Ignorance vs. Intentional Stupidity

Hugo of St. Victor, Didascalion

On the Study of Reading – Preface (Part I)

“There are many whom nature has left so destitute of intellect that they are unable to grasp even those things which are easiest to understand; of these people, there seem to be two types. There are certain people who, granting that they are not ignorant of their own dullness, eagerly strive for knowledge with whatever effort they can, and apply themselves to the task with unremitting zeal; though they achieve little from the realization of the work, they seem to deserve something for their efforts. But there are other people who understand that they will never be able to understand the highest things, so they neglect even the smallest ones, and resting secure in their own indolence, we find that the more they waste the light of truth in the most important things, the more they flee from learning the smallest things, which they are actually able to understand. For this reason, the Psalm has it, ‘They did not wish to understand how they could do well.’ Not knowing is, indeed, a far different thing from not wanting to know. Indeed, ignorance is a kind of weakness, but the detestation of knowledge is the sign of a depraved will.

There is, however, yet another group of people whom nature has so enriched that she has offered them a clear approach to the truth. For these people, even if the strength of their mind is not equal to the task, there is not the same virtue or will for cultivating the senses through exercise and natural instruction. For, there are many people who, wrapped up in the business and concerns of this age more than is really necessary, are entirely given to the vices and pleasures of the body, and they bury the treasure of God in the ground; they neither seek the fruit of wisdom, nor the use of good work – these people are on the whole rather detestable. Again, for some people, family poverty or their slender means diminishes the opportunity of learning. Yet, I think that these people can hardly be excused on this account, since we see so many people laboring under famine, thirst, and even want of clothes, who yet attain the fruit of knowledge. Indeed, it is one thing when you are not able (or, I should say, are not easily able) to learn, and it is an entirely different thing when you are able to learn but unwilling to do so. Just as it is more glorious to attain wisdom by virtue alone, when no other opportunities rush to assist you, so too it is much more shameful to have a vigorous intellect and to overflow with wealth while wasting away in idleness.”





[770C] Multi sunt quos ipsa adeo natura ingenio destitutos reliquit ut ea etiam quae facilia sunt intellectu vix capere possint, et horum duo genera mihi esse videntur. [770D] nam sunt quidam, qui, licet suam hebetudinem non ignorent, eo tamen quo valent conamine ad scientiam anhelant, et indesinenter studio insistentes, quod minus habent effectu operis, obtinere merentur effectu voluntatis. ast alii quoniam summa se comprehendere nequaquam posse sentiunt, minima etiam negligunt, et quasi in suo torpore securi quiescentes eo amplius in maximis lumen veritatis perdunt, quo minima quae intelligere possent discere fugiunt. unde psalmista: Noluerunt, inquit, intelligere ut bene agerent. longe enim aliud est nescire atque aliud nolle scire. nescire siquidem infirmitatis est, scientiam vero detestari, pravae voluntatis. est aliud hominum genus quos admodum natura ingenio ditavit et facilem ad veritatem veniendi aditum praestitit, quibus, [771A] etsi impar sit valitudo ingenii, non eadem tamen omnibus virtus aut voluntas est per exercitia et doctrinam naturalem sensum excolendi. nam sunt plerique qui negotiis huius saeculi et curis super quam necesse sit impliciti aut vitiis et voluptatibus corporis dediti, talentum Dei terra obruunt, et ex eo nec fructum sapientiae, nec usuram boni operis quaerunt, qui profecto valde detestabiles sunt. rursus aliis rei familiaris inopia et tenuis census discendi facultatem minuit. quos tamen plene per hoc excusari minime posse credimus, cum plerosque fame siti nuditate laborantes ad scientiae fructum pertingere videamus. [771B] et tamen aliud est cum non possis, aut ut verius dicam, facile non possis discere, atque aliud posse et nolle scire. sicut enim gloriosius est, cum nullae suppetant facultates, sola virtute sapientiam apprehendere, sic profecto turpius est vigere ingenio, divitiis affluere, et torpere otio.

