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For Use of the Dauphin

Vergil’s Aeneid; Homer's Illiad


Vergil’s Aeneid 

Dolphin Edition, The Paideia Institute, pp. 172, $20.00.

Homer’s Iliad

Dolphin Edition, The Paideia Institute, pp. 158, $20.00.

Last summer Princeton’s classics department drove its own brief news cycle after announcing it would no longer require the study of Latin and Greek for undergraduates to attain their bachelor’s degrees. This decision was announced alongside a variety of other curricular measures targeting “systemic racism” at the school. It drew a familiar range of responses: horror, but also cheering and calls for more bloodletting. Much of the commentary missed the point—faddish progressive icon-smashing on the one side, reactionary irritability and ignorant posturing about “Western civilization” on the other.

“We think that having new perspectives in the field will make the field better,” Josh Billings, the classics department’s director of undergraduate studies, told the Princeton Alumni Weekly. “Having people who come in who might not have studied classics in high school and might not have had a previous exposure to Greek and Latin, we think that having those students in the department will make it a more vibrant intellectual community.” 

Billings was being tactful. Departmental funding is allocated based on undergraduate enrollments in a given department’s major. More vibrant intellectual community, indeed. But there is another point that Billings elides—and who can blame him? The department’s decision does not in fact change the conditions of the field in a fundamental way. A student who wishes to become an academic classicist will still generally be expected to have Latin and Greek. I invite the reader to check the requirements of classics graduate programs as an exercise.

It is true that something is truly wrong here, but the problem lies deeper than college study requirements. The Princeton affair is a recognition of the collapse of classical language instruction at the secondary level, which was never so established in this country as it was in Europe. There are simply not enough students who have training in the languages to feed college programs. In the mid-1930s, Latin enrollments in high school encompassed nearly nine hundred thousand students; a survey in 2017 found that roughly two hundred ten thousand students study Latin, while over seven million study Spanish. This is an improvement in absolute numbers from the nadir of Latin education in the mid-1970s, when enrollment dipped to one hundred fifty thousand—but there are four million more high-school students today than there were in 1978. And the figures for Greek education are still fewer than one thousand high school students enrolled nationwide, according to federal statistics.

The champions of classical studies have made various attempts to revive the ancient languages’ fortunes. When I was in high school, much was made about the alleged benefits of Latin and Greek study for S.A.T. performance; similar appeals have been made to the number of classics majors who score well on pre-med and pre-law entrance exams. The correlations do not tend to fare well when other demographic factors are considered—which is to say, the best secondary classics programs in the country tend to be in expensive private prep schools. Attempts to measure the utility of classical language study tend to measure the utility of being rich and well-born.

A friend recently showed me a different approach: a lesson plan from the internet that involved the creation of novel Latin gender-neutral animate pronouns. An interesting adventure in inculturation, but not exactly a compelling argument for the value of the hopelessly backward literature of Cicero and Caesar, who limit themselves to the old familiar is, ea, id. It’s also a left-handed concession to the Bronze Age Pervert crowd, almost as good as confessing that these artifacts are the domain of oppression, racism, and sexism after all. 

The truth is that none of the classics’ loudest defenders seem to know why they are worthy of study. A nearby parish touts its school as a Christian classical academy, joining two things—Christianity and classical civilization—that are famously at odds about such trivialities as the inherent worth of the human individual, the nature of the divinity or divinities, the merits of pederasty, and whether ritualized murder in an arena is an acceptable form of entertainment. The school’s namesake, Saint Jerome, famously agonized over a rebuke in a dream: Ciceronianus es, non Christianus. A yeshiva might as well advertise its Jewish Canaanite education.

But at least Latin is the language of the Church, some will argue. (Greek tends to take the back seat in these conversations, at least among Latin Catholics.) A sympathetic effort, but one that has its own problems: not least the Second Vatican Council and its consequences—especially the New Mass—but also that disruptive event’s intellectual antecedents.

Nicholas Ostler has argued that the declension of classical learning is in fact a symptom of its success. The giants of the humanist era grew too zealous in their adherence to classical literary standards. The rough and hardy medieval Latin register, a living academic language that was long on neologisms and short on Ciceronian periods, was pruned down to a sterile imitation of ancient models. What’s left is a pretty museum piece, but it’s difficult to use—how can a schoolman do without such linguistic “novelties” as essentia or ecclesia and other “impurities”? 

