I think it was last year, at Rusticatio Virginiana, when I really felt that something was happening with the Classics. Something felt different: for so long, Classics had felt for me like a lone pursuit, and, fundamentally, a struggle: a struggle to learn, a struggle to teach, a struggle to find books and materials for, a struggle to get students, a struggle to light a fire in their minds, a struggle to convince other people I wasn’t crazy for bothering with it at all. The feel of it all had been changing for a few years now, but it was last year, as we enjoyed some unusually mild summer weather at Claymont, the magnificent dilapidated old mansion that Rusticatio calls home, that, watching some young Latin teachers play wiffleball in Latin, I had the feeling that the vision which had been in my mind for so many years, really since first going to Rome in 1995, of a life of the mind which blended purpose and passion, enjoyment and rigor, the wisdom of the past with a fundamental openness to the oneness of all experience – was not just inside me anymore. I was surrounded by people who lived that way. It wasn’t just a dream: it was a community I was part of.
It is not my purpose here to trace how this community came into being, from Reginald Foster’s classroom in Rome to the work of Nancy Llewellyn and Terence Tunberg and many others, but one way or another their efforts seem to be prospering now, in a way which I find stirring every time I am immersed in it, and this past weekend offered the largest event of this sort I have ever been part of, the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in New York Conference.
Humanities professors are not the place I typically go to for uplifting news: generally, what you hear about are shrinking budgets, diminishing respect, lowering standards, vanishing jobs, and embattled programs. But at this event, the news seemed to all be good, and coming from all different quarters. The Paideia Institute, the gleaming new pro-Classics not-for-profit founded by Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett, has in just a few years of existence conjured up a whole host of programs, each one more exciting than the other: a Living Latin in Rome program where students don’t just read Pliny’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius – they read it standing on top of Vesuvius. A living Greek in Greece program where participants speak ancient Greek in a garden in Achaea right on the wine-dark sea. A new Living Greek Drama in Greece program to come next year, where students will read and perform a Greek play in ancient Greek – and perform it in an ancient theater in Greece. Plus two programs in France (Caesar in Gaul and Medieval Latin in Paris), Classics-themed tours for schools, Classics tutoring in Bushwick, materials for homeschoolers and internet tutoring, and conferences and events here in New York City. And of course the NYC conference, which turned into a clearing-house for a whole host of different people whose study of the Classics was real studium – a zeal that transcended mere study.
Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova from the University of Kentucky, who were special guest speakers at the event, also reported nothing but growth in their living Latin programs – Kentucky is the only major public university in America where Latin is a language of instruction for multiple courses – and in their “Conventicula,” summer programs which have been one of the primary vehicles for promoting excellence and fluency in Latin in America. Tunberg also gave an address, in Latin, on Erasmus, and his methods and the reasons why they were still profoundly useful to us today (he also gave us, just for fun, Erasmus’s priceless line, “Si scripsissem idiotis, scripsissem Germanice, non Latine” (“if I had intended to write for the unlearned, I would have written in German, not Latin”).
Nancy Llewellyn of Wyoming Catholic College also had nothing but good news: SALVI (the Septentrionalis Americae Latinitatis Vivae Institutum, or North American Institute of Living Latin Studies), which she founded, continues to expand its reach: this year it will be offering four separate week-long Latin programs in places around the country (including the Getty Villa), as well as “Bidua”, weekend-long immersion programs. She has been asked to come to South Africa to bring the method to Latin students there. Wyoming Catholic College has managed to turn Lander, Wyoming, into a hotbed of Latin speakers, a statement which ten years ago would have been met with disbelief (actually, even now that statement will be met with disbelief, but it is nevertheless true). She gave a lecture in Latin on the peerless unicorn tapestries of Cluny in Paris, contending that they offered a vision of love that was inherently synthesizing the body and sensuality rather than renouncing it – which was, I felt, an apt image for a new Classics as well.
Daniel Gallagher, an American working in the Vatican State Department, gave a lecture at the conference on Vatican Latin and its various forms: from Encyclicals, which are translated from the vernacular and for doctrinal reasons stay close to the wording of the Pope, to Vatican diplomatic documents, which are still composed in Latin and represent a continuous tradition of juridical and political Latin going back to the Roman Empire (even some of the phrasing has remained unchanged in all that time). He also spoke about the difficulties of writing papal tweets, and looking for Biblical or Patristic ways of phrasing, in Latin, the pope’s spiritual one-liners. They start with his text, try to fit it into established Ecclesiastical Latin, and send it back to the pope for final edits. The pope’s Latin tweets now reach more than 300,000 people. The audience was spellbound, as audiences often are by the Vatican, which, despite all its problems, for longevity and reach is still probably the most successful institution the world has ever seen.
