Petrus Paulus Vergerius: The New Education (c. 1400)
P. P. Vergerius the Elder (1370-1444) was a teacher at Florence,
Bologna, and Padua. He was present at the Council of Constance,
and later worked for the Emperor Sigismund.
Soon after 1400, he wrote the first important Renaissance treatise
on education for Ubertino, the son of Francesco Carrara, lord
of Padua. Printed here, it represented a sort of humanist program.
It does discuss the medieval trivium and quadrivium,
along with the traditional disciplines of medicine, law and theology.
But the stress is on the newer "liberal studies," of
history, moral philosophy, rhetoric, and literature.
We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man;
those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom;
that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest
gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly
judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only. For to a vulgar
temper gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence, to a lofty
nature, moral worth and fame. It is, then, of the highest importance
that even from infancy this aim, this effort, should constantly
be kept alive in growing minds. For I may affirm with fullest
conviction that we shall not have attained wisdom in our later
years unless in our earliest we have sincerely entered on its
search. Nor may we for a moment admit, with the unthinking crowd,
that those who give early promise fail in subsequent fulfillment.
This may, partly from physical causes, happen in exceptional
cases. But there is no doubt that nature has endowed some children
with so keen, so ready an intelligence, that without serious effort
they attain to a notable power of reasoning and conversing upon
grave and lofty subjects, and by aid of right guidance and sound
learning reach in manhood the highest distinction. On the other
hand, children of modest powers demand even more attention, that
their natural defects may be supplied by art. But all alike must
in those early years,
Dum faciles animi iuvenum, dum mobilis aetas
whilst the mind is supple, be inured to the toil and effort of
learning. Not that education, in the broad sense, is exclusively
the concern of youth. Did not Cato think it honorable to learn
Greek in later life? Did not Socrates, greatest of philosophers,
compel his aged fingers to the lute?
Our youth of to-day, it is to be feared, is backward to learn;
studies arc accounted irksome. Boys hardly weaned begin to claim
their own way, at a time when every art should be employed to
bring them under control and attract them to grave studies. The
Master must judge how far he can rely upon emulation, rewards,
encouragement; bow far be must have recourse to sterner measures.
Too much leniency is objectionable; so also is too great severity,
for we must avoid all that terrifies a boy. In certain temperaments-those
in which a dark complexion denotes a quiet but strong personality-restraint
must be cautiously applied. Boys of this type are mostly highly
gifted and can bear a gentle hand. Not seldom it happens that
a finely tempered nature is thwarted by circumstances, such as
poverty at home, which compels a promising youth to forsake learning
for trade: though, on the other hand, poverty is less dangerous
to lofty instincts than great wealth. Or again, parents encourage
their sons to follow a career traditional in their family, which
may divert them from liberal studies: and the customary pursuits
of the city in which we dwell exercise a decided influence on
our choice. So that we may say that a perfectly unbiased decision
in these matters is seldom possible, except to certain select
natures, who by favor of the gods, as the poets have it, are unconsciously
brought to choose the right path in life. The myth of Hercules,
who, in the solitude of his wanderings, learned to accept the
strenuous life and to reject the way of self-indulgence, and so
attain the highest, is the significant setting of this profound
truth. For us it is the best that can befall, that either the
circumstances of our life, or the guidance and exhortations of
those in charge of us, should mould our natures whilst they are
In your own case, Ubertinus, you had before you the choice of
training in Arms or in Letters. Either holds a place of distinction
amongst the pursuits which appeal to men of noble spirit; either
leads to fame and honor in the world. It would have been natural
that you, the scion of a House ennobled by its prowess in arms,
should have been content to accept your father's permission to
devote yourself wholly to that discipline. But to your great
credit you elected to become proficient in both alike: to add
to the career of arms traditional in your family, an equal success
in that other great discipline of mind and character, the study
There was courage in your choice. For we cannot deny that there
is still a horde-as I must call them-of people who, like Licinius
the Emperor [Roman Emperor, ruled 81-96 CE], denounce learning
and the Arts as a danger to the State and hateful in themselves.
In reality the very opposite is the truth. However, as we look
back upon history we cannot deny that learning by no means expels
wickedness, but may be indeed an additional instrument for evil
in the hands of the corrupt. To a man of virtuous instincts knowledge
is a help and an adornment; to a Claudius or a Nero it was a means
of refinement in cruelty or in folly. On the other hand, your
grandfather, Jacopo da Carrara, who, though a patron of learning,
was not himself versed in Letters, died regretting that opportunity
of acquiring a knowledge of higher studies had not been given
him in youth; which shows us that, although we may in old age
long for it, only in early years can we be sure of attaining that
learning which we desire. So that it is no light motive to youthful
diligence that we thereby provide ourselves with precious advantages
against on-coming age, a spring of interest for a leisured life,
a recreation for a busy one. Consider the necessity of the literary
art to one immersed in reading and speculation: and its importance
to one absorbed in affairs. To be able to speak and write with
elegance is no slight advantage in negotiation, whether in public
or private concerns. Especially in administration of the State,
when intervals of rest and privacy are accorded to a prince, how
must he value those means of occupying them wisely which the knowledge
of literature affords to him! Think of Domitian: son of Vespasian
though he was, and brother of Titus, he was driven to occupy his
leisure by killing flies! What a warning is here conveyed
of the critical judgments which posterity passes upon Princes!
