Saturday, May 08, 2021

BOOK: Kallendorf (ed.), "Humanist Educational Treatises"

Humanist Educational Treatises. Edited and translated by Craig W. Kallendorf. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 5. Harvard University Press, 2002. 067400759X. xvi + 358 pp.

This book contains four treatises by various fifteenth-century authors, along with an interesting introduction by the translator. He points out that medieval higher education was meant to be practical: you studied to become a lawyer or a physician or a theologian. The Renaissance humanists came up with the new idea that an education focused on learning the classical languages and studying the classical literature would turn the students into better people (p. vii), and since they would mostly be coming from the ruling class this could quite possibly lead to a better-run state and a better society.

I'm a bit skeptical as to how well this actually worked — for example, we've all heard the tales of how Ancient Greek was more useful than Sanskrit on the civil service examinations in British India, and the Indians nowadays don't seem to be particularly happy with how the British bureaucrats educated along those lines governed India back then —, but at least as an ideal it struck me as admirable. Some traces of this ideal were left in at least some parts of some countries' educational systems into the twentieth century, though by now they have no doubt all been thoroughly wiped out, first in the name of modernism and capitalist efficiency and later in the name of diversity and wokeist decolonization.

It is, of course, entirely possible that my view of humanist education is biased, being that of an outsider looking in and wondering what he is missing. I didn't have a classical education myself, which is probably just as well since my experience shows me that I'm no good at languages; if I could never get to the point where I could intuitively choose between dem and den correctly in German, what hope would I have with the infinitely more abstruse grammar of ancient Greek? Much of my reading, including of the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, is motivated by a vague notion of making up for this deficiency, though at some level I'm of course perfectly aware that the matter is hopeless, and no matter how much I read in these areas I'll never really get them, and will forever remain in a state of puzzled confusion and blank ignorance.

The four treatises presented here vary a bit in their scope — some include even such topics as physical training, some limit themselves to education of the mind or even a bit more narrowly to literature in particular — but they also have much in common, their recommendations sometimes overlap, and they all share a feature that struck me as peculiar for people propounding a new system of education: namely, they are absolutely peppered with allusions and references to the work of classical authors (all of which, as usual, have been duly hunted down by the translator and made explicit in the notes at the end of the book), as if the only way you could justify introducing a new idea is by pretending that you're just restoring something that the ancients had already said a long time before. It is charming in a way, but you also can't help seeing how it could become a problem if carried too far, and I guess it's no surprise that within a few centuries this sort of argumentation fell out of style.

Pier Paolo Vergerio: The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-born Youth

This treatise is addressed to young Ubertino da Carrara, son of Francesco, the ruler of Padua. Vergerio takes care to suck up to the princeling by suggesting that the advice given here is probably unnecessary since Ubertino is already following it anyway (¶4, 74); but the author's flattery and Ubertino's education were both in vain, for the latter died aged only 18.

Vergerio starts by observing that parents should provide their children with three things: give them an honourable name, settle in a renowned city, and instruct them in the liberal arts (¶1). I guess he would not be impressed by the modern mania for outlandish names, the more ridiculous and exotic the better. He emphasizes the concept of a “liberal temper”, motivated chiefly by “eagerness for praise” and “love of glory” (¶6), though he is happy to sweep all sorts of other more or less desirable characteristics under this heading as well. He later contrasts this with the “illiberal” intellect, which is motivated by “profit and pleasure” (¶23).

Thus, for him — annoyingly, but unsurprisingly — education is not chiefly about learning certain information, but about forming certain moral habits and dispositions: he objects to lying (¶13), lust (¶16), and drinking (¶18); he praises modesty and good behaviour (¶14–15), religion (¶19) and respect for the elders (¶20). Boring.

Apart from handwavy references to honour and glory, he never actually provides any clear arguments why liberal arts should be desirable at all; he seems to take this fact for granted and keenly urges that people should spend as much of their time studying as possible, especially while young (¶26). For someone like me, who am yet to find any piece of knowledge that would not strike me as being, in a deep and fundamental sense, quite worthless and useless, it is difficult to appreciate Vergerio's keen praise of learning.