Read Everything, and Attend Every Lecture!

Hugo of St. Victor, Didascalion 3.13 (11-12th Century CE)

“There is no one to whom it has been granted to know everything, but at the same time there is no one who has not chanced to receive some special gift from nature. The prudent reader, then, listens to everyone and reads everything, and spurns no writing, no person, no learning. He seeks from all without discrimination what he sees is lacking in himself, and considers not how much he knows, but how much he does not know. Here, they note that saying of Plato, ‘I prefer to learn everything reverently, rather than to insert my own ideas shamelessly.’ For, why do you blush to learn and feel no shame in ignorance? The first is a greater disgrace than the second. Or, why do you make pretensions to the highest claims when you toss about in the dregs? You should consider, instead, what your abilities are able to accomplish. He approaches the problem best who does so in proper order. Many people, in trying to make a leap, simply fall head-first. Therefore, avoid excessive haste. In this way, you will arrive more quickly to wisdom. Learn gladly what you do not know from everyone, because humility can make common to you what nature has made each person’s private property. You will be wiser than all if you wish to learn from everyone; those who receive gifts from everyone become wiser than everyone.

You should therefore hold no knowledge as worthless, because all knowledge is good. If you have the time, you should not refuse to at least give every writing a once-over. If you find no profit in it, you at least do not waste anything, especially since there is in my opinion no writing which does not at least propose something worthy of being sought, if it is read in a proper spot and order. If a piece of writing does not have anything particularly special about it, the diligent examiner of words will latch on to something not found elsewhere – and the more rare it is, the more delight he will feel.”

nemo est cui omnia scire datum sit, neque quisquam rursum cui aliquid speciale a natura accepisse non contigerit. prudens igitur lector omnes libenter audit, omnia legit, non scripturam, non personam, non doctrinam spernit. indifferenter ab omnibus quod sibi deesse videt quaerit, nec quantum sciat, sed quantum ignoret, considerat. hinc illud Platonicum aiunt: Malo aliena verecunde discere, quam mea impudenter ingerere. cur enim discere erubescis, et nescire non verecundaris? pudor iste maior est illo. aut quid summa affectas cum tu iaceas in imo? considera potius quid vires tuae ferre valeant. aptissime incedit, qui incedit ordinate. [774B] quidam dum magnum saltum facere volunt, praecipitium incidunt. noli ergo nimis festinare. hoc modo citius ad sapientiam pertinges. ab omnibus libenter disce quod tu nescis, quia humilitas commune tibi facere potest quod natura cuique proprium fecit. sapientior omnibus eris, si ab omnibus discere volueris. qui ab omnibus accipiunt, omnibus ditiores sunt.

nullam denique scientiam vilem teneas, quia omnis scientia bona est. nullam, si vacat, scripturam vel saltem legere contemnas. si nihil lucraris, nec perdis aliquid, maxime cum nulla scriptura sit, secundum meam aestimationem, quae aliquid expetendum non proponat, si convenienti loco et ordine tractetur; [774C] quae non aliquid etiam speciale habeat, quod diligens verbi scrutator alibi non inventum, quanto rarius, tanto gratius carpat.

How to Learn; With an Invective Against Pseudo-Intellectuals

Hugo of St. Victor, Didascalion 3.13:

“The beginning of study is humility. Though there are many examples of this, three principles in particular are pertinent to the reader:
First, that he consider no knowledge or writing as worthless;
Second, that he should never blush to learn from anyone;
Third, that once he has gained knowledge, he should not look down upon others.