They live in a light in which nothing can long remain hid. Contrast
with this the saying of Scipio: "Never am I less idle, less
solitary, than when to outward seeming I am doing nothing or am
alone": evidence of a noble temper, worthy to be placed beside
that recorded practice of Cato, who, amid the tedious business
of the Senate, could withdraw himself from outward distraction
and find himself truly alone in the companionship of his books.
Indeed the power which good books have of diverting our thoughts
from unworthy or distressing themes is another support to my argument
for the study of letters. Add to this their helpfulness on those
occasions when we find ourselves alone, without companions and
without preoccupations -what can we do better than gather our
books around us? In them we see unfolded before us vast stores
of knowledge, for our delight, it may be, or for our inspiration.
In them are contained the records of the great achievements of
men; the wonders of Nature; the works of Providence in the past,
the key to her secrets of the future. And, most important of
all, this Knowledge is not liable to decay. With a picture, an
inscription, a coin, books share a kind of immortality. In all
these memory is, as it were, made permanent; although, in its
freedom from accidental risks, Literature surpasses every other
form of record.
Literature indeed exhibits not facts alone, but thoughts, and
their expression. Provided such thoughts be worthy, and worthily
expressed, we feel assured that they will not die: although I
do not think that thoughts without style will be likely to attract
much notice or secure a sure survival. What greater charm can
life offer than this power of making the past, the present, and
even the future, our own by means of literature? How bright a
household is the family of books! we may cry, with Cicero. In
their company is no noise, no greed, no self-will: at a word they
speak to you, at a word they are still: to all our requests their
response is ever ready and to the point. Books indeed are a higher-a
wider, more tenacious-memory, a store-house which is the common
property of us all.
I attach great weight to the duty of handing down this priceless
treasure to our sons unimpaired by any carelessness on our part.
How many are the gaps which the ignorance of past ages has willfully
caused in the long and noble roll of writers! Books-in part or
in their entirety-have been allowed to perish. What remains of
others is often sorely corrupt, mutilated, or imperfect. It is
hard that no slight portion of the history of Rome is only to
be known through the labors of one writing in the Greek language:
it is still worse that this same noble tongue, once well nigh
the daily speech of our race, as familiar as the Latin language
itself, is on the point of perishing even amongst its own sons,
and to us Italians is already utterly lost, unless we except one
or two who in our time are tardily endeavoring to rescue something-if
it be only a mere echo of it-from oblivion.
We come now to the consideration of the various subjects which
may rightly be included under the name of "Liberal Studies."
Amongst these I accord the first place to History, on grounds
both of its attractiveness and of its utility, qualities which
appeal equally to the scholar and to the statesman. Next in importance
ranks Moral Philosophy, which indeed is, in a peculiar sense,
a "Liberal Art," in that its purpose is to teach men
the secret of true freedom. History, then, gives us the concrete
examples of the precepts inculcated by philosophy. The one shows
what men should do, the other what men have said and done in the
past, and what practical lessons we may draw therefrom for the
present day. I would indicate as the third main branch of study,
Eloquence, which indeed holds a place of distinction amongst the
refined Arts. By philosophy we learn the essential truth of things,
which by eloquence we so exhibit in orderly adornment as to bring
conviction to differing minds. And history provides the light
of experienced cumulative wisdom fit to supplement the force of
reason and the persuasion of eloquence. For we allow that soundness
of judgment, wisdom of speech, integrity of conduct are the marks
of a truly liberal temper.
We are told that the Greeks devised for their sons a course of
training in four subjects: letters, gymnastic, music and drawing.
Now, of these drawing has no place amongst our liberal studies;
except in so far as it is identical with writing, (which is in
reality one side of the art of Drawing), it belongs to the Painter's
profession: the Greeks, as an art-loving people, attached to it
an exceptional value.
The Art of Letters, however, rests upon a different footing.
