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Pilot Fish (The Defense, Part 12 1/2)

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This week end is not going to be as productive as others have been, because I’ve got things to do and not a lot of time to blog.

But it occurred to me yesterday that I know of something that might help to illustrate the decadence of the Renaissance and the way in which the liberal arts were being transformed during that period from what they began as (the education that makes a self governing people) to what they always become in decadent periods  (a form of accessory for the rich and their followers).

There was a man in the early Renaissance named Pier Paolo Vergerio.  He’s little read or known now, but in his lifetime he was something of a major deal.  He was renowned as a scholar, and taught at three or four of the major universities, including Bologna, the most prestigious one. 

In 1402, he published a small book called, in Latin, Di Ingenuis Moribus.  I went looking for a translation this morning, but I couldn’t find one.  I didn’t have a lot of time to look, though, so you may have more luck.  My guess is that Loeb will probably have a dual language edition of it.

At any rate, the point about this book is this:  it is a guide to what studies should be undertaken by “freeborn youths” in order to develop “noble minds.”

The intent, in other words, is the same as that claimed by John of Salisbury and Hugh of St. Victor almost two hundred years earlier.

The intent is the same, but the content is not.

It doesn’t take long to realize that when Vergerio says “noble,” he’s not talking about nobility of mind but nobility of earthly station.   Where Hugh and John wanted to make “great souls” whose very existence would result in (as the Jesuits would later say) “the greater glory of God,” what Vergerio wanted was to make sure that young men of “good family” were educated in a way that emphasized their upper-class status and made them an asset in the company of other men and women of high birth.

And although Vergerio says that such youths should be taught to value learning over wealth and status, it’s not because he thinks that wisdom lies in despising temporal advantage, but because he thinks it’s vulgar for to chase after such things.  After all, the truly noble youth is born to wealth and status.  He doesn’t have to seek it.  Anybody who does have to seek it is, well, obviously declasse.

The kicker comes in the way in which Vergerio describes the course of studies such young men should persue.

Should he study art?  Well, to an extent–after all, it’s a noble activity to buy statues and vases, and studying art will help the noble youth recognize the real thing and reject fakes, so he’s not cheated by salesmen.  As for all that other stuff, perspective and color and that kind of thing, that’s for ordinary tradesmen, painters and people like that.  It would harm the noble youth’s mind to know it.

The judgments go like that on subject after subject.  Medicine?  Absolutely not, that’s for butchers.  Literature?  Absolutely, that gives examples of noble people acting nobly for him to follow. 

And then there’s the level of the work itself.  Noble youths should not be required to work too hard or too much.   As freeborn members of the better classes, they are born with high spirits and a natural dislike of being “yoked” to the grinding drudgery of work. 

They should be given ample time to express their natural high spirits, and to compete in “noble contests” like wrestling and other sports.

This from the man who was probably the preeminent scholar of his day, and one of the most important and influential educators.

He sounds like the headmaster of one of those private schools where self-expression is the beginning and end of education and standardized tests are verboten because they might stifle the students’ creative flow.

I’ve got to go teach class.

Maybe more tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 15th, 2011 at 10:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Pilot Fish (The Defense, Part 12 1/2)'

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  1. ” I went looking for a translation this morning, but I couldn’t find one. I didn’t have a lot of time to look, though, so you may have more luck.”



    15 Oct 11 at 11:13 am

  2. So now our golden youth in our “best” universities are told that you judge art by folowing the right critics, all the way to rotting sharks and soup can labels, that there are no noble deeds, and any fiction depicting such is beneath them, and that while it’s tacky to make and sell things like Jobs or sell them cheaper like Walton, it’s noble to make your pile in book deals speaker’s fees and shady real estate transactions paid for by the people you rule.

    I think Vergerio would be an improvement.


    15 Oct 11 at 12:25 pm

  3. I used to hear the expression “Gentleman’s C” about people who went to university for the social life and contacts rather than education.


    15 Oct 11 at 6:31 pm

  4. “Gentleman’s C” was for men; “MRS degree” was for women.



    16 Oct 11 at 9:27 pm

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