Last week, a small group of French politicians, intellectuals and journalists put forward an unexpected proposal: Replace English with Latin as Europe’s official language. At first, this idea may sound ridiculous, if not downright reactionary. At worst, we can accuse the proposal’s defenders of nostalgia, which, to cite George Ball, is a “seductive liar.” Is the promotion of Latin but another way to idealize the ancients? Is it an attempt to reconstruct a chauvinistic “Western” identity? Or is it a chance to rehabilitate high culture, build cultural commonality and revitalize the European project? With some reticence, I will try to defend the latter.
To put it bluntly, a lot of people hate the European Union. According to a study conducted by the European Commission itself, distrust of the EU reaches 81 percent of the population in Greece, 72 percent in Cyprus, 65 percent in Austria, 65 percent in France and 63 percent in the Czech Republic. We can explain this phenomenon in countless ways. As I wrote in a precedent column for the News, “no matter how supposedly uneducated, racist, narrow-minded and myopic some [euroskeptics] may be, they are — partially, at the very least — right.” The EU has become overly technocratic and anti-democratic, imposing disastrously inhumane austerity measures on countries whose demise had largely been caused by Eurocrats themselves.
Most importantly, the EU fails to present itself as a meaningful political unit. We can criticize nation-states in many ways, but they do — in the typical case — represent an important part of people’s identity. People will introduce themselves as Americans when abroad, for example. They will resonate with a particular anthem, develop an appreciation of a flag and build their sense of selfhood around a broader sense of nationhood (among other influences). Yet the EU fails to inspire this kind of dedication, as do most international organizations. At least in appearance, the EU looks rootless, uninteresting, detached and bureaucratic.
Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate in the cultural commonality that ancient languages symbolize — one that binds Europeans together while binding Europe to other civilizations. For centuries, Latin and Greek allowed European scholars to communicate beyond borders; they also facilitated the emergence of a dialogue between Europe and the Islamic world, whose scholars mastered and translated the ancients before their Western counterparts.
In this sense, if nostalgia is a “seductive liar” when it blinds us, it can also be a vector of solidarity when it binds us. To remind ourselves that deep-seated identities exist beyond nationhood, that transnational bonds need not be rootless, that Western civilization was built around a dialogue between both sides of the Mediterranean, all are laudable goals that the revitalization of Latin could help accomplish.
Still, some will argue, Latin represents an antiquated form of “high culture” — the language and education of the elite. In a sense, these criticisms are justified: For most of modern history, high culture has acted as a gatekeeping mechanism, a cultural obstacle designed to preserve the status quo. At Yale, we often deride those who hold on to such old-fashioned relics as the so-called “great books,” classical languages and formality more broadly.
But to say that high culture has been exclusionary is not to say that it must be exclusionary. In fact, many leftist thinkers have tried, successfully or not, to reclaim high culture as a desirable entity to be democratized. For Theodor Adorno, a Marxist theorist whom we can hardly describe as reactionary, high culture serves an emancipatory purpose — deep education, not cheap schooling, allows us to rise beyond the limits of our circumstances. In his writings, Engels echoes this thought time and again: For Marx’s favorite comrade, communism was a way to turn proletarians into aristocrats who would use their ample leisure time to cultivate a love of the humanities.
Both America and Europe would do well to re-embrace this mind-set. Too often, a legitimate concern for workers’ material circumstances leads us to think that the kind of education we receive has no place in underfunded public schools; or, to put it differently, we delude ourselves into thinking that Latin is too “useless” for working people. But to abandon the democratization of high culture is to reject a non-negotiable promise of democracy as a way of life — namely, the ability for all citizens to access the life of the mind.
This obsession with pre-professionalization can also be seen in college students, who act as proxies for the American elite. A few generations ago, every Yalie came out of the College with a decent understanding of classical languages. Now, most Yalies come out of the College with a decent understanding of discounted cash flow analysis. In this sense, the abandonment of the classics is but a symptom of wider malfunctions — including, among others, the adoption of a utility-driven attitude which is turning liberal arts colleges into pre-professional factories that produce consultants and financiers en masse.
We should care about this phenomenon because, as is often the case, elite-driven cultural trends trickle down to shape our collective norms. A society in which the elite sacrifices culture on the altar of utility will see its institutions abandon the humanities at every level. For all its elitism, high culture does act as a bulwark against raw materialism, developing our appreciation of the unquantifiable, the artistic and the “useless.”
In Europe, the revival of Latin could help Brussels understand the political importance of culture. In the United States, we would also benefit from a revitalization of the humanities, one that would democratize high culture and thereby bind us together. Of course, America does not have an ancient language to resuscitate. But we do have founding documents, novels and works of philosophy to read as a nation. To refuse the abandonment of culture, to rethink democracy as a way of life and to place deep education at the center of our national project are all valuable pursuits that Americans should undertake.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college. His column, titled ‘Through the looking glass,’ runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at email@example.com.