Beginning in the ninth grade, I took Latin each year in school until I graduated from high school, a total of four years. Apart from my classes in English, Latin was the single most influential subject I learned before college. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study it. My Latin teachers always seemed different from my other teachers. Part of this difference, it seems to me, was the product of their having pored over classical texts for so many years. It was as if they had internalized the wisdom of the authors they had read. At University, I would notice a similar quality in the professor from whom I learned Plato.
One of the great benefits of my years spent learning Latin was the enrichment of my vocabulary and the concomitant enhancement and enjoyment of reading. A glance at the following Origins of English pie chart illustrates why learning Latin helped expand my English vocabulary. Keep in mind that French is a Romance language, a child of Latin.
At least as significant as Latin’s impact was on my vocabulary were the effects of studying Roman history on my thinking. In class, we read Caesar, Cato, Cicero, Virgil, and others. Roman history first acquainted me with the idea of civic responsibility. One story, that of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, has stayed with me over the years. The Wikipedia article on this great Roman provides an excellent summary of his model of civic virtue:
Despite his old age, he worked his own small farm until an invasion prompted his fellow citizens to call for his leadership. He came from his plow to assume complete control over the state but, upon achieving a swift victory, relinquished his power and its perquisites and returned to his farm. His success and immediate resignation of his near-absolute authority with the end of this crisis (traditionally dated to 458 BC) has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, humility, and modesty.
Relinquished his power and returned to his farm! It’s hard to find examples from any time in history when a leader willingly gave up control.
In Exodus, chapter 10, verse 7, we read about a very different kind of ruler, Egypt’s Pharaoh: “And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him: ‘How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve HaShem their G-d, knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?'” (Exodus 10:7).
The man who the servants are calling a “snare” is Moses, a great leader in his own right. But the perplexing problem for Pharaoh’s servants is that their leader is totally out of touch with his people, with his country, appears to be ignorant of the destruction that has enveloped Egypt. So his servants plead with him to submit to Moses’ request, to allow the Hebrew men to leave, to permit them to go into the desert to worship their God. However, Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal stands, at least a little longer. His entire focus is on himself and his struggle with Moses. In Pharaoh’s mind, he is the center of the universe. He would not yield; he would not surrender to Moses. Why should he? His people, the Egyptians, have no role in his thinking. Later, we learn, he will change his mind; but the price he and his people pay will be horrific.
For many years, now, I have remembered something my mother read to me as a child. It made quite an impression. She had clipped it out of the local newspaper. It was titled “Gentle World,”¹ I believe. It was about a mother’s wishes concerning how the world should treat her son as he steps out, for the first time, from the security and love of his home. It also described the kind of man the mother hoped her child would become. Often, in the balagan of contemporary politics, I almost lose hope for the future. I look at our leaders and grow frightened for my children. But then I call to mind one especially memorable phrase from the article my mother read to me: For every crooked politician, there is a dedicated leader. She repeated this one to me often over the years!
I don’t know if the ratio is correct, that is, if, in reality, it is one to one. Far too often, it seems that the crooked politicians greatly outnumber the dedicated leaders. At times, I think that finding dedicated leaders is a lost cause. In spite of it all, however, I still believe those dedicated leaders are out there, somewhere. I only need to find them, and, when I do, to support them. Here’s a beautiful clip, delivered by the great Jimmy Stewart from the 1939 classic movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
So, what are you going to believe in? As a teenager, I read a book by the late American President, John F. Kennedy, titled Profiles in Courage. In the first chapter, President Kennedy wrote:
…these are the stories of the pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them—the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Maybe it’s time for me to give the book another read.
All the best,
¹Several different versions of “Gentle World” can be found online. The one closest to my memory of what my mother read can be found here.