Saints Versus Statesmen

Part of a Symposium on the Agoge “Opening Salvo

What shall we say of the suspicion that in aiming to educate citizens, AGOGE shoots too low

We seek to cultivate mere citizens, and even statesmen; it would be better to cultivate saints. True liberal education should attend to the Transcendent. Because politics is temporal, we betray the liberal arts by reducing them to a mere instrument for attaining transitory ends.

It is a fair suspicion deserving a response, and what is more, it reveals inner conflicts of pedagogy pulling the classical education movement in contrary directions. There is, in fact, a rather (to my mind) charming incoherence in the classical education movement. On the one hand, it owes much to the rediscovery of “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers’s paean for the medieval system of education, in particular her advocacy in that lecture for the trivium. So much so that most classical schools use the trivium just as Sayers recommended, as an organizing principle of curricular progression.

And yet, at the same time, the tenor of the movement itself, especially its belief in the morally and intellectually edifying effect of reading literature, is an inheritance not from the medieval scholastics but the Renaissance humanists. It would not have occurred to the schoolmen that wide reading in history, poetry, oratory, and popular literature (like – good gods! – novels) could be an essential or even important aspect of a young person’s education.

Technical works of theology and philosophy, or pre-professional training in fields like medicine and law, constituted the essential medieval curriculum. It was the humanist revolt against the scholastics that propelled secular literature to the forefront of curricula.

Even in their justified reaction against widespread medieval-bashing propaganda, traditionalists mustn’t neglect the Renaissance. This is doubly the case for classical educators, who if they are to be worthy hosts, must cede pride of place at the banquet of influences to the Renaissance humanists, since they are our closest and mightiest ancestors. This might sound alarming. After all: humanism is godlessness, overweening pride in man’s achievement and contempt for the Eternal

Gird up your loins; let us set aside the worldview manuals and look instead at reality. We think of the Renaissance as the axe at the root of the tree of Christendom. What if the humanists were not lumberjacks at all, but arborists, the glint of steel in their hands not an axe but shears, come to prune a diseased tree in hopes that it would return to health and spread its boughs wider and higher than ever?

There is probably no living scholar who has done more to midwife the rebirth of Renaissance humanism than Harvard’s James Hankins. In Virtue Politics, his masterful treatment of Renaissance political theory, Hankins argues that even though the humanists championed pre-Christian literature, it was done in service to the Christian faith and Christian civilization. Hankins writes: “Petrarch and his followers came to believe that a new, more unreserved, indeed passionate embrace of the pagan civilizations of the past was necessary in order to prevent the collapse of Christendom.”

Indeed, Francesco Petrarch, the father of Renaissance humanism, saw the late medieval scholastic obsession with Aristotle as positively blasphemous. Those expecting to find the Father of Humanism to be the Father of Lies might be surprised to read what Petrarch says in his vituperations against the Aristotelian philosophers in the “Invective Against His Own Ignorance”:

I would sooner let Christ take from me my life and what I hold dear than I would deny this belief, which is pious, true, and brings salvation – or deny Christ out of love for Aristotle. Let them be philosophers and Aristotelians, even though they are obviously neither. Let them be both. I don’t envy them these distinguished names, which falsely cause them to swell with pride. And let them not envy me the humble and true name of Christian and Catholic.

Truly this is an inversion of the usual tale. Pride-filled scholastic philosophers against pious Renaissance humanists! These medieval Aristotelians are obviously lesser men, not worthy to bear the name of their supposed master. But Petrarch doesn’t hesitate to pass judgment on Aristotle himself:

He discusses happiness at length in the beginning and at the end of his Ethics. Let my critics cry out as they like. Yet I daresay that he was so completely ignorant of true happiness that any devout old woman, or any faithful fisherman, shepherd, or peasant, is happier, though I will not say cleverer in recognizing it.

Petrarch is no iconoclast, at least solely. Laudable as the devout old woman’s and faithful fisherman’s piety are, Petrarch does not advocate for burning books – on the contrary. The cure is better books: “We should not be surprised if Aristotle barely arouses and excites our minds to virtue… By contrast, everyone who has read our Roman authors knows that they touch and pierce our vitals with the sharp, burning barbs of their eloquence.”

