Chapter One- The Modern Dialog


No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is an initiative of the federal government put forth by the Bush administration to insure a high quality of education in the United States. “It is built on four common-sense pillars: accountability for results; an emphasis on doing what works based on scientific research; expanded parental options; and expanded local control and flexibility,” and President Bush describes this law as the “cornerstone” of his administration.  “Clearly, our children are our future, and, as Bush has expressed, ‘Too many of our neediest children are being left behind.’” (USDOE Web Site “No Child Left Behind).

Because of the high expectations, and the increasing pressure from the government and media on schools to perform, school leaders are forced to adopt what I refer to as a techno-scientific approach to education.  By techno-scientific I mean that they are using a paradigm that has its roots in the late sixteenth century and has been consistently bolstered throughout the modern, scientific age.  This age, in its maturity, is steeped in an unwavering faith in the scientific method. It embraces technology as the sole reliable means to accomplish an important task: to evaluate the performance of a district, a school, an individual student, and for that matter the performance of a particular teacher.  Many twentieth century thinkers have seen this as a crisis.  Some have gone as far as labeling it a crisis in metaphysics (Neil Postman), while others see it is an epistemological crisis (Fritjof Capra).  Perhaps it is an intricate combination as emphasized by Huston Smith.  In this case, a crisis in metaphysics – an overdependence on materialist ideology at the expense of realization of the immaterial world – eventually leads to the crisis in epistemology because it fosters a theory of knowledge based solely on empirical observation.  Such an approach to learning leaves out an essential component of humanity and disconnects us from our roots. 

The Renaissance thinkers in some sense invented the idea of studying history in order to place oneself in the historical drama. Perhaps the Renaissance is thus the perfect place to begin this study as well.  Eugene Rice provides a great survey of the period in The Foundations of Early Modern Europe: 1460-1559.  His discussion of Europe covers a century of progress, which he describes as a shift from the old to the new, in terms of the political, social, cultural, technological and to a small extent, intellectual advancements that swept across Europe first in the south and then to the north. Another of Rice’s works, The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom, stretches beyond the confines of Foundations as it delves more deeply in the intellectual changes that were occurring in the time period under inspection here.  He traces the concept of wisdom from its ancient roots but focuses mainly on the transition from the reliance upon Aristotle’s version of wisdom – knowledge of the first causes and principles – as practiced by medieval scholars, to the Renaissance concept of wisdom, which was more ethical than metaphysical, more active than contemplative, and is “more preoccupied with virtuous action than with knowledge of the truth” (Rice 1958, 30).  He concludes that the resulting concept of wisdom, the foundation of humanist education, was “an autonomous and active moral virtue which defined man’s dignity and described the highest degree of perfection of which human nature is capable” (Ibid. 215).  It restored the sense of human dignity that permeated the classical works including those of Homer who stressed in his epic poetry the importance of human thought and action. 

            Can the Renaissance search for wisdom and attempt to restore the classical belief in human dignity help guide us in a post-modern world? Mark Gilderhus, in his History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction, reacts to Henry Ford’s claim that history is “bunk” by asking:

Why bother with the study of history? What possible connections exist between an increasingly remote past and our own predicaments in the present? Can stories about other peoples in other places and other times have any meaning in an age of vaulting technology and traumatizing change? Is it reasonable to think that anyone can benefit from the experiences of others in presumably unprecedented and perilous times? (Gilderhus 1992, 1).


It is my contention that the study of history from a humanities perspective is not only a worthwhile endeavor but one that is necessary.  A humanities approach to history could be defined as a narrative of humanity’s ideas and intellectual movements that have shaped and ultimately created the society in which we currently find ourselves. 

The New Learning: All Over Again

The techno-scientific paradigm creates a lopsided curriculum by satisfying its materialist and sensationalist (empiricist) cravings with quantifiable studies. But it raises the question: what is, in fact, left behind?  I argue that modern education needs a balanced curriculum, a holistic one. Valuable lessons may be gleaned from intellectual movements in history that have shaped who we are today.  Defining a purely humanistic curriculum may be impossible.  In fact, one might argue that humanism is responsible for the current situation because by the end of the eighteenth century the word humanist itself had acquired a completely different meaning, one that had been manipulated by the scientific age and would come to be known as an atheistic approach having sole faith in the progress of humanity.  Modern intellectual culture has forgotten the roots of Renaissance humanism.  Its original motivation was to bring balance and the role of the humanist was to seek the best the world has had to offer and bring it back into the discussion. For the humanist like Erasmus “all of what is best and vitally important to mankind can be found in the texts of classical antiquity,” but in this world he would have few followers (Foreword by Eugene Rice in Woodward 1963, xvi). At the most literal level, Renaissance humanists based their curriculum on the reading of classical literature in their original Greek and Latin. How valuable or practical would that be in the modern sense? 

Eugene Rice Jr. asks: since humanist education was based in the classics, and denial of this would seem to undermine the tradition completely, is there hope for the “new learning” in modern times? This question is twofold. First, if we are able to see humanism in light of its historical foundation, mainly on the social and cultural constructs it was designed to meet, can we conclude that “it has become a historical curiosity,” and second, “whether its traditional principles and ambitions can be given new meanings appropriate to our own society and to our own sense of what a civilized man should be” (Ibid. xvii)?

I offer him an answer.  Humanism cannot be bought in a can off the shelf. As an intellectual movement, it may be placed in a particular time and context.  Perhaps certain definitive tenets could be applied as well, e.g., the admiration of classical literature.  The energy that fuels the movement, however, transcends space and time. It exists eternally, yet lies dormant until it is called upon.  What did the Renaissance humanists seek in the work of Plato?  Why did a new interest in the mystery religions emerge?  Why did 15th century scholars feel the need to reexamine questions that had been answered in the 13th century by Aquinas? Or even in the 5th century by Augustine?  More importantly, why would they use ancient literature?  Raffaele’s School of Athens cleverly addresses these questions.  It depicts fifteenth and early sixteenth century humanists in classical garb representing the ancient world’s greatest contributors to human understanding.  The painting is an image of the best the world has had to offer.  While it places the eternal dialog – the materialists and the idealists as portrayed by Plato pointing up and Aristotle pointing down – as the focal point of the image, it makes the valid point that none of the other contributors to the conversation (Ptolemy, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Averöes, etc.) can be left out of the dialog.  

Whenever a collective worldview is challenged, it appears that humans look back to the basics.  Humanity becomes faced with an essential question: what does it mean to be human? When a paradigm becomes burdensome and lopsided, humanity seeks to correct it by finding balance.  There is much to say about equilibrium as there is much to say about virtue in moderation.  Yet the power of paradigm is overwhelming. My research has shown that the humanities have always played an important role in society, especially one in transition.  My project demonstrates that scholars in the humanities need to work for curricula that seek to uncover core human values.  It also calls for a reappraisal of what the term humanism means in modern terms.  The ultimate role of the humanities is to determine what it means to be human in the context of a particular place in time.  It relies on all the available sources and attempts to construct a holistic paradigm that is balanced.

As I set out to answer the questions posed by both Rice and Gilderhus it became obvious to me that I needed to look beyond the surface of the Renaissance humanist movement. I needed to delve deeper than simply their methodology and discover the philosophy behind it.  Raffaele’s depiction of the eternal dialog became a helpful guidepost and it became my task to apply this image to three periods of history where intellectuals were engaged in some sort of conversation regarding social crisis.  I tried to focus on crises with metaphysical and epistemological implications, and on thinkers who saw education as a key factor in solving the crisis.  My answers are discerned through an analysis of humanist sentiment in three intellectual movements: The Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment – which I see as the major turning point of the Scientific Revolution – and American Transcendentalism.  I have found that in these times of crisis, the classical humanist legacy has made its presence through the pedagogies of intellectuals who were prominent in each crisis.  The humanities approach is timeless and a humanist curriculum that analyzes the world in a holistic manner, incorporating the best the world has to offer, could help enhance our understanding of what it means to be human in an age of advanced technology.  A fresh understanding of the transcendent attributes that are inherent to humanity – ethics, metaphysics, imagination, intuition, and aesthetics – would lead humans to a position of dignity, responsibility, and compassion.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, these questions are especially relevant.  It is helpful to consider the Zeitgeist of our current society.  Scholars of the twenty-first century find themselves in the midst of a great dialog.  This conversation revolves around the idea that our modern world is experiencing a kind of crisis.  Scientists, philosophers, literary figures, and educators have all had a part in this discussion and it seems that many facets of society are affected by it. It would be foolish to tackle the discussion in its enormity, but it could be whittled down to a single discussion.  Most aspects of the dialog, whether they are philosophical, political, or literary, describe a valid fear.  The advancement of technology in the 20th century was stupefying and it has certainly contributed to a dramatic change in the worldview of the West.  These cataclysmic changes in worldview inevitably beg timeless metaphysical questions. What will happen to the human condition?  There has been a consistent concern that a techno-scientific world would produce a faceless population, a mass-produced society.

This discussion of the modern crisis places education as a pivotal factor in the fear.  In some cases, education is described as the cause; in other cases it appears to be the victim. Yet in all cases, education seems to have the power to correct or somehow reverse the perceived crisis.  The potential for correcting a social crisis seems to exist at all levels of academia.  A person’s formation in the empirical sense happens in primary and secondary schools.  In such a sense it seems plausible that a plan aimed at curbing the mass-production of humanity should be founded on the desire to balance modern techno-scientific paradigm in our schools.  Yet when one considers the formation of teachers, it seems equally plausible that reforms should begin in the realm of higher education.

