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December 21, 2023

For Latin and Greek Teacher David Camden, the past is a useful guide for the present.


In an age in which information is outdated almost as soon as it is aired, a career spent focusing on the connections between the knowledge and discoveries of the ancient world and today might seem like a purely academic exercise. But David Camden, the St. Paul’s School Alexander Smith Cochran Chair in Greek Language and Literature, says the past is one of our most valuable tools for understanding the present.

The St. Paul’s School classics teacher has made a career of studying the languages and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, and in his role as teacher of Latin and Greek and adviser to the School’s Classical Honors Program, Camden is imparting to students his expertise and excitement for our ancient predecessors. His charges often stumble into the classics, sometimes because they believe it might help them better understand the intricacies of the English language (and help them on the SAT verbal section). But Camden encourages study of the subject to help young scholars make sense of their own experiences, as well.

“I tell students the classics give them insight into so many things present in the world right now,” explains Camden. “In our science program, we intentionally do physics first because it’s foundational. It’s very similar studying Greek and Latin and classical civilizations, because there are so many things around where you can actually see the roots of these things — in culture, political systems, literature, art. That gives you this key for unlocking the world and getting that sense of, ‘This is why things are the way they are.’ ”

Camden discovered Latin as an eighth grader in his native Virginia. Fascinated by the language and its accompanying culture, he went on to graduate summa cum laude in classics from Harvard in 2005 and also earned his Ph.D. from the university in 2016. Before joining the SPS faculty in the fall of 2016, Camden was a lecturer in the Department of Classics at Emory University and spent two years teaching Latin at the Gunston School in Maryland. Though Latin was his first love, Camden says that he and his wife — SPS Latin and Greek Teacher Elizabeth Engelhardt — are primarily Hellenists: specialists in Greek language, literature and culture. The opportunity to teach Greek and guide students through the Classical Honors Program was among the things that drew them to SPS.

“To have this program where we are able to teach Latin and also Greek at a high level is rare for a high school,” says Camden, noting that 34 of the School’s 87 Latin students also study Greek. “A class where you actually learn the language in depth to the point where you’re reading Homer and Plato by the end is quite exceptional.”

In addition to teaching classics, Camden also has written about the subject. He wrote a textbook on Latin poetry used by SPS’s Latin 4 Honors class, and earlier this year, Cambridge University Press published his book, “The Cosmological Doctors of Classical Greece: First Principles in Early Greek Medicine.” The work is a revised version of Camden’s doctoral dissertation, which focused on ancient medicine, including the works of the Hippocratic Corpus, whose “On Regimen” Camden had written about for his undergraduate senior thesis.

Where many people now tend to associate ancient medicine with either the Hippocratic Oath or Galen’s theory that the human body is composed of four humors, the balance of which dictates health and illness, Camden takes on a very different question: that of why some of the physicians of antiquity were developing general theories about the cosmos — the idea of an ordered universe. His book examines the dividing line between philosophy and practical science, and the manner in which medical experts at the time were defining it.

“You see some early discussions where scholars are talking about how this is detrimental to the science of medicine, as philosophy is the enemy of medicine,” Camden explains. “The argument I make in the book is that [Greek doctors’ interest in cosmology] actually is an offshoot from changes in medical thinking that were already taking place in the 5th century BC, where there was an older way of organizing medical texts by disease, symptoms, treatment and prognosis.”

Camden explains in his book that doctors of that era soon began to discover that despite similar symptoms and diagnoses, patient outcomes were impacted by lifestyle variables such as age, diet, climate and other factors that made it difficult to generalize treatments. They therefore looked for principles that remained stable, even when the variables changed, ultimately spurring them to contemplate the fundamental forces that govern the universe as a whole. This interplay between theory and practice persists in medicine today, further emphasizing Camden’s assertion that his students will broaden their worldview by studying the work of their ancient ancestors.

“The idea in the Western medical tradition that there’s this basic knowledge that all doctors must first acquire is an unbroken line all the way back to the Greeks,” he says. Not finished yet, Camden is at work on his next tome, which will explore “On Regimen” and its affinities with other cosmological systems from the 6th, 5th and 4th centuries BC. He also will continue to support the Classical Honors Program, noting that he thrives on the energy of his students. “The kind of students you get to teach when you’re at a school like this,” he says, “they’re enthusiastic for the subject, and it invigorates you every day.”