The Software of Civilization
Éric Zemmour wants French students to learn Latin and Greek. We should want that for America, too.
The Greeks said that under the earth there dwelt an enormous serpent. It was a child of Gaea, born of the mud that was left behind as the waters of the Deucalion flood retreated from Mt. Parnassus. Its name was Python, and it dwelt in a cave there on the mountain—the very one, it was believed, in which the Delphic oracle made her utterances, seated above fumes from deep in the earth. And Python was slain by the god Apollo. According to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:
The python in reality represents the pestilential vapours rising from stagnant lakes and pools, which are dispersed by Apollo and his arrows—that is, the shafts of the sun. The old derivation (Homeric Hymn to Apollo, 571), according to which Delphi was originally called Pytho, because the slain serpent was left there to “rot” (πίθεσθαι), points to this explanation.
And so the place where Python died was sacred to the sun king.
Zemmour is right. Would that an American presidential candidate called for the standardization of Latin and Greek studies in the United States’ public education system. In 2024 perhaps one will. There was a time when this was assumed—as an aspiration and ideal at least, if not the rule in practice. Think of the classical training of the Continental Congress and the framers of our Constitution, or the pioneers and farmers who founded the constellations of liberal arts colleges that dot the Great Plains. To read a Harvard College entrance exam from 1869 is to cross a river into another land, one with an almost totally alien set of priorities and expectations for its ablest young men.
Schooling has always been understood to be an act of formation. Our public schools today, like any other school in any time or any place, are forming certain human types in the clay of students’ aptitudes and predilections. There is a civic ideal represented, consciously or unconsciously, in their curricula. This is why school board meetings and parent-teacher associations are the loci of so much recent politics. Public education is the attempt to form a public, to shape the minds and hearts of the nation’s children, and to produce some kind of citizen.
What has been forgotten about schooling—or deliberately and malignantly subverted—is that it is also an act of reception and transmission. Anointed on Christmas by Pope Leo III in A.D. 800, Charlemagne—patron of Alcuin and a rebirth of arts and letters, defender of Christendom from Islamic Iberia—brought the ancient South and its Biblical, Hellenic, and Romantic roots into fruitful union with the vigor of the North. When this king of the Franks became emperor of the Romans, he became Pater Europae, and Western Civilization was born. The classics, and their foundation in Latin and Greek, are our closest contact with that inheritance. Learning Latin and studying Greek make the past present, a line of continuity from Rome to Philadelphia.
Not all forget this. Whether renaissance or reformation, classical education in America is undergoing a revival, as seeds planted decades ago flourish and bear fruit. The Association of Classical Christian Schools seeks to repair the ruins of a crumbling Christendom, as does the Classical Latin School Association. Charter school initiatives such as the Great Hearts Academies and Hillsdale’s Barney Charter Schools and curriculum are putting Latin and a civilizational understanding of civic education back into publicly funded schools. Homeschooling families that hope to teach their children Latin and Greek and give them the cultural patrimony that produced the United States have in the work of publishers such as Memoria Press, Veritas Press, and the Classical Academic Press a growing bounty of resources to support their labors. In some ways, we wandered further from the old educational order than France, but Zemmour is not alone over here.
If learning Latin were only an exercise in grammar and logic and precision, a kind of intellectual architecture—and it is that in spades—then it could be replaced with learning to code. But the digital world of Python is one built atop an older one, not just the computer systems of ones and zeros, but hardware of flesh and bone and earth and stone that has run programs for thousands of years in the languages of the Apollo Belvedere and Notre-Dame Cathedral. For any civilization to survive, it must cultivate each successive generation, and its institutions and modes of education must select for those who grow best in its soil, tall and strong, hewing most tightly to its highest standards. A healthy civilization elevates those who have been most fully formed by, and come to love, all that it has to give them, and we should want our brightest and most ambitious to have to look to the past as they climb the social ladder. What Zemmour understands, and what we must, too, is that there will be plenty of time to code, but first students must learn to be French—or, indeed, Americans.