Before launching into a discussion of the historical crises of the past, it is important to set out the case studies in the proper context.  The purpose of the first chapter is not to prove that the western world is currently in a state of crisis.  It is simply to outline the works of intellectuals from several disciplines who are in fact arguing this point.  The chapter will set up the suggested crisis, tracing the threads that contribute to the dialog. Key conversants in the modern discussion will be introduced in regard to the concept of scientism, a term used by these writers to refer to the metaphysical and epistemological imbalance.  The fear of dehumanization will be addressed with special concern for social justice, the dignity of man, and man’s relationship with nature.  The following three chapters consist of particular historical case studies.  The first part of each chapter describes the zeitgeist, and technological and intellectual changes that ultimately contributed to a shift in worldview.  The second part of these chapters focus on the pedagogical response to the change: what were the philosophers concerned with education saying?  The last part of each stresses the action taken in each case and discusses some of the repercussions of those actions.


















Chapter One- Part One: A Techno-Scientific Society

The Background

The purpose of this brief section is to demonstrate, from a very broad perspective, the legacy of ideas that has contributed to the modern techno-scientific paradigm.  One might attribute the move toward a techno-scientific approach to the positivist movement that followed the work of nineteenth century French thinker August Comte.  Positivism spread rapidly throughout western society and played an important role in the scientization of academic subjects, and was especially instrumental in the creation of the social sciences.  Ian Barbour, however, more astutely traces the roots back further to the marriage of math and science, a time where a new concept entered into the minds of the educated: that all matter is calculable and the ultimate expression of this belief is the materialist culture that clouds our modern systems of education and ultimately ethics.  The key feature was “the combination of mathematical reasoning and quantifiable observation.” (Barbour 1997, 9).  Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society demonstrates this point. Copernicus devised the mathematical reasoning to explain a geocentric theory but he needed the technology to demonstrate it. Galileo had it. As soon as the telescope was used as an instrument to demonstrate a mathematical concept, the marriage was consummated and the techno-scientific approach was born. Others have placed Galileo in this same pivotal position.  It is undeniable that his feet were in two separate worlds. He was a man of the medieval world and he was certainly familiar with the Italian humanists of this day. At the same time, however, he was paving the way for the modern scientific world and helped create a new set of lenses through which life itself would become an observed specimen.     

            According to Barbour, the next step in the division involved the work of Isaac Newton.  “Newtonian physics suggested an image of the world as a machine following immutable laws, with every detail precisely predictable” (Ibid. 18). Newton even invented calculus to measure the immeasurable. His study of physics and concept of the universe as one machine, allowed for a designer.  “God became primarily the designer of the world machine, though many attempts were made to find a place for God’s continuing activity within a mechanical natural order” (Ibid. 21).  Newton did not attempt to remove God as an active player in the universe.  He claimed that “space is eternal and immutable and constituted by God’s omnipresence” (Ibid. 22).  Yet in establishing this idea, Newton effectively demonstrated that truth could be found in the material world only.  Barbour claims that “none of the scientific discoveries of the eighteenth century had philosophical or theological repercussions comparable to those of Newton’s work” (Ibid. 33).  Reductionism saw the universe as particles in motion, leading to a deterministic worldview, one that could be measured.

            The Enlightenment’s scientization of education had a significant influence on modern culture. The philosophes became the apostles of Newton, the writers of his gospel, pounding the wedge deeper into the balanced model of human epistemology that the humanists had fought to establish.  These philosophes were steeped in a tradition of anti-clericalism that permeated the culture, especially in France.  Most of the schools of their time were run by the church.  This strong anti-clericalism pushed for not only education administered by the laity but for public, secular education devoid of anything “superstitious.”

The industrial revolution, which followed the Enlightenment, under the techno-scientific paradigm forced dramatic change upon educational institutions.   In many ways, science and technology developed an intricate codependency. Educational theorists N. Edwards and H. G. Richey claim that “science and invention, translated into technology, were incredibly improving methods of production and increasing the output of industry,” and further, that “it is clear that with each passing year [during the American Industrial Revolution] the US was caught more firmly in the grip of a technological revolution” (Edwards and Richey 1963, 395).  Shortly after, “the percentage of the nation’s children and youth attending school increased rapidly; the school term was lengthened and attendance made more regular; and education was given more adequate financial support” (Ibid. 497). Curriculum became an important issue and schools became the perfect training ground for the young industrialist society. “Leaders of each community included in the educational program the content and the activities that seemed to them desirable” (Ibid 530). These new motivations stemmed from the revolution itself.  Education was a tool that created useful citizens.  The term “useful” in this case says nothing about balance, virtue, or any of the Renaissance values. It came from a utilitarian mentality and from capitalism.

Education: A Question of Purpose

This discussion of modern pedagogy inevitably leads to a question that educational leaders have to consider wholeheartedly: What is the purpose of modern education?  The twentieth century Catholic philosopher of education, Jacques Maritain, said “the education of man is a human awakening” (Maritain 1943, 9).  As far as John Dewey was concerned, “the instructor becomes a guide and motivator to the student” (Ediger 1997, 6).  Both of these contain some elements of the Renaissance.  Yet, despite these noble pronouncements, this age of advanced technology has begun to take its toll on the way we teach.  Rhode Island governor, Donald Carcieri, spoke on a panel at an educational conference in 2003.[1] He defined the purpose of education in Rhode Island saying that it was the responsibility of the educators to help bridge the gap between Rhode Island schools and Rhode Island industries, stressing that a stronger emphasis should be placed on a math and science curriculum “because it lends itself more.”   To what does it lend itself more?  He was implying that applied math and science are what companies like Fidelity, Raytheon, and Lifespan are looking for to fill their cubicles.  All three of these companies – major sponsors of the event – were seated on the same discussion panel, and are important contributors to the Rhode Island economy. Educational leaders are suddenly burdened with yet another task.  The governor said that the role of the educator was to “produce and equip young people” with the skills necessary to run these businesses.  He stated further: “Think about it.  What if they cannot get the qualified people they need? ...We need to make sure that we are providing, through our educational system, the skills that these companies need.” [2]  Is this the purpose that we had in mind when we first went into the field of education? How do we get back to our roots?

In accepting the techno-scientific approach to education, we must accept its means of assessment which is objective, reductionist and standard.  It is the child of technology and it suffers from the limitation off attempting to measure the immeasurable.  One of the major concerns for our leaders is the evaluation of tests as fair measurements.  The objective world, in its techno-scientific paradigm has reduced education to a universal matrix that dehumanizes students by transforming them into data.  This matrix must be reduced further into a collection of objective – perhaps multiple choice – questions that must serve as an accurate representation of the educational big picture.   It is arguable then, that we have allowed this technology to dictate what we teach.  American education critic, Peter Sacks, is adamant that “the American public has put its education system under unprecedented pressure to remain accountable, and ensure that their children know what they need to know to survive and thrive in this brave new economy” (Sacks 1999, 33).  But how do we determine what they need to know?  Indirectly, the tests define it.

Neil Postman proposes that some of the culpability is the result of an American myth: 

If you will pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done.  Its driving idea is that the purpose of schooling is to prepare children for competent entry into the economic life of the community… any school activity not designed to further this end is seen as a frill or an ornament- which is to say, a waste of valuable time. (Postman 1996, 28)


Education is once again seen as a means to an end: the end being a standardized worker that will join the ranks of the anonymous working masses.

            The classical idea of education has been lost in favor of a quantifiable alternative.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Bruce Bowers, in his article, “Alternatives to Standardized Educational Assessment,” explains the source of motivation:

The main purpose of standardized testing is to sort large numbers of students in as efficient a manner as possible. This limited goal, quite naturally, gives rise to short answer, multiple-choice questions.  When tests are constructed in this manner, active skills such as writing, speaking, acting, drawing, constructing, repairing, or any of a number of other skills that can and should be taught in schools are automatically relegated to second-class status. (Bowers 1989)


Hence the frequent lament of teachers that have had funding for the arts cut out of their school’s budget.

Whereas Postman labels contemporary culture as technopoly (adjusting itself to suit the needs of technology), Sacks calls it a meritocracy (concerned entirely with the results of standard testing), which seeks to put individuals into general academic categories that affect the formation of each student, labeling each as a success or failure from an early age. He continues: “Unfortunately, the public largely accepts the legitimacy of this tool of the meritocracy, believing the exams are accurate predictors of success for individuals and good measures of the quality of our schools” (Sacks 1999, 2).  His research provides three conclusions.  First he claims that the “crooked yardstick” has “questionable ability to predict one’s academic success.”  Next he concludes: “Standardized test scores tend to be highly correlated with socioeconomic class.” He calls this “the Volvo effect” and cites the SAT as the biggest offender.  Thirdly, his research has shown him that the tests “reward passive, superficial learning,” which in turn will “drive instruction in undesirable directions and thwart meaningful educational reform” (Ibid. 7-8).

In the original design, the standardized test in education was used almost exclusively for student assessment, to determine aptitude, ability, etc. The last two decades have witnessed an intensive upsurge in high-stakes testing.  Most of the standardization reforms, according to Sacks, are driven by a governmentally instilled fear.  Two reports issued from the White House on education alarmed the populace. A Nation at Risk, in 1983, and America 2000: An Education Strategy, in 1991, both made the case that foreign countries (first Russia, then Japan), were getting ahead of the United States on the educational level. Bush’s latest, No Child Left Behind, is meant to ensure that all students receive the same “standard” education. 

NCLB refers to its foundational five pillars as “common sense” and the common sense that it denotes is “what works based on scientific research (USDOE Web Site “No Child Left Behind FAQ”). Is this really common sense? Whose common sense is it? The legislation does make school improvement sound simple and it offers some hefty promises to parents, teachers, and principals.  It claims that parents can expect to “know their children's strengths and weaknesses and how well schools are performing; they will have other options and resources for helping their children if their schools are chronically in need of improvement (Ibid.).  Teachers are promised the “training and resources they need for teaching effectively, using curricula that are grounded in scientifically based research; annual testing lets them know areas in which students need extra attention” (Ibid.).  It promises that principals could expect to have access to the “information they need to strengthen their schools' weaknesses and to put into practice methods and strategies backed by sound, scientific research” (Ibid.). Then, to keep everyone on their toes, it promises that “superintendents will be able to see which of their schools and principals are doing the best job and which need help to improve” (Ibid.).

