The University Bookman


Fall 2015

Why Study Latin?


Russell Kirk

Rather to my surprise, but considerably to my pleasure, the study of Latin has been reviving somewhat in our better high schools, these past few years. Once upon a time, every properly educated person knew his Latin authors. That day may not come again; yet I trust that more and more schools will give students the opportunity to know Vergil, Cicero, and Livy.

A New York high school student writes to me, asking why Latin should be studied. Here, in a few words, is my reply.

Sometimes an inadequate reason is advanced for this study: it is said that Latin “is good intellectual training.” Though this is true enough, it is equally true of any other genuine school discipline. One might say the same of Sanskrit or Chinese.

The real reasons why Latin ought not to vanish from the curriculum are several. First of all, we study any body of literature in order to acquaint ourselves with great thoughts and noble phrases. Latin literature is one of the chief foundations of our culture, and it cannot be perfectly understood in mere translation. Lucretius, Horace, Vergil, Cicero, Seneca, Catullus, Apuleius, Livy, and a half-dozen other Latin authors still matter a great deal. And through acquaintance with these writers, we learn of the grandeur that was Rome; we come to understand Roman order, justice, gravity, frugality, fortitude.

Second, the knowledge of Latin teaches us much about our own English language. Only if one understands Latin roots does one become master of many English words, using them accurately and forcefully.

Third, an acquaintance with Latin is essential for the undertaking of important vocations and professions. The writings of the fathers of the church and of many Christian philosophers are in Latin, and so any competent clergyman or serious layman ought to be able to read such works in the original. Law and medicine must be confusing to any student who cannot grasp the meaning of the innumerable Latin terms in these learned professions. Our natural and physical sciences—physics, botany, and chemistry, to name only three—depend in part upon terms and classifications in Latin.

Fourth, Latin still is an international language. Knowing Latin, one can acquire a mastery of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and some other tongues without great difficulty. In the Catholic Church, at least, Latin remains a direct means of communication among people of vastly different nationalities and ethnic groups. (African bishops are much distressed at plans for diminishing the Latin liturgy of the church, because Latin is the only language which African Catholics possess in common.)

For these and other reasons, it is more important to know Latin than to acquire facility in any single modern foreign language. An American student who becomes tolerably acquainted with Latin is most fortunate; for English is the tongue most widely known throughout the modern world, and also English literature is the richest body of humane letters. Knowing both Shakespeare and Vergil, both Samuel Johnson and Marcus Tullius Cicero, both the King James version of the Bible and St. Augustine, any young American is well on the way to wisdom.  

Posted: November 15, 2015 in To the Point.

Did you see this one? book cover

Bruce S. Thornton
Volume 42, Number 4 (Winter 2003)

A poor man, if he has dignity, honesty, the respect of his neighbors, a realization of his duties, a love of the wisdom of his ancestors, and possibly some taste for knowledge or beauty, is rich in the unbought grace of life.

Russell Kirk


Subscribe & Follow


More from the Bookman!

book cover book cover book cover

Literature as Counterculture
Allen Mendenhall

The Enigma of the Black Republican
Kareim Oliphant

One Hundred Years of Communism
Francis P. Sempa

The Ambitious Intellectual
Ann-Michele Sproviero

Edwards: From the Beginning of the Right
George H. Nash

The Catholic Novel in an Age of Political Correctness
Trevor C. Merrill

book cover book cover book cover

Bookman Contributors Elsewhere

John Lukacs —the great contemporary historian has pieces in both Chronicles (on being surrounded by books) and First Things (on a displaced pianist).

Joseph Bottom on fraud, American-style.

Andrew Bacevich on the end of endism.

Helen Andrews on the moon landing and the 1970s. Helen (a 2017 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow) wrote one of our most popular pieces, a consideration of the anti-suffragettes.


We are pleased to announce the release of The University Bookman on Edmund Burke, now available for Kindle. Collecting 21 reviews, essays, and interviews from the Bookman on the life and thought of Edmund Burke, this book is only $2.99, and purchases support our ongoing work to provide an imaginative defense of the Permanent Things. (3 Mar 2015)

Other Sites of Interest

Publisher Sites


Copyright © 2007–2017 The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal