by Mark English
My old high-school Latin teacher had a very short temper. He exploded on a regular basis. More than once he became so agitated in class that he knocked off his own spectacles, sending them skidding across the floor.
Corporal punishment was part of the culture at this strange institution, which seemed to have been trapped in a Victorian time warp. Such punishment was not restricted to rule breaches or misbehavior. Fail to adequately prepare for certain classes (Latin was one of them), and you were in trouble. But any violence against individuals was strangely clinical, and not in any way anger-based. Nothing personal. No hard feelings.
“Bill” – nickname from his surname (Williams) – was reaching the end of a distinguished career in education. He was past the normal retirement age. What’s more, it was well-known that he had a serious heart condition. We always half-expected one of these anger episodes to escalate into a fatal heart attack, which only added to the pressure to learn what we were supposed to learn. None of us wanted him to die and certainly not to be personally responsible for his death. He was much loved, actually.
He had no family and was resigned to living out his final years in an alien country. In a way, we boys were “family”. He was famous for his touchingly weak and relentlessly repeated jokes. “Time to get out your breakfast cereal,” he used to say in an earlier year, referring to an unbelievably boring Latin reader called Vercobrix: puer fortissimus. (Weetabix was the product being alluded to.) Occasionally he would tease us. He remarked on one boy’s fine golden hair, noting that he would soon lose much of it (as indeed he did). Or, pleading ignorance of these matters, he used to cajole another boy, who was strikingly handsome in a blond-Slavic sort of way, to give a commentary on the romantic themes of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid (which we were at the time dutifully ploughing through). Book IV is centered around the story of the ill-fated love affair between Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas for whom the call of duty – he was destined to found Rome – eventually trumps his feelings for his girl. Dido’s response was to have herself incinerated on a funeral pyre while calling down curses on her faithless lover. An avenger would arise from her ashes. (Hannibal… but that is another story.)
Significantly, “Bill” never teased the shy boys, his empathy in this regard reflecting, no doubt, his own experiences as a shy and naïve and (by all accounts) brilliant student.
Very occasionally he would reminisce about his home country, painting an idyllic picture of rural Ireland, fallow deer grazing in the morning mist. I don’t fully recall how we reacted at the time but, looking back, it all seems heartbreakingly sad. Not only was he cut off from his personal roots, it was increasingly clear that the scholarly and educational causes to which he had devoted his life, the teaching of Latin and the promotion of the classical curriculum, were basically lost.
I recount this story (and the anecdotes that follow) to flesh out some of the background to my views on certain themes which recently have been a focus of debate on this site: patriotism, nationalism and empire. The discussions were prompted by an essay in which I elaborated my not altogether positive take on the impact of certain kinds of myth, particularly national myths, on politics and policy-making. 
E. John Winner subsequently wrote a piece in praise of Irish nationalism.  His approach was quite partisan. According to Winner, the British were engaged in a form of attempted genocide, and violent rebellion and exiting the Empire was the only real solution for the Irish. Imperialism was presented as being virtually synonymous with cruelty and oppression.
I am not denying that the Irish had real and justified grievances. But I felt that Winner’s account glossed over the political complexities involved, including the wide spectrum of political opinion and allegiance amongst the Irish themselves. There is also the issue of ethnic continuities between the Irish and other inhabitants of the British Isles. Likewise, ethnic differences amongst the Irish – stemming from the Norman invasions of the late 12th century, for example – were downplayed.
In due course (in a future piece) I may elaborate my point of view in explicit terms and argue directly against views such as Winner’s. I would emphasize the necessarily simplistic and distorting nature of political myth, and make a case for preferring organic to invented and imposed myths. (I recognize that invented myths often incorporate preexisting organic elements, so the categories are not always clear-cut.)
Political myths are all about coordinating mass action; mind manipulation as a means to an end. National myths, in particular, often necessitate the imposition of a certain homogeneity of belief on a population, something I am uneasy about. It can sometimes be an insidious, even proto-totalitarian, process that works against basic liberal principles. Even the Romans did not seek to impose conformity or uniformity of belief on the peoples they ruled.