The troubling piece is not the fact that the government wants to improve education nor that it wants to increase accountability for failing schools.  What is not clear is the constant reference to “sound, scientific research,” and what it implies.  It may be necessary here to note the definition devised by the Department of Education in order to see what “sound, scientific research” is.  According to the NCLB document:

No Child Left Behind sets forth rigorous requirements to ensure that research is scientifically based. It moves the testing of educational practices toward the medical model used by scientists to assess the effectiveness of medications, therapies and the like. Studies that test random samples of the population and that involve a control group are scientifically controlled. To gain scientifically based research about a particular educational program or practice, it must be the subject of such a study. (Ibid.).


So far, using their own assessment methodology, their science has been shown to be a failure.  Between 1975 and 2000 federal spending on education more than tripled; yet reading scores on the standardized tests dropped slightly.[3] The question is: where will this research focus if the past twenty five years have shown no improvement with increased spending?  Secondly what happens to the things that may be steadily improving in our schools but cannot be quantified?

Education in the Twentieth Century

The twentieth century has been a tumultuous time for American educators.  The country has risen to the top of the world militarily, technologically, and economically.  With that rise has come an enormous level of responsibility to which the American mind has yet to adjust.  One of the biggest problems of the twentieth century is “man’s inhumanity to man” (Cobban 1960, 17).  Ethics have taken a backseat to personal gain, and rules for the acquisition of these achievements seem to be fading.  Stephen Covey noticed a change in success literature written in the past century.  He claims that older literature spoke of success based on character, “things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule” (Covey 1989, 18).  He found that the more recent success literature was superficial and focused on “social image consciousness” (Ibid.). 

Part of the reason stems from the immense changes that the world has recently undergone. The century saw two devastating world wars and witnessed unimaginable destruction that has been intensified by rapidly advancing technology.  It saw man walk on the moon and gasped at the advent of a nuclear age.  Organs have been transplanted; artificial ones have been implanted, while modern medicine gives the impression of being headed toward the acquisition of human immortality.  Advances in communication and travel have tremendously decreased the size of the world.  Has education kept up with the flow of life?  Have we attempted to bring morality, the transcendent, and metaphysics back to our classrooms?  America's schools are under extreme duress. School leaders must think carefully about how to respond to the inevitable pressures to go with the tide” (Holmes 1998, 5).

The techno-scientific paradigm appears to exclude the transcendent function of education.  W.J. Battersby in his work on Jean Baptiste De LaSalle, discusses the problems of modern secular education: “In nothing are we separated more completely from the ideas and aims of our forefathers than in our modern practice of separating religion from education” (Battersby 1949, 5). He believes that the modern movement has been carried out radically and rather than taking an objective approach to discussing the transcendent in public schools, it has taken on a militant attitude that abhors its inclusion in curriculum.  Neil Postman reiterates this belief in his evaluation of the modern interpretation of the First Amendment.  “This has been wisely interpreted to mean that public institutions may not show any preference for one religion over another.  It has also been taken to mean, not so wisely that public institutions should show no interest in religion at all” (Postman 1999, 172).  Bryan Appleyard refers to a new religion, (Appleyard 1992) “scientism,” that developed in 20th century schools and Huston Smith’s work, Why Religion Matters, discussing the same term “scientism,” claims that schools are inclined to enforce atheism as a religious alternative (Smith 2001).

The twentieth century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, expressed concern that in the educational system the means oftentimes gets confused with the ends.  He went further to mention that self-discovery should be the number one outcome aspired for in schooling (Del Prete 1990, 30). In this philosophy, the teacher acts as a spiritual guide, leading a student into his or her God-given vocation. Alfred North Whitehead, another twentieth-century philosopher of education, formulated a similar theory.  For him, “the aim of education is to help in the production of a person, to secure for him a balanced growth of individuality.  The self-production arises from an innate passion which must be fed and satisfied” (Brumbaugh 1963, 180).  This resembles the ideas that came out of the Renaissance, yet an important component has been stripped from the original version. The American Transcendentalists who will be discussed in Chapter Four, came closest to the original claiming that a particle of God existed in all of us.  These Transcendentalists, however, were considered to be “vague, visionary, and fantastic” by many of their critics (Leighton 1968, 3). They were alluding to that transcendent leg of education, the one that remains immeasurable and is thus deemed unimportant in the agenda of the modern school.  The humanists of the fifteenth century maintained this dimension while humanists five centuries later gave up on it.

Social and cultural constructs are forcing modern humanists to look away from the transcendent to the point that our original intentions and methods of pedagogy become nebulous even to ourselves.  Society demands results and the government has defined those results.  The burden is ours to produce those results, even if they are contrary to our own beliefs.  Our students have become raw materials. In 1991 Lee Iacocca spoke to a conference hall full of teachers.  He said: “Your product needs a lot of work, and in the end, it’s your job…your customers don’t want to hear about your raw materials problem- they care about results” (qtd. in Sacks 1999, 72). His approach is an unquestionable reflection of the corporate American mentality.  In regard to this attitude Sacks comments:  “Government or corporate leaders will often argue that your neighborhood schools ought to function like any good business” (Sacks 1999, 72).

The science and technology partnership took on a life of its own and became the new paradigm for standard education in the twenty-first century.  The industrial revolution helped make it happen as it urbanized the planet.  For the first time in history the masses were factored into the educational equation.  In one sense this helped bring about a great breakthrough in social justice.  But the techno-scientific, objective reductionism cast a dark shadow and produced a sort of psychosis of humanity deifying the material world. This techno-scientific god is described by Postman in The End of Education:

To the question, How did it all begin, science answers, Probably by an accident.  To the question, How will it all end, science answers, Probably by an accident. And to many people the accidental life is not worth living. Moreover, regarding the question, What moral instruction do you give us?, the science-god maintains a tight-lipped silence. (Postman 1996, 9)


“The problem,” Postman continues, “is metaphysical in nature, not technical. And it is sad that so many of our best minds in education do not acknowledge this” (Ibid. 27).

Political Science and Economics have been in development certainly since the Enlightenment, and arguably from the time of Machiavelli, but the industrial revolution made these disciplines necessary. It also greatly contributed to the crisis of twentieth century education. Rapid urbanization and an industrial economy posed new challenges to humanity.  The late nineteenth century social movement, positivism, added to the dilemma.  The positivist creed was based solidly in the scientific method and the result was the invention of the social sciences.  The scientific method, along with mathematical reasoning launched political science, economics, and the social sciences in general, into higher education.  This social science movement became the next major technological step toward a standardized education.

“No matter where one turned…one found that industry had brought science and invention into its service” (Edwards and Richey 1963, 395).  The scientization of society had begun.  Even popular literature of the early twentieth century talked about the scientific approach to education and likewise the economic motivation behind it.[4]  The movement can be traced to the 1890s when “[educational] leaders were subjecting the process of education to scientific analysis.”  In particular, “J.M. Rice in 1897 initiated the testing movement by his investigation of spelling, and it was not long before objective tests of many kinds begin to appear” (Ibid 531).

Rice tested 30,000 students and concluded that “those who spent only fifteen minutes a day on the study of the subject learned to spell just as well as those who devoted an hour or more to the task.” His conclusion was ill received but his method was used as a springboard.  According to a study by educational philosophers John Pulliam and James Van Patten:  The Seventeenth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education was published in 1918. It contained eighty-four standard tests for use in elementary schools and twenty-five for high schools and covered virtually every subject of the curriculum” (1995 134).   

Neil Postman believes the fact that modern society has found a new metaphysic to replace the old:

At some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of technology- in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for the most part it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will offer their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it.  If this is not a form of religion, what is? (Postman 1996, 38)


The Harvard educational psychologist, Howard Gardner, expects the trend to continue into the future when “almost everything that can be handled algorithmically, will be carried out by automata” (Gardner 2000, 45).  The Baconian method proved to be an effective technique in the worlds of science and the social science disciplines, and technology improved the efficiency of production in every industry in America; it was only a matter of time until it was used to categorize the human mind. “American factories were moving toward mass production and efficiency, and the schools reflected society in the rush to adopt standardized testing of students” (Janesick 2001 89).

Positivism insisted on a scientific approach to the human, as well as the natural world, and had a tendency to organize and classify everything. It is characterized by an “Insistence on a scientific approach to the human, as well as the natural, world; and a tendency to organize and classify, in particular the developmental stages of the sciences and of human thought in general” (Bothamley 2002, 423).  This American nuance of Frenchman Auguste Comte’s positivist system, as employed by the social sciences, created a phenomenon that Peter Sacks refers to as “the scientific management of its schools” (Sacks 1999, 70).

According to Edward Thorndike, developer of the first formal achievement tests in 1904, “the nature of educational measurement is the same as that of all scientific measurement,” and in this vein, “the evaluation of student progress would be considered in the same realm with measuring tolerances of automobile pistons or the trajectory of missiles” (qtd. McKenna 1977, 7).  History seems to suggest that the original motivation behind the application of the scientific approach was not done for the purest of reasons: “The main reason for the achievement testing was not to assess student progress or improve teaching but to establish the profession of psychology as a science separate from philosophy,” yet another side effect of the positivist movement (McKenna, 1977, 7).  The scientization of the human mind was one of the last steps for turn of the century positivists.

The standardization process, in a sense, began with a method that was employed to try to find certain hereditary patterns and physical attributes in criminal behavior.  This movement was called Eugenics, a “science” developed by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin.  He was trying to establish patterns in order to discern who would be more apt to lead a criminal lifestyle. The next step in this positivist crusade was to   objectively measure intelligence.  Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French father of philosophical romanticism, in his pedagogical work entitled Emile, believed that “in education, the essential point is that a man should be useful to those among whom he lives” (Archer ed. 1964, 59).  Decades later positivists took this idea and perverted it.  If man had to be taught in accordance to his ability to impact his society in the most efficient way, then there needed to be an assessment of skills that was based in objectivity.  According to Gardner, “The first intelligence tests were devised by Alfred Binet in Paris, almost a century ago, as a means of predicting which children would experience difficulties in school and which would prosper (Gardner 2000, 65).  This task was assigned to Binet by the French minister of public instruction in 1904, a place and time that stood at the pinnacle of momentum in the positivist movement.  His test was Americanized by Lewis Terman of Stanford University in 1916, and became the Stanford-Binet Scale, which would long be known as the standard IQ test in the United States.

