Tuesday, 7 April 2015


Ars longa,
vita brevis,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.

Life is short,
art long,
opportunity fleeting,
experiment dangerous,
judgment difficult.

This quotation is attributed to Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, and although originally written in Ancient Greek, is usually found today in the Latin translation shown above, with an approximation in English on the right.

I was reminded of it last week when an article in a British newspaper lamented the decline of Arts subjects at University, in favour of science, engineering and technology-related disciplines.

Yet despite this trend, the popularity of English Literature at A level has never been higher in the UK (still number one, apparently). And while KYUEM scholars tend to want to pursue careers in Engineering, Economics, Finance or pure Science, we have enough would-be lawyers taking History or Literature, alongside Maths and other A level subjects. So was this journalist wrong or overstating his case? I suspect he was, a bit.

We know that the number of students taking foreign languages at University in the UK has been declining for some years. Even more striking is the paucity of those taking Classics. Way back in my own day, I was among the last students in my school to study Latin for O level and at the time, we all hated it, if I'm honest. Yet, I am frequently amazed today to recall how much of it has stayed with me. Oh sure, I Googled the exact quotation shown at the top of this post, but in all modesty, I had remembered it word for word.

My schoolmates and I (showing a timid spirit of rebellion) inscribed in minute handwriting on the inside cover of our Latin books:

Latin is a language as dead as dead can be.
It killed the ancient Romans,
And now it's killing me.

It didn't kill us, of course. It helped the future doctors with their medical terminology, the astronomers with the names of the planets, stars and constellations - and even added to their knowledge, if they got to know the mythology behind each one. Latin provided us with a discipline that seemed at the time only to serve itself, but as the years have passed, I am surprised at the frequency with which it has proved to be of use.

Last week, one of our seniors excitedly told me that she has been offered a place at University to study Ancient History and that in her first year, she will be taking a Latin course. I truly envy her. The arts may generally be in decline at graduate level, but there is still life in them yet; and so much richness awaiting those who dare to dip a toe in the classical waters.

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