End Notes

After waking from his dogmatic slumber, Immanuel Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason in which he pronounced a requiescat over all preceding philosophy. But his attempt to begin ab ovo is done under the aegis of Ovid and Persius. In the preface he unabashedly quotes these Latin writers with the clear assumption that his 18th-century readers will know them as well as he did.

I was first struck by this in a seminar given by Wilfrid Sellars where the clash between the positivism of graduate school and my previous instruction in Thomism produced a culture shock not unlike that an earlier contrast between the modus vivendi of the Marine Corps and the seminary had.

Descartes wrote philosophical treatises in Latin as well as in French providing a linguistic continuity with the tradition he was determined to replace.

The earliest philosophers wrote in verse and it was only gradually that philosophy became prosaic. Modern philosophy begins in Latin and presumes a classical culture. The history of modern philosophy could be told in terms of the gradual abandonment of Latin, both the medium and the message.

In the 20th century its occurrence is as quaint as references to Greek in the 12th century and indeed, as in the earlier century’s Greek, the twentieth century’s Latin is likely to be a matter of titles only. In the one, Proslogion, Metalogion and the like, in the other the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Titular rather than real.

The true mainstream came to look counter-cultural during this retreat to Babel, the upshot of which was German Philosophy, French Philosophy, British Philosophy, and, the colonial offshoot of the above, American Philosophy. The loss of a lingua franca in philosophy has had effects not sufficiently noted. After the Council, when erstwhile alleged Thomists went over the rail of the barque of Peter and enlisted as crew on the Titanic, they were heard to mutter impious remarks about Scholastic jargon and bad Latin.

The last time that criticism had been heard was in the Renaissance, but by learned men anxious to recover the elegance of classical Latin. Their efforts did a lot toward making Latin a dead language. As C. S. Lewis said, comparing the Latin of the schoolmen and that of the men of the Renaissance, the former was a living language, the latter a written one, learned nostalgia rather than the rough and tumble exchange of active learning.

What was once rightly known as the Latin rite is replicating the journey of modern philosophy. There are men and women alive today who remember the sense of being at home when they heard Mass in the far-flung corners of the world. The rite was the same, the language was the same. There is an old adage, Latin of course, lex orandi, lex credendi—we believe as we pray, the liturgy gives body and breath to our beliefs, making them part of the marrow of our bones. But a language is needed for prayer and the adage becomes: lex loquendi, lex credendi. Our words convey our thoughts, and where there is a wild multiplication of languages this cannot leave the faith unaffected.

How easily a language is lost. George Steiner, in After Babel, speaks of the thousands of languages that have been lost in modern times, but there are still thousands left. The vernacular is a wonderful thing, as Dante observed in his book on the subject, written in Latin, but the worship of a universal church is best done in a universal language.

Can Latin be recovered? Is it destined to be the recherche concern of a dwindling band? Is agitation for the Latin Mass enough?

When I announced the founding of the International Catholic University on Mother Angelica Live last February, a caller asked if we would offer courses in Latin. Of course, I replied, and I also mentioned a Vatican audio course. Many people wrote to ask for more information on it. After some weeks of this, I got out my copy and realized that the teacher begins in Italian and, when he goes on to Latin, speaks exclusively of grammar. It was clear to me that this was not what the caller wanted.

A better way would be to begin with prayers, with the Pater noster, the Ave Maria, go on to the psalms and Gospels, read the Fathers on Scripture and go on to Thomas Aquinas. I sat down at my computer and began. The result is a little book, Let’s Read Latin, An Introduction to the Language of the Church. It is dedicated to Mother Angelica. I wish such a book were not necessary. But then I wish there was no need for the International Catholic University. Ave atque vale.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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