From this new method sprang many new applications for intelligence testing.  Some were quite radical. Charles Spearman, in his 1927 treatise The Abilities of Man, admitted that an accurate measurement of everyones intelligence would seem to herald the feasibility of selecting the better endowed persons for admission into citizenship – and even for the right of having offspring” (Spearman 1927, 8).  A standardized test is systematic and automated.  It appears to make sense.  In technological terms, it turns enormous compilations of potential knowledge into ones and zeros, black and white, on and off, yes and no, and any other categorized, objective answer.  The progressive philosopher John Dewey claimed that “our mechanical, industrialized civilization is concerned with averages and percents. The mental habit which reflects this social scene subordinates education and social arrangements based on average gross inferiorities and superiorities” (qtd. Sacks 1999, 73).  Postman agrees fears that we have become subordinate: “The technology is here or will be; we must use it because it is there; we will be the kind of people the technology requires us to be; and, whether we like it or not, we will remake our institutions to accommodate the technology” (Postman 1996, 39).  Applying this to education, we see that if it is averages and predictability that technology prefers, we will remake our curricula and consequently ourselves to fit into the “average” mold, fulfilling Postman’s prophecy.
















Chapter One- Part Two: Views of the Crisis

20th Century Literature

Educational philosophers, sociologists and psychologists are not the only critics of twentieth century education.  Critics have come from other milieus as well.  Much of the fiction of the twentieth century has shown a consistent concern for the state of the humanity in the face of modern technology.  Literature can be seen as a snapshot of a particular place in time.  When done well, it captures the Zeitgeist of an age – its issues, concerns, mores, values, etc. – and transmits it to its readers.  For its contemporary readership the purpose might be to inform, warn, or perhaps just awaken.  For its later generations of readership, it serves as a cultural recording, a tool to discern intellectual roots and to glean valuable insights into the human condition. 

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) has received tremendous acclaim from both the pop and science fiction worlds.  Many have seen it as prophetic and perhaps apocalyptic as it attacks issues that have only begun to emerge at the beginning of the 21st century.  His major concerns are reproductive technology, eugenics, and mind control.  In the background, however, his voice is resounding as it addresses his fears of mind altering chemicals and the factory approach – the assembly line to be exact – applied to human life and the consequent dehumanization of mankind. His concerns are well stated and his points are well-taken, yet his work seems to be a caricature of the zeitgeist of his age. 

            He seemingly predicts some major events in biological and psychological engineering in humans.  A couple of decades before the structure of DNA was discovered, Huxley was presenting a laboratory for reproductive technology.  His lab connotes the modern idea of in-vitro fertilization, test-tube babies, cloning and sexless reproduction. His real fear it seems was the eugenics that was involved.  One of the results of this reproductive engineering technology is the creation of a caste system that created leaders and workers for this dystopian society.  This process and machination of humanity is intended to give order and structure to the world.  All the parts are put in their proper places. These parts could be fixed as well.  Mind control was practiced using different forms of media – things that had yet to be invented when the book was written. 

            His minor details are his most pungent points because they are all-pervasive.  Mind control is more than just cultural brainwashing by the media.  His use of a chemical called soma gave people a feeling of euphoria and made them believe themselves to be happy.  Yet this euphoria is chemically induced and one might wonder if true happiness in fact existed, and if it did, could it be discovered by ordinary humans?  This was artificial joy, created in a lab. Another permeating point which is not addressed directly is a disdain for the assembly line.  The fact that years are measured in reference to Henry Ford provides a useful clue.  The fear seems to be that this factory approach was to be the means for human production, perhaps not so much in a physical sense, but in the cultural sense.     

            Huxley appears to be a prophet of his times, especially since much of his detail seemed to lie in things that had not been developed yet.  It is important, however, to remember that although Huxley, approached from a reader’s perspective in the 20th century, may appear to exist in a vacuum, the writer was a man of his time.  The things he refers to may not have been part of the popular culture of the time but to certain circles of scholars they were not as far-fetched as they may appear.  Eugenics was a common subject of conversation from the middle of the 19th century on.  The effect of the assembly line approach and the machination of man was an issue that reverberated throughout the academic and philosophical world. This particular fear did actually make its way into popular culture through media like Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie, Modern Times.   DNA was discovered years later, but the principles that precipitated and even warranted the discovery were certainly part of the scientific community.

             Brave New World is a powerful portrayal of humanity gone bad.  Too much reliance upon science, technology, and increasing government in the early to mid 20th century caused a major stir for many thinkers.  Huxley did a fine job converting those fears, objections, and ethical questions into a powerful work of fiction.  Brave New World went beyond mere fiction and presented a social commentary that would be sure to motivate one to action.

            Orwell’s novel 1984, almost three decades later, picks up on some of the same concerns regarding the future of humanity.  Like its predecessor it depicts a totalitarian state that uses deceptive means to control the population. Both rely on technology as the chief vehicle for control.  The aims of the technology differ in their attempt to maintain power. For Huxley it was the pleasure principle; for Orwell it was fear of punishment.  But Orwell also has much to say about the influence of modern education.  He sees that underlying the modern approach to academics is an inherent message of docility, an attempt to keep the masses placated as to not throw sand into the gears of the machine.  Winston the main character says: “But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies” (Orwell, 1981, 60).   This leads the reader to wonder how they could become conscious and to this Orwell presents a rather cryptic postulate: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious” (Ibid.).  Mechanisms against this enlightenment are inherent in the system. He feels that this rebellion could not take place because the population was living in an illusory world in both planes of the population.  The proles were ignorant of their condition.  This is clear but why did the higher plane not recognize the plight of the proles?   He answers this too: “But simultaneously, true to the Principles of doublethink, the Party taught that the proles were natural inferiors who must be kept in subjection, like animals, by the application of a few simple rules” (Orwell 1981, 61).

            The Party and the Capitalists decided what their constituents would think, know, and feel.  They even used nationalism and patriotism as tools to accomplish their hidden agenda.  The members of these higher echelons used the proles when they needed support but for the most part they left them to themselves in ghetto-like enclaves, as long as their ignorance was not disconcerting to the Party’s agenda.  If it were, the matter would be dealt with.  Furthermore, “when they [the proles] became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty, specific grievances” (Ibid. 62).  The important issues “invariably escaped their notice” (62).

            Huxley’s totalitarianism was accomplished by using technology to make the population content with their condition of servitude, thus subduing human nature’s inclination to revolt in order to achieve better living arrangements.  They were unaware for the most part of the powers that seduced them because they were chemical and started at the moment of conception. The deception in 1984 is far more invasive.  Orwell uses concepts like government sponsored lies, secret police, and surveillance to enforce his idea of totalitarianism.  He says: “even technological progress only happens when its products can in some way be used for the diminution of human liberty” (Orwell 1981, 159).  In this sense, if the technology can make it easier for the Party to stay in control on of its subjects, or at least to give the subjects the impression that they are being watched, that technology will then be fostered and exploited into the concept of Big Brother, which is “the guise in which the Party chooses to exhibit itself to the world” (171). Orwell’s technology controls the population using electronics and mass media to manipulate psychologically, whereas the populace in the Brave New World is manipulated chemically and physiologically by getting people addicted to artificially induced joy through eugenics, medication, and the endorphins that result from casual sex. 

               The reason why these have made it into the modern literature canon is obvious.  They express real fears that are still pertinent and still open for discussion.  They are perhaps sharper now that technology has carried the 21st century even closer to the dystopias that these authors prophesied.  Sex is quickly becoming an official pastime of the 21st century.  Doctors are relying upon drugs to help people feel happier.  The government is increasing surveillance as threats of terrorism circulate in the minds of citizens. In addition, computer technologies have given the world’s “secret police” a passage into databases that can reveal almost anything about individuals. These phenomena are included here not as an attempt to prove the existence of a modern crisis but to demonstrate the power behind the literature that has been cited in this study.  
               In Huxley’s story sex was completely separated from reproduction and perhaps from love as well.  It was in a sense used as a means to keep people content – the modern day bread and circus.  This is one of the reasons that his book is important in our discussion.  In 1960, the “the pill” was introduced to, and immediately embraced by, the American public. “Since its introduction, it has been used by more than 60 million women worldwide. It has proved to be, in the opinion of many, the most socially significant medical advance of the century” (Snider 2001). Subsequently, modern culture – through its use of media such as TV, radio, internet, VHS, DVD, and print publications – has been consistently promoting casual sex as the norm of our culture.  A study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 75% of prime time programs include sexual content, and even worse that 5.8 scenes per hour contain sex in some form – action, behavior, talk, etc. (Kunkel et al. 1999).  A recent study showed that 75% of modern teens say that “TV shows and movies make it seem normal for teenagers to have sex.” (Peterson, et al. 1991).  Perhaps as a result of this, a study in 1998 showed that 52% of high school boys and 48% of high school girls admitted to having had sex. (Moore et al. 1998).  To add to the crisis, another recent survey showed that 42% of these students admitted having unprotected sex (Sonenstein 1998).  These numbers are important for our discussion because it raises important questions that go beyond mere parallels between 20th century literature and twenty-first century education. One is left to wonder how a broken system, perhaps one that has even contributed to this social crisis, might help to rectify these problems. 