Still, I couldn't help finding the following passage charming: “What way of life, then, can be more delightful, or indeed more beneficial, than to read and write all the time: for moderns to understand things ancient; for present generations to converse with their posterity; and thus to make every time our own, both past and future? [. . .] What a happy family books make! Absolutely honest and well-behaved! A family that does not fuss or shout,” etc. (¶37). There is something to this; and it might even be good advice for a man of limited means; but a prince could surely afford to spend his time drinking, partying and whoring rather than studying, and he'd have more fun in the process. I hope and suspect that that's just what most princes actually did, despite the admonitions of schoolmasters like Vergerio :)

He discusses the various liberal arts in a bit more detail next, recommending history, moral philosophy, and eloquence (¶40) in particular, while drawing and painting are better left to professionals (¶41); he also recommends music, arithmetic, law and medicine (¶42–6), but in moderate amounts. To his credit, he is aware that different people will have a stronger propensity for different fields of learning, and that that's OK (¶47). He recommends that study should be regular and methodical, emphasizes the importance of memory, but also recommends disputation as a useful learning tool (¶50–4).

Towards the end of the treatise, Vergerio also discusses physical and military exercise, which he also considers important; he cites examples from ancient history to justify why even a ruler or commander should also be a physically powerful warrior (§55). I guess that in the violent and turbulent society of Renaissance Italy, these were indeed fairly relevant skills for a ruler to have, though they would be mostly obsolete now. He even praises the ‘educational’ methods of ancient Sparta, whose insane cruelty towards boys supposedly ensured that they “in the end performed those military exploits that fill the memory of all antiquity” (¶60). I thought this was rather ironic, as I have read, not long ago, an excellent series of blog posts which pointed out that Spartan military reputation was largely a matter of marketing themselves well and picking wisely on weaker enemies, and that the way they trained their boys is best compared to the methods used by modern terrorist groups to indoctrinate their child soldiers...

He recommends learning how to swim — good advice, though he mostly justifies it by saying it will make you “bolder in naval battles and crossing rivers” (¶68) :) He concludes with a section on “leisure and relaxation”, but even here he mostly recommends things closely related to the foregoing ones (§69–72): singing, music-making and reading on the intellectual side, and hunting on the physical side. He objects to games of chance, however (§71).

Leonardo Bruni: The Study of Literature

This is a shorter treatise than the previous one, and, as the title suggests, it is focused on a narrower topic. It is addressed to a lady named Battista Malatesta; naturally her surname made me wonder how she is related to the infamous Sigismondo Malatesta, and if I counted things right in the wikipedia, her husband was Sigismondo's third cousin once removed.

Bruni very commendably encourages her interest in literary studies, and begins by giving a few examples of famous learned women from classical history (¶1). He recommends the study of grammar as a starting point (¶4), followed by focusing on the “best and most approved authors” (¶6); in particular, Augustine and Jerome if she's interested in religious literature (¶7), or Cicero and Virgil among secular authors (¶8; “she will be careful [. . .] to use no word she has not first met in one of these authors” — the terrible bane of those writing in a dead language :)). An interesting recommendation that we don't hear often nowadays is to read aloud occasionally, to better appreciate the rhythmical qualities of good writing (¶9) — but then, I doubt if today's authors bother writing in a way that would benefit from reading aloud. If poets can't even be bothered to make rhymes, how could anyone expect them to care about subtler sound-effects like these?

Some of his advice is Latin-specific, e.g. when he advises her to “memorize the quantity of every syllable” (¶10). But I suppose there's something along these lines in many languages, since many of them have an imperfect spelling system that doesn't record all the information you might want about the pronunciation.

I liked this bit of advice: “Disciplines there are, which it is not fitting to ignore completely, yet it is by no means glorious to completely master.” (¶13) We saw something similar in the previous treatise. Bruni mentions mathematics, astrology and rhetoric as an example of these. When it comes to rhetoric, for example, since a woman won't be involved in politics or practice law, many aspects of rhetoric will be of no use to her (¶14). You might say that this advice is out of date now, but then politicians and lawyers probably don't study rhetoric now anyway.

