Book Review: The Devil Knows Latin

The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition. By E. Christian Kopff. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2001. Paper. 327 pages.Click here.

I had always heard of Kopff’s Devil Knows Latin but never read it. Homeschoolers have been raving about it, and also the “classical Lutheran” types; so when I learned that a summer Greek student possessed the book and would lend it to me, I read it through—ravenously! This is a great read and well worth the time. It is not a scholarly piece but rather a series of essays strung together under three partes that comprise the bulk of the book:

I. Civilization as Narrative

II. The Good, the Bad, and the Postmodern

III. Contemporary Chronicles: Role Models and Popular Culture

Then there is an Epilogue (Optatives and Imperatives for the Next Millennium, 289–98), an Appendix (Doing it on your Own, 299–313), and a subject Index (315–27). The first three parts contain as many as nine chapters apiece, each just as creatively titled. Regarding the title of the book itself Kopff relates that one Ronald Knox, a “wise and witty Catholic priest,” refused to perform a baptism in the vernacular because “the baby does not understand English and the Devil knows Latin” (xv). Allowing Latin, and indeed Classics, to have its way with one is Kopff’s cure-all to nearly everything wrong with America in 2001, the dawn of the new millennium. Obviously, the problems Kopff identified thirteen years ago have not gone away but only intensified; hence, I often found myself thinking that Kopff either should update the book considerably or (better) write a sequel; there’s much more cause for alarm now, and Kopff has had opportunity to think through the issues some more. Plus he’s in complete command not only of the Classics canon and scholarship but ever-evolving modernity and even pop culture. So get cracking on this project, Dr. Kopff: write another book. Soon!

I am unable to comment on everything here, and the true joy of Devil Knows Latin is not simply Kopff’s ideas, such as they are, but the dash with which he presents them. Nevertheless, something approaching a theme appears in chapter one (“Tradition and the Lunatics,” 3–10). In G.K. Chesterton’s The Poet and the Lunatics, a fictional character Gabriel Gale meets a brilliant scientist bent on “emancipating” gold fish from their bowl by blowing up his house. “Brilliant” that scientist was, but also a complete fool. In a similar vein, Nietzsche argued that a man who did not diverge from tradition was enslaved thereby, whereas Aristotle maintained that to live by one’s country’s way of life is not slavery but salvation. So this is the problem Kopff takes on: too many intellectuals thinking they can free themselves from the trammels of tradition in religion, science, art, and politics in order to attain “fulfillment” (whatever that may be):

Fulfillment, in their eyes, comes to those who have rejected the past, the handed-down, the socially constructed, in order to enter into a reality that is individualistic, innovative, and free. There is nothing innovative and free, however, in flopping about on a table in a pool of water. (4)

On the contrary, tradition represents the life-force of any society in the civilized world—even in America where everything is typically scrutinized, and then rejected for being old-fashioned, long-established, prescribed, and predictable (horrors!). Kopff maintains, however, that tradition is an indispensable part of normal and healthy reality. Language, for example, is one such tradition “handed down” by elders to their juniors and then taught to succeeding generations, more or less successfully. So is doctrine in a major world religion like Christianity, but also long-held customs associated with science, history, self-rule, music, educating the young, and the like. If I may be permitted to apply such thinking to my own situation, I want my beginning Greek students simply to know the material “inside and out” and not think about it too much—especially at first, in the initial stages. Students need to turn off their ever-present cell phones and recording devices and learn to take thorough notes, preferably with pen and paper. They need to develop their sorely lacking capacities for memory and also learn how to use successfully such hefty and out-of-date tomes as Moulton and Geden’s Concordance to the Greek Testament (T. & T. Clark, 1897) and BDAG (Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian LiteratureChicago, 2000). In short, the technological “revolution” does not necessarily help ministerial students to be better scholars, teachers of the faith, or Gospel proclaimers, but such appurtenances may actually stand in the way. Well did Horace opine millennia ago, odi apparatus Persicos (“I hate Persian apparatus”). But that’s just my opinion, and I am frequently overruled by my betters.

Still, I find my curmudgeonly thinking mirrored often in the pages of Devil Knows Latin. For example, in chapter 3 (“Back to the Future,” 33–41) Kopff points out that so many amazing innovations come about when a society such as ours goes back to the well-springs of civilization, back to the basics, back to the original appearance of an already old idea, etc. Such happened, for example, in Periclean Athens whose poets and playwrights looked back to distant Mycenaean times (1400–1150 BC), in Augustan Rome whose leading men looked back to the hoary Republic (508 BC), in Renaissance Italy whose painters, sculptors, architects, and intellectuals looked back to the glories of Greece and Rome, and in Luther’s Wittenberg whose reformers looked back to Sacred Scripture and the fathers of the church. Time and again, the apparently “backward” travelers in fact forge ahead into uncharted territory, sometimes dramatically so. So shall America, venturing into space, that “final frontier” (Star Trek), now look back to Christopher Columbus (AD 1492), the ancient Greek mariners who founded Naxos in Sicily (734 BC), or even prehistoric Britain. Such thinking really makes one’s head spin. But Kopff’s amazing book brings such possibilities to life, with deep implications also for Lutheran Christians, the church, and any civilized person.