Huxley’s depiction of a feel-good pill that he called Soma has also found its ways into the modern dialog of a perceived crisis.  The Internet is full of references to this modern dilemma.  Antidepressant medication, developed in the 1950’s, has now “mushroomed from a modest market into a $12 billion industry” (Goode 2002). Yet this is one area in which science has failed to keep up with technology: “As much as scientists have learned about depression, they still do not know enough to be able to aim chemical treatments precisely” (Ibid.).  Antidepressants have become number two in the sales of prescription drugs. In 2001, “according to NDCHealth, a company that tracks drug sales, 7.1 million Americans took antidepressants, an increase of 700,000 over the year before” (Ibid.).  The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), a non-profit organization that claims to be dedicated to investigating violations of human rights that result from psychiatry, calls President Bush’s New Freedom Initiative, an act for Americans with disabilities, “Psychiatry’s Brave New World” and that its aim is for “totalitarian rule to diagnose at will” (CCHR website).  The initiative is designed to aid Americans with disabilities and sanctions the screening of children in order to catch mental illness at an early age.

Perhaps the most chilling reference to the dystopian literature of the past century is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.  While the movie itself will surely be forgotten in the years to come, its claims demonstrate that an Orwellian tradition is still alive in contemporary culture.  Orwell claims that the Party didn’t want the Proletariat to take a real interest in politics. “All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations.” (Orwell 1981, 62).  According to Moore, what the people needed to accept was an unjust war aimed at improving the financial situation of the American elite.  Orwell says “the capitalists owned everything in the world, and everything else was their slave. They owned all the land, all the houses, all the factories and all the money” (Ibid. 63). The mantra in 1984 is also intertwined in Moore’s documentary: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” 

The veracity of these accusations – by political activists, movie directors seeking shock value, or watchdog websites – is not important in this case.  The point is that the words of A Brave New World and 1984, 72 and 55 years old respectively, are reverberating in the society of 2006.  We are arguing and debating the sentiments of now passed science fiction authors.  Their snapshots were vivid and in a sense their implications are timeless.  They present an impetus for serious inquiry about core human values.  Indirectly, they are begging the question: What does it mean to be human in an age of advanced technology?  For this discussion, the poignant quote from Orwell does not concern the purpose of war as a necessity to maintain fear and thus social continuity as Moore suggests. Modern education has to deal with the emotions that the issues from these works evoke. Orwell’s society shaped young minds by censoring the material that they read and digested, and one of the things that was excluded from their reading lists were the works of the ancients: “It was very unlikely that there existed anywhere in Oceania a copy of a book printed earlier than 1960” (Orwell 1981, 82). Why would classical literature be forfeited? Perhaps to keep the people from thinking too deeply.  This is one of the things that the Renaissance humanists complained about. 

In addition to the fear of the dehumanization of mankind, twentieth century literature also exhibited a genuine concern with man creating a science that would lead to his own demise.  This was spurred by the development of nuclear power in the fifties.  Walter Miller’s 1959 science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, presented an apocalyptic vision that reflects a cyclical view of history where man is driven to the brink of extinction using nuclear power. Miller presents a shimmer of hope, however, from a source both unexpected and uncommon in a work of science fiction – the Roman Catholic Church.  He masterfully reproduces the Middle Ages after the fall of Rome but this time the scenery is a post-holocaust world that resulted from nuclear war.  Holding to the idea that the Church had pulled Western Europe out of the Dark Ages, he showed that a single order of eremitical monks would once again restore order to an annihilated world.

What is Miller trying to tell us? From an allegorical standpoint, perhaps a renewed moral sense has become necessary.  It seems that the current zeitgeist is begging for it.  Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, while maintaining the utmost respect for the sciences, stresses the role of the humanities – to pursue issues of morality, which unfortunately do not get the same amount of attention in the standardized tests and curricula.  He states:

The biological sciences tell us about the nature and processes of the living world and forces governing physical objects; the more recently initiated social sciences inform us about human nature, actions, motives, and possibilities.  And- if less decisively than the scientific disciplines- the humanistic and artistic disciplines also furnish information and knowledge they add significantly to our understandings of the varieties of beauty and morality (Gardner 2000, 32).


Other works of twentieth century take a different view of American education. Evelyn Waugh referred to his book, The Loved One, as an Anglo-American tragedy.  The story revolves around a pet cemetery where the employees refer to the dead animals as “loved ones.” The cemetery has all the allure of Disneyland, a device used to exaggerate the emptiness and superficiality of the American tinsel-town mentality.  He is not concerned with the practicality of courses but the shallowness of the institutions themselves.

 When Dennis Barlow met the Mortuary Hostess at Whispering Glades “He thought he had seen her before everywhere…. She was the standard product” (Waugh 1977, 54).  This is a clear criticism of the perpetual sameness that our institutions are pumping out.  The woman is referred to as a product, showing that her construction was carried out by some standardized form. 

Aimée Thanatogenes is perhaps a better example of a broken educational system.  Her studies stand as Waugh’s hyperbolic symbol of shallowness.  She studied beauty with a focus on oriental studies and psychology.  When asked to describe exactly what she studied, she replied:

permanents, facials, wax – everything you get in a Beauty Parlor.  Only of course, we went in for history and theory too.  I wrote my thesis on Hairstyling in the Orient. That was why I took Chinese. I thought it would help, but it didnt.  But I got my diploma with special mention for Psychology and Art (Waugh 1977, 91).


This is a direct statement about the shallowness of American education.  How proficient could she have become in her studies?  She essentially studied the science of beauty, the art of the Orient and the social science of psychology.  This is considered theory.

               Joseph Roth also portrayed a missing link in modern education in his 1956 book, Rebellion.  The pathetic cripple named Andreas Pum lost all that he had to believe in. As a brainwashed citizen he was content, but after he tasted extreme misery he lost faith in his god and finally in the state, a parallel with the crisis of modern humanity.  Feeling completely betrayed by the system, he laments: “Nature hasnt blessed me with sharp wits, and my feeble intellect was betrayed by my parents, my school, my teachers, the sergeant major and the captain, and the newspapers I was given to read (Roth 1997, 116).  Roth also makes a firm statement about the existential life:  With every step, bitter and close to tears, he sensed how insignificant he was (Roth 1997, 56). “This God forsaken modern age!” Pum exclaims (Ibid.).

               Perhaps a more essential parallel between Andreas Pum and our present society is his hurdy-gurdy.  Pum was given a license to play this barrel organ in the streets of his town.

Andreas carries his barrel organ on his back with a couple of straps, like a kit-bag.  The left side of the instrument had no fewer than 8 screws.  They are for the selection of the melody.  The barrel organ has eight cylinders, among them the National Anthem and the “Lorelei.” (Roth 1997, 15) 


In other words, his job was to choose the appropriate song of the eight that were approved and consequently provided.  He also had to maintain the tempo by cranking at the proper speed: “Depending on his mood, Andreas can crank the handle so fast that the waltz comes out as brisk and martial as a march” (Ibid. 16).  For Pum, however, this portable music became his instrument as he began to consider himself to be a musician: “Things reached such a pass that his instrument ceased to be mechanical to him, and he came to see virtuosity in his playing” (Ibid. 17).

               Both Roth and Waugh point to a crisis of technique in general as it leads to a decline in the skills necessary in the arts and also the crafts and trades.  This commentary is important to this discussion because it relates to the perceived educational crisis on two fronts.  First it provides a critique of technical education as a delusional mechanism for the students who receive a false sense of accomplishment as with Pum and his “instrument.”  On a deeper level, it can be seen as a critique of teaching as well.  As the modern world struggles to define what the standard education should consist of and as pedagogical philosophers strive to develop correct methodology, as if teaching itself were a science with a very specific technique, we are falling into the allegorical hurdy-gurdy.  The standardization of education and the scientization of the art of teaching are putting a barrel organ of every teacher in the modern world.  We approve and provide the material to be taught and instruct the teachers to turn screws and choose the appropriate tempo.

               As Roth demonstrates what becomes of man after receiving this prescribed technical education, Sinclair Lewis describes the roots of the phenomenon. His satirical character George Babbitt makes a statement about America’s attitude toward school in the first half of the twentieth century.  He demanded a practical education, metaphorically ensconced with dollar signs. There was no time to be wasted on things like poetry.  What schools needed, according to Babbitt, was a scientific approach.  One may assume that by scientific, Lewis is referring to a technological approach, a theme that would haunt education for generations.  In fact, Babbitt’s discourse on scientific education is somewhat of a prophecy: 

He snatched from the back of his geometry book half a hundred advertisements of those home-study courses, which the energy and foresight of American commerce have contributed to the science of education. The first displayed the portrait of a young man with a pure brow, an iron jaw, silk socks, and hair like patent leather. Standing with one hand in his trousers-pocket and the other extended with chiding forefinger, he was bewitching an audience of men with gray beards, paunches, bald heads, and every other sign of wisdom and prosperity. Above the picture was an inspiring educational symbol--no antiquated lamp or torch or owl of Minerva, but a row of dollar signs.

 (Lewis 1998, 86)


Getting degrees without wasting valuable time at school seems like such a monumental innovation in a busy, technological world and the dollar signs that serve as the “educational symbol” no doubt make the idea seem more practical, business-like even.  He goes on with his merriment:

I can see what an influence these courses might have on the whole educational works. Course I'd never admit it publicly--fellow like myself, a State U. graduate, it's only decent and patriotic for him to blow his horn and boost the Alma Mater--but s’matter of fact, there's a whole lot of valuable time lost even at the U., studying poetry and French and subjects that never brought in anybody a cent. I don't know but what maybe these correspondence courses might prove to be one of the most important American inventions. (Ibid)


Babbitt would certainly be interested in modern implications toward practical “scientific” education since he had “always figured somebody'd come along with the brains to not leave education to a lot of bookworms and impractical theorists but make a big thing out of it” (Lewis 1998, 79).[5] Babbitt asked sincerely, “Whatll we do for workmen if all those fellows go and get educated? (Lewis 1998, 87).  The system of education that was promoted by Lewis’ 1920s culture is the same one that fed the fears of both Huxley and Orwell in the next two decades.

