Let’s start with English. Because it is a largely uninflected language, the meaning of an English sentence is determined by word order: meaning runs in one direction. That one-directionality of meaning has implications for how we experience time. We English speakers tend to imagine ourselves moving rigidly in a single line, from the past through the present toward the future. By contrast, Latin is a highly inflected language, so the meaning of a sentence is determined not primarily by word order but by the endings of the words. In English “man bites dog” means something different from “dog bites man”—word order is everything. But in Latin, “vir mordet canem” means “man bites dog”—but so does “canem mordet vir” and “mordet vir canem.” Studying Latin suggests that structure and order are valuable not for their own sake, but for the way they engender freedom. The rigor of Latin’s system of inflection creates a certain liberty of word placement without sacrificing clarity of meaning. That frees up new possibilities for beauty in both poetry and prose. In Latin, as in Christian anthropology, law serves freedom, not the other way around.
Latin’s inflections also enable us to draw together the beginnings and endings of sentences in ways foreign to the experience of English speakers. So the first word and the last word of a complex Latin sentence may be joined together as subject and verb. If an English sentence is more like an arrow moving relentlessly through space, a Latin sentence is more like a set of nesting Russian dolls or a chiastic pattern of A B C D D’ C’ B’ A’. Reggie taught us to start translating in the middle and move to the edges. Nothing is left behind. Everything is gathered in and recapitulated, just like in salvation history. God wills to save us all together, not only the last bitter remnant of us.
In teaching his summer classes, Reggie didn’t merely teach us to translate Latin. He also encouraged us to think Latinly. By conducting the class in Latin, by repeating a sentence slowly so that we would absorb its packets of meaning, he reprogrammed our expectations of sentence patterns to loosen the vice grip of English linear progression. As I went through the summer program, I found that this linguistic reprogramming precipitated a corresponding theological reprogramming. It allowed me, for example, to understand better what Augustine meant in book XI of the Confessions when he said that unlike time, in which one possesses mere slivers of one’s being in succession, eternity was marked by possessing all of one’s being at once. Non autem praeterire quicquam in aeterno, sed totum esse praesens. An English sentence progresses like Augustine’s understanding of the parade of time, each word’s meaning succeeded and replaced by the next. In contrast, it’s easy to imagine a Latin sentence as a symbol of eternity, a bowl gently holding all its meaning together at once.
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