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April 4, 2018
A Dismal Science and a Dead Language
A classmate once conjectured that if you want to know what a Harvard student is truly passionate about, you don’t ask them what their concentration is, you ask them what their secondary field is. An interesting proposition and a poignant one for me.
I certainly don’t find my Economics concentration, coined “the dismal science” by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century, dismal at all. I quite enjoy it. But many of my most memorable intellectual experiences have taken place in the Harvard Classics Department.
Classics is the study of the ancient Greek and Latin languages, the literature they give life to, the history and culture of the people who once spoke and wrote in them, and the ideas and philosophy developed with them. It is the study of the foundations of Western civilization.
Classics is concerned with the human condition, a condition which I believe is not really so altered from over 2000 years ago. We still marvel at the natural world, we still tell stories, we pine for companionship, we still level humorously lewd and ribald epithets at our friends and enemies. (Google a few Catullus translations, if you’re especially curious about the last one.)
It is somewhat miraculous that so many texts and manuscripts survived millennia of human conflict, upheaval, and negligence. It is astounding that these supposedly “old dead white men” works have commanded the attention and curiosity of so many students for so long. Walk into any Harvard Latin course, and you will see a genuine diversity of students with a shared passion for the complexities and mysteries of antiquity.
Just as I cannot imagine my Harvard experience without rugby, I can scarcely consider my education complete without Sparta and Athens, without the likes of Ovid and Catullus and Homer and Virgil, and or without a bit of medieval Latin literature.
My faith has been transformed with St. Augustine’s fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te (you have made us for yourself, LORD, and the heart is restless until it rests in you, Confessions 1.1). My heart has delighted in Ovid’s quae pressa diu fuerant caligine caeca sidera coeperunt toto efferuescere caelo (the stars which were long pressed in dark vapor began to shine through the entire sky, Metamorphoses 1.70-71). My mind has been challenged to sort out ablative absolutes and passive participles and subjunctive clauses.
The economist in me knows that the monetary return on investment to studying a supposedly “dead” language like Latin is pretty low. But Classicists know better than most that true value looks far beyond dollars and cents. Our subject matter is not “dead”, but immortal.