He particularly recommends the study of theology and moral philosophy (¶16–17), but also the work of historians and orators (¶18–19); and then he has a long and very fine passage in recommendation, and defense, of studying poetry (¶20–5). He points out that poetry provides useful advice and moral instruction (¶21); that poets write from a kind of divine inspiration that is often combined with prophetic insight (¶22); and that the “sounds and rhythms” of poetry can uplift and inspire the reader's or listener's soul (¶24). It is true that poets sometimes show characters who behave immorally, but then so does the bible (¶26–7).

In conclusion, he recommends that one should adopt a wide-ranging and well-rounded programme of reading: “Literary skill without knowledge is useless and sterile” (¶29), and you need both skill and knowledge to be eloquent.


There's another very remarkable thing about this treatise, or rather about the translation, which is by James Hankins. At one point, Bruni cites a few lines of Virgil (¶22), and they are translated here into a wonderfully Drydenesque English:

Thence man- and cattle-kind, thence soar th'aerial
beasts, and thence from 'neath the flashing waves doth Ocean's shudd'ring prodigies come forth. (Aeneid, book 6.)

And so on — the only thing that gave away the fact that it isn't from Dryden's translation of the Aeneid is the lack of rhymes. [Well, that and the fact that “doth” is used with a plural subject — an embarrassing oversight, which already appeared in the first publication of this translation in 1987).] I later looked up the corresponding passage in Dryden's version, and another difference seems to be that Dryden's translation is freer while Hankins's is closer:

Hence men and beasts the breath of life obtain,
And birds of air, and monsters of the main.

Anyway, I think Hankins deserves nothing short of a medal for this; nearly all the poetry in the ITRL series has been translated into prose, or into verse utterly bereft of all poetical qualities; but here, for once in the entire history of the series, we get real poetry, we get verse of the kind that Dryden himself wouldn't be embarrassed to have written — how very unfortunate that this example has not been imitated by other translators of poetry in this series.

(Another intriguing thing in the lines quoted above is “th'aerial”; since the translator felt the need to drop the e in the, he must have thought of aerial as having four syllables rather than three. I was sorry to learn, in the wiktionary, that the four-syllable pronunciation is apparently regarded as obsolete now. This is particularly unfortunate as it was closer to the original Latin pronunciation.)

I was also intrigued by the appearance of “plebian” on p. 121; at first I thought it must be a misprint, but it seems to be a legitimate although rare variant spelling: wiktionary, Google n-grams.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini: The Education of Boys

This is the longest treatise in this volume; the author would later become better known as pope Pius II, but at the time of writing this work he was just the bishop of Trieste (¶1). It is addressed to ten-year-old Ladislaus, king of Hungary, and was written at the request of his instructor (¶5).

Aeneas begins with some general remarks on the importance of learning, especially to monarchs, and cites various examples from ancient history (¶4); later he points out that learning is the one thing that you cannot lose due to ill fortune, unlike material possessions (¶25). Learning will also be useful to a king as a sort of check to the statements of the flatterers that surround him (¶27). To his credit, Aeneas says that teachers should “guide you by their advice, not by blows” (¶10).

Before proceeding to learning in the usual sense of the word, the treatise spends some time discussing the training of the body; he argues this is important because “a king must frequently engage in battle” (¶13) — I wonder to what extent that was still true in the 15th century, especially if by “king” you mean a real king of a real country and not one of the petty brigand chiefs that passed for princes in the dinky little statelets of renaissance Italy...

He recommends moderation in work and play (¶14), in food (¶15–18) and drink (¶19–20), in clothing (¶23) and speech (¶35), etc., neither too much nor too little of anything. This struck me as quite sensible if not particularly exciting. Another sensible piece of advice was to surround oneself with virtuous people rather than vicious ones (¶32). Interestingly, on the subject of wine, he would not have a boy avoid it altogether, but drink it in small amounts “so that through moderation he may become temperate and continent” (¶20). Earlier he grumbles about the gluttonous appetite of Austrians, Hungarians and Bohemians, i.e. Ladislaus's subjects (¶16); I wonder if there's some kernel of truth behind this, something about the contrast between the lighter Mediterranean diet that Aeneas presumably knew from Italy and the heavier Central European diet in the areas under Ladislaus's rule.

