Of Greek, Latin, freedom and pleasure

The great Hellenist and member of the French Academy Jacqueline de Romilly wrote with Saint-Exupéry that knowing how to express oneself exactly, and therefore to think by oneself, and thus avoid the deceptions of propaganda, constituted the supreme freedom of individuals. The freedom of individuals, she added, guarantees the freedom of states. If one recalls that Madame de Romilly’s father and husband both came from Jewish families, that she had therefore been banned from teaching during the nazi occupation of France, one can measure the weight of the words propaganda and freedom in her pen.

To express oneself exactly, she continued, it was necessary to master the meaning and correct value of words. Therefore, to look for its origin and etymology. That is, the exact value of the words at their origin. The spelling, the eldest daughter of etymology, enlightens the history of each word. It carries the meaning of it. If they sound the same, the French common nouns conte (tale), comte (earl) and compte (count) show that a spelling mistake can completely distort the expected purpose.

With freedom, words bring sensual happiness with them. Sensuality and freedom are sisters. Aesthetics: the writer’s pen is similar to the painter’s brush. A word is a painting. It is beautiful by itself. It tells a story. A circumflex accent is an s that flies away. Spelling is also a cousin of a great chef’s saucepan: a word is savoured like a mouthful coated in a delicate, light, fragrant sauce. With words like so many musical notes, Corneille and Shakespeare sing colossal symphonies. Moreover, isn’t composition the same word used for music as for poetry? Jacqueline de Romilly, Lucien Jerphagnon, Alain Rey are unsurpassed purveyors of pleasure.

The French language is made up of Latin, which has gradually evolved with use, and Greek, which is directly borrowed. Greek, it should be remembered, was the language of Rome’s cultural elite. Caesar revolutionized the Latin language in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, a masterpiece and fundamental milestone in literature. He also spoke (and wrote, otherwise we wouldn’t know) a perfect Greek. It is interesting to compare these two languages, and their respective influences on our French.

Jacqueline de Romilly

Mastering Latin is like being a manual worker. Surprising? Not at all! Latin is a mechanical instrument of tremendous precision. It is sober, austere, contracted… Roman, then! For me, who is working on the history of watchmaking, the analogy is obvious. One can also compare the Latinist to a potter. Precision of the gesture, conciseness, interweaving. Were we talking about Caesar? Veni, vidi, vici. Five hundred pages of epics, a hundred propaganda speeches, in three words! Greek, on the other hand, is expansive, joyful, singing. It pours out and spreads. Those who know me will easily understand why I was bad at Latin and loved (and still does) Greek. Latin is austerity sometimes dry; Greek is pleasure, it is enjoyment. Latin comes from a strict and formal elegance like a Saville Row costume. The Greek lies down in dandy elegance, like a waistcoat embroidered with art and refinement, without excessive restraint.

How, then, can one understand the absurdity of those who wanted to eliminate Latin and Greek in high school? (High school is lycée in french. Lycée, by the way, wouldn’t it be Greek by chance…?) The orthography – again Greek – which is totally based on ancient languages (and absolutely not dead, what nonsense!) has become a ferocious, even brutal social marker in France. As a former headhunter, I am speaking here with full knowledge of the facts. Are those who are trapped under this glass ceiling disadvantaged? So let us eliminate the teaching of the founder languages, rather than facilitate access to them! Makes sense, doesn’t it? Beyond the intrinsic stupidity of such… reasoning? No, that’s not the right word. Say, of this inanity (in french: ânerie, with a circumflex accent to recall the s of the latin word asinus, meaning a donkey), it is interesting to return to the ancient history.

In the late republican Rome, the Catos, the Elder and of Utica, were already shouting to demand laws that prohibited the use of the ancient language, Greek. Language, they said, of effeminate jouisseurs, who undermined the sound foundations that shaped the good Roman republican. Carthago delenda est, Cato the Elder spit at the end of each of his speeches (familiar to any Asterix reader as assiduous as I am: read Les Lauriers de César!). We must destroy Carthage. Cato of Utica preferred to commit suicide rather than accept Caesar’s new Rome. He preferred to remain encysted in the mythified Rome of his great-grandfather Cato the Elder. Destroy. Delete. Rather than build. Than to enrich. All the same, at all times, in all places. It is interesting to note that the so-called contemporary progressives proceed from the same way of thinking, automatic and doctrinaire rather than inventive and open, as the worst reactionaries of Roman times to reach the same conclusion: let us eliminate the ancient languages. Let’s not leave young people with weapons to think, it’s dangerous!

In conclusion: during this Christmas season, do the ones among you who speak french want to make a gift that is fun, refreshing and enriching? Type Alain Rey in the search engine, discover, choose, taste! In tribute to my Anglo-Saxon friends, whose language includes almost as much Latin as the french language, and who also know how to condense a plenitude into a single word: enjoy!

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