Citing Augustine’s testimony regarding Cicero (Petrarch’s favorite), he argues that the eloquent writing of the ancient pagan orators, poets, and historians is more effective in spurring readers on to good deeds than philosophic treatises on virtue or theological examinations of Christian doctrine. What, after all, is the use of knowing about virtue when you are in fact a vicious person? Such knowledge is fruitless, and in Petrarch’s eyes, the scholastics were such barren trees.

The great humanist Leonardo Bruni agreed: Pagan literature was the royal road to virtue. In “On the Study of Literature,” Bruni commends the study of the Greek and Latin orators:

It is the orators who teach us to praise the good deed and to hate the bad; it is they who teach us how to soothe, encourage, stimulate, or deter. All these things the philosophers do, it is true, but in some special way, anger, mercy, and the arousal and pacification of the mind are completely within the power of the orator.

Bruni praises the ancient historians and poets similarly. Yes, philosophy and theology study and elucidate questions of good and evil, virtue and vice, truth and falsehood, but they are powerless to compel their practice. Literature does. (Here, “literature” should be understood to mean something like non-technical, stylistically conscious writing like history, oratory, and poetry.)

So far, so good. This seems to be the operating assumption of the classical education movement – evidence that we do share a common inheritance, handed down to us from Petrarch and his friends. We put great books in front of our students, perhaps also some theology and philosophy here and there, but much more “literature” in the humanist sense: histories, poems, speeches, and tales of all kinds. We expect this, somehow, to produce moral and intellectual benefits in our students.

But what does this have to do with the accusation that AGOGE trades the Transcendent for the earthly, the spiritual for the temporal, the saint for the statesman? Well, the humanist project was, as Hankins shows in Virtue Politics, you guessed it – political. The Renaissance humanists were the men who 600 years ago thought about the Roman Empire every day. They didn’t just think about it every day, though. They wanted to live in it, and made it their life’s work to revive it. As Hankins writes: “Petrarch’s dream was… a new Golden Age emanating from the city of Rome, combining a return to the primitive church with a new, universal imperium Romanorum.” 

Even by the time the Protestant Reformation was in full swing in northern Europe 200 years later, the essentials of this vision were still in force: the sense of living in, or just emerging from, a political, religious, and intellectual darkness; the desire to renew Christendom by reforming its leadership; and the conviction that pagan literature must play a central role in so doing. Some of the details developed and changed over time, but these fundamentals did not.

Since we began with the humanists’ Father, Petrarch, it is only right to turn to their Prince: Desiderius Erasmus. His “Education of a Christian Prince” became a classic of the “mirror for princes” genre. These “mirrors” were done to death by humanists, much as essays in defense of the liberal arts are nowadays. It seems that every humanist wrote such a mirror, and if they did so post-Erasmus, they almost always looked back to him as a model. 

It is worth pausing, as an aside, to ask why this genre of writing, long letters and books advising how a prince is to be raised, be educated, and to rule, was so popular at the time. The answer, I think, has to do with the argument of this essay. But let us take a look at Erasmus’ own justification for his mirror, right at the beginning of “Education of a Christian Prince,” which was addressed to the young boy who would later ascend the throne of the Holy Roman Empire as Charles V:

Wisdom is a wonderful thing, Charles greatest of princes, and no kind of wisdom is rated more excellent by Aristotle than that which teaches how to be a beneficent prince; for Xenophon in his Oeconomicus rightly considers that there is something beyond human nature, something wholly divine, in absolute rule over free and willing subjects.

Is such high praise for political office and the wisdom proper to it solely a feature of the pagans? Not at all! Erasmus continues, turning to the Bible’s testimony concerning the political wisdom Xenophon and Aristotle laud:

This naturally is the wisdom so much to be desired by princes, the one gift which the young Solomon, highly intelligent as he was, prayed for despising all else, and wished to have seated continually beside his royal throne.

Pagans and the Bible alike teach that wisdom in ruling is a treasure of the highest value. Thus the choice of tutor for a prince is of the utmost gravity. This job, says Erasmus, “is in no way an ordinary one: it is both by far the greatest and by far the most hazardous of all.” Part of the difficulty, Erasmus says, arises from the fact that the mass of people the prince rules “are swayed by false opinions, just like those people trussed up in Plato’s cave.” 

It is the role of the prince to rule as one of Plato’s philosopher-kings, unmoved by the illusions of the many. It is not his role to rescue them from the cave. This, so it seems in reading Erasmus, is impossible. The people cannot be wise – but they will be lucky to have a prince who is.