It is a study adapted to all times and to all circumstances, to
the investigation of fresh knowledge or to the re-casting and
application of old. Hence the importance of grammar and of the
rules of composition must be recognized at the outset, as the
foundation on which the whole study of Literature must rest: and
closely associated with these rudiments, the art of Disputation
or Logical argument. The function of this is to enable us to
discern fallacy from truth in discussion. Logic, indeed, as setting
forth the true method of learning, is the guide to the acquisition
of knowledge in whatever subject. Rhetoric comes next, and is
strictly speaking the formal study by which we attain the art
of eloquence; which, as we have just stated, takes the third place
amongst the studies specially important in public life. It is
now, indeed, fallen from its old renown and is well nigh a lost
art. In the Law-Court, in the Council, in the popular Assembly,
in exposition, in persuasion, in debate, eloquence finds no place
now-a-days: speed, brevity, homeliness are the only qualities
desired. Oratory, in which our forefathers gained so great glory
for themselves and for their language, is despised: but our youth,
if they would earn the repute of true education, must emulate
their ancestors in this accomplishment.
After Eloquence we place Poetry and the Poetic Art, which though
not without their value in daily life and as an aid to oratory,
have nevertheless their main concern for the leisure side of existence.
As to Music, the Greeks refused the title of "Educated"
to anyone who could not sing or play. Socrates sets an example
to the Athenian youth, by himself learning to play in his old
age; urging the pursuit of music not as a sensuous indulgence,
but as an aid to the inner harmony of the soul. In so far as
it is taught as a healthy recreation for the moral and spiritual
nature, music is a truly liberal art, and, both as regards its
theory and its practice, should find a place in education.
Arithmetic, which treats of the properties of numbers, Geometry,
which treats of the properties of dimensions, lines, surfaces,
and solid bodies, are weighty studies because they possess a peculiar
element of certainty. The science of the Stars, their motions,
magnitudes and distances, lifts us into the clear calm of the
upper air. There we may contemplate the fixed stars, or the conjunctions
of the planets, and predict the eclipses of the sun and the moon.
The knowledge of Nature-animate and inanimate-the laws and the
properties of things in heaven and in earth, their causes, mutations
and effects, especially the explanation of their wonders (as they
are popularly supposed) by the unraveling of their causes-this
is a most delightful, and at the same time most profitable, study
for youth. With these may be joined investigations concerning
the weights of bodies, and those relative to the subject which
mathematicians call "Perspective."
I may here glance for a moment at the three great professional
Disciplines: Medicine, Law, Theology. Medicine, which is applied
science, has undoubtedly much that makes it attractive to a student.
But it cannot be described as a Liberal study. Law, which is
based upon moral philosophy, is undoubtedly held in high respect.
Regarding Law as a subject of study, such respect is entirely
deserved: but Law as practiced becomes a mere trade. Theology,
on the other hand, treats of themes removed from our senses, and
attainable only by pure intelligence.
The principal "Disciplines" have now been reviewed.
It must not be supposed that a liberal education requires acquaintance
with them all: for a thorough mastery of even one of them might
fairly be the achievement of a lifetime. Most of us, too, must
learn to be content with modest capacity as with modest fortune.
Perhaps we do wisely to pursue that study which we find most
suited to our intelligence and our tastes, though it is true that
we cannot rightly understand one subject unless we can perceive
its relation to the rest. The choice of studies will depend to
some extent upon the character of individual minds. For whilst
one boy seizes rapidly the point of which he is in search and
states it ably, another, working far more slowly, has yet the
sounder judgment and so detects the weak spot in his rival's conclusions.
The former, perhaps, will succeed in poetry, or in the abstract
sciences; the latter in real studies and practical pursuits.
Or a boy may be apt in thinking, but slow in expressing himself;
to him the study of Rhetoric and Logic will be of much value.
Where the power of talk alone is remarkable I hardly know what
advice to give. Some minds are strong on the side of memory:
these should be apt for history. But it is of importance to remember
that in comparison with intelligence memory is of little worth,
though intelligence without memory is, so far as education is
concerned, of none at all. For we are not able to give evidence
that we know a thing unless we can reproduce it.
Again, some minds have peculiar power in dealing with abstract
truths, but are defective on the side of the particular and the
concrete, and so make good progress in mathematics and in metaphysics
Those of just opposite temper are apt in Natural Science and in
practical affairs. And the natural bent should be recognized
and followed in education. Let the boy of limited capacity work
only at that subject in which he shows he can attain some result.
Respecting the general place of liberal studies, we remember that
Aristotle would not have them absorb the entire interests of life:
for he kept steadily in view the nature of man as a citizen, an
active member of the State. For the man who has surrendered himself
absolutely to the attractions of Letters or of speculative thought
follows, perhaps, a self-regarding end and is useless as a citizen
or as prince.
From Petrus Paulus Vergerius, De ingenues moribus et liberalibus studiis, trans. by W. H. Woodward, Vittorino da Feltre and other Humanist Educators, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), 102-110
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(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996