The Annoying Liberal Arts

Seneca, Moral Epistle 88

“But, truly, the knowledge of many disciplines is pleasurable”. Ok, then, let’s keep only what is necessary from these arts. Do you think that the person who considers superficial matters equal to useful ones and for this reason makes his home a museum of expensive products is reprehensible but not the man who is obsessed with the superfluous aspects of academia? To want to know more than is enough is a kind of excessive delusion.

Why? Well, this extreme pursuit of the liberal arts makes people annoying, wordy, bad-mannered, and overly self-satisfied, even though they have not learned the basics because they pursue the useless.

The scholar Didymus wrote four thousand books. I would pity him if had only read that many useless works. In these books he searched for Homer’s homeland, the real mother of Aeneas, whether Anacreon is more licentious or just drunk, whether Sappho was promiscuous and other various questions which, if you learned them, would have been necessarily forgotten. Go on, don’t say life is long. No, when you turn to your own people too, I will show you many things which should be pruned back with an ax.”

“At enim delectat artium notitia multarum.” Tantum itaque ex illis retineamus, quantum necessarium est. An tu existimas reprendendum, qui supervacua usibus conparat et pretiosarum rerum pompam in domo explicat, non putas eum, qui occupatus est in supervacua litterarum supellectile? Plus scire velle quam sit satis, intemperantiae genus est.

Quid? Quod ista liberalium artium consectatio molestos, verbosos, intempestivos, sibi placentes facit et ideo non discentes necessaria, quia supervacua didicerunt. Quattuor milia librorum Didymus grammaticus scripsit. Misererer, si tam multa supervacua legisset. In his libris de patria Homeri quaeritur, in his de Aeneae matre vera, in his libidinosior Anacreon an ebriosior vixerit, in his an Sappho publica fuerit, et alia, quae erant dediscenda, si scires. I nunc et longam esse vitam nega. Sed ad nostros quoque cum perveneris, ostendam multa securibus recidenda.

These are themes close to the old man’s heart, elsewhere too:

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 108

“But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

Image result for medieval manuscript animal teacher
ca. 1350 | The Morgan Library & Museum

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship (Ausonius)

“It is difficult to imagine that a man capable of writing such trifles as these (not to mention his lines on the Caesars and on celebrated cities) had some ten years previously (in 378 a.d.) filled the splendid position of praetorian praefect of the provinces of Gaul (an official whose sway extended even over Spain and the opposite coast of Africa, and over the southern part of Britain), and, in the four years between 376 and 380, had seen his father honorary praefect of lllyricum, his son and son-in-law proconsuls of Africa, and his nephew praefect of Rome. It seems as if, on his return to the scenes of his early work as a professor at Bordeaux, the praefect relapsed into the ‘ grammarian ‘, spending his time on learned trifles, which are among the least important products of scholarship, and consoling himself in his tedious task by recalling Virgil’s famous phrase: — ‘in tenui labor, at tenuis non gloria’. We may regret that Ausonius does not appear to have used his great opportunities for reforming the educational system which prevailed in the schools of the Western Empire, and thus rendering a lasting service to the cause of learning; but we may allow him the credit of having possibly inspired the memorable decree promulgated by Gratian in 376, which improved the status of public instructors by providing for the appointment of teachers of rhetoric and of Greek and Latin ‘ grammar ‘ in the principal cities of Gaul, and fixing the amount of their stipends ‘. “

Attracting the Greatest Numbers of Students with the Least Truth

Isocrates, Against the Sophists 9-10

“We must rebuke not only those sophists but also those who promise to teach political oratory—for these guys don’t care at all about the truth but instead think that it is an art because they get the greatest number of students thanks to the small size of their fee and the greatness of their pronouncements and then they get something from them.

They are so imperceptive and imagine everyone else to be that even though they write speeches worse than some of the untrained masses compose, they still guarantee that they will make their students the kinds of politicians who never leave out any of the possibilities in a matter.

Even worse, they don’t derive any of that power from their experiences or the talent of a student, but they say that they can train the knowledge of speaking as they would basic literacy—in reality, each of them believe that because of the insanity of their promises they will be objects of wonder and that people will think that training in their discipline is worth more than it is. In this, they have not even considered that the people who make arts great are not those who dare to boast about them, but those who have the ability to discover what the power of each art is on its own.”