Erasmus and Martin Luther may have been rivals in matters theological, but they shared the broad humanist consensus on education and politics. Luther himself cannot really be accounted a “humanist” in the technical sense – as his rival Erasmus and his protege Philip Melanchthon can – but Luther himself considers this a sorrow. Noting the holistic education to be found among the ancient Greeks, Luther exclaims: “They grew up to be people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything. How I regret now that I did not read more poets and historians, and that no one taught me them!”

Of course, Luther’s knowledge of languages was nothing to scoff at, especially by today’s abysmal standards. But when you arrange for young prodigy Melanchthon to come teach Greek at your university, you naturally set the bar a bit higher. If Luther could self-deprecate, though, he was just as happy to do so collectively, on behalf of all Germans. In his “Address to the City Councilmen of Germany,” he praises not only Greek but also Roman education, to the detriment of Germany:

Their system produced intelligent, wise, and competent men, so skilled in every art and rich in experience that if all the bishops, priests, and monks in the whole of Germany today were rolled into one, you would not have the equal of a single Roman soldier.

This is evidence, according to Luther, that education is enjoined by “simple necessity,” quite apart from any religious obligation. The needs of the state were enough to justify educating the young. Luther leans so heavily on this argument to Germany’s city councilmen that he proposes to them a rather shocking hypothetical:

Now if (as we have assumed) there were no souls, and there were no need at all of schools and languages for the sake of the Scriptures and of God, this one consideration alone would be sufficient to justify the establishment everywhere of the very best schools for both boys and girls, namely, that in order to maintain its temporal estate outwardly the world must have good and capable men and women, men able to rule well over land and people, women able to manage the household and train children and servants aright. Now such men must come from our boys, and such women from our girls.

Like the Italian humanists, Luther is fired by a hope that his corrupt, blockheaded countrymen will look to the examples of the pagans and renew their own country by following their example. 

But we can hardly accuse Martin Luther for this reason of not caring for souls. Did Martin Luther of all people not hope for all Germans, and all men, to be saints? It was, one could say, precisely that hope that motivated his life’s work and the Reformation he ignited! 

Even in this very political oration, he makes the dual character of education – both religious and secular, both spiritual and temporal – explicit. The ancient languages and liberal arts, he says, are an “ornament, profit, glory, and benefit, both for the understanding of Holy Scripture and the conduct of temporal government.” Luther has no problem seeing the Renaissance revival of ancient language study as the work of Providence for the coming purification of the Church and defeat of Satan, while simultaneously hymning the wisdom and excellence of the pagan Greeks and Romans and exhorting his countrymen to their emulation for the glory of Germany.

The other great first-generation Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, had no compunction about educating the young in such a way that they would serve God and serve the state. Christ, Zwingli says, is our model: “We ought to give up ourselves for the good of all men.” Because we “belong to others,” boys must be educated in such a way that they acquire the virtues of righteousness, fidelity, and constancy. Are these to be understood as natural virtues for which we can take the Greeks and Romans as models? Or Christian ones, embodied in the apostles, saints, and martyrs? Probably both. Zwingli says this of the boy who has acquired these virtues:

He can serve the Christian community, the common good, the state, and individuals. Only the weak are concerned to find a quiet life: the most like to God are those who study to be of profit to all even to their own hurt.

Given such sentiments of magnificence coming even from the churchmen of the Reformation, how can we gainsay their allegiance to the humanist project? Centuries prior, Petrarch had found in Cicero’s “Pro Archia Poeta” the manifesto for his project of humanist virtue politics. Zwingli’s words here, in his educational treatise to a young nobleman, resound in the same key – that of a learned self-sacrifice for the good of the state – as those of Cicero uttered in a Roman court 1,600 years prior:

Let shame fall upon the bookish recluse who is unable to deliver the fruits of his learning to the city… Had I not been persuaded in my youth by many lessons and many books, that nothing in life is to be desired more than glory and honor, and that in their pursuit, the excruciating torture of the body, the danger of death, and the danger of exile, are all to be taken lightly, then I would never have for your sake subjected myself to such terrible strife and to the daily attacks of desperate men.

Cicero was the humanists’ model of the “good man speaking well,” who both in word and in deed is of service to his country. This is what the humanists wanted out of their countrymen. The Gospel, in their view, did nothing to dampen the political urgency expressed by the pagans; it merely heightened the importance of education, since now, schools had a role in the salvation both of souls and of the state.

