Sunday, July 10, 2011

"The Devil Knows Latin"

Don't you just love that quote from Monsignor Ronald Knox? You know, the one made famous by E. Christian Kopff in his delightful book, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition(2001):
Ronald Knox, a wise and witty Catholic priest, when asked to perform a baptism in the vernacular, responded with what his biographer Evelyn Waugh described as “uncharacteristic acerbity”: “The baby does not understand English and the Devil knows Latin” (Kopff xv).
The background story, of course, is that a minor exorcism is part of the traditional Catholic baptismal ritual, involving not only holy water, but exorcised salt and holy chrism oil. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. AD 313 – 386) gives a detailed description of baptismal exorcism (in Procatechesis 14). Hence Msgr. Knox's statement: "The Devil Knows Latin."

Most of Kopff's message about the joys of Latin and importance of classical education in this book will be greeted by your average American run-of-the-shopping-mall philistines with about as much joy as an invitation to attend the Traditional Latin Mass. But never mind the philistines, what matters is whether the claim is true. I remember reading some biographies of 19th-century and early 20th-century British writers about ten years after I began teaching college, and feeling sorely deprived educationally, even with a doctorate in hand. These guys were studying Greek and Latin and reading Virgil's Aeneid and Plutarch's Lives in the original when they were junior high school age.

It may well be true that we don't need to know Latin or have a classical education to be saints; but it may not only help us stave off the barbarous philistinism of our blithely high-tech yet historically oblivious new dark age, but may even help us along the path to sanctity if it happened to help us discover the abundant legacy of the Church's saints, resources for growth in holiness, and rich spiritual heritage of Mater Ecclesia. I would even argue that a classical education has considerable value in itself as a protoevangelium or praeparatio evangelium. Certainly St. Augustine found it so, who, in his Confessions, attests to the help provided him by the Neo-Platonists in overcoming the obstacles to faith produced by his earlier Manichaeism. Further still, Plato's dialogues provide some of the finest rebuttals of the kind of sophomoric relativism that thrives in the postmodernist environments around most contemporary universities. You can't be a relativist and be open to the Gospel.


Ruth said...
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Ruth said...

I really like this comment: "our blithely high-tech yet historically oblivious new dark age"