The Crisis from the Perspectives of Other Milieus

Fritjof Capra, a physicist, has also contributed to the current dialog in recent years. His Turning Point outlines a systems approach to life, focusing on the interconnectedness of all facets of life. Capra describes the scientization process that western culture has undergone in the past few centuries, and further explains the roots and later development of Newtonian physics, Cartesian reductionism, and eventually the failure of both.  According to Capra, science and in a sense society in general, is facing a crisis. In the world of science, old paradigms – namely Newtonian physics and Cartesian reductionism – are failing to keep up with new discoveries, a theory reiterated in another work from the history of science, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Both claim that society faces crises involving energy, health care, pollution, crime, and environmental disasters.  Capra’s thesis is that “these are all different facets of one and the same crisis, and that crisis is essentially a crisis in perception” (Capra 1983, 15).  We are attempting to conform to Cartesian-Newtonian science paradigm; however, we are in desperate need of a new, holistic paradigm.

The Turning Point describes the crisis: “It is a striking sign of our time that the people who are supposed to be experts in various fields can no longer deal with the urgent problems that have arisen in their areas of expertise” (25). Later he describes “the dramatic shift of basic concepts that has occurred in modern physics,” and applies this paradigm to several areas of study: biology, medicine, psychology, and economics (16).  In light of the interconnectedness of these disciplines, the urgency for a holistic, systems based paradigm becomes evident. Capra’s major points can be summed up in a simple statement: “As individuals, as a society, as a civilization, and as a planetary ecosystem, we are reaching the turning point” (33).  He demonstrates this collapse of the old system using several examples from modern science.  His first major points outline the Cartesian-Newtonian model.  Its view of life “as a mechanical system provided a ‘scientific’ sanction for the manipulation and exploitation of nature…” (61). Furthermore it was atomistic which provided the locus for future scientists to reduce the world into its lowest terms.  This reduction not only gives the impression that the universe could be broken down but that a gap existed between the material world and the immaterial world, and that being the quantifiable component, the material world would come to be the main unit of scientific exploration. One of the problems with the model, according to Capra, is that the interrelationships between material components are lost. 

The new physics undermined the foundations of the Cartesian-Newtonian science.  Quantum Mechanics, initiated by Einstein in 1905, made reductionism useless because it showed that our smallest particles contain yet smaller particles which made up a system that “has to pictured as one indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process” (78).  The reductionist concept became more nebulous as ideas like the uncertainty principle and the notion of complementarity entered the arena of the new physics.  These ideas show that “we cannot decompose the world into an independently existing smallest unit” (81).  The idea of an interconnected web of relations becomes an essential ingredient to the new physics and remains one of the biggest points purported by Capra.  The second theme is the “realization that the cosmic web is intrinsically dynamic” (87).

Capra uncovers several problems in the modern sciences that affect humanity on a regular basis.  Perhaps minor in regard to the grand purpose of his work, they provide valuable insight by demonstrating the far-reaching implications of a paradigmatic failure as such.  In the medical world our bodies are viewed as machines that are prone to break down.  By focusing on smaller pieces of the body, “modern medicine often loses sight of the patient as a human being, and by reducing health to mechanical functioning, it is no longer able to deal with the phenomenon of healing” (123).  This affects psychology as well.  Psychiatrists, with their degrees in medical science, attempt to understand mental illness as a physical malady requiring medical treatment.  Psychologists, although their ancient roots were in introspection, eventually adopted the Cartesian-Newtonian model as well.  The basic problem is that neither group effectively adopted research that seeks knowledge about the relationship between the two components: mind and body.  According to Capra, Jung was the one who came closest to closing the gap: “His basic concepts clearly transcended the mechanistic models of classical psychology and brought his science much closer to the conceptual framework of modern physics than any other psychological school” (186-7).

Capra describes a modern crisis in science that permeates all aspects of society.  Modern knowledge is built upon an old structural framework that no longer supports the weight.  It is imperative that a new paradigm is adopted, but the transformation will not be easy.  Modern scientific thought “comes very close to the views of mystics and of many traditional cultures, in which knowledge of the human mind and body and the practice of healing are integral parts of natural philosophy and of spiritual discipline” (305).  His points can be summed up as a wake up call.  The new science is headed toward a radical perspective that is based in holism.  This perspective is difficult to digest, especially by the traditional scientific community. It tends to resemble mysticism, which falls out of line with many of the sciences, especially those in the field of health. 

Incredible technological growth is burdening life at the moment.  Stemming from the “emphasis on reductionist science our culture has become progressively fragmented and has developed technologies, institutions, and life styles that are profoundly unhealthy” (234). The problems are “integral features of an economic system obsessed with growth and expansion, continuing to intensify its high technology in an attempt to increase productivity” (235).  Based on his observations that “[e]very organism - from the smallest bacterium through the wide range of plants and animals to humans - is an integrated whole and thus a living system” he comes to see the world from a systems view (266).  In sum: “Systems thinking is process thinking; form becomes associated with process, interrelation with interaction, and opposites are unified through oscillation” (267).

Capra uses several minor points that help to elucidate his themes.  His addition of economics to the equation is hard hitting, especially as he refers to medications and pharmaceutical companies that “saturate doctors not only with smooth sales talk but also with briefcases full of drug samples, plus every imaginable promotional ploy” like giving away expensive gifts to physicians prescribing their brands.  In addition to recommending perhaps dangerous chemicals, the health care industry itself is victim to the economic system “which has heavily invested in the technologies that emerged from the reductionist view of illness” (261).

Capra lays the groundwork in the first part of The Turning Point by applying historical methodology to trace the origins of modern science and by presenting examples of how the Cartesian-Newtonian model is failing.  The second builds on this by showing the effects of technology on our ecology and discusses the economics associated with that technology.  Perhaps his most salient point, and the one that makes his work relevant to this discussion, is his reliance upon primary and secondary education to help disseminate this worldview.  Education is at a crossroads and introducing holism will certainly be a beneficial step. This intention of this education program “will be to make people understand how their behavior and their environment affect their health, and to teach them how to cope with stress in their daily lives” (333).






A Crisis of Metaphysics

Neil Postman seems justified in claiming that the problem is metaphysical in nature if we evaluate the relationship between humanity and technology.  Specifically, the problem is “productionist metaphysics conceived of making in terms of ‘actualizing’ or ‘effecting’ a thing, in the sense of  ‘causing’ it to be present” (Zimmerman 1990, 223).  This worldview in Heidegger’s eyes distorts humanity’s knowledge of itself. According to William Lovitt’s evaluation of Heidegger, “Man needs above all in our age to know himself as the one who is claimed… So long as man does not know this, he cannot know himself; nor can he know himself in relation to his world” (Lovitt, 1977, xxxiii).  Without this metaphysical sense of being, man runs the risk of becoming what Heidegger labels, “standing reserve” which devalues the state of humanity to that of a commodity.  In this extreme state, man is only worth what he is able to produce.  His being is reduced to a raw material or worse, a machine. He proclaimed “that neither intellect nor instinct would save modern man, who has been so ‘hexed by machinations’ [machenshaften]” (Zimmerman, 1990, 106). 

Heidegger noticed that the technological view of being – productionist metaphysics – became exceptionally prevalent during the age of reason.  Ideas of the movement’s originators, namely Isaac Newton and René Descartes, were solidified by the Enlightenment figures that successfully walled off metaphysics and placed rationalism on its pedestal.  Providing further damage to modern academics was the strict compartmentalization of subject matter and the loss of liberal education. According to Charles Van Doran in A History of Knowledge, this has been happening at the higher echelons of academia since pre-Renaissance Europe, but “after the war [World War II], the liberal curriculum was discarded almost everywhere, and the departmental organization of the educational establishment was installed at all levels below the university, even in many elementary schools” (Van Doran 1991, 142).  C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures laments the lack of communication that exists among these departments.  They become separate worlds that remain ignorant of and detached from each other.  From the perspective of the humanities, especially in an historical context, it is impossible to separate ideas from one another no matter what discipline each is rooted in. A faith in the techno-scientific approach, a misconstrued relationship to technology, and compartmentalized education leads to a mental imbalance, a psychosis in a sense, to the educated masses of the post-modern era.  Just as a healthy person retains a balance between the mind, body, and spirit, a healthy education should accomplish the same balance with an understanding of the interconnectivity that exists between all knowledge. 

Jung offers the hope that perhaps students of Heidegger will find useful.  It is individuation. “Only by becoming conscious can a system of personality proceed to individuate.  Presumably, this is, or should be, the ultimate goal of education, to make conscious that which is unconscious” (Hall and Nordby 1973, 83).  Education should provide the key experiences in life that should cultivate the many facets of the human personality. In fact it is the essential role of education to do so.  “Education, as the etymology of the word indicates, is a drawing out from the person of something that is already there in a nascent state, and not the filling up of an empty container with knowledge” (ibid).

A techno-scientific education is not the answer.  “Scientific education is based in the main on statistical truths and abstract knowledge and therefore imparts the unrealistic, rational picture of the world, in which the individual, as a merely marginal phenomenon, plays no role” (Jung 1958, 20).  Calculative thinking only forces the development of lopsided personalities.  But a practitioner of education can offset the damage.  “The more experiences we have, the greater are the chances that the latent images[6] will become manifested.  That is why a rich environment and opportunities for education and learning are necessary for individuation in all aspects of the collective unconscious” (ibid 41).

Art in the curriculum could then “help make possible the non-representational, non-calculative, meditative thinking which would usher in the post-metaphysical age” (Zimmerman 1990, 113). Art is an essential component, but the liberating art that is necessary must be free and clear from the thralls of technology.  Zimmerman described the disparity well:

Heidegger analyzed the idea that great work of art is techné in that it provides the gestalt that gives measure, limit, boundary, and form to things.  Modern technology is a degenerate form of techné in that it imposes a highly constricting measure upon things, so that they can show themselves only instrumentally. (Zimmerman, 1990, 94)  


But the true artist is powerful. “For Heidegger, the thinker and the artists were ‘masks’ through which the being of entities could manifest itself in its various stages” (ibid. 98).  Thus the artist could in fact create a clearing for being to reveal itself to the world.  This true art, though, was not a representation of reality as perhaps in the aesthetics of Plato.  He rejected classical concepts of art as did he object to the artistic movement of the Romantics, who claimed that art was an expression of the soul.  For him, “art involves ontological disclosure” where the artist allows being itself to work through him (Zimmerman 1990, 107).

