Non Homo Insula Est


No man is an island. The famous words of John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s in London. Written in English, translated here into Latin.

Why Latin? A cloud of celebrities ranging from Joanna Lumley, a native of Kashmir, to Boris Johnson, former MP for Henley-on Thames, has recently been gathered in support of the proposition that Latin should again be taught in schools. Presumably in those areas that still have grammar schools it still is. For what good would be a grammar school that eschewed Latin grammar?

If Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, complete with its laboured mis-labelling to the locative case, comes to mind most vividly for those who learnt Latin at their alma mater’s knee then a pause for thought is needed. From the traditional date of Rome’s foundation in 753 BC to the end of the western empire in 476 AD is 1,229 years. The post-Roman afterlife of Latin to the present is 1,534 years and it is not an uneventful tale. Textbooks are largely silent about what remained the international language of churchmen, scholars, scientists and diplomats until modern times. We know a 17th century Swedish king as Gustavus Adolphus because news of his actions travelled in Latin. So too did those of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Columbus and Erasmus, Copernicus and Linnaeus. We know the Chinese sage K’ung-fu-tzu as Confucius and the emperors of India and Russia by the name of a Roman assassinated over two thousand years ago (and who probably spoke Greek when he really wanted to impress). Et tu, Brute? Kai su, teknon!

For a Europe that needed to communicate with itself, Latin long ago became the earliest Esperanto. French eventually displaced it as the language of diplomacy, German as the language of science, and English ultimately as the language of everything, but until nationalism made neutrality a nasty word, Latin reigned supreme. The Kingdom of Hungary, the multi-lingual melting-pot of the Carpathian basin, insisted that Parliamentary debates were conducted in Latin as late as 1847. Some thirty years ago, an attempt was made to use Latin on the floor of the European Parliament but the speaker was ruled out of order. The Parliament has 23 official languages but Latin is not one of them. Those who believe the EU to be more super-state than club of nation-states might reflect on that lack of a language that transcends borders.

No-one knew the value of Latin like King Alfred the Great. His biographer, the Welshman Asser, records that, although Alfred had visited Rome as a child, he did not learn the language until he was nearly 40. His motivation was to partake personally in the revival of learning that he launched after securing the kingdom against further attack. Today, among mainstream English nationalists, it is fashionable to argue the uniqueness of Englishness, to decry any hint of cultural impurity. Not so for Alfred, who looked to Mediterranean civilisation for his model and cultivated links with lands even further afield. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, begun in Alfred’s reign, is written in English, not in Latin. An early case of ‘up yours, Delors’? Far from it. The choice was imposed on Alfred by a dearth of Latin scholars in Wessex. In the terms of the time it was a sign not of cultural strength but of abject cultural weakness.

Wessex has been subject to many influences down the centuries, Celtic and Nordic, Latin and Greek, African and Asian. All lasting impressions deserve study because they aid understanding of who we are. Can our encounter with Latin provide us with pointers to the future, lessons about how we view our place in time and space and thought?

The first conclusion must be that the past is rarely as dead as current fashions dictate. A glance around Europe will identify nations and regions long suppressed and now firmly back in business, their languages spoken and written again, their flags flying from the citadels of the former dominant power. From Ypres to Warsaw, Berlin to Budapest, monuments and cities blasted to rubble have been painstakingly reconstructed just as they were. Catalans are ruled by their Generalitat, a name dredged up from early in the 18th century. Scotland’s Parliament was re-convened in 1999 with words that connected to its last sitting in 1707. On our own patch, those who feared we might never again hear the phrase ‘Bath, in Somerset’ have been proved wrong. For those who claim that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, it’s worth noting that even Alfred, when he set about his revival of learning, was inspired to re-create the splendours of the later 7th century, when Wessex enjoyed its first Golden Age under the guidance of King Ine and St Aldhelm. Whether the history around us is cherished for the richness it gives to our lives, or wiped out as an affront to ‘progress’, is a matter of will. The belief of progressives, that policy must, like time, be ever advancing, is a belief that can admit neither to ignorance of superior knowledge from another era nor to the mistakes that result. At best the mistakes go uncorrected; at worst, history repeats itself in ways that are unexpected and unwelcome.

The second conclusion is that insularity cuts us off from part of ourselves. Nationalism, conceived of as a fortress, politically, culturally, economically, is not the way to go. In Shakespeare’s day, the moat defensive against the envy of less happier lands made sense. But it came at a cost, both in terms of autonomy denied within and fraternity denied without. Regionalism recognises that everywhere is a region of something else, in a world composed of communities within communities. Like fractal images, one nests within another, from the parish to the planet, and each has its place, its call upon our loyalty, as individuals and collectively, and in their defence we find meaning and solidarity.

The third conclusion is that the informed intellect can be a vital tool in carving out a new politics. Wessex must be vigilant in defence of its folk culture – including aspects of mass popular culture that stem from Wessex roots – but need not therefore reject high culture as foreign to its nature as a region. It must find a proper place too for those whose concerns are more material than cultural. For Alfred, society was composed of praying men, fighting men and working men. As a party, our equivalents are thinkers, activists and donors. All three are needed and we need more of all three.

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