Another theme emerges in chapter fourteen (“Passion and Pedantry,” 161–70) where Kopff contrasts the “last Silver Age of Western civilization” (the late nineteenth-century liberal culture that ended in World War I) with post-war cynicism, despair, and brutality. There were three British classicists who spanned both halves of this critical time: A.E. Housman, Sir James Frazer (of Golden Bough fame), and Gilbert Murray, each an ardent attacker of Christianity. However, in light of the horrors of WWI and the loss of innocence there, each pedant had opportunity to rethink their earlier confidence in the apparently infinite capabilities of late nineteenth-century optimism, even though none of them repented for forsaking the faith. Nevertheless, each came to realize—soberly—that the late nineteenth-century fascination with limitless “progress” was nothing but a bogey that could not last:

The future seemed so bright in the days before the Great War. We at the end of the twentieth century cannot imagine the optimism at the century’s inception, when Housman, Frazer, and Murray were in their prime. The force of liberal public opinion, in Yeat’s words, made “old wrong melt down, as if it were wax in the sun’s rays.” “O but we dreamed to men whatever mischief seemed to afflict mankind”—superstition, hard liquor, and the German emperor. If people would only turn away from revelational religion and devote themselves to ethics and science, the world would soon be perfect. Yeats, however, saw things differently. “We fed the heart on fantasies,” he wrote. “The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” Housman, too, was skeptical about the future, but even he never dreamed what nightmares were in store for a Europe that so easily gave up its Christian heritage. Gilbert Murray and J.G. Frazer were completely caught by surprise. (168–69)

Again, could civilized society be in a more precarious strait than it is right now? Consider: the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the Mideast, the acceptance of homosexual “marriage” at home, rampant abortion and euthanasia, a severe contraction or even disappearance of Christianity everywhere in the world, increasing taxes, shrinking paychecks, and the axing of Latin, Greek, and Classics from liberal arts curricula in American universities, etc. But here’s the point: the problems Kopff identifies in Devil Knows Latin have only intensified since 2001, though several times he points out that any “civilization” worth having is grounded in the traditional family, honorable work, community, and religion: “To feel these things as alien, as many film people do [Kopff has been writing about such movies as Nine to Five, Deliverance, and Witness] is to hate the human” (234). Kopff, a rare conservative at one of the bastions of left-leaning academia (the University of Colorado, Boulder) is well aware of tradition’s loss: “The likely result of the attempt to abolish religion will be that our personal lives will be racked by meaninglessness and violence, a plight eased only by escape into drugs and pornography; and our country will disintegrate into lawlessness, tyranny, and ruin” (62).

Bingo! Is not such happening everywhere nowadays? And in manner far more apparent ways than even Kopff knew in 2001.

If such is the problem, Kopff’s solution—quite simply—must be the cry ad fontes: back to Latin, back to orthodox, creedal, and confessional Christianity, back to the Classics. I am paraphrasing, of course, but such seems to be Kopff’s point all the way through, including in those other chapters I cannot review here. If Kopff misses anything, perhaps it is the sense that the light of classical civilization (compare the light of the Gospel) blazes all the more brightly the darker it gets, the more hopeless things become: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5 ESV). That is to say, the gathering gloom, the mounting perversity, the increasing savagery, brutality, and insanity one sees everywhere in mundo offer huge opportunities for Classics (as a discipline) and for the una sancta and her Lord Jesus Christ who has overcome the world (John 16:33). Part of the problem with Classics in its current state is that it shows off its erudition to other specialists in dying programs the world over rather than serving the people it could help most: those learning Latin and Greek for the first time, Classical Mythology students, pastors preaching from the Greek New Testament in tiny congregations, parents homeschooling their kids, etc.

As a matter of fact, if you want to come to a place where Classics and Lutheran theology are really engaged with one another, and cross-pollinating, consider the third Lutheranism & the Classics conference to be convened at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, on 2–3 October 2014 (for more information, and to register, go here: Our overall theme shall be “Lutherans Read History.” I wish I could say that Dr. Kopff will be at the conference—but, alas, he cannot attend this time. Nevertheless, Dr. Paul Maier (of Skeleton in God’s Closet fame) will be there, as well as Drs. Cameron MacKenzie, Robert Christman (plenary speakers), Dr. Peter Scaer (banquet speaker), and a host of Lutheran classicists too many to mention (there are thirty additional sectional presenters). Mr. Brandon Booth (Worldview Academy) shall be holding forth for the “classical Lutheran” crowd, and doubtless many more who have appreciated Kopff’s Devil Knows Latin. The Lutheran beverage shall flow in abundance, and Latin sung at three separate chapel services: spero fore ut vos omnes etiam videam!

John G. Nordling

Department of Exegetical Theology

Concordia Theological Seminary

Fort Wayne, IN

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