Next Aeneas briefly discusses the various branches of learning. Philosophy, he says, is important to a ruler, but to understand it you also need some literary study first (¶27), by which he means something broader than one might think nowadays: to him, “literature” includes the study of grammar and composition (¶41).

Unsurprisingly for a bishop, he also stresses the importance of religion, and enjoins Ladislaus to respect priests and refrain from criticizing them (¶29–31), since if they are doing anything wrong they will be judged by god anyway — how very convenient :))

He recommends the young king to learn the languages of his subjects — Hungarian, Bohemian, German (well, this latter seems to have been his native language) — as well as Latin (¶33). This strikes me as good advice, not only because it improves communication between the monarch and his subjects but also because, were it taken seriously, it would discourage the formation of multi-ethnic states. At some point the kings would start saying ‘no, I don't want to conquer another country, because I can't be bothered to learn another language’, and that would be a glorious thing :]

He stresses the importance of speaking well, both in terms of delivery and of content (¶36–8). He then goes into a good deal of detail about various points regarding the Latin language, which struck me as somewhat odd given that the treatise is written in Latin; I would imagine that Ladislaus either already knows those things or he won't understand the treatise anyway. Aeneas points out that some Latin words are loanwords (¶42), discusses various kinds of word-formation (¶43, 48), metaphorical use of words (¶44–6), cautions against coining new words (¶47; unless you are a sufficiently important author that you can get away with it!) and against “barbarisms” (¶49) and “solecisms” (¶50), by which he seems to mean more or less anything of which you can't find an example in the extant works of the best classical authors. I can sympathize with this; to write in a foreign language is a great nuissance as you keep wondering whether some usage is idomatic or not; and it must be even worse if the language in question is a dead one, and if you don't have Google to check whether some word or phrase is in use the way you intend to use it or not.

He has some sensible advice against using the words in their etymological meaning instead of the meaning they actually came to have (¶52), against going too far in the use of archaic words (¶55): “We must employ speech like money, using the common currency” (¶57). At the same time, this doesn't mean you should let yourself be guided completely by vulgar usage; if lots of people are wrong, that doesn't make them right, and what you should imitate is “the consensus of good men” (¶58). This strikes me as good and moderate advice, and felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the dogma that modern linguists keep ramming down our throats, according to which if some error becomes widespread enough, it is no longer an error, and according to which there is no such thing as degeneration in language, merely harmless and random change.

There's also a fine rant against the sort of ridiculous fake etymologies that people were so keen on pulling out of their asses, both in the ancient times and in the Renaissance (¶54). Here's one I really liked: some claimed “that Vienna was so called from bienna [two years], because for two years it withstood a siege by Julius Caesar; yet in Caesar's lifetime it had not yet been founded, and at first it was not called Vienna, but Flaviana [castra]” (¶54).

Aeneas also makes some recommendations about which authors to focus one's study on, from various genres (¶69–73), and has a nice defense of reading ancient poets, which apparently some theologians of his own day argued against (¶63–6; he does advise against having boys read some of the spicier Roman love-poets and satirists, however, ¶70). When it comes to history, he unsurprisingly regards it mostly as something that should be a source of moral instruction; therefore: “One should not put Suetonius in a boy's hands. [. . .] I would absolutely forbid the histories of the Bohemians or the Hungarians and similar accounts to be put into a boy's hands. For they are written by ignorant people, and contain much silliness, many lies, no maxims, and no elegance of style” (¶73).

Towards the end he goes into a fair amount of detail about Latin spelling (¶77–88), which wasn't of much use to me as someone unfamiliar with that language. For example, he tries to present some general principles on the spelling of common prefixes such as ad-, ex- and the like, though he seems to also keep noticing words whose customary spelling doesn't follow those principles. There's also a section on the doubling of consonants (¶79) and one on aspiration (i.e. the letter h; ¶86).

