Exploring the Depths of the Sacred and the Profane

Long Live Latin | Nicola Gardini | Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Nicola Gardini is not a man easily shamed by his devotion to useless beauty. Nor is he timid about firmly attaching himself to emotions, not just thoughts. Long Live Latin is an unabashed love-song to literary Latin, to the language itself, to its most proficient and eloquent representatives, and to the grammar teachers and students who still wrestle with and learn from the language today. This is a book that asks us to first feel the grandeur of the language, and then to think about its ongoing significance in our present life.

And so at the onset, let me confess that I was a stubborn and narrow-minded student who protested strongly against the idea of learning “a dead language.” And yet, Gardini’s book gave me a chance to get lost in the language, despite my relative novice status. I share this to lend credence to my claim that this is an inclusive book, meant to be a lavish gift for any interested reader. Whether you are unfamiliar with the very rudiments of the language or are a classicist in your own right, there is plenty here for you. 

In the earliest pages of his book, Gardini opines that “literature is life, and it lives because it generates more writing, and because readers exist, and because interpretation exists, which is a dialogue between thought and the written word.” In reading great texts, we are engaged in an ongoing dialogue, one that “halts time on its ruthless march and continually renews our potential for permanence.” But Gardini reminds us that “Latin is the language of our legal institutions, of architecture, engineering, the military, science, philosophy, worship, and . . . a flourishing literature.” And it is not simply that we still use Latin phrases verbatim like carpe diem (seize the day!) in a variety of contexts, but also that so many of our English words and expressions are sourced in Latin. Moreover, many of our most compelling ideas about law, politics, religion, and love find their origins in the various literary Latin texts:

In hundreds of masterpieces, Latin speaks of love and war, explores body and soul, proposes theories on the meaning of life and the duty of the individual, the destiny of the soul, the structure of matter; it sings the beauty of nature, the greatness of friendship, pain at losing what we love; it challenges corruption, and meditates on death, on the arbitrary nature of power, on violence and cruelty; it constructs images of our inner states, gives shape to our emotions, formulates ideas about the world and about civil life.

On Private and Public Life

Gardini begins his exploration of Latin’s living legacy with the poet Catullus, who Gardini suggests as a great place to begin one’s Latin studies. Gardini explains that “his texts are brief, so less of a burden on a beginning reader; he addresses matters that, as specific as they are to their historical period, still offer something familiar: disappointment, love, suffering, friendship, rivalry.” We tend to think of Catullus as a more politically disengaged writer than Cicero and Virgil, and yet this chapter reveals his belief that the private and the social realms were necessarily connected to the public realm, such that loyalty is as necessary a virtue among friends in private as among statesmen in public.

Catullus is famous for his line, odi et amo which Gardini translates as “I hate you and I love you.” Gardini writes that this line is “the key to his entire sensibility and the expression of a conflict that stretches well beyond the personal: the mental and emotional impasse we face when we can no longer find conciliation in our lives, public or private.” And if that seems like a lot to pack into such a short phrase, Gardini reflects, “such is the economy of the Latin language.” Gardini also notes that this phrase is a great introduction to “defective verbs” like odi which are “verbs that possess forms only in the past perfect system, though they are present in meaning.” This line of thinking sends Gardini on a lengthy consideration of passive and active Latin verbs, culminating in a reflection on the tension between the contemplative life and the active life. Catullus helps us to observe the distinctions between the inward/private/contemplative and outward/public/actionable. But he also helps us to see that these theorized distinctions often break down in the passions of everyday life.


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On Statesmen

The dynamic tension between the contemplative and the active life finds its idealistic harmony in the image of the philosopher-king, and who best represents the ideal Latin statesmen than Cicero? In this chapter (my favorite of the book), Gardini is most convincing on the inseparability of language and conceptual development; virtue and beauty; eloquence and good statesmanship.

Gardini writes that “Cicero’s Latin is in fact a self-describing and self-analyzing Latin; it reveals itself as the fruit of a rigorous and rational thought process. What results is a language capable of describing, commenting, expressing passions and emotions, debating, and speculating.” In particular, Gardini is mesmerized by Cicero’s syntax, which he describes as “a syntax that seeks to examine every corner, to throw light in all directions, to flush out every source of possible opposition and silence it in advance.” Gardini lets Cicero speak for himself here: oratio . . . lumen adhibere rebus debet, translated “language must shed light on things.” (Notice here the roots of our English words like “oration” and “illuminate,”  demonstrating how intimately our language is connected to its sources.) Gardini further observes that Cicero’s Latin is marked by “clear and ordered sentences, complex but not complicated, where everything holds, where one phrase justifies the next and there’s no room for doubt or vagueness.”

A particularly memorable example of Cicero’s Latin that evinces the qualities Gardini ascribes can be found in In Verrem, a text in which Cicero delivers speeches against a corrupt former governor of Sicily. As usual, Gardini gives us the original Latin before supplying us with his own translation:

Non enim furem sed ereptorem, non adulterum sed expugnatorem pundicitiae, non sacrilegum sed hostem sacrorum religionumque, non sicarium sed crudelissimum carnificem civium sociorumque in vestrum iudicium adduximus.

