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“One Unified and Ordered Whole” in Latin Teaching

~ by Tyrone Benson ~

Earlier this school year (October 2022), I penned an article published in this blog: “A Tamed Tongue As a Type of Temperance.” Its subtitle, “Self-Control in Speech,” pointed to a vital area of life to which temperance applies: language. That article was dedicated to our annual reading theme for this year — Temperance.[i] In that article, which reflects upon the final of the four cardinal virtues treated by Josef Pieper,[ii] I addressed language as a matter most in mind for a magister of language, or an instructor of Latin. In that article, I quoted among others these words of Pieper: “The primary and essential meaning of temperāre, therefore, is this: to dispose various parts into one unified and ordered whole” (146). I remarked after that, “If I have a chance to write again this year, I would love to share the way(s) in which I seek to cultivate ‘one unified and ordered whole’ in my Latin teaching.” Per some warm encouragement to proceed, it is in this present article that I now begin to do just that, as is reflected verbatim in its corresponding title. 

Unified vs. Uniform 

It is first fitting to distinguish between the subtle senses of the adjectives ‘unified’ and ‘uniform’. What we have in view is not the latter, but the former (no pun intended). Whereas the term ‘uniform’ means “not changing in form or character; remaining the same in all cases and at all times,” the term ‘unified’, when expressed passively, means “[made or having become united or whole].”[iii] Things that are uniform are already a unity, but things that are unified are made into a unity; hence the need to cultivate a unified whole. 

That which I seek to cultivate in my Latin teaching is not uniformity, “the quality or state of being uniform,” but unification, “the process of being united or made into a whole.”[iv] In this statement, I am not just referring to the uniqueness of particular persons (although I do value that), but rather to the very nature of the Latin language. Far from uniform, most Latin words can be described as multiform, which means “existing in many forms or kinds.” All languages are multiform to some degree, including English. Just as in Latin, there are many kinds of words in English called parts of speech: the verb, the noun, and several others. But words can have not only many kinds, but also many forms, and it is here that Latin differs in degree from English. 

Latin far surpasses English with respect to different forms of a single word depending on the word’s present function. With some exceptions, English words are in this respect uniform, “not changing in form or character; remaining the same in all cases and at all times.” For instance, the form (i.e., spelling) of the word ‘fruit’ remains the same from a time when it is used in the subjective case (“fruit is what a tree bears”), to a time when it is used in the objective case (“I see no fruit here”), to a time when it is used in some other case (“I enjoy the taste of fruit”; “they have come here for fruit”;  “the children played with fruit”). By contrast, the form of the Latin word meaning “fruit” (frūctus) does not remain the same in all cases, but changes: frūctus est quod arbor ferit; hīc nullum frūctum videō; gustātum frūctūs fruor; hīc frūctvēnērunt; līberī cum frūctū lūsērunt. The bold letters, called case endings, show changes in form from case to case, according to certain regular patterns. These patterns are some of the “various parts,” as Pieper says, that students in my Latin classes learn to unify, or “to dispose…into one unified and ordered whole.” 

“Various Parts” 

On the long road to Latin mastery, which is really language mastery beginning with a mother tongue, my students learn to govern (temperāre means “to govern”/“to rule”) their own understandings of Latin texts according to objective rules of grammar, which rules together serve as a standard for academic discipline, I myself lovingly administering the discipline as a schoolmaster (Lat. magister) over academic disciples called students (Lat. discipulī). I show my students how to engage not something simple (‘uniform’), but complex content consisting of various parts: various parts of speech and various grammatical functions, various conjugations and various declensions, various verbs tenses and various noun cases. My academic disciples, or students, learn to see language in its fundamental varieties.

“One Whole” 

The process does not stop there, though. The goal then becomes putting the various parts together as a whole. Let me illustrate. Every week we learn a Latin motto, and the one for Week 1 is: ē plūribus ūnum. There are actually two possible translations this Latin phrase can yield, and both of them (this phrase itself bearing irony here) are grammatically consistent with the Latin’s technical wording. The first possible rendering is: “one out of many,” meant as a partitive phrase (pardon the jargon!) whereby to regard the one as a part along with other parts. The sense here is that there are many items, and one of these things is now in view: “one out of many” means “one (among/within) many.” The second possible rendering is: “out of many, one,” meant as a ‘material’ phrase (again with the jargon!) whereby to regard the one as a whole that has been made out of parts. This latter sense is that the many were made into one: “out of many, one” means “one (made) out of many.” It is this latter sense that I seek to cultivate in my Latin teaching.


And so, the process cultivated in my Latin classes is that of rendering all items unified. There is no maverick molecule of content, not a single noun whose case ending, function, or proper place in translation is allowed to stand ignored or isolated. In respect to nouns, this strong sense of unification is possible because of the structured nature of the language. Although the Latin language is so varied in its parts, it is as well-ordered as it is multiform.


Latin, like Greek, employs a comprehensive case system. This enables immense levels of regularity. In other words, Latin’s rules and patterns are remarkably consistent and reliable, making most forms predictable. Provided that one has gained a strong familiarity with the system’s rules and patterns, one can predict almost any form of any word well in advance of actually seeing such an occurrence itself in a Latin text. In fact, Latin readers can even become Latin writers by themselves constructing such forms as they would expect to find, as long as every word’s form conforms (rather, is made to conform) to the system’s rules and patterns. This I also seek to cultivate in my Latin classes by leading students in the practice of Latin composition. 

Because the Latin language is so well-ordered, teaching Latin is an ideal means of cultivating temperance. It requires students to, as Pieper says, “dispose various parts into one unified and ordered whole” (146). Moreover, the regularity of the Latin language, its predictability, renders it rather teachable and learnable. And of course, when a discipline is teachable and learnable, then that discipline is all the more enjoyable! After all, though the task can seem daunting due to its various parts, who does not enjoy piecing a puzzle? We all love to see the beautiful picture that results!

[i] Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance (New York: Harcourt, 1965). The book’s first three sections having been read and pondered within the previous three years, we now have read and ponder the fourth.

[ii] Interestingly (for readers fond of digging deeper), whereas Pieper’s book clearly has temperance listed last, as did an earlier Thomistic scholar’s work (Cardinal Mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, 2 Vols. [St. Louis: B. Herder, 1916–1917], 2.241) and for that matter Thomas Aquinas’s own Summa Theologica (“Second Part of the Second Part”), temperance comes first of the four in Wisdom of Solomon 8:7, a point made in Isodore Singer’s edited tome (The Jewish Encyclopedia, 12 Vols. [New York: 1901], 3.573). Notably, the latter differs from the former only by placing the final at the front instead, the last as first. On one hand, Thomas and his followers seem to precisely follow the order in 4 Maccabees 1:18. On the other hand, the order in Wisdom of Solomon 8:7 is followed by Ambrose (Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, 5.62-63, 68; qtd. in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), whom both The Jewish Encyclopedia(3.573) and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (289) say was the first of the “chief Christian moral theologians,” followed by Augustine and Aquinas, to use the term “cardinal virtues” in reference to these four. Plato, who precedes all named above, is said to have placed, in his Republic, temperance second behind prudence, albeit with justice regulating both as well as courage (James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 Vols. [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908–1926], 11.431). Yet, in all of this complexity, one should not regard temperance—nor any of the others—as less important.

[iii] Lat. ūnifōrmis “simple,” from ūna “one” + fōrma “form,” “shape,” “appearance.” 

Lat. ūnificāre “to make into one,” from ūnus “one” + facere “to make.” New Oxford American Dictionary. 

[iv] New Oxford American Dictionary.

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