Monsignor Ronald Knox, when asked to conduct a baptismal service in the English language, replied that the Devil knew Latin, thus supplying a title for this lively, informative, and intelligent book. Many of its chapters have already appeared in periodicals, particularly Chronicles and Academic Questions. But five of them have been made by the addition of four new chapters to form a more or less organic whole, which is the book’s first section, entitled “Civilization as Narrative.” The second section, containing six miscellaneous chapters, is called “The Good, the Bad, and the Postmodern.” The third section, “Contemporary Chronicles: Role Models and Popular Culture,” contains seven such chapters, of which two are new. Also new are an epilogue, called “Optatixes and Imperatives for the Next Millennium” and an appendix, called “Doing It On Your Own.” The most important parts of the book are the first section, the epilogue, and the appendix.

The first section offers an intelligent, well-written, and well-informed account of the importance of classical studies and the reasons why their disappearance would be disastrous. Ignorance of the past history of our culture would mean a decline into barbarism. Neither Christianity nor Western philosophy and science can be fully understood without a knowledge of their origins. Kopff shows why a program based on “Great Books” in translation cannot be a wholly satisfactory substitute for one in which some of them are studied in their original languages. Of course, it is desirable to know as many languages and as many cultures as one can; but for most people the possibility of learning is limited, and the languages that help us most to understand the culture within whose domain we live are Greek and Latin, and next the modern European languages. Referring to Carl J. Richard’s important book The Founders and the Classics, Kopff shows that the origin of the United States cannot be fully understood without awareness of its special relation to Creek and Roman antiquity.

Kopff casts a critical eve upon the abiding influence of the Enlightenment. With reference to the work of Hayek, he shows how easily that influence leads to dangerously sweeping generalizations, such as a belief that free trade is in all circumstances a good thing. In particular, he finds fault with the influence of Rousseau, especially in the matter of education. That influence can be seen in the harmful theorizing of people like John Dewey: because of their prejudice against Memory, who—as the Greeks knew—is the mother of the Muses, the years when a child’s aptitude for learning languages is strongest are wasted in an attempt to teach him other things which are more easily learned when at a more advanced age. This, together with the effect of various elements of the popular culture—especially television —is responsible for the distressing ignorance of college freshmen which, in recent years, few teachers can have failed to notice.

In a chapter headed “The Ghost Dance: Liberalism in Crisis,” Kopff remarks that “liberalism is drowning in cultural relativism.” He strongly argues for this view, with reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s two important books After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and in a chapter in file second part of the book, he deals effectively with “postmodernism” and “deconstruction,” illustrating the point by describing the disgusting career of Paul de Man. MacIntyre, he says, “sees no hope of restoring genuine ethics in the tradition of Whig conservatism, which begins with Burke and is now represented by the Neo-Conservatives and other liberals who call themselves ‘conservatives.'” MacIntyre himself has joined the Church of Rome, but one can oppose relativism without being a Christian, and it can hardly be denied that others are effectively combating relativism from a standpoint not very far from that of Burke.

In an interesting chapter on “The Classics and the Liberal Arts,” Kopff refers not only to E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy but to the Theory of Education in the United States of Albert Jay Nock. In a brief but useful sketch of the history of classical studies in this country, he mentions the unfortunate fact that the first volume of an edition of the Vergilian commentator Servius brought out by a team of Harvard scholars in 1946 was shown by a great European expert to be wholly inadequate. That does not alter the fact that the American contribution to classical studies during the second half of the 20th century has been considerable; indeed, in recent times, the edition of Servius has been resumed by far more competent editors. But Kopff is surely right to draw attention to some of its limitations. These are much in evidence in the dreary rubbish based on modern literary theories by politically correct persons positively infected with the diseases spread by such gurus as Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes. These fashions will pass, and indeed it is already clear that many students are bored stiff with them; but a more permanent limiting factor is the fact that so many students begin the study of ancient languages so late. One remembers with regret that the modern school established by George Bancroft and Joseph Cogswell at Round Point (near Northampton, Massachusetts) during the 1920’s in order to remedy this and other such deficiencies did not survive. If even a few more schools of this kind could be established, there would be more American classicists who knew Greek and Latin really well.

The essays in the later part of the book are of somewhat uneven quality. Those which deal with popular culture, particularly films, are for the most part beyond the scope of this reviewer. In a chapter headed “Passion and Pedantry,” Kopff singles out A.E. Housman, Sir James Frazer, and Gilbert Murray as classical scholars whose names were well known to the general public; his main concern seems to be to reprove them for not having been Christians. “Feminists in classics,” he tells us, speaking of Housman, “boast that no similar figure could survive today”: Would they tear him to pieces as the Maenads did Orpheus? One chapter is devoted to the pioneer bluestocking Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), who is given respectful attention; one misses a mention of the story that she once declared that she had decided to accept the universe, causing Carlyle to exclaim, “By God, she’d better!” Another chapter is devoted to the Scottish classical scholar and poet Douglas Young, who ended his career at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Kopff and Thomas Fleming were the two pupils of whom he was most proud. Young was a friend to whom I was greatly attached, and I read with much interest Kopff’s account of how he was twice imprisoned for resisting conscription on the ground of his determined Scottish nationalism. That was one of the reasons that prevented him from getting a chair in Scotland, as I discovered when I spoke on his behalf But despite his great energy, liveliness, and charm, his scholarship had faults, including a streak of silliness which, though endearing, was also disabling; in his generous affection for his former teacher, Kopff seems to me to overrate its quality.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is entitled “Scholarship and Bricolage,” which reproduces a review (which appeared in the April 1996 Chronicles) of the very important book Shame and Necessity by the distinguished philosopher Bernard Williams. In that book, Williams argues that the ethics of early Greece, before the time of Plato, have much to teach us. Kopff strongly approves of Williams’ rejection of what he calls “progressivism,” the belief that the passage of time is accompanied by a steady moral progress, and of the notion that Greek culture evolved from being a primitive “shame culture” to being a more advanced “guilt culture.” Thus he agrees with Williams’ polemic against philosophers who, like the neo-Kantian John Rawls, separate moral judgment from social context and historical contingency. But he complains that Williams ends up on the same side as Kant in their common mission of salvaging the Enlightenment. With this, he contrasts the attitude of MacIntyre, who has “understood that the rejection of Kant means the rejection of the Enlightenment, and of the liberal regime.” Indeed Williams, like Nietzsche, whose sympathy with early Greek ethics had an important influence on his work, does not hold that ethical beliefs should be sanctioned by religion. But though the ancient Greeks were not Christians, they had a religion, and Zeus, their principal god, although the workings of his justice were difficult for humans to discern, was thought to punish the crimes of men. The importance of this element in early Greek ethical attitudes should not be forgotten, as I argued in my book The Justice of Zeus.

In the epilogue, Kopff offers some very noteworthy suggestions for educational reform. He would simplify the elementary school curriculum so as to concentrate on languages and mathematics; he would take certification away from the schools of education; and he believes that American churches should begin to teach the sacred tongues: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. It is refreshing to find an American who has no faith in schools of education, but holds that those who have it in them to teach well will learn to do so by observing good teachers.

The appendix, entitled “Doing It On Your Own,” contains information that will be greatly valuable to people who set out to teach themselves Greek and Latin. I know some people who, though they started late in life, have done this with considerable success.

Let us hope that, when this very valuable book appears in paperback, it will have an index, which would appreciably increase its value.


[The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition, by E. Christian Kopff (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 313 pp., $24.95]