Οὐ μόνον δὲ τούτοις ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς τοὺς πολιτικοὺς λόγους ὑπισχνουμένοις ἄξιον ἐπιτιμῆσαι καὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνοι τῆς μὲν ἀληθείας οὐδὲν φροντίζουσιν, ἡγοῦνται δὲ τοῦτ᾿ εἶναι τὴν τέχνην, ἢν ὡς πλείστους τῇ μικρότητι τῶν μισθῶν καὶ τῷ μεγέθει τῶν ἐπαγγελμάτων προσαγάγωνται καὶ λαβεῖν τι παρ᾿ αὐτῶν δυνηθῶσιν· οὕτω δ᾿ ἀναισθήτως αὐτοί τε διάκεινται καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους ἔχειν ὑπειλήφασιν, ὥστε χεῖρον γράφοντες τοὺς λόγους ἢ τῶν ἰδιωτῶν τινες αὐτοσχεδιάζουσιν, ὅμως ὑπισχνοῦνται τοιούτους ῥήτορας τοὺς συνόντας ποιήσειν ὥστε μηδὲν τῶν ἐνόντων ἐν τοῖς πράγμασι παραλιπεῖν. καὶ ταύτης τῆς δυνάμεως οὐδὲν [293]οὔτε ταῖς ἐμπειρίαις οὔτε τῇ φύσει τῇ τοῦ μαθητοῦ μεταδιδόασιν, ἀλλά φασιν ὁμοίως τὴν τῶν λόγων ἐπιστήμην ὥσπερ τὴν τῶν γραμμάτων παραδώσειν, ὡς μὲν ἔχει τούτων ἑκάτερον, οὐκ ἐξετάσαντες, οἰόμενοι δὲ διὰ τὰς ὑπερβολὰς τῶν ἐπαγγελμάτων αὐτοί τε θαυμασθήσεσθαι καὶ τὴν παίδευσιν τὴν τῶν λόγων πλέονος ἀξίαν δόξειν εἶναι, κακῶς εἰδότες ὅτι μεγάλας ποιοῦσι τὰς τέχνας οὐχ οἱ τολμῶντες ἀλαζονεύεσθαι περὶ αὐτῶν, ἀλλ᾿ οἵτινες ἄν, ὅσον ἔνεστιν ἐν ἑκάστῃ, τοῦτ᾿ ἐξευρεῖν δυνηθῶσιν.

Vaticanus Graecus, 65. 121v Public Domain

 

Beginning with the End in Mind for 2500 Years

Isocrates, To the Children of Jason 7

“These are the reasons why I first said that the first principle to offer is one of the most frequently repeated. For I am in the habit of telling those who attend our school that the first thing they must consider is what must be accomplished by the whole speech and its parts. When we have figured this out and we judge it completely, then I say that we must think about the forms that will advance and complete the goal we have established.

Now, I offer this advice about argumentation but this also applies as a rule into all other matters and your affairs too. For nothing is able to be done in an intentional fashion if you do not first take an accounting and take council with great forethought of how you need to arrange the rest of your lives, what life work you should choose, what kind of reputation you should pursue, and what achievements you will delight in—whether they are those which come willingly from your fellow citizens or those they give up unwillingly.”

τούτου δ᾿ ἕνεκα ταῦτα προεῖπον, ὅτι τὸ πρῶτον ἐπιφερόμενον ἓν τῶν τεθρυλημένων ἐστίν. εἴθισμαι γὰρ λέγειν πρὸς τοὺς περὶ τὴν φιλοσοφίαν τὴν ἡμετέραν διατρίβοντας ὅτι τοῦτο πρῶτον δεῖ σκέψασθαι, τί τῷ λόγῳ καὶ τοῖς τοῦ λόγου μέρεσι διαπρακτέον ἐστίν· ἐπειδὰν δὲ τοῦθ᾿ εὕρωμεν καὶ διακριβωσώμεθα, ζητητέον εἶναί φημι τὰς ἰδέας δι᾿ ὧν ταῦτ᾿ ἐξεργασθήσεται καὶ λήψεται τέλος ὅπερ ὑπεθέμεθα. καὶ ταῦτα φράζω μὲν ἐπὶ τῶν λόγων, ἔστι δὲ τοῦτο στοιχεῖον καὶ κατὰ τῶν ἄλλων ἁπάντων καὶ κατὰ τῶν ὑμετέρων πραγμάτων. οὐδὲν γὰρ οἷόν τ᾿ ἐστὶ πραχθῆναι νοῦν ἐχόντως, ἂν μὴ τοῦτο πρῶτον μετὰ πολλῆς προνοίας λογίσησθε καὶ βουλεύσησθε, πῶς χρὴ τὸν ἐπίλοιπον χρόνον ὑμῶν αὐτῶν προστῆναι καὶ τίνα βίον προελέσθαι καὶ ποίας δόξης ὀριγνηθῆναι καὶ ποτέρας τῶν τιμῶν ἀγαπῆσαι, τὰς παρ᾿ ἑκόντων γιγνομένας ἢ τὰς παρ᾿ ἀκόντων τῶν πολιτῶν·

Libanius, Autobiography F90 17

“The education of the young had been taken up by people little different from the young themselves.”

