Monday, September 23, 2013

Mr. Nathan Goes to Rome

In a little less than a week, I'm hopping onto a plane to Rome. Once I'm there, I'm going to the Accademia Vivarium Novum, a tiny academy about five miles to the west of the city, where I'm going to be studying for the whole year. The academy is made up of only men. I'm not allowed to drink alcohol, wear bright colors, listen to non-classical music, or leave the academy if it's not Sunday morning. None of this is for religious reasons: it's a colony of secular humanists who do their best to cut themselves off from human life.

And here's the kicker: I'm not allowed to speak any language at the Academy except for Latin. As a concession to human frailty, it's sometimes okay to speak Ancient Greek. (If you doubt it, here's a video of the school's director giving a speech.)

Why am I going to such a bizarre place? Certainly not because I believe in the "Living Latin" movement. Latin, after all, is already spoken by a billion people all over the world—in Italy, France, Romania, Brazil, and Mexico, all of whose languages are vernacular dialects of Latin. Works of Latin literature, like Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and the Divine Comedy, are written and read by millions the world over.

All native Latin speakers.

And even if we ignore the fact that Latin has already spread across the world, it's strange that educated people should go out of their way to use a difficult, cumbersome means of expression. I don't buy the notion that Latin is somehow a purer vehicle of meaning than any other language: Mongolian, Nahuatl, and Pirahã are all just as good at saying a lion is eating my foot off or the virtuous life is the noblest or my hovercraft is full of eels. The claim that Latin is a better language than the rest is a superstition of the nineteenth century—and of some in the twentieth.

Nor am I going because I think the experience will "refine my soul" or anything as weird as that. No: it'll make me better at Latin or Greek, just like going to carpentry school would make me better at building cabinets. The real project of being a good and dignified human being has nothing to do with the skills that we do or don't cultivate. If anything, studying the classics will make me a marginally worse person—it will breed alienation from mainstream society, and make me less able to recognize what's good in it. It's a temptation that I'll have to avoid, just like Odysseus resisted the Sirens.

I'm going, in the end, because I think it'll be fun. Latin and Greek are fascinating languages in themselves, and there's almost nothing better than some of the stuff that's written in them. Do I really need an excuse for wanting to spend a year speaking them? It's like someone told me there's an enormous bowl of macoun apples waiting for me across the Atlantic, so I'm heading over to have some.

Now for some logistics: I don't know how much contact I'm going to have with the outside world. (In fact, I don't know that much beyond what I've already told you.) But there's a good chance I'll be able to respond to email. Also, if anyone is going to be in Rome on a Sunday this year, please let me know. I'm going to want to practice my English.

Is it odd that I expect to take so much pleasure from this? I'm told that some people like the taste of red deliciouses, which makes me just as puzzled as you are.

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