Regarding other disciplines such as rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music (¶89–95), he says they should be studied in moderation, as it would be a waste of time for a future king to try mastering any of them thoroughly. He concludes by a particularly strong recommendation in favour of studying moral philosophy (¶97–98). Clearly he seems to regard this as something that is likely to make you a better person, and it was interesting to see how different philosophy must have been in former times. Nowadays nobody would be so insane as to imagine that present-day moral philosophers could provide any guidance on that, because we know that they can invent half a dozen different and incompatible ethical systems before breakfast and then spend the rest of the day arguing for and against each of them. There is nothing so outrageous or so preposterous that you could not find some philosopher capable of writing an argument in favour of it. No, nowadays we know that philosophers are precisely the last people to whom it would make sense to look for moral guidance. But I wish it weren't like this, and it's nice to see that in Aeneas's time it actually wasn't like this.

Battista Guarino: A Program of Teaching and Learning

I rather liked this treatise, which is a bit shorter and a good deal more to the point than some of the others in this book, perhaps because Guarino was a practicing teacher himself and because he relays the advice of his father, who had even more experience in this line of work (¶2). That being said, Guarino does start with some advice that struck me as dubious. He advises his pupil “to acquire spontaneously a real desire to learn” (¶3), which might be good advice if it weren't utterly impracticable. How the heck is one supposed to ‘acquire’ that? It's easy to agree that learning is desirable; it's easy to desire to desire to learn; but how to get from there to actually desiring to learn is far from obvious — especially if, as is all too often the case, most of what one is going to be learning is neither interesting nor useful.

Guarino also advises the pupil to “show parental reverence” to his teacher (¶4), which is not something I can have any sympathy for. How could you not hate and despise someone who wastes your time with boring lectures on pointless topics, pesters you with homework, asks annoying questions, distracts you from more interesting things that you'd rather be doing, and so on? Fortunately nowadays, by all accounts, teachers are not respected, least of all by their pupils, and that's as it should be. The only way that study could be made halfway tolerable would be to regard it as a sort of hobby for bored dilettantes, who might from time to time be moved, on a whim, to read or learn something new for the sake of satisfying a transient bout of curiosity. That, at any rate, is what motivates my reading. You might argue that not much learning would actually get done under this system; but as, in my experience, learning makes one neither wise nor happy, that would be no great loss.

But let's return to Guarino's treatise. Very commendably, he is opposed to beating students, though he thinks it's occasionally useful to threaten them with a beating; but mostly he suggests motivating them by appealing to their shame and their desire for honour (¶5).

Then he proceeds to the actual program, which begins with learning Latin: pronunciation (¶7–8), grammar (¶9–13), quantity (i.e. the length of vowels) and prosody (¶14–15); he mentions the heavy influence of Greek on Latin, and thus the usefulness of eventually learning Greek as well (¶16–17), especially for its vocabulary (¶20). “Let students, then, acquire the Greek language, but not in the confused and disorderly way that the Greeks usually teach it.” (¶18) :)) I guess the Greeks in question were used to teaching ancient Greek in Greece to students whose native language was the Greek of their own time, and now had a hard time adapting their methods to students whose native language was Italian.

Next Guarino discusses the various classical authors that a student should read, partly for the sake of their language and partly for the sake of their content. He starts, of course, with Cicero and Virgil (¶21, 25, 28), but continues with a fairly broad list of historians, poets, comic playwrights, etc.

He even has some advice on how to study; for example, the student should imagine that he will have to teach this subject some day, which will motivate him to think about it more thoroughly (¶29); he also recommends writing notes, summaries etc. of the things one has read (¶30–1), which struck me as good advice; my blog here is trying to do something not entirely unlike this for my own reading. Another interesting idea is to read aloud, partly on the theory that you will pay more attention to the text that way, and partly because “[i]t even helps our digestion somewhat, or so authorities on the secrets of nature and medicine claim” (¶33). :)) I suspect that reading aloud could help you with the pronunciation of the text, but would actually distract you from focusing on its meaning (especially if it's in a foreign language, as it would always be for Guarino's students reading in Latin or Greek), and so would generally do more harm than good. In any case, he does advise the student to focus on the content of the text first, and on the language only second (¶34). He also recommends fixed and regular hours of study, and ideally one would think of it as an enjoyable enough activity to spend one's leisure time at it as well (¶36–7); but that's easier said than done, and I for one have never been able to get to such a state of mind.

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