τῆς ἀρχῆς τῶν νέων ὑπ᾿ ἀνδρῶν οὐ πολύ τι νέων διαφερόντων ἡρπασμένης

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Students without Teaching: Against Illiterate Literacy

Plato, Phaedrus 274e-275a (go here for the full dialogue)

Socrates is telling a story of the invention of writing in Egypt

“When it came to the written letters, Theuth said, ‘This training, King, will make Egyptians wiser and will give them stronger memories: for it is a drug for memory and wisdom!’ But the king replied, “Most inventive Theuth, one man is able to create technology, but another judges how much harm and benefit it brings to those who use it. Just so now you, who are father of letters, declare the opposite of what they are capable because of your enthusiasm.

This craft will engender forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it from the disuse of the memory since they will trust external writing struck by others, no longer recalling their own thoughts within them. You have discovered a drug for reminding, not one for memory; you will offer students the reputation of wisdom but not the true thing. For many who become students without instruction will seem to know a lot when they are mostly ignorant and difficult to be around, since they have become wise for appearance instead of wise in truth.’

Ph. Socrates, you can easily make up any story about Egypt that you want to…”

ἐπειδὴ δ’ ἐπὶ τοῖς γράμμασιν ἦν, Τοῦτο δέ, ὦ βασιλεῦ, τὸ μάθημα, ἔφη ὁ Θεύθ,

σοφωτέρους Αἰγυπτίους καὶ μνημονικωτέρους παρέξει, μνήμης τε γὰρ καὶ σοφίας φάρμακον εὑρέθη. ῾Ο δ’ εἶπεν, ῏Ω τεχνικώτατε Θεύθ, ἄλλος μὲν δυνατὸς τεκεῖν τὰ τέχνης, ἄλλος δὲ κρῖναι, τίν’ ἔχει μοῖραν βλάβης τε καὶ ὠφελείας τοῖς μέλλουσι χρῆσθαι. Καὶ νῦν σὺ πατὴρ ὢν γραμμάτων δι’ εὔνοιαν τοὐναντίον εἶπες ἢ δύναται. Τοῦτο γὰρ τῶν μαθόντων λήθην μὲν ἐν ψυχαῖς παρέξει, μνήμης ἀμελετησίᾳ, ἅτε διὰ πίστιν γραφῆς ἔξωθεν ὑπ’ ἀλλοτρίων τύπων, οὐκ ἔνδοθεν αὐτοὺς ὑφ’ αὑτῶν ἀναμιμνησκομένους. Οὐκοῦν οὐ μνήμης ἀλλ’ ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον εὗρες, σοφίας δὲ τοῖς μαθηταῖς δόξαν οὐκ ἀλήθειαν πορίζεις. πολυήκοοι γάρ σοι γενόμενοι ἄνευ διδαχῆς πολυγνώμονες εἶναι δόξουσιν, ἀγνώμονες ὡς ἐπὶ πλῆθος ὄντες καὶ χαλεποὶ ξυνεῖναι, δοξόσοφοι γεγονότες ἀντὶ σοφῶν.

ὦ Σώκρατες, ῥᾳδίως σὺ Αἰγυπτίους καὶ ὁποδαποὺς ἂν ἐθέλῃς λόγους ποιεῖς.

Image result for Ancient Egyptian writing

The Annoying Liberal Arts, Or: Seneca Goes Full-on Bauerlain

Seneca, Moral Epistle 88

“But, truly, the knowledge of many disciplines is pleasurable”. Ok, then, let’s keep only what is necessary from these arts. Do you think that the person who considers superficial matters equal to useful ones and for this reason makes his home a museum of expensive products is reprehensible but not the man who is obsessed with the superfluous aspects of academia? To want to know more than is enough is a kind of excessive delusion.

Why? Well, this extreme pursuit of the liberal arts makes people annoying, wordy, bad-mannered, and overly self-satisfied, even though they have not learned the basics because they pursue the useless.

