Photo Credit Jan Garrison
The language of ethics
November 21, 2019

Since 2005, the United Nations has observed World Philosophy Day on the third Thursday of November.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization originally introduced the concept in 2002 to promote “an international culture of philosophical debate that respects human dignity and diversity. The day encourages academic exchange and highlights the contribution of philosophical knowledge in addressing global issues.”

Loosely translated, the Greek origin of philosophy is “love of wisdom.” And, to some extent, Culver Academies Latin students are doing this on a regular basis, thanks to one of the Latin instructors, Evan Dutmer.

Dutmer teaches both Latin and ethics at Culver Academies. He recently completed his doctorate in ancient philosophy at Northwestern University, and he has found an interesting way to weave the Cardinal Virtues and Culver Values into the study of the language.

While Latin is not spoken today, Dutmer said it was an active language in an academic context as late as the early 1800s. And 65 to 70 percent of the English language can find it roots in either Latin or one of the Romance languages. Plus, as people climb higher in specific fields like science, math, law and business, they will find the frequency of Latin words and phrases increases, he explained.

And those phrases may often be related to philosophical ideas. Simply looking at college seals shows how heavily the founders of these institutions leaned on Latin. Dutmer said he shows his Latin classes how often the word “veritas” (truth) appears. Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Indiana, and the University of Pittsburgh are just some examples.

Further, everyday English words like “very,” “verify,” “veracity” and “veritable” are all derived from “veritas,” he said. Truth also happens to be a Culver Value, and is embodied in “wisdom,” a Cardinal Virtue. A Latin vocabulary lesson now has the added dimension of becoming a lesson in ethics and leadership, he explained.

“You can see the wheels turning,” Dutmer said as the students make the connection between Latin and philosophy. They speak about philosophical concepts, using Latin vocabulary. Central terms in ethics are derived from Latin’s moral vocabulary (virtue, moral, honor, ideal fortitude, utility, fidelity, piety, beneficence, liberality, benevolence).

Even the phrase “Cardinal Virtues” comes directly from Latin’s “Virtutes Cardinales,” Dutmer explained. Latin phrases can explore the central themes of moral philosophy, such as “How will I be a good person?” and “How will I be happy in this life?”

Some of the most important works in moral philosophy were written by Roman and Greek philosphers, he added.  So, after all, it is easy to turn a lesson in Latin into a lesson in leadership.

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