Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Devil Knows Latin by E. Christian Kopff

Just the title alone was enough to inspire me to read The Devil Knows Latin by E. Christian Kopff. I mean, really, does it get any better than that? It's subtitle, "Why America Needs the Classical Tradition" meant that I had to read it in my perpetual quest to understand and imbibe Classical Educational principles. The title comes from the words spoken by a priest, Ronald Knox, when he was baptizing a child. The parents ask that the words spoken over the infant be in the vernacular. Knox defends his use of Latin by saying, "The baby does not understand English, and the Devil knows Latin." (p. xv) In effect, he is saying the enemy knows our language, so must we. The traditions that give life to and sustain our civilization, our values, our priorities, our religious traditions, come from classical beginnings. When we forget our past, we can be sure the enemy has not and he will use our ignorance against us.

He state the purpose for writing the book right away in the introduction, "The purpose of this book is to suggest that the permanent things embedded in traditional are good things for human life, and that they have not yet entirely vanished from the Western landscape. Into the shadows of the gloom, admittedly real and growing, an occasional ray of light may shine, illuminating the vitality of tradition and the possibility of its restoration. Tradition is a hardy thing." (p. xiv) He further states, "We talk of creativity and the future, but we ignore the discipline of learning the rudiments of the past. I maintain that the past is our most important source of creativity. True creativity is always the acquisition of of the old in order to fashion beautiful and meaningful things for the present." (p. xvi) If we want to avoid the servile condition of the non-creative, we must embrace the past.

He decries the "lunatics" that would have us always thinking of the future and disregarding the past. They see the past as a prison from which to free themselves. But it is tradition that preserves for us the necessary components for true freedom. "Human fulfillment, which cannot be realized without society, religion, and science, therefore requires nourishment from the past. Our very future, which is born of our past, demands it." (p. 10)

We in the West must learn to tell our own story. When we got rid of Latin and Greek, replacing ancient languages and works with modern translations and stories, we began to forget what it means to be part of the Western tradition. To even say that we should learn about and embrace Western Civilization is an affront to modern ears. However, Kopff believes that a "multicultural" education "is not only intellectually incoherent, it is culturally incoherent. It prepares the student to participate in no one culture. It leaves the victim of such a curriculum on the outside of every culture, hungry and cold with his nose pressed against the window, staring enviously and impotently at the riches within." (p. 23-24)

He notes the importance of Latin for the progress in our society. "Our society, unlike many others, has been able to assimilate change and newness without coming apart, and that is because we have always explained development and innovation by employing concepts and words drawn from tradition. It is a typically Western thing to do, and by doing it we maintain continuity with our past and keep our balance. When we turn our backs on tradition, the risk we face is falling. Without the solid foundation of our classical heritage, modern Americans can no longer use the past to keep sane in the present. Is is any wonder life so often feels like a free-fall experience?" (p. 32)

Therefore he advocates going "Back to the Future." If we are to proceed forward, we must know our past, starting with ancient Greeks. This is the way our Founders learned, and it is what they advocated. The traditions we have in this country of liberty and self-government harken back to the Greeks and the Romans. Learning about and loving these ideal requires the hard work of studying their advocates. We can only perpetuate all that it means to be an American by learning how we became Americans in the first place. We must have the education our Founders had to truly understand what they have bequeathed us.

Kopff sees the current attack on traditionalism in the federal government's attack on Christianity, which directly threatens to our republic. He finds the 14th Amendment as the source of the religious liberty attacks. Because the 14th Amendment nationalized the Bill of Rights, states are no longer free to promote whatever religious exercises they choose. At one time, the Bill of Rights applied only to the national government. Today it has been stretched all out of proportion and has stripped the states of the power they once enjoyed. This means that the people are far less free to exercise their religious freedom, ironically, by guaranteeing the right to freely practice religion in the states. Washington, Jefferson, and Tocqueville believed religious expression to be integral to our republican institutions. As religious expression weakens, so too does our society. Kopff states, "... a government which attacks its people's religious traditions is embarking on a suicidal kamikaze mission. To stop this attack, we need to restore America's central traditions: republican institutions and a truly federal government founded on personal responsibility, trust in the popular will, and faith in the God of the Bible." (p. 62)

The Enlightenment began this attack on traditionalism. Hippocrates proudly told his students that he stood on the shoulders of those that came before. Rousseau said, "Let us do away with the facts. They have nothing to do with the case." And so we proceed, rudderless and directionless, each new generation propounding its own theories. We have sucked out the foundation from under us and think all that we hold dear can still stand.