To make the necessary changes will not be an easy task, however.  Because the study of pedagogy itself is rooted in the scientific tradition. According to Phillip Jackson’s Handbook of Research on Curriculum, 

Curriculum studies can never successfully implement change without addressing the fundamental problem within curriculum studies.  This problem is that it has never extracted itself from the mire of scientism – the mechanistic Newtonian world view which finds its place in curriculum through the ideas of Dewey and Bobbit. (qtd. in Nolan 1995, 1)


Judith Burton, Professor of Education at Columbia University, claims that the strain of the current academic standards which are being cast upon schools nationally have convoluted the way the arts are taught.  A scientific approach has put a damper on the quality of work produced.  She too sees a change in curriculum style as a necessary task. “We should not, as we move toward the future, submit art education to forms of testing that derive from science or mathematics” (Burton 1994, 13). 

Society is at a crucial point in development.  A change is fast approaching and we need to be ready when it arrives.

We are living in what the Greeks called the Kaupós- the right time- for a ‘metamorphosis of the gods,’ i.e., of the fundamental principles and symbols.  This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing.  Coming generations will have to take account of this tremendous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science. (Jung 1958 page 123)


A change is inevitable.  Heidegger feels that the world becoming so technical is alarming, but “far more uncanny is our being unprepared for this transformation, our inability to confront meditatively what is really dawning in this age” (Heidegger 1966, 52). If the world is truly moving in a rhythmic pattern and if somewhere hiding in the shadow is a drive to reclaim human individuality, then a well-rounded education may be the only viable way to draw it out. 


The humanistic legacy as it has woven itself through western civilization seems to be an apt specimen to be observed.  Although the names and places have changed, humanist ideology has persisted in the twenty-first century.  This study traces that legacy, analyzes the changes and modification that the movement has experienced, and labels the core elements of its core philosophy.  Most importantly it demonstrates that the current crisis is part of a timeless dialog, one that is depicted by one of the Renaissance humanists, Raffaele, in his School of Athens. It then shows how the underlying pedagogy of the humanist movement can be salvaged and applied to this dialog in its current manifestation.












Chapter Two- The First Case Study

The Triumph of “The New Learning”


The book Humanism and the Renaissance complements Houghton Mifflin’s Problems in European Civilization series.  Zachary Schiffman, the book’s editor, in the first line of his preface raises an important issue, thus highlighting the problem that the series seeks to address: “The Renaissance is such an inherently confusing period that debates about its nature have become the chief occasion for calling the whole enterprise of historical periodization into question” (Schiffman 2002, ix).  The period referred to as the Renaissance seems more like a period of major transition. It fits neither the period that preceded it, nor the one that would follow. Yet it contains elements of each.  The more one digs into the period the more apt one will be to find things that are very definitely medieval lying side by side with things that are very definitely modern.  It may be helpful to see these centuries as a composting station.  The more the mix is turned, the more it begins to blend together and what emerges is the fertilizer that will nourish the modern era.  Four questions emerge here: What was thrown into the mix? What caused the pile to be turned and mixed together? How would the compost then be used to fertilize the next generations?  What role does education play in this transition and what pedagogies were employed?

Part One will respond to the first two questions.  It will describe what medieval elements were tossed into the composting pile.  It will also address some of the causes, mainly in the fourteenth century, that served to shuffle the mix.  Lastly, it will describe in detail the dissipation of the medieval worldview by analyzing the deterioration of institutions that are indubitably characteristic of the Middle Ages.  This is the crisis that the Renaissance Humanists will focus on and Part Two of this case study will dissect their responses to demonstrate their desire to take the best that the world of their day had to offer and place it in direct dialog with those considered to be the best of what the ancient world had to offer.  In sum, the chapter will show that these humanists sought to bring equilibrium to a system that they saw to be off kilter and that education was seen as the chief vehicle of for the attainment of this balance.

















Chapter Two Part One: Chaos to Crisis

Fourteenth Century Chaos

Perhaps the most obvious supplier of fourteenth century chaos is the infamous Black Death; yet the bedlam stretches much deeper.  In the foreword to her monumental work, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman claims that her original intention was to determine “the effects on society of the most lethal disaster in recorded history,” referring to the plagues of 1348-1350 (Tuchman 1978, xiii).  She found that the answers were elusive because the century bore the burden of so many strange and debilitating blows that “its disorders cannot be traced to any one cause; they were the hoof prints of more than the four horsemen of St. John’s vision, which had now become seven – plague, war, taxes, brigandage, bad government, insurrection, and schism in the Church” (Ibid.). 

Tuchman next draws an interesting parallel to our current crisis, which has become a cornerstone in this particular study.  Referencing James Westfall Thomson’s comparisons between the early twentieth century and the fourteenth century – citing “economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, lack of production, industrial indolence, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, avarice, maladministration, decay of manners” among the similarities – she makes a poignant declaration.  She points out that “in a period of similar disarray … it is reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse before” (Ibid. xiii-xiv).  Thus the important question for this study is raised: How exactly has the species not only endured worse, but ultimately risen from the crisis and turned the situation around toward the betterment of society? 

Another important factor in the fifteenth century chaos involved a massive shift in ideas.  The fourteenth century suffered some devastating blows physically and spiritually; however these factors cannot be fairly weighed separate from the technological and ultimately the intellectual advances of the period. 

Famine and Plague

The fourteenth century got off to a bad start agriculturally.  The Baltic Sea froze over twice (1303 and 1306-7) and the next several years brought extreme cold, rain and storms.  Population booms of the previous century had exceeded the limits of production and agricultural technology was just starting to catch up.  All cultivatable land had been pushed to its limits.  In 1315, rains that were compared to the deluge in Genesis led to failed crops in all of Europe. According to Tuchman, the times that followed contain reports of cannibalism – eating children, taking down and eating those who had been hanged, etc. – dysentery, and widespread famine. (Tuchman 1979, 24-25)

The Black Plague struck the Sicilian seaport of Messina in October 1347 when a Genoese trading ship returning from the Crimean city of Caffa loaded with dead and dying sailors covered in black, oozing, egg-sized boils.  They contracted two types of bubonic plague, both carried by fleas that infested the fur of black rats.   The first type was blood borne, caused internal bleeding and buboes, and was spread by physical contact.  The second type was pneumonic and was spread through respiratory infection.  “So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at bedside and dying before the patient” (Tuchman 1982, 92).  By 1350 the plague stretched from India to Iceland.  Philip Zeigler states that determining an exact number would be impossible due to the major discrepancies in various contemporary sources but concludes that one-third of the population being killed is a safe estimate (Zeigler 1998, 183).

The terror wrought during those few years was debilitating.  As peasants lay dead in streets and fields, survivors became isolated and grew apathetic, “leaving ripe wheat uncut and livestock untended” (Tuchman 1982, 98). Although the peasant class suffered the greatest loss in numbers, the aristocracy was undoubtedly affected.  As described in Boccaccio’s Decameron, many rich families were able to retreat to their rural estates where their chances of survival were better.  This was especially true of many of the well-to-do merchant families in Florence.[7] Tuchman, however, lists some of the casualties among the ranks of the aristocracy.  King Alfonso XI of Castile, Queen Leonora of Aragon, Queen Jeanne of Navarre, the son of Byzantine Emperor John Cantacuzene, the daughters of England’s Edward III and the King Robert D’Anjou of Naples,  Petrarch’s Laura, Painters Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, William of Ockham, and Floretine historian Giovanni Villani[8] all died during the plague (99).  According to Michael Mallet, “It is difficult to underplay the social and psychological effect of the plague which swept through Italy in 1347-8, or indeed the immediate economic disruption as towns were abandoned and fields left untilled.” He adds, “But in the longer term there were gains to balance the losses; per capita income of the survivors tended to increase, giving them greater purchasing power and new capital resources” (Mallet 1997, 68).  These new resources brought an influx of immigrants to the urban centers from the hinterlands.  This new population had new interests and required new systems of government.

The crisis that ensued during the plagues could not be satisfactorily explained in human terms.  Naturally people sought supernatural answers to justify the devastation.  Some blamed the disaster on the work of demons.  For others the event was apocalyptic, measuring up to the biblical story of the flood. Up to 2000 penitents at a time – praying, carrying relics, and beating themselves – took to the streets seeking God’s mercy.  “Beyond demons and superstition the final hand was God’s.  The pope acknowledged it in a Bull of September 1348, speaking of ‘the pestilence with which God is afflicting the Christian people’” (Tuchman 1982, 104). The medieval mind set out to define the heinous sin that had brought upon such a divine chastisement. According to Tuchman, among the culprit sins were: greed, usury, avarice, worldliness, adultery, luxury, and irreligion (Ibid.). 


Western Europe was certainly no stranger to warfare before the fourteenth century; however, the long, drawn-out battle between England and France, innovations in military technology, and the deteriorating image of knighthood changed Europe permanently.  By the fifteenth century the medieval economic and social structure that was especially prevalent in rural regions of Europe – those who worked, those who fought, those who prayed – stood on shaky ground.  The relationships between social and cultural classes, and perhaps between kingdoms, began to lose definition. 

The Hundred Years War on the surface was a war between England and France over the succession of the French throne after the death of the last male heir to the Capetian dynasty.  Joseph Strayer claims: “The real reason for the long war was that neither kings nor barons had a policy or strong support in their own country,” and further that they were “inclined to postpone the solution of domestic problems and seek popularity through military adventures” (Strayer, 1982, 170).  More practical causes of the war revolved around issues that hinged on economics, trade, and simple geography.  Territorial lines based on ancient fiefs seemed to lose meaning. 