Luigi Miraglia, generally (and justly) regarded as the single greatest Latinist alive, came to the conference from Italy. His life is like something out of a legend (forgive me if I get a few details wrong, as he was speaking in Latin, and very quickly): as a teenager he made the acquaintance of an old man living alone on an island in the Bay of Naples, a former Jesuit, who he recognized as extraordinary: he eventually came to the island to live, and spent nine years there with him, speaking only Latin and Greek. For the rest of his life he has tried to recreate this experience for other people in various forms, including some spectacular failures which have reduced him to bankruptcy, but he has never stopped reading and learning and living Greek and Latin literature, so much so that we may as well just say that he has read it all – certainly more than any other person alive. His new school, the Vivarium Novum, which already produces the best-trained Classicists in the world, has apparently just found new digs in a spectacular old villa not far from Rome, where the plan is to recreate the Renaissance ideal in both form and substance. Seeing his promotional video, and the beauty of the place, it was hard not be mesmerized by it – and to be happy that it would be used for such a purpose, as opposed to hosting Bunga-bunga parties for some hedge-fund managers who like to fly to their villa in Italy for a weekend or two every summer (which is, in general, what the modern world seems to use nice houses for). Miraglia gave additional classes on his work recreating the experience of ancient poetry by adding the music back into it, which has produced some useful results.
Christophe Rico, who taught eight classes (all conducted in ancient Greek) over the weekend while also giving a lecture (whose preface was in ancient Greek), was, among all the other assembled talent at the conference, probably the talk of the whole place. He was the first person almost any of us had heard speaking ancient Greek ever – ever – despite the fact that many of us had been in ancient Greek classes for twenty years or more. And it was he, really more than anyone, who made me feel like a movement was happening, rather than just a few scattered odd programs in a few places, because he so clearly shared so many of the same intellectual presuppositions, though I had never heard of him and I believe he was operating independently of everyone else. Rico’s Greek classes (you can take a look here for a glimpse – there he is, pattering away in ancient Greek with what look like American undergraduates!) closely resembled Nancy Llewellyn’s Latin classes, which were completely revolutionary when she first did them, though like most revolutions the idea behind it was simple and almost obvious, namely, in this case, that Latin is a language, and hence methods which were useful for learning other languages were useful for learning Latin also. I don’t know if Rico had any actual contact with Nancy – in fact I don’t think he did – but he ran his classes the same way, because, he said, “these are the methods that work.” The method he used for beginners is called “Total Physical Response,” or TPR, which involves physical response to commands, part of the theory being that the body must be involved in language acquisition. He was an exceptionally gifted TPR teacher, and though I knew well that TPR methods work, I had imagined it would be just about impossible to learn Greek well enough to ever use them myself. Rico’s Greek was amazing, and I think I learned more Greek in thirty minutes in his class than I would have learned in a whole semester of Greek at any college in America. And he was the director of an entire institute in Jerusalem dedicated to the wisdom culture of the Western world, whose mission was to reacquaint the Western world with its own traditions by offering people in-depth experiences of the ancient languages of the West: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. His was the only institution in Jerusalem (a city which he saw as a living symbol of both the problems and possibilities offered by these traditions), to offer access to these traditions, as he put it, “outside of a confessional context,” i.e. without a religious presumption of which tradition was best. And he seemed to be uniquely suited for such work, as he showed himself to be a consummate teacher, not projecting his own agenda onto students, but simply meeting them wherever they were in their quest for knowledge and helping them forward from that point.
All of it was exciting, and it all seemed to be similar in spirit: a deployment of the resources of the modern world to engage with what before had been merely texts in a far fuller, more completely human way, mind, body, and spirit, and not only because it was more enjoyable to engage in that deeper, fuller way, but also with a desire that the study bear fruit not only for the mind but for the body and spirit as well. And a community, scattered throughout the world but with real common interests and real mutual affection, seems to be growing and occupying this happy space. (For more information about it take a look at the Tony Grafton article just recently in The Nation.)