The scholar Didymus wrote four thousand books. I would pity him if had only read that many useless works. In these books he searched for Homer’s homeland, the real mother of Aeneas, whether Anacreon is more licentious or just drunk, whether Sappho was promiscuous and other various questions which, if you learned them, would have been necessarily forgotten. Go on, don’t say life is long. No, when you turn to your own people too, I will show you many things which should be pruned back with an ax.”

“At enim delectat artium notitia multarum.” Tantum itaque ex illis retineamus, quantum necessarium est. An tu existimas reprendendum, qui supervacua usibus conparat et pretiosarum rerum pompam in domo explicat, non putas eum, qui occupatus est in supervacua litterarum supellectile? Plus scire velle quam sit satis, intemperantiae genus est.

Quid? Quod ista liberalium artium consectatio molestos, verbosos, intempestivos, sibi placentes facit et ideo non discentes necessaria, quia supervacua didicerunt. Quattuor milia librorum Didymus grammaticus scripsit. Misererer, si tam multa supervacua legisset. In his libris de patria Homeri quaeritur, in his de Aeneae matre vera, in his libidinosior Anacreon an ebriosior vixerit, in his an Sappho publica fuerit, et alia, quae erant dediscenda, si scires. I nunc et longam esse vitam nega. Sed ad nostros quoque cum perveneris, ostendam multa securibus recidenda.

These are themes close to the old man’s heart, elsewhere too:

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 108

“But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

Image result for medieval manuscript animal teacher
 ca. 1350 | The Morgan Library & Museum

“Give the Child a Book and Order Them to Read”

Polybius, Histories 10.47 7-12

“There are many other examples which provide proof for this, but the clearest one of all is that from reading. In this case, if someone sets a person who is illiterate and unaccustomed to reading but not a fool and then place next to him a child who can read, give the child a book and order them to read what is written, it is clear that the man would not be able to believe that while reading one must first understand the image of each letter, then the value of its sound, and then the possible combinations with other letters, all things that require a great deal of time.

When he sees the child reading without pausing seven or five lines, he will not easily be able to believe that the child has not read the book before. He will straight out deny it if the reader observes the rhythm, the pauses, the rough breathings and the smooth breathings too. We should not bar for ourselves, then, anything which is useful because it appears to be difficult at first. No, we must use the force of habit, the means by which humans achieve all good things and even more so when it concerns the matters upon which our very safety depends.”

τοῦ δὲ τοιούτου λόγου παραδείγματα μὲν πολλὰ καὶ ἕτερα πρὸς πίστιν, ἐναργέστατον δὲ τὸ γινόμενον ἐπὶ τῆς ἀναγνώσεως. ἐπὶ γὰρ ἐκείνης, εἴ τις παραστησάμενος ἄνθρωπον ἄπειρον μὲν καὶ ἀσυνήθη γραμματικῆς, τἄλλα δ᾿ ἀγχίνουν, κἄπειτα παιδάριον ἕξιν ἔχον παραστήσας καὶ δοὺς βυβλίον κελεύοι λέγειν τὰ γεγραμμένα, δῆλον ὡς οὐκ ἂν δύναιτο πιστεῦσαι διότι <δεῖ> πρῶτον ἐπὶ τὰς ὄψεις τὰς ἑνὸς ἑκάστου τῶν γραμμάτων ἐπιστῆσαι τὸν ἀναγινώσκοντα, δεύτερον ἐπὶ τὰς δυνάμεις, τρίτον ἐπὶ τὰς πρὸς ἄλληλα συμπλοκάς, ὧν ἕκαστον ποσοῦ χρόνου τινὸς δεῖται.διόπερ ὅταν ἀνεπιστάτως θεωρῇ τὸ παιδάριον ὑπὸ τὴν ἀναπνοὴν ἑπτὰ καὶ πέντε στίχους συνεῖρον, οὐκ ἂν εὐχερῶς δύναιτο πιστεῦσαι διότι πρότερον οὗτος οὐκ ἀνέγνωκε τὸ βυβλίον· εἰ δὲ καὶ τὴν ὑπόκρισιν καὶ τὰς διαιρέσεις, ἔτι δὲ δασύτητας καὶ ψιλότητας δύναιτο συσσῴζειν, οὐδὲ τελέως. διόπερ οὐκ ἀποστατέον οὐδενὸς τῶν χρησίμων διὰ τὰς προφαινομένας δυσχερείας, προσακτέον δὲ τὴν ἕξιν, ᾗ πάντα τὰ καλὰ γίνεται θηρατὰ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, ἄλλως τε καὶ περὶ τῶν τοιούτων, ἐν οἷς πολλάκις κεῖται τὸ συνέχον τῆς σωτηρίας.

Image result for ancient greek child reading