The first hint of trouble was a publication pioneered by a group called the Paideia Institute, who runs the largest spoken Latin (and Ancient Greek) conference in New York City every year, Living Latin in NYC. The publication, entitled Eidolon, had the very promising mission of engaging with classics on a more popular and less strictly academic level. Many excellent articles have been published there, but it became increasingly clear that the line pushed by editor-in-chief Donna Zuckerberg (yes, Mark is her brother) was going to be distinctly left-wing and political.

One clear example is the editorial that Zuckerberg penned after Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor.” Many of the concerns she expressed there were perfectly legitimate: there has been a conscious effort on the part of alt-right racists to appropriate the language of “western civilization” and the genius of the ancients to support positions that may be crypto-racist and often are racist by any definition. She was right to say that classicists have an important role to play in resisting this appropriation.

But Zuckerberg decided to cast a much wider net than just alt-right trolls. Among the sea turtles in her bycatch was renowned classicist Victor Davis Hanson, whom she cavalierly dismissed for the unforgivable crime of thinking the Greeks can actually teach us something about being human. But if we preclude the possibility of learning from the ancients, what is the point of classics, besides to beat the Greeks and Romans with the same relentless moral cudgel that critical theory turns on the rest of human culture?

Eidolon and the Paideia Institute eventually parted ways, which the Western civ aficionados at The New Criterion characterized as a “palace coup,” but which the responsible parties at Paideia insisted was much more amicable.

Zuckerberg, however, publicly opined that the New Criterion article smelled of conspiracy:

A fuller explanation of why Zuckerberg thought the move away from Paideia was good for Eidolon is given in this Twitter thread.

This kerfuffle was a hint of future conflicts. The Paideia Institute, like most of the spoken Latin community, has tried to maintain a nonpartisan course, but influential voices are pressing for more action.

Justin Slocum Bailey, a prominent voice in the spoken Latin community and a talented teacher and pedagogical thinker, has deemed it expedient to deliberately limit the number of white males speaking at and leading programs:

Perhaps in response to some of these pressures, Paideia has devoted the theme of its 2020 Living Latin in NYC conference to neglected voices within the world of classics. To quote from their call for papers,

In particular, we welcome proposals that amplify the voices of women, religious or ethnic minorities, slaves, non-elites, those who do not conform with regard to gender or sexuality, and other historically excluded groups.

What does a Christian response to these issues look like? Is it right to side uncritically with the people who want to promote the marginalized by limiting white males, or who want to idolize the Greeks and Romans? Or is the Christian position aligned with those who want to chart a nonpartisan course and just enjoy the classics for the sake of learning and appreciation?

I would actually like to argue that all of these courses can easily go wrong. Let’s start with the last one, which seems the most mild and inoffensive.

What’s to object to, from a Christian standpoint, in just enjoying the classics as belles lettres, without worrying what they do or don’t teach us about politics and being human, and without worrying about how these things may divide people?

St. Augustine would caution us against giving ourselves over entirely to such a project. He relates how absorption in literature to the exclusion of truth can blind us, the way his obsession with the tragic suicide of Queen Dido in the Aeneid only served as a distraction from dealing with his own miseries:

For what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love to Aeneas, but weeping not his own death for want of love to Thee, O God. Thou light of my heart, Thou bread of my inmost soul, Thou Power who givest vigour to my mind, who quickenest my thoughts, I loved Thee not. … And for all this I wept not, I who wept for Dido slain, and “seeking by the sword a stroke and wound extreme,” myself seeking the while a worse extreme, the extremest and lowest of Thy creatures, having forsaken Thee, earth passing into the earth. And if forbid to read all this, I was grieved that I might not read what grieved me. Madness like this is thought a higher and a richer learning, than that by which I learned to read and write. (Confessions I.13.21)

Augustine is not counseling us to reject all pagan literature. He is writing here in one of his earliest post-conversion works, but he continues to quote appreciatively from the Aeneid his entire life. But I would say he warns us here against enjoying pagan literature as mere pretty writing, without critically examining it for what it is telling us about being human, and whether those things square with truth.

In fact, Augustine would probably say that the critics pointing out that the classics are not neutral do have a point: we should examine what assumptions about mankind and the good life they are presupposing. This examination will sometimes highlight the ways that people have different fundamental assumptions about the good, and lead to division: so be it. It may be not only beneficial but imperative for Christians to cultivate their own kind of conventiculum where, while pursuing the goals of Latin fluency and erudition in the classics, we can also more easily engage in this process of critique.

And the Woke critics, the Zuckerbergs of the classics world, are right to point out that there does need to be critique. The beliefs and attitudes contained in the Greek and Latin classics are problematic and sometimes outright contradictory of one another: we do not have the option of pretending, as the Western civ fanboys are sometimes wont to do, that the classics are a reservoir of wisdom that we can draw on uncritically.

Augustine’s memorable distinction between the City of God and the City of Man is relevant here: all human cultures are fallen and partake of sin, and even the seemingly best in those cultures are often little more than “glittering vices,” sin gussied up as virtue.

This is not to say by any means that the pagans are incapable of teaching us truths about being human. God’s revelation written contains “all truths necessary for salvation,” as the 39 Articles put it, but that doesn’t mean it contains all truth. Thus the great teachers of the church have freely made use of the wisdom of pagan philosophy and literature, not uncritically, but freely making use of whatever good is contained there.

But Christians should also criticize the Woke ideology of promoting the marginalized by some tit-for-tat process of curtailing the ostensibly privileged. Seeing white males particularly as some uniformly privileged group—equating the life of a Bostonian WASP scion whose connections land him a six-figure finance salary with the grinding Appalachian poverty of a J. D. Vance—is deeply reductive and unhelpful. Efforts to listen to the marginalized are legitimate and important, especially when they are focused on recovering work of great quality that has been overlooked, but it shouldn’t be promoted by discounting good work being done by individuals that may not fit into a specific menu of demographic categories.

While it will be unfortunate if ideology leads to a fracturing of the spoken Latin community—if leftists and trad-Catholics eventually head to their separate enclaves and refuse to talk to each other any more, in any language—that should not necessarily lead us to dismiss the concerns that are precipitating that crisis. Truth and the voices of the marginalized are important—and much work remains for Christians in articulating their own perspective on these issues as they pertain to the power of the classics to teach us more about being human.

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