Classical liberalism is in crisis. But we continue on like nothing is happening. It has rejected religious tradition and metaphysical assumptions and now tries to make moral judgements without a foundation. "Practical ethical reasoning must take place within a definite, historically conditioned tradition — a tradition that brings with it certain religious and metaphysical assumptions..." (p. 89) Kopff asserts that the Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume and Kant helped establish a "vendetta against tradition and prejudice — The Enlightenment prejudice against prejudice." (p. 93) This is its self-defeating fatal flaw.  "More specifically, Enlightenment minds use and misuse ideas and methods that make sense in one tradition but no in another. They view any particular tradition as so many discrete cultural elements that con be moved like game pieces. Consequently, such minds are constantly trying to transfer what cannot be transferred." (p. 144) He finds returning to reason impossible without a return to religion, which is the only foundation for a cohesive worldview.

Kopek goes on to discuss why we need a classical education today. He refers to Albert Nock's book, The Theory of Education in the United States, when detailing the difference between training and education. Training prepares one for a job by teaching the requisites skills necessary. A classical curriculum actually educates people, creating "thoughtful people who have at their disposal a wealth of general knowledge, and who, in the light of this knowledge and with the courage to face facts, can judge matters of significance in a disinterested manner." (p. 100) Obviously we need people trained to do the jobs necessary to the functioning of society, but without educated people, our civilization will collapse entirely. Our educational establishment shifted into a "training" mode in the late 19th century. We began by throwing out Latin and establishing a mix of electives instead of a required core. Ironically, in order to enlarge the minds of our students into myriad subjects, we have stunted creativity. Kopff states that "creativity is found in tradition." Here is where the greatest thinkers of all time are found. It is how they were educated. It is where we can and should lead our students.

The next section is called, "The Good, the Bad, and the Postmodern." He begins by decrying "Critical Theory" and deconstructionism. These have led to a fun-house mirror world in which words mean nothing. This kind of criticism has led to an attempt to destroy "our story." It disconnects students from their culture, focusing all its efforts on opposition and attempting to discover what isn't being said rather than what is being said. "The mystery of tradition — that one must be happily rooted in family, in nation, in religion, in culture in order to rise above them — is lost on the critical theorists. By betraying home and family [they] cut [themselves] off from understanding great literature and, consequently, from genuine criticism." (p. 134) There are echoes of C.S. Lewis' understanding of the Tao. To criticize the Tao (ultimate Truth) one must operate inside the Tao. The critical theorists, by rejecting all tradition, do not have a place to stand to criticize it. What metric is available to them? They have rejected traditional metrics with the Enlightenment.

Section 3 discusses "Contemporary Chronicles: Role Models and Popular Culture." In this collection of essays he discusses myriad authors and chronicles the ways in which they further or detract from a classical understanding of Western Civilization. I'm unfamiliar with many of the pieces he references, so while this was interesting, it is simply too much for me to digest and summarize here. But referring to popular culture today, Kopff says, "Western science, technology, and politics (republican, liberal, or Marxist) are the creations of Western culture, the fruits of what Yeats called a 'great-rooted blossomer.' The tree of Western culture will be able to keep on producing those fruits only if it is nurtured by people who have worked long and hard to master the skills and knowledge needed to maintain that tree. The technocrat, the multiculturalist, and the postmodernist have declared war on the long and difficult course of study and acculturation needed to participate in the tradition that produces the science, technology, and politics that so many want." (p. 246)

He quotes a poem by "Douglas Young: A Freehanded Scot," which I believe perfectly captures the classical vs. modern rivalry:
Last Lauch (Last Laugh)
The Minister said it wald dee, (would die)
the cypress-buss (bush) I plantit. (planted)
But the buss (bush) grew till a tree,
Naething dauntit. (Nothing daunting it)
It's growan, (grown) stark and heich (high),
derk (dark) and staucht (straight) and sinister,
Kirkyairdie-like and dreich. (Churchyard-like and dull, long-suffering)
But whair's (where's) the Minister?  (p. 211)
Tradition will stand because it is rooted in Truth. Those seeking to destroy it will disappear. However, much is to be lost in the meantime as we wander through the wilderness.

The Epilogue contains Kopff's recommendations for the future of education:
1. Simplify the elementary school curriculum to concentrate on language, mathematics, and history.
2. Take teacher certification away from schools of education. "Observation of a master, countless practice sessions, regular criticism, and much guidance constitute the traditional route to acquiring new skills." (Perfectly mirrors Building A+ Better Teacher.)
3. America's churches should start teaching the Sacred Tongues.

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