The “true Christian” in Zwingli’s words mustn’t merely “speak about the laws of God”; he must also attempt “great things.” Upbringing, education, and training must develop that which was given by God at birth: “the fair gifts of race, physique, and patrimony,” and even more importantly, “virtue and honor.”

If Zwingli was a true humanist, Philip Melanchthon was the exemplar of one. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to encounter in his writing such overwhelming adulation for the ancient pagans, both for their literature as well as their devotion to their country.

In an oration at Wittenberg, Melanchthon announces his intention “to expound – with the help of the gods – Homer’s poem.” This oration is a panegyric to the genius of Homer, a defense of the reading of poetry and pagan literature, and an introduction to the interpretation of the Iliad and Odyssey, which he refers to jointly as “the Homeric poem.” First, Melanchthon asserts (with a carve-out for God-authored Scripture) the absolute supremacy of Homer among all human writing:

I declare that no work has been brought forth by any human mind since the beginning of the world, in any language or nation – with the exception of the holy scriptures – in which there is such a wealth of teaching or of elegance and pleasantness… I would consider anyone who is not charmed by reading Homer lacking in any sense of humanity: an animal, not a man.

At the time of Melanchthon’s oration, western Europe faced an existential threat: the Ottoman Empire. From its holdings in Greece and the Balkans, it was advancing into central Europe. Within a couple of years, it would take Hungary, and be on Vienna’s doorstep; Wittenberg itself was less than 500 miles from Vienna. Of the many scandals and failures that opened the door to the Renaissance assault on the medieval system beginning in the 1300s, Christendom’s failure to stop the Ottomans was a crucial one, and Europe’s situation had only grown worse in the intervening two centuries. What the leaders of Europe needed, Melanchthon said, was Homer:

What is more heroic than Hector saying: “There is one perfect omen, to defend one’s country” – that there is one most auspicious sign, and that is to fight bravely and to die nobly for one’s country? If the princes of our times had this sentence before their eyes and inscribed in their hearts, we would not see the Turks attack Germany and the Christian world again and again with impunity, nor would we fear their arrival quite so much. 

This is the perfect distillation of Hankins’ concept of “virtue politics,” transposed from the Italian Renaissance to the Protestant Reformation totally intact: the gory shambles in which Europe found itself was the result of spiritual weakness, particularly among the elite. The only way to revive the elite, and thus save Christendom, was an education rooted in the pagan classics, which constantly enjoined heroic service to the state with the sweetest and most stirring words. Christianity once had conquered pagan Rome; now, paradoxically, Christianity stood in need of the pagans.

So high is the view Melanchthon has of service to the state, derived from – among other things – reading Homer, that he utters something scandalous, perhaps, to the ears of modern “family values” conservatives: your duty to your country is greater than your duty to your family. Melanchthon says that the ideal man depicted in Homer has “a great love for his country, and we know that after the love for God, this is the highest degree of piety and justice.” He offers Herodotus’ Solon as further evidence: the man who dies for his country is happiest; second is he who “fulfills his duty towards his parents.” So extreme is the Homeric hero, says Melanchthon, that he loves his country not only over his family, but over even his own immortality.

The charge Melanchthon lays before his students is the one AGOGE lays before the classical education movement in America. While Melanchthon was speaking in particular about Homer, there’s no reason his words cannot apply to all the great writings of the Greeks and Romans:

When a casket from the spoils of Babylon, made of gold and gems, of enormous value, was brought to him [Alexander the Great] and the others assigned it to various uses for the keeping of precious things, Alexander replied that there was nothing for which the box was more appropriate than for keeping the Homeric poem; for the most noble treasure a no less noble vessel in which to preserve it was proper. We, however, young men, who do not possess golden vessels or ones adorned with jewels, let us nevertheless emulate Alexander the Great and store this valuable treasure in a no less noble casket, namely in our hearts, and adorn and enrich the more excellent and divine part of ourselves by it.

In their great love for the Greek and Roman classics, the humanists saw no contradiction or even tension between studying them for their philosophic insight into the truth of things, for their religious value in forming souls fit for the kingdom of God, or for their political value in stirring men to emulate the magnificent deeds of pagans old.

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Ryan Hammill

Ryan Hammill is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Ancient Language Institute. He runs the marketing, editorial, and business operations of the Institute. He has experience in journalism and digital marketing, and co-hosts the podcast New Humanists with Jonathan Roberts. Get in touch with Ryan on Twitter/X @HammillRyan

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