Back to School Week: The Importance of the Liberal Arts

Earlier in the year, we posted Socrates’ odd depiction of the life of the mind as without emotion and pleasure followed by rather gentle epistolary reflections on the urge (or compulsion!) to publish. Here are some Roman thoughts on academic endeavors.

Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20

“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”

“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant.

Cicero, De Finibus 5.18

“Don’t we observe that people who are attracted to academic studies and the arts take no account of strength or business when they are dedicated to thought itself and knowledge and they are compensated by the pleasure they derive from learning? Homer seems to me to have understood this when he composed the verses about the Sirens. For they did not seem to attract those who were traveling past by the sweetness of their voices or the newness and variety of their singing, but the men used to cling to their rocks because of a passion for learning the many things they claimed to know.”

qui ingenuis studiis atque artibus delectantur, nonne videmus eos nec valetudinis nec rei familiaris habere rationem omniaque perpeti ipsa cognitione et scientia captos et cum maximis curis et laboribus compensare 49eam quam ex discendo capiant voluptatem? Mihi quidem Homerus huiusmodi quiddam vidisse videtur in iis quae de Sirenum cantibus finxerit. Neque enim vocum suavitate videntur aut novitate quadam et varietate cantandi revocare eos solitae qui praetervehebantur, sed quia multa se scire profitebantur, ut homines ad earum saxa discendi cupiditate adhaerescerent.

Cicero, De Senectute 30

“No teachers of the liberal arts should considered unlucky even when they have aged and lost their physical strength”

nec ulli bonarum artium magistri non beati putandi, quamvis consenuerint vires atque defecerint.

Seneca, De Otio 5

“For have we not seen how great nor how many things there are, but our sight lays open a path of investigation and lays the bedrock of truth so that our inquiry may move from well-known things to hidden and discover something older than the world itself…”

Nec enim omnia nec tanta visimus quanta sunt, sed acies nostra aperit sibi investigandi viam et fundamenta vero iacit, ut inquisitio transeat ex apertis in obscura et aliquid ipso mundo inveniat antiquius…

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, V:

“Therefore, we should all consider our own natural ability at our own prompting, or, if such consideration is not possible because of one’s age, our parents and others to whom we are dear should turn their attention to this; and we should then exercise our industry and totally absorb ourselves in those pursuits which we are most inclined to by nature. Indeed, those especially who possess liberal intellectual talent should not be allowed to waste away in idle leisure or to be wrapped up in illiberal business.”

Principio igitur erit unicuique suum ingenium per se spectandum aut, si minus per aetatem nobis perpendere licebit, parentes ceterique quibus curae erimus animadvertere debebunt, et in quas res natura proni aptique fuerimus, eo potissimum studia nostra conferri et in eis totos versari conveniet. Maxime vero qui sunt liberale ingenium a natura consecuti, sinendi non sunt aut inerti otio torpere aut illiberalibus implicari negotiis.

Image result for Ancient Roman scholars

A twitter correspondent desired the addition of a passage. We aim to please…

Cicero, De Oratore I.20

“And, by my judgment, no one could be an orator worthy of all praise unless he has pursued learning in all the significant subject and arts. Surely, it is from an understanding of these things that oratory may blossom and grow. Unless this material is sensed and transmitted through his speech, an orator will possess empty, even childish language. Indeed, I will not completely place such a weight upon our orators—especially not our own who  labor in so much distraction from our urban life—that I believe that there is nothing which they may not know—even though the power of the name orator and the very claim of speaking well seems to accept and promise the ability to speak well and at length about any subject which is proposed.”

Ac, mea quidem sententia, nemo poterit esse omni laude cumulatus orator, nisi erit omnium rerum magnarum atque artium scientiam consecutus. Etenim ex rerum cognitione efflorescat et redundet oportet oratio; quae, nisi subest res ab oratore percepta et cognita, inanem quamdam habet elocutionem, 21et paene puerilem. Neque vero ego hoc tantum oneris imponam nostris praesertim oratoribus, in hac tanta occupatione urbis ac vitae, nihil ut eis putem licere nescire: quanquam vis oratoris professioque ipsa bene dicendi, hoc suscipere ac polliceri videtur, ut omni de re, quaecumque sit proposita, ab 22eo ornate copioseque dicatur.

From Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights Book 13

17. That humanitas does not mean that which the common people believe it does but those who speak more properly use this word with a different meaning.

