The Shortcut to Scholastic Latin, by Dylan Schrader. New York: Paideia Press, 2019. 68 pp., $14.99.
Dum quaerimus quaestiones expedire difficiliores fortassis incurrimus controversias; et dum quosdam dissolvimus nodos, aliis fortioribus nos alligamus.
“When we seek to resolve questions, perhaps we run into more difficult controversies. And when we untangle certain knots, we end up tying ourselves up in even stronger ones.” These words of Peter Abelard (from his Theologia Summi Boni) likely resonate with students of philosophy, theology, or history who engage Scholasticism for the first time.
For those not in the know, Scholasticism was a movement and a method common in medieval and early-modern Europe. As the universities developed, so too did the schoolmen’s customary manner of teaching and discussing questions. They were keen on stating questions, clarifying terms, and providing the best arguments back and forth, relying both on authority and on reason, to seek out and articulate the truth as best they could discover it. At the root of the Scholastic project is the conviction that the truth harmonizes with the truth and, therefore, that the insights of this or that authoritative source must fit together with what others have discovered. It was in large part the Latin language that allowed for easy exchange of ideas from place to place, and so Scholastic Latinity, a particular flavor of medieval Latin, grew up along with the schools it served.
Of course, it can be difficult to read the Scholastics because of the difference in world-view, the background knowledge required, and the subtlety of the subject matter itself. But, the peculiarities of Scholastic grammar and style can also prove a stumbling-block, even to those well-versed in Latin. In other words, the content can be difficult, but so can the presentation. Or, as the Scholastics would say, we need to grasp both the matter and the form. This book facilitates understanding of the latter.
The Shortcut to Scholastic Latin arose from two experiences: translating Scholastic texts and tutoring students in the same. After several years and hundreds of pages translated — not to mention thousands more read — I had encountered and fallen into many of the pitfalls of Scholastic idiom. At times, I felt as if spending so much time with the Scholastics had ruined me for classical prose. At others, I admired how the great thinkers of the past developed and used the Latin language to hash out their ideas with such fine precision.
To be sure, the Scholastics employ Latin as an instrument. Most of the beauty in their texts comes not from their often-prolix and sometimes pedantic compositions but from the concepts and connections they get across. There are exceptions, of course, such as sermons or the great Eucharistic hymns of Thomas Aquinas, in which poetry and academic precision harmonize to beauteous effect. What splendid expression — the kind of thing you know is untranslatable the moment you hear it. And, to think, the same language that united medieval Europe also has the power to convey that thought to us today. Scores of volumes line the shelves, and Latin is the key. I wanted more of my fellow theologians and students to unlock the treasure with me, but I realized that for many Latin remained an obstacle and not a bridge.
So, I got the idea to put together a little guide for those who know some Latin but are relatively inexperienced with Scholastic texts in the original. My goal was to make this guide as brief and friendly as possible and to base it in primary texts, to expose the newcomer to the structural elements and turns of phrase they would be likely to encounter by a manuductio through various authors. In short, I wanted to put together the kind of resource that would have helped me when I was starting out.
The Shortcut to Scholastic Latin does not take the beginner from zero to a hundred. It presupposes general Latin knowledge and basic knowledge of the subject matter that one plans to read. What it does do is remove pesky snags and stalls that could impede an otherwise pleasant journey. As the guide says right up front, there is no substitute for many hours of reading, writing, speaking, and listening to Latin, but why should these hours be spent figuring out that secundum quid means “in a certain respect” while secundum quod means “insofar as”?
I unapologetically admit that Shortcut has a few biases. One is that it focuses on theology and philosophy. Another is that it draws on Thomas Aquinas more than others. The reason is that, like myself, many of those wishing to read the Scholastics are theologians, philosophers, or students of these sciences and that Aquinas remains the most well-known of the Scholastics and a perennial touchstone for virtually any topic ever debated by the schools. It also helps that many, though not all, of Aquinas’s major works are available in translation, and so the reader will be able to check their comprehension more easily.
Shortcut begins by introducing the Scholastic milieu, proceeds by examining how the Scholastics use structure to facilitate the careful thinking-through of ideas, covers a few grammatical quirks and various turns of phrase, and then addresses foreign loan-words and coined words. Three authentic sample texts are given in Latin with English commentary, and a brief resource list points the reader to more detailed grammatical references and lexicons. My little guide doesn’t seek to reproduce any of these lengthier resources; it seeks to jump-start the engagement process and get the student reading Scholastic works as quickly as possible.
Latin is seeing a revival thanks to the efforts of groups like Paideia. Scholasticism, too, is reviving as more and more readers return ad fontes. What a pity if anyone were cut off from the great discussions of the schools by a strange expression or odd construction! A little courage is needed to dive into the world of Scholasticism, most of all in its original language, but I’ve heard that fortune favors the bold. Or, as Aquinas once said, Quantum potes, tantum aude!
For more information about The Shortcut to Scholastic Latin, or to order, click here.
Rev. Dylan Schrader is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri. He holds a PhD in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and is the translator of On the Motive of the Incarnation, the first in the Early Modern Catholic Sources series from CUA Press, as well as sections of Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences for the Aquinas Institute for Sacred Doctrine. In addition to theological articles, he has written on the importance of Latin for priests and seminarians.