This has escaped many people, who wished to appear wise before their time. They break out from this point into a certain swollen elation, and begin to pretend to be what they are not while feeling shame about what they are, and withdraw even farther from wisdom in as much as they desire not to be wise, but merely to seem so. I know many people of this sort who, though they do not even know basic principles, feel that it is below their dignity to engage in anything but the highest and most important things, and think that they become important in this way alone, if they read the writings or hear the words of the greatest and wisest writers. They say, ‘We have seen them, we have read from them. They often used to converse with us. Those important, famous writers – they know us!’ I would rather that no one knew me, and that I knew everything! You glory in the fact that you have seen Plato, but have not understood him. I think that it is unworthy of you to listen to me then. I am not Plato, and I have not deserved to see him. This is enough for you: you have drunk from the fountain of philosophy, but would that you were still thirsty! The king has drunk from an earthen cup after using a golden chalice. You have listened to Plato, perhaps you may listen to Chrysippus. As the proverb says, ‘What you don’t know, perhaps Ofellus* knows.’”

*[Perhaps the Stoic philosopher mentioned in Horace’s Satires? I am otherwise unfamiliar with the proverb.]

Principium autem disciplinae humilitas est, cuius cum multa sint documenta, haec tria praecipue ad lectorem pertinent: primum, ut nullam scientiam, nullam scripturam vilem teneat, secundum, ut a nemine discere erubescat, tertium, ut cum scientiam adeptus fuerit, ceteros non contemnat. multos hoc decipit, quod ante tempus, sapientes videri volunt. hinc namque in quendam elationis tumorem prorumpunt, [773D] ut iam et simulare incipiant quod non sunt et quod sunt erubescere, eoque longius a sapientia recedunt quo non esse sapientes, sed putari putant. eiusmodi multos novi, qui, cum primis adhuc elementis indigeant, non nisi summis interesse dignantur, et ex hoc solummodo se magnos fieri putant, si magnorum et sapientium vel scripta legerint vel audierint verba. ‘nos,’ inquiunt, ‘vidimus illos. nos ab illis legimus. saepe nobis loqui illi solebant. illi summi, illi famosi, cognoverunt nos.’ sed utinam me nemo agnoscat et ego cuncta noverim! Platonem vidisse, non intellexisse gioriamini. puto indignum vobis est deinceps ut me audiatis. non ego sum Plato, nec Platonem videre merui. sufficit vobis: ipsum philosophiae fontem potastis, sed utinam adhuc sitiretis! rex post aurea pocula de vase bibit testeo. quid erubescitis? [774A] Platonem audistis, audiatis et Chrysippum. in proverbio dicitur: Quod tu non nosti, fortassis novit Ofellus.

The Devil Who Took a Wife

Jacques de Vitry, Exempla (XX)


“I heard that a certain demon, who had taken the form of a human and was serving a rich man, had pleased the man so much by his industry in servitude that the man gave him his daughter in marriage in addition to great riches. The wife, however, was constantly arguing with her husband day and night and would not allow him to sleep. At the end of the year, the demon said to his wife’s father, ‘I would like to withdraw and return to my homeland.’ The wife’s father said, ‘Have I not given you so much that you want for nothing?’ The demon responded, ‘I will tell you, and won’t hide the truth: my homeland is in Hell, where I never had to deal with as much strife and harassment as I have suffered in this one year from my argumentative wife. I would rather be in Hell than to linger any longer here with her.’ After this speech was finished, he vanished from their sight.”

Audivi quod quidam daemon in specie hominis cuidam diviti homini serviebat et, cum servitium eius et industria multum placerent homini, dedit ei filiam suam in uxorem et divitias multas. Illa autem omni die ac nocte litigabat cum marito suo nec eum quiescere permittebat. In fine autem anni dixit patri uxoris suae: “Volo recedere et in patriam meam redire.” Cui pater uxoris ait: “Nonne multa tibi dedi ita quod nihil desit tibi? Quare vis recedere?” Dixit ille: “Modis omnibus volo repatriare.” Cui socer ait: “Ubi est patria tua?” Ait ille: “Dicam tibi et veritatem non celabo; patria mea est infernus, ubi numquam tantam discordiam vel molestiam sustinui quantam hoc anno passus sum a litigiosa uxore mea. Malo esse in inferno quam amplius cum ipsa commorari.” Et hoc dicto ab oculis eorum evanuit.