Indeed the man we’ve brought before this court is not a thief but a despoiler, not an adulterer but a conqueror of chastity, not a plunderer of temples but an armed enemy of the sacred and of religious practice, not a killer but a cruel executioner of citizens and allies.

In this passage, we see the perfect blend of form and content, as the deliberative structure and transparent tone of Cicero’s speech make his argument for justice all the more compelling. This leads Gardini to reflect that Cicero’s Latin begins to “codify a way of being.” He further argues that this marriage of form and content allowed Cicero to become a model of what human beings should aspire to be: “a model of political and moral dedication, an unrivaled example of the power of words, a hero and a martyr of democratic freedom.”

On Profanity

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to revisit Catullus, who Gardini relies on exclusively for his digression on profanity. “Romans go home” is the famous line of graffiti in the Monty Python skit, but he may as well have drawn anatomy on the wall, which apparently can be found among the ruins of Pompeii. If we are to speak of such anatomy in Latin, we find as regards distinctive reproductive members, mentula for the gentlemen, cunnus for the ladies. The latter has certain, notable resonances, with contemporary English vulgarity, the former not nearly as much. Gardini helpfully suggests his own theory for the etymology of mentula. He sees it as quite clearly connected to mentum (chin) and mons, montis (mountain) which he suggests gives us the meaning of “something like ‘protrusion.’” 

I hope you will forgive this indulgence, but it does serve a purpose in Gardini’s consideration of language. He notes that “high school students’ enthusiasm for profanity is the expression of an inviolable need for truth: curse words are true by their very nature - they’re authoritative, they’re authentic.” This might seem like an odd defense of something by nature odious, and yet Gardini does not want us to miss this point: “No one can curse on another’s behalf. And that’s exactly the point: to study Latin seriously and productivity is to train oneself in the authenticity of language, profanity included.”

Conclusion: On Authenticity

I wish to end with this theme of authenticity, registered through Gardini’s examination of Augustine’s Latin. For I take it as a mostly unstated premise of Gardini’s whole argument that a study of Latin can lead to a more conscious understanding of our own language, and a more authentic use of words which resonate with intentionally layered meanings, secret histories, and genealogies of ideas. Augustine - standing in for all of Christianity - carries literary Latin into a whole new register, one that deepens the self-awareness found in Cicero and that applies new meanings to old words. Gardini describes Augustine’s Latin as “an associative language - avant-garde, digressive, even visionary.”

As an example, Gardini considers a line from Augustine’s Confessions in which he considers the state of his soul prior to his conversion and baptism:

Sic aegrotabam et excruciabar accusans memet ipsum solito acerbius nimis ac volvens et versans me in vinculo meo...

Thus was I ill and tormented, accusing myself more severely than usual, twisting and writhing in my chains...

Gardini helpfully points out that the verb execrutior (translated here as “torment”) is one found in comedy, including Catullus’ famous epigram 85 on the theme of conflict between love and hate. Gardini notes how incredible it is that Augustine is pulling together three separate metaphors—illness, torment, and prison—into one qualitatively coherent depiction of the experience of sin. Gardini writes that “such sentences are evidence enough of just how far language has progressed in its science of the inner self. It is more deeply introspective, more open to moments of self-examination.” Gardini adds that this “gives rise to an entirely new critical approach to emotions and states of the soul.” For example, Augustine writes originally of the interior loco, non loco, the “innermost place, no place” of the spirit, in which God resides and despite not being intelligible to the senses is nevertheless closer to him than he is to himself. Augustine forges a metaphysics of the self, one that continues to influence modern conceptions. And Augustine does this metaphysics in Latin, showing us that a language once mostly utilized in the civic context is as well-suited to the inward work of growing in relationship with God.

In his final chapter, Gardini writes that “learning Latin means immersing oneself in the pleasure of this meaning-making process,” and that it requires using “intuition and imagination.” We must attend to the complexities and histories of words, which he likens to living creatures. He exhorts us to see a sentence as “a public space where past experiences and present needs converge” and to dedicate ourselves to forming new messages, much as Augustine did. This vision commends “a strong sense of responsibility” because “in the end, it is truth itself that is at stake!”

I want to conclude with the image of Augustine studying the ancient languages, reading Cicero, and striving for a language of his own to commune with God. I believe, as Gardini maintains, that “the ancients speak for the ancients. And what we learn, in essence, by discovering who they are, is to speak of ourselves.” May Latin, and every literary language, and all literary speech, and every well-formed prayer, continue to live long!


Anthony Barr is a graduate of Templeton Honors College at Eastern University where he studied History, Literature, and Orthodox Thought and Culture. He writes for Ethika Politika, University Bookman, and the CiRCE Institute.