“Those who have spoken Latin and have used it correctly do not give the word humanitas the meaning which it commonly acquires, one equivalent to Greek philanthropia, indicating a certain kindly disposition and well-wishing toward all men indiscriminately. No, in correct use, humanitas means what the Greeks call paideia, what we have called education and training in the noble arts—these are the arts through which, when men learn them, they become most humanized. For the pursuit of this knowledge and the discipline derived from it has been given alone to mankind of all the animals—this is what it is called humanitas.

This is the way in which older writers use the word and among them especially Marcus Varro and Marcus Tullius, as nearly all the books show. I therefore consider it enough to offer a single example. So,  I quote hear the words from Varro’s first book of Human Antiquities, whose beginning goes like this: “Praxiteles, who thanks to his unparalleled artwork, is famous to anyone who has a little bit of liberal learning [humaniori].” Varro, here, does not use humaniori in a colloquial sense, as “easy-going, kind, or friendly, without knowledge of letters”—this meaning does not at all match his statement. What he means with it is a “man of some learning and training” who would know who Praxiteles was from books and spoken accounts.”

XVII. “Humanitatem” non significare id, quod volgus putat, sed eo vocabulo, qui sinceriter locuti sunt, magis proprie esse usos.

Qui verba Latina fecerunt quique his probe usi sunt, “humanitatem” non id esse voluerunt, quod volgus existimat quodque a Graecis philanthropia dicitur et significat dexteritatem quandam benivolentiamque erga omnis homines promiscam, sed “humanitatem” appellaverunt id propemodum, quod Graeci paideian vocant, nos eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artis dicimus. Quas qui sinceriter cupiunt adpetuntque, hi sunt vel maxime humanissimi. Huius enim scientiae cura et disciplina ex universis animantibus uni homini datast idcircoque “humanitas” appellata est.

Sic igitur eo verbo veteres esse usos et cumprimis M. Varronem Marcumque Tullium omnes ferme libri declarant. Quamobrem satis habui unum interim exemplum promere. III. Itaque verba posui Varronis e libro rerum humanarum primo, cuius principium hoc est: “Praxiteles, qui propter artificium egregium nemini est paulum modo humaniori ignotus”. IV. “Humaniori” inquit non ita, ut vulgo dicitur, facili et tractabili et benivolo, tametsi rudis litterarum sit – hoc enim cum sententia nequaquam convenit -, sed eruditiori doctiorique, qui Praxitelem, quid fuerit, et ex libris et ex historia cognoverit.

R.C. Jebb, Humanism in Education:

“Classical studies help to preserve sound standards of literature. It is not difficult to lose such standards, even for a nation with the highest material civilisation, with abounding mental activity, and with a great literature of its own. It is peculiarly easy to do so in days when the lighter and more ephemeral kinds of writing form for many people the staple of daily reading, The fashions of the hour may start a movement, not in the best direction, which may go on until the path is difficult to retrace. The humanities, if they cannot prevent such a movement, can do something to temper and counteract it ; because they appeal to permanent things, to the instinct for beauty in human nature, and to the emotions ; and in any one who is at all susceptible to their influence they develop a literary conscience. Nor is this all. Their power in the higher education will affect the quality of the literary teaching lower down. Every one can see how vitally important it is for us, in this country and at this moment, to maintain, in our general education, a proper balance of subjects, and to secure that, while scientific and technical studies have full scope, a due efficacy shall be given also to the studies of literature and history.”

Ac de doctrinis quidem et ingeniis ac utrorumque generibus ita videtur definiendum. In quibus est id ante omnia animadvertendum, quod non modo maiora illa praecepta quae provectoribus traduntur, sed et prima quoque atrium elementa ab optimis praeceptoribus accipere convenit, et ex auctoribus librorum, non quibuslibet passim immorari, sed optimis. Qua ratione et Philippus, rex Macedonum, primas litteras ab Aristotele discere Alexandrum voluit, et veteres Romanos suos liberos scholae mancipantes in Vergilio primum erudiri curabant; optima utrique ratione. Nam quod teneris mentibus insitum est, alte radices mittit, nec facile postea divelli ulla vi potest. Ergo si melioribus initio assueverint, illos habebunt praecipuos et veluti ducibus semper utentur. Sin vero errores ullos imbiberint, his duplici tempore opus erit, primum ut errores excutiant, ac deinde ut vera praecepta condiscant. Quamobrem Timotheus, musicus suo tempore illustris, qui ob multiplicatas in cithara chordas et novorum modorum adinventionem Sparta iussus est exulare, ab discipulis quidem, qui nihil apud alios profecissent, certam paciscebatur mercedem, ab iis vero, qui ex aliis quippiam edidicerant, duplam exigebat.

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