One of the great privileges of seasonal work – my day-job is in a plant nursery – is the freedom to travel. And this year we have been particularly lucky to make two trips – one just before the nursery season, and one just now right after – to Milwaukee to visit Reginald Foster. He is pleased as punch to see the twins (now eleven months old), and we get a chance to catch up with him and read some Latin together. His good health continues to defy my expectations. He just celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday. On this trip I spent a great deal of time getting details about his life story. I am working on a short piece about him for the New Criterion, and am at least contemplating the possibility of a full-blown biography. I was pleasantly surprised to find him cooperative, which I don’t think he would have been a few years ago. Now ensconced in a nursing home, he has turned his thoughts to his legacy.
I think it is turning out to be an impressive legacy. I don’t think anyone alive has done more for Latin than he has. He inspired Nancy Llewellyn, SALVI’s founder. He inspired Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett, Paideia’s founders. He taught John Pepino, who teaches at Veterum Sapientia, and Mike Fontaine, who is doing such great things at Cornell, and Patrick Owens, whose online lexicon is making modern Latin accessible to all. And there are literally thousands of others. His impact may soon be felt in the church as well. He mentioned that almost all the bishops of the Midwest – he rattled off seven or eight dioceses, and said there were more – were in his classes.
His dedication to teaching continually astounds me. Down in the basement of the nursing home, he now holds class three days a week, three hours each day – what in the university world would count as teaching six courses a year. This while confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home! He also tutors several people and keeps up a large correspondence. He is also now working on the follow-up volumes to his publishing debut, the Ossa Latinitatis Sola.
He also had some words of wisdom to pass on to SALVI. He began offering the excuses and qualifications that we all know indicate that a criticism is about to come: “Now I don’t mean to be critical or say anything bad about what you’re doing, but...” And I thought what he said was worth pondering: “Speaking Latin is no problem. In fact speaking Latin is easy. As I’ve said before, everyone on the streets of Rome spoke Latin, every bum and prostitute and everyone else. There’s nothing special about that. The problem is reading Latin. You can speak Latin all day long and still not understand many of the things Cicero is doing, or Tacitus is doing, or Lucretius. You have to get good at reading.”
I’m sure every Latin teacher knows this problem well. We all put in massive amounts of effort to find material and exercises that our students actually can do, because otherwise they get nothing out of class. But eventually we want the students who will really enjoy it to come face to face with the actual difficulty of literary Latin. And being able to speak Latin is no more a guarantee of being able to enjoy Leo Magnus or Lucretius than being able to speak English is a guarantee of being able to enjoy Milton. Your brain has to get used to handling difficult and complex sentences in order to ever have a chance of enjoying them.
We struggle with this in our own programs. We are always looking, in each of our programs, to offer both easy and difficult readings – easy readings so our students can actually enjoy the Latin, and difficult ones so their Latin can grow. And every year, some people tell us that our readings are “too difficult,” and others tell us they are “too easy.” We’re always working on it.
I’m sure this is one of the reasons many classicists are skeptical of the spoken Latin movement. They don’t want to lose the kind of linguistic and cultural sophistication that being able to read Milton or Horace entails, and they don’t want their classes about Ovid to be replaced by a discussion of the weather in Latin. What we need to remember is that this really is not a dichotomy. People who want to speak Latin are all well on their way to develop this kind of cultural sophistication. But having a common language, and sharing common experiences in a language, is a particularly powerful tool to harness for our cause. It delivers the kind of intellectual community and intellectual joy that really is the heart of the humanities.
But if you want your Latin to get good, you really do have to read (unless you happen to have a Latin-speaking friend who can speak the way Lucretius can write). This is why SALVI people like Jason Slanga have been working on the “Latin reading challenge,” and Daniel Petersson on his Latinitium site.
And still, one of the best things to do is to get together with people and read Latin – especially if you’re speaking Latin at the same time. With Reginaldus I was lucky to read some of Cicero’s letters, as well as St. Charles Borromeo and St. Bernard on Advent. All were brilliant. The Borromeo passage was a single sentence that took up almost a page. I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. But after spending a lot of time speaking and reading Latin, I was ready for it. And that’s why we have to keep working on behalf of spoken Latin: it offers the best way forward to bring mind together with mind, even across centuries.