Introducing Classical Languages
The typical philosophy student is unlikely to arrive at university with any great familiarity with Greek or Latin, although there may, of course, be exceptions. Some philosophy students may study the subject in combination with Classics and benefit from a formal introduction to these languages. However, it is probably fair to assume that the majority of philosophy students who study ancient philosophy have little or no knowledge of the languages in which ancient philosophical texts are written.
To what extent, if any, should the teacher of ancient philosophy address this issue? One school of thought assumes that exposure to, say, Greek within the context of a philosophy course will simply confuse and intimidate students who may well already be somewhat confused and intimidated. More and more publications in the field make use of transliteration as authors (or publishers?) assume that using the Greek alphabet will make their work inaccessible to a substantial number of potential readers. Some classical scholars working in the field lament this trend, but then follow it themselves.
I suggest that teachers of ancient philosophy should not be afraid to introduce their students to classical languages where it may be relevant to do so. At a minimum I propose that all students of ancient philosophy should be expected to learn, or at least become familiar, with the Greek alphabet. After all, if a student is capable enough to secure a university place and to write an essay on, say, Aristotles form-matter distinction, then they should have no difficulty in learning two dozen letters, many of which differ little from their English counterparts. A student who has mastered the Greek alphabet will be able to navigate through secondary literature that does not employ transliteration, will be less intimidated (and hopefully more curious) when they come across extended passages of Greek (in, say, Kirk, Raven, & Schofield or a Loeb volume), and will be able to use a lexicon to look up the occasional technical term. For those who might plan to continue at graduate level, such a rudimentary knowledge will at least form some foundation for the language skills that they will need to acquire in order to do graduate research.
It is hoped that those students who want to continue studying ancient philosophy will also want to learn more about the classical languages. An early exposure to the Greek alphabet will certainly be of benefit here. If some students do want to learn more it may be possible to direct them to a formal course in a Classics department, if there is one locally. However, even where there is, this would be a significant addition to the students workload, especially if taken in addition to a full compliment of philosophy courses. Perhaps a better alternative is to direct students to resources where they can learn more about Classical languages at their own pace and according to their own need and interest. There are a number of teach yourself books that are designed for private study; one recent volume that I would recommend is Peter Jones Learn Ancient Greek. This volume assumes no prior knowledge and covers a good amount of ground in twenty short chapters. One could even arrange an informal and optional course for those interested, taking a chapter a week during one academic year. As with many of these sorts of books, the volume also contains a summary of grammar and a basic vocabulary list, making it a useful basic reference work as well.
It is no doubt optimistic to expect that large numbers of philosophy students will want to learn ancient Greek in their spare time. But those who become particularly interested in ancient philosophy and want to pursue it further may well want to learn more about the languages in which ancient philosophical texts are written. My principal suggestion here is that students should at least be made aware of this as a possibility. One might be surprised by how many do express an interest.
I have focused here on Greek. This is not only because it is the dominant philosophical language of antiquity but also because it poses the most problems. Students do not need to transliterate Latin in order to be able to look up a technical term in a Latin dictionary, for instance. Again, I suggest that teachers should not be afraid of exposing students to Latin terminology where relevant and encouraging them to learn more about the language. So long as it is made clear that it is not a course requirement to learn these languages, then the whole process can remain motivated solely by curiosity and interest as these languages are first introduced.
By way of postscript, it is also worth noting that while a classics student may enjoy the study of ancient languages for its own sake, the ancient philosophy student may have a more instrumentalist approach. Here the latter may share something in common with students of the New Testament. Both the theology student reading the Gospels and the philosophy student reading Plato are not primarily linguists and probably approach the study of Greek as merely a means to an ends. Teachers of New Testament Greek have produced a number of resources for students of Greek whose principal academic concerns are not with the language itself. Indeed, some of the best online resources for Greek beginners have been produced with New Testament students in mind. Both teachers and students of ancient philosophy may benefit from consulting such material.
Link: Language Resources
Next Section: Bringing the Past to Life
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.