This spirit among learned churchmen led to the revised hymnal of Urban VIII and disastrous baroque experiments in breviary reform, and ultimately culminated in the twentieth century’s classicizing Bea Psalter. A question-begging enterprise: How can Latin be the traditional language of the Church if we decide the Latin of the ancient Gallican and Hieronyman psalters isn’t up to scratch? Archeology and modernism go hand-in-hand, and leave the specifically “Catholic” arguments for Latin pedagogy crippled. And, curiously, Catholics are hesitant to pick up the old Protestant arguments for a more robust Greek education.

Of course, the classics are worthy of study. “Originating and decaying refer back to the place whence they come,” Heidegger wryly states in his study of Anaximander, speaking both of a fragment’s content and his own engagement with it. Western thought begins not with Christ or Saint Paul, who are foreigners and newcomers, but with Homer. To understand how we have been directed into this era of twilight, and how Christians especially find themselves strangers among the other children of the evening, we must think the directing thoughts of the ancients—and while their speech may not be sufficient for thinking their thoughts, it is certainly necessary. The collapse of widespread classical study in fact threatens to make it impossible to understand the collapse of widespread classical study, and the collapse of many other things besides.

With this dire calamity before us, what can be done? And what other material conditions arise and self-complicate before us? For the collapse affects many measurable, concrete things besides department enrollments that all conspire to draw the study of the ancients into ever-smaller and more rarefied circles.

Perhaps the most pertinent example is publishing. The affordable edition of classics is nearly a lost art. I own several Teubner editiones minores of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, looted from de-accession piles at various smaller libraries at my college. It is not an exaggeration to say the quality of binding is terrible—thin cardboard covers, flimsy spines. But they are light, pocket-sized octavos available at eminently affordable prices: an 1874 British catalogue advertises new volumes at two shillings to three shillings apiece, just a few modern dollars. 

And, famously, these were not considered scholarly editions; the house published the apparatus-less editiones minores until after the First World War. Eduard Fraenkel recounted his embarrassment at a professor’s mild rebuke of him for reading a Teubner Aristophanes, which would be a bit like a modern English language graduate student admitting he had read Paradise Lost only as a free Kindle book: “I looked down at the grass and had a single overwhelming sensation: νῦν μοι χάνοι εὐρεῖα χθών.”

But they were readable, reasonably accurate, and cost the equivalent of a modern Dover Thrift paperback—a product for a truly broad audience. For the modern reader, the choice is to buy a critical edition (overkill, and often too dear for the impoverished student) or a bilingual Loeb “pony” (overkill in a different way, and also often too dear). Or try your luck with other more dubious options.

In 2017, I bought an edition of Augustine’s Confessions put out by a small Midwestern Catholic imprint, Mediatrix Press. I wanted a single-volume text, I did not want a pony, I did not want an illegible print-on-demand photocopy of a century-old library book, and I did not want to shell out fifty dollars for O’Donnell’s Oxford critical edition. At fifteen dollars, the Mediatrix volume seemed to fit the bill. The text was based on Migne’s—outdated, but serviceable for a casual reader.

The editor’s Latin prescript contained five true solecisms—not typographic errors, but actual mistakes—in its very first sentence. The first paragraph of Augustine’s text itself had two errors, including an insertion. I left an unkind review on Amazon and resentfully bought the Oxford edition. To Mediatrix Press’s credit, they no longer include Augustine in their catalogue.

The problem is both supply-side and demand-side. The public does not provide a market for cheap, accurate editions of the ancients, and cannot provide individuals who can perform even basic copyediting on such editions. Rumor holds the decay has crept even into the scholarly presses. (Go into a faculty lounge, find the oldest and most German classics professor, and ask about the quality of copyediting at the Oxford and Cambridge presses these days.)

This is all to say, the discipline’s underlying problem—a public that is no longer trained to appreciate the classics and has no sense that it ought to do—causes difficulties not only at Princeton but in publishing, and aggravates the already hostile conditions.

So to return to our question: What is to be done? What efforts can be made to save the dawn of thinking from the irretrievable past?

The Paideia Institute, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to fostering the study of the classics and especially immersion-style classical pedagogy, has stepped into this odd void with a new series of textbooks. The Dolphin Editions are based directly on the pedagogical texts of unadapted classical works assembled under the auspices of Louis XIV ad usum Delphini—“for the use of the Dauphin,” whose affinity for classical studies was weak. The editions, with minor changes, were introduced to the Anglophone world in the nineteenth century through the efforts of the London publisher A. J. Valpy as “Delphin Classics.” These editions printed classical authors alongside glosses of difficult words and passages, useful comments from grammarians and scholiasts, and simplified prose summaries of the action or argument of a given section.

The benefits of such texts are self-evident. The goal is to improve the student’s Latin the way modern language instruction improves his French, rather than to provide a facility in using English crutches. All the more so if we, like Heidegger, “insist on thinking Greek thought in Greek fashion.” And Latin thought as well, it might be added.

