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Metaglossia: The Translation World
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OUPblog » Blog Archive » Why did Milton write his theology in Latin?

By John Hale

John Milton wrote his systematic theology, De Doctrina Christiana, his “dearest possession,” in Latin — usual for a theological work, but with many unusual aspects.

Language was a choice, not a foregone conclusion. Continental theologians could be rendered into English (for instance, the work by Johannes Wolleb); English theologians could write in Latin (William Ames); and English philosophers could write in both tongues (Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes). So Milton chose Latin in addressing Universis Christi Ecclesiis (“the universal churches of Christ”).

The choice says much about his milieu. European education and culture were bilingual. Just as Dante used Latin to say why he wrote the Divine Comedy in the vernacular, one of the King James Version (KJV) Bible translators took his notes of their discussions of the English in Latin. Latin was the air they breathed. Milton sought a European reputation through his voluminous Latin, half his total output. When he speaks of “liberty’s defence, my noble task, / Of which all Europe talks from side to side,” that’s thanks to Latin.

The choice entails things he can and can’t say. He can avail himself of Roman eloquence and pagan allusion, or exploit the sententious brevity of Latin, its permanence and marmoreal dignitas. However, Latin can’t convey the difference between perfective and imperfective aspect (between “I write” and “I am writing”). Unlike Greek or English, the classical form of humanist Latin precludes using definite or indefinite articles. Besides being a headache for translators, Latin lumps unsubtly where splitting would be clearer and convey nuance; the same is true of patristic words.

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