Debating When to Stick Your Neck Out: Socrates, Agricola, and Sir Thomas More Visit the High School Latin Classroom

Margaret W. Musgrove

University of Central Oklahoma

            In the spring of 2003, a high school Latin class working through Unit III of the Cambridge Latin Course encountered the character of Julius Agricola. Hoping to provide an entrée into "real" Latin literature, I devised a study unit that attempted to make Tacitus' biography of his famous father-in-law meaningful for high school students.

            First, the class read selections from a translation of the Agricola, focusing especially on the final chapters of his career, when he was snubbed by Domitian, but lived to tell about it. We read Tacitus' final assessment of his father-in-law as a man who managed, through discretion and modesty, to live virtuously even under an evil regime. Written comprehension questions guided students through this independent reading. Next, the class discussed Agricola's choices—whether to stand up to Domitian and point out the Emperor's deceptions (a course that Tacitus believes would have gotten Agricola killed), or whether to accept Domitian's insults and retire into obscurity. Students almost all expounded the advantages of playing it safe.

            I then introduced students to two public figures who refused to play it safe to save their own lives: Socrates and Sir Thomas More. Socrates was introduced through fairly brief selections from translations of the Apology and the Crito. Written discussion questions again guided students through this fairly difficult reading.  More was introduced through the film, A Man for All Seasons (1966). While few students agreed with Socrates' patriotic argument for stubbornly accepting his execution, a larger number (but not all) approved of More's religious grounds for preferring death to compromise. Students debated the choices to be made in a public life, and then each student wrote a short "position paper" about which character he or she approved of the most.

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