I am not saying that the myths associated with imperialism are necessarily more benign than national myths. In fact, my main concern at the moment relates to the dangers posed by neoconservatives whose outlook – based on the notion of American exceptionalism – is thoroughly imperialistic. The ideological roots of the founders of this movement were in Trotskyism. I confess to having a strong natural aversion to such manufactured ideologies – and especially to those which promote revolutionary violence (or any kind of violence other than that involved in basic self-defense or clear-cut humanitarian interventions).
Sometimes violent action is called for, and sometimes it needs to be coordinated on a large scale. I am willing to concede that, in some such cases, the use of myths may be necessary to coordinate effective action. But myths are also used to justify violence, and this is more problematic.
The truth is that individuals have – and will always have – different political beliefs and views deriving from divergences in inherited psychological tendencies and upbringing. The best we can do as individuals is to coordinate our political opinions with our most basic instincts and values.
My Irish Latin teacher was quite apolitical and would not have related at all to the concept of Ireland (or Irish nationalism) which Winner was describing and promoting. He was simply not living in Winner’s universe – or anything like it. And Winner is not living in his. As I was saying, each of us lives in his or her own unique universe, and this is not something we can change. Fortunately, there is usually sufficient overlap between these personal universes to make social life possible, even if there are also sufficient divergences to ensure that argument and misunderstanding will remain staples of social existence.
I see a parallel here with language. In a practical sense, linguistic communication works. But what people think they are communicating is always at least subtly different from what they actually are communicating. Crucially, there is no “message” which is sent and received. Nor, for that matter, is there such a thing as a language. English and French and German, etc. are abstract constructs. Really, there are just overlapping and non-overlapping idiolects. Where idiolects overlap (to a greater or lesser extent) linguistic communication is possible.
In the essay that sparked the debate, I referred to the 16th-century humanist and Latinist, Joachim du Bellay whose patriotic attachments (like my teacher’s) were to his native region – Anjou in his case – and were not in any obvious way political. It was only in subsequent centuries that the modern idea of the nation state (an essentially political notion) came to prominence. In earlier times, Europe was a patchwork of regions sharing a broadly similar ethnic, linguistic (Indo-European and, more specifically, Latin) and religious heritage. Educated people identified with this broader culture, as well as with their own native regions and vernaculars.
My high school (as I have noted) and undergraduate education exposed me to people who exemplified this old tradition. In my freshman year I continued with Latin, which I had studied continuously from the age of twelve. The advanced first-year class was very small (less than a dozen). Fewer and fewer high school students were taking Latin through to matriculation level. It had very limited appeal as a high school option, and less as a university minor or major. Not only was it quite demanding, it had no vocational relevance. The only half-plausible practical justification for the learning of Latin which I recall hearing was that learning Latin improves one’s English writing style. And well it may. But – for better or for worse – such matters are not exactly front and center in terms of educational priorities. (And, if they were, a more direct approach would likely prove far more effective.)
There were three girls in that first-year university class, one of whom I had a crush on. Her marvelously Latinate name was Perpetua Grave (a daughter of the head of the philosophy department).
Another student was a recently retired businessman whom we knew only as Mr. Freeman. He subsequently completed a classics PhD, producing a new edition of Juvenal. He used to talk about his literary-oriented youth in Germany and France. There was also a younger man from central Europe who couldn’t speak English at all but who turned out to be fluent in Latin which, until that time, I had taken to be a long-dead language (except in certain ecclesiastical contexts). There is a piece of doggerel which every schoolboy once knew: “Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be. It killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me.” Well, it wasn’t dead in parts of central and eastern Europe apparently, at least until the latter part of the 20th century.
Sometime later I met another Latin speaker: an old, surly, atheistic Czech with a doctorate in political science,who was a Wagner fanatic and made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth every year. He talked fondly of his younger days when he and his friends would hike all over central Europe, casually crossing borders and receiving hospitality from parish priests. As Latin speakers they were granted the status of fellow scholars and were welcomed in to share dinner and given a bed for the night.
The cultural continuities of which I speak here are now irredeemably broken. I have no illusions about this.
It is, however, important to see – at least in general terms – what it is that we have lost. Only then, I suggest, can we fully understand the radically provisional and unstable nature of the political and cultural status quo in Western countries; and even perhaps – who knows? – be motivated to envisage a wider range of political, social and cultural possibilities than conventional wisdom currently allows.