Any of my faithful readers will know that I end most of my posts with the line Sapere aude! I have known the meaning of this quote only second hand (that is, I was told what it meant, but I did not understand the actual Latin), having it translated as dare to be wise or dare to Know. For many it was the rallying call of the enlightenment, first used by Horace in the 1st century BCE, and probably most famously by Kant in his essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?
The first page of Kant’s “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” – “Sapere aude!” can be seen in the middle.
This saying really resonates with me, and it has become a personal motto by which I strive to live. However, only recently have a acquired the tools needed to understand its meaning on my own: a working understanding of Latin.
I write this post of the penultimate day of my Latin course; tomorrow is the exam. Many people, upon hearing that I am studying Latin to partially fulfill my language requirement, respond with “But isn’t that a dead language?”.
It is certainly dead in the sense that no one speaks it as her first language. However, it is alive in the sense that it is still widely studied today (though far less than it was even 50 years ago), and that it unlocks a vast wealth of literature, history, and philosophy, much of which is the foundation of Western culture. Furthermore, I have found that studying Latin has greatly helped me understand English (my first language).
Also, because Latin is an inflected language, I have found that studying Latin has helped me clarify my thoughts. A language is inflected if the nouns (and adjectives) of that language change depending on the relations between them in the sentence. We have the remnants of this in English. For example, if I say:
I eat the bear.
The bear eats me.
The words I and me are actually the same word; I is the subjective case (nominative in Latin), and me is the objective case (accusative in Latin). These are really the only cases we have to deal with in English, and even this distinction is being corroded. People rarely use “whom” (objective of “who”) anymore, and it is all too common to hear people say things like “Me and Greg went to the store”. However, for those who have studied Latin (or any inflected language) these distinctions in English become trivial. Latin has 7 cases (Nominative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative, Ablative, Vocative, L0cative), and each case has its own set of circumstances in which it is used.
“Sapere aude” itself is a combination of an imperative “aude” (dare) and an infinitive “Sapere” (to know). I was aware of this before, but after studying Latin in detail for a month, I see how it fits in to the rest of the language. Latin is beautiful with respect to the grace with which it can express complexity, and I have found it to be an important step on my journey to know.