The two inaugural volumes in Paideia’s series are selections from the Aeneid—specifically those mandated for the College Board’s Latin Advanced Placement exam—and the first book of the Iliad. Orienting the Aeneid volume toward the A.P. curriculum is an understandable choice catering to the needs of teachers of actually existing courses, but the Latin exam has been in flux for a decade, and one wonders how soon a revision will be necessary. As the series grows, one hopes that a full treatment of the Aeneid will be in the offing, obviating the whims of the College Board.

Valpy’s outdated apparatus has been done away with. This deletion cuts two ways. On the one hand, a teacher may well wish to avoid giving the smart but lazy student occasions to cherry-pick easier readings and sow chaos in the classroom. On the other, textual criticism is a philological sub-discipline in precipitous decline, and I wonder whether this is a missed opportunity to introduce the student to its problems and subtle pleasures. 

The notes improve on the old Delphin Classics. The apparently irregular conubio of Aen. I.73 is noted in Valpy’s edition; the note in Paideia’s adds that the generally accepted solution, the pronunciation of the -io into a single syllable, is termed synizesis. This sort of addition recommends the text to high-school teachers who are attempting to replace Pharr, the standard textbook for the rhetorical trivia-obsessed Advanced Placement exam. (I would note that the Paideia edition appears to draw inspiration from Pharr in other places, despite its absence from named sources. An otiose and somewhat inelegantly written note regarding the danger of torches appears to originate in Pharr.) The first hemistych—unfinished line—is accompanied by an explanatory note and a relevant excerpt from the grammarian Donatus. The prose arguments are grammatically simplified from those found in the Valpy—syntactical structures are split, verbal voice is changed, or pleonasms are introduced for the sake of simplicity and clarity.

The Aeneid follows the Oxford Classical Text of Mynors. A slight inconsistency appears in the latter half: in three places, -ēs is given for the manuscript tradition’s accusative -īs, an ultimately unhelpful simplifying practice that Pharr uses throughout. Otherwise, it appeared free from error (or “emendation”) on my reading.

The Iliad volume is a more impressive undertaking. Interpretive notes are drawn from the two largest collections of scholia, from Porphyry, and from Eustathius of Thessalonica; the prose paraphrases are taken from Michael Psellos and Theodore Gaza. It is hard to imagine a more exciting tool for teaching students to start “thinking Greek thought in the Greek fashion.” As in the Aeneid volume, there are no glaring typographic errors in Homer’s text itself—the editors favor some readings that differ from West’s Teubner edition, but nothing that is unprecedented or unduly complicated. 

They are affordable: twenty dollars list price. No small virtue in the small pool of target-language classical textbooks. Entries in the best-regarded Latin immersion series, Orberg’s Lingua Latina, run to forty dollars new. The popular English-glossed school texts for the Iliad—Bennett and Draper—sit roughly at thirty dollars each, as does MacLennan’s school text of the first book of the Aeneid. This is a rather tricky price point for the motley collection of homeschoolers and Catholic traditionalists who would be interested in such a thing. (A surprisingly influential market: the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Libary’s most successful volume by sales is Alamar of Metz’s commentary on the rubrics of the Mass, lifted above its fellows on the shoulders of liturgical hobbyists.) 

While the volumes’ design is generally attractive, the success of the uncredited original charcoal illustrations is questionable. Some of the sketches are admirable—the rendition of the storm engulfing Aeneas’ ship is particularly striking—but to this reviewer’s eyes others are less well executed. Their unframed gauziness sits poorly with the formal layout of the text and compares unfavorably to the formal historical prints and reproductions of vase paintings in the “Ars Artis Gratia” information boxes. The binding is cheap, but not more so than any other paperback textbook. On the whole, these books are satisfactory products.

When I was in college, Paideia was best known for its popular and well-regarded immersion programs, which competed with more austere classes such as those at the Accademia Vivarium Novum in Frascati. But there are a limited number of students who can attend such programs, especially from the populations referred to above that have a natural investment in Paideia’s projects. The Dolphin Editions show promise in spreading a more robust Latinity and Hellenism to those with the will but without the tools.

Ours is an age of decay—but seeds can be planted that may overwinter. Heidegger’s exultant question in the Anaximander study again comes to mind:

Do we confront the evening of a night which heralds another dawn? Are we to strike off on a journey to this historic region of earth’s evening? Is the land of evening [das Abendland] only now emerging? Will this land of evening overwhelm Occident and Orient alike, transcending whatever is merely European to become the location of a new, more primordially fated history?

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