The Moderation of Aesthetic and Literary Judgment

R.C. Jebb, Humanism in Education:

“But the conditions under which that early experience was gained are modified when the student passes to the University. It may be that he works under a system which permits him to devote the whole of his academic course to the classical languages and literatures; if so, the humanistic training begun at school is carried to a certain maturity; but it remains exclusively literary. If, on the other hand, he turns, at a certain point, from the general study of the languages and literatures to one or two special subjects, such as ancient philosophy and history, then he is expected to aim at the standards set by modern specialists in those subjects. That through these subjects he can receive an admirable intellectual training, is not disputed. But his range of view is necessarily contracted. The particular educational merits which belong to humanistic studies of a larger scope are different in kind from those which can be claimed for any special department of such studies when isolated from the rest. It may be added that, when specialization has been carried far in any study of literature or art, that study tends to become technical ; and then a danger arises lest the pursuit of exact method should obscure the nature of the material with which the study has to deal, namely, productions of human thought and imagination ; there is a danger lest analogies drawn from studies conversant with different material should be pushed too far, and what is called the scientific spirit should cease to be duly tempered by aesthetic and literary judgment.”

“That Was Spring”

R.C. Jebb, Humanism in Education:

“The younger student, in the highest form of a school where the classics are taught, has not yet reached the moment at which the need of specializing begins to be felt. We will suppose that he has an aptitude and taste for literary studies ; and the number of such boys is always very considerable immensely larger, for instance, than the number of those who are fitted to excel in Greek or Latin composition. When he first attains to some appreciation of the best classical poetry and prose, he goes through a little Renaissance of his own ; he feels the stimulus of discovery ; he perceives, in some measure, a beauty of form unlike anything that he has found elsewhere ; there is much in the thoughts of those great writers, much of their charm, much of their music, that fixes itself in his memory, and becomes part of his consciousness. However dimly and imperfectly, there lives before him a world very distinct from that in which he moves, and yet, as he can already feel, by no means wholly alien from it; though perhaps he does not yet understand with any clearness the nature of the links which bind that past to the present. This, as many masters and pupils could testify, is an experience not confined to the school-boy of exceptional temperament or gifts ; it is one common to a fairly large proportion of boys who have no more than a good average capacity for literary studies in general. And it is an experience which is not forgotten afterwards. Whatever the man’s work may be in after years, if ever he looks back and tries to date epochs in his mental history, he will recur to that early time as a season which made the buds unfold and the leaves grow, which gave him new elements of intellectual life and interest. Ver illud erat.”

Narrow Specialization vs. Humanism

R.C. Jebb, Humanism in Education:

“The ideal of humanism has thus been reinforced in a manner which brings back to us something of the spirit which animated the Renaissance when it was largest and most vigorous. For the enthusiasm of the Renaissance was nourished by the monuments of classical art scarcely less than by the masterpieces of literature. Each statue that was disinterred from Italian soil, every stone or coin or gem that could help to illustrate the past, became a source of delight to men whose strenuous aim was to apprehend classical antiquity as a whole.

But the very progress made in recent times has brought us to a point at which the larger educational benefits of humanism become more difficult to harmonise with the new standards of special knowledge. A full comprehension of the Greek and Latin literatures demands at least some study of ancient thought, ancient history, archaeology, art. But each of the latter subjects is now, in itself, an organized and complex discipline ; to become an expert in any one of them is a work of years. Hence much can be said in favour of a plan by which the University student, who is to devote a course of three or four years to the humane letters, confines himself, during the earlier stage of it, to the languages and literatures ; then turns away from these, viewed in their wider range, and concentrates himself, for the rest of his time, on one or two important aspects of classical antiquity, such as philosophy and history, to the exclusion of the rest.”