Flanders was another factor in the ordeal. By the fourteenth century it was one of the most influential trade centers in Europe and quickly became the northern banking headquarters for Italian based institutions while serving as a trade hub for the northern countries seeking finished products.  This status was accomplished by the diligence of the bourgeoisie who had created a massive weaving industry that was dependent upon English wool.  Flanders, however, was a fiefdom of France.  With goods being sold throughout the world, including the orient, Flemish merchants and working class undoubtedly supported the English claim while the Flemish nobility, for feudal reasons, were pro-French.  The emerging global economy, one that might be considered modern and therefore non-conducive to a medieval worldview, had begun to eat away at the traditional standards that once defined social, cultural, and economic relationships.  A similar example of this is the region of Gascony.  The difference was product.  This French territory got rich by trading its highly-sought Bordeaux wines to the English aristocracy. The same results followed.

    In some ways, the Hundred Years War might be seen as the last medieval war and simultaneously as the first modern one.  Lynn White Jr. places the 8th century invention of the stirrup as the pivotal point in the development of medieval warfare (White 1964, 28). A mounted cavalry became the key feature of the battlefield.  It allowed men the stability and mobility required to fight off the back of a horse.  The excessive cost and training involved in this new warfare created a niche that could only be filled by the nobility themselves.  White claims that initial investment of equipment, not including maintenance, feed, outfitting and supporting a squire, etc, was about the cost of “twenty oxen, or the plough-teams of at least ten peasant families” (Ibid. 29).  In effect this facilitated the evolution of the three-tiered purposeful system of living in a feudalistic society. Those who fought eventually moved from a makeshift peasant militia to an elite society of noble knights. “By about 1000, miles had ceased to be ‘soldier’ and had come to be ‘knight’” (Ibid. 30).

By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the technological tides were once again changing.  Some historians have claimed that the key to Joan of Arc’s success as a military commander was in her inexperience as a knight.  Others, who had been trained in traditional military tactics, were at a disadvantage because the new battlefield was unprecedented.  Archers could set a barrage of arrows from 300 yards away at a rate of “ten to twelve arrows a minute in comparison to the crossbow’s two…” (Tuchman 1978, 70).  Besides the English longbow, gunpowder made its mark on the European battlefield.  Its emergence “added a small but potent new element of military and social change” (Gies 1987, 166).  Knights were trained for hand-to hand combat which was becoming obsolete as the fourteenth century pressed on into the fifteenth. Armored knights were as vulnerable to the death wrought by gunpowder as other men in the field.  Armor may have even served as a disadvantage for the knight.  Eventually other hand-to-hand fighters, such as squires and men at arms, who were cheaper to outfit, gained a status that almost equaled that of a knight.

If it was military technology that helped create the medieval knight and solidify the feudalism of the Middle Ages, then it was military technology that led to the destruction of the knight and thus contributed to the decline in the feudalistic life. The Hundred Years War became the stage for this to happen.  As early as the 1250s reports begin to show evidence of the use of explosives in war.  In 1258, “what were probably true rockets are mentioned at Cologne” and further evidence shows that Roger Bacon was familiar with rockets around 1260 (Ibid. 96-97).  By the fourteenth century these roman-candle style weapons had grown into something much more lethal. The earliest pictures of cannons date to around 1327 and by 1347 cannonballs appear in Toulouse (Ibid. 99).

According to technology historian Arnold Pacey, a Florentine document in 1326 “shows the city authorities were acquiring ‘metal cannon’ and iron shot as if they were already commonplace” (Pacey 2001, 49).  In fact, he notes that the period in Italian history after the turn of the fourteenth century experienced an “arms race” (Ibid. 52). Regardless of the exact date of the first use of cannons, they were undeniably a factor in the Hundred Years War. In The Medieval Machine, Jean Gimpel asserts that the French Army “had been defeated by an English army with superior military equipment, including the first cannons…” (Gimpel 1976, 235).

By the fourteenth century the status of the knight had diminished and in the fifteenth kings like Charles VII (1445) began to organize professional standing armies composed of cavalry, archers, and foot soldiers (Gies 1987, 196). One of his knights, Jean de Bueil (1405-1478) reflects this in his autobiography which is paraphrased in Gies’ The Knight in History: “Modern war, said De Bueil, was a profession, not a sport.” He continues, “Knights who had spent their lives at court were not fitted for it, either in hardihood or skill” (Ibid. 197).  Andrea Hopkins, in A Chronicle History of Knights, points to a curious phenomenon of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: “the refusal or reluctance of men who were by birth and fortune eligible for knighthood to take it up” (Hopkins 2004, 156). One factor may have been the constantly rising price of maintaining one’s role as a knight.  Gunpowder raised the cost of a knight’s equipment because it required much stronger and increasingly resilient plate armor. 

Other factors contributed, however, to the decline of the medieval knight.  The honor of knighthood had been extended to non-nobles throughout the fourteenth century.  “Knighthoods began to be given as rewards to successful burghers whose services had been financial rather than military and, at the other end of the scale, to professional soldiers of lowly birth [men-at-arms], who could be dubbed on the battlefield” (Ibid. 157).  There had been no criteria in place regarding the dubbing of knights.  Tradition only said that a knight could be dubbed by someone who was already knighted.  Although for many centuries, the nobility had attempted to confine this dubbing to those soldiers who ranked among them, by the fifteenth century it was no longer universally assumed that noblemen, because of their social status would pursue the vocation of knighthood.  Furthermore, knights were almost indistinguishable on the battlefield and monarchs began providing their standing armies with horses and armor and knights found themselves fighting side by side with common soldiers – squires, sergeants, and men-at-arms (Ibid.).  These factors helped to set knighthood into serious decline.

Warfare, especially the Hundred Years War, served as a major fourteenth century factor that led to the crisis of the fifteenth century.  Campaigns turned into useless power struggles among the old noble families of Europe which placed the rapidly evolving merchant class in a precarious position.  An advancing global economy presented a challenge of loyalty and an eventual critical view of the feudal system.  Military tactics and technology employed during the war also contributed to the decline of feudalism as knights – the previous cornerstones of the medieval way – began to be replaced by non-noble soldiers and professional standing armies.  Definitions of social responsibilities were made nebulous.

New Non-Military Technologies

               Developing technologies in other areas besides the battlefield contributed to the shift in medieval identity in the fourteenth century.  Technologies that enhanced agriculture, navigation, and eventually time-keeping came to adjust the way the three tiered medieval society looked upon each other.  Agricultural advancement created a surplus that required less manual labor than it had in previous generations.  Navigational technology made it possible for sailors to chart courses along longitudinal lines as well the latitudinal lines (the latter being perfected centuries earlier).  Finally the clock gave man one more constraint to be held accountable to.  The pragmatism of medieval life dissipated into a void of purpose.  “Considering the generally slow tempo of human history, this [thirteenth and fourteenth century] revolution in machine design occurred with startling rapidity” (White 1964, 129).  Arnold Pacey attributes this revolution to the fall of Toledo in 1085 when westerners gained access to the technical books of the eastern world and subsequently spent the next several centuries translating and experimenting with the newly discovered knowledge (Pacey 1990, 96).  This fall, as we will see later, also contributed to the intellectual climate of the Renaissance. 

               As a result of both astronomical discoveries and experimentation with weight-driven machinery, “towards the middle of the fourteenth century, the mechanical clock seized the imagination of our ancestors” (White 1964, 124).  Canto X of Dante’s Inferno, written between 1316 and 1321, contains the earliest literary mention of the clock claiming that the machine “calleth up the spouse of God” (Gimpel 2003, 154).  Pacey claims that “astronomical observatories were the most characteristic institution for dissemination of ideas about mathematics, clocks and some types of technical drawings (especially scale maps)” (Pacey 1990, 96). By 1341, these clocks adorned the cathedrals of most of Europe’s cities.  Lynn White Jr. said: “No European community felt able to hold its head up unless…apostles, kings, and prophets marched and countermarched at the booming of the hours” (Ibid.).  By the end of the century, clockmakers in the wake of Giovanni de’Dondi[9] began to work on spring-driven clocks that were made small and eventually portable.[10]  The obvious connection between mechanical clocks and heavenly movement in a sense led to a desire to discover the mind of God by harnessing the natural world and the knowledge it had to offer. For the next few centuries the clock became the metaphor for life itself.  Robert Boyle “saw the universe as ‘a great piece of clock work’ and his Catholic contemporary Sir Kenelm Digby[11] agreed that the universe was just that” (Boorstin 1985, 72). Even Isaac Newton began to see God as the great clock maker, and this metaphor eventually became the foundation for the eighteenth century theology, deism. 

               While contributing to man’s quest to discover God, new technologies like the clock had an adverse effect on the human condition. James Burke and Robert Ornstein claim that the clock was a form of “control technology” which originated in the monasteries to help assemble for daily prayers and then spread to other realms of society (1997, 109).  Soon villages began installing community clocks which “gave guilds and governments the means to regulate all behavior” (110).  To reinforce their claim they cite an example from the town records of Amiens, France.  In 1355 an ordinance was issued that the city clock would determine what time work was to begin in the town, when lunch began and ended, and when it was time to return home. They also note a similar situation for textile workers in Brussels around the same time. Daniel Boorstin said that “the artificial hour, the clock-marked hour became the constant regimen for everyone” (Boorstin 1985, 73).   

               Lewis Mumford takes this a step further by claiming that time-keeping is one of the key technologies that eventually led to the industrial revolution.  He states: “the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours; but of synchronizing the actions of men….The bells of the clock tower almost defined urban existence” (Mumford 1963, 14).  Two important developments occurred as a result of this new definition of the human experience: “Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions,” and secondly “it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science” (14-15).  For the medieval mind, “the true order of space was Heaven…the true measure of time was Eternity” (20).  After the fourteenth century this all began to change. 

               Jean Gimpel – an historian who claims that after the invention of the mechanical clock the West faced a technological decline – explores Mumford’s comment on the clock. He claims that although Mumford’s theories on the Benedictine origins of the clock are today disputed, “his views on the role of the clock in the evolution of Western Europe are still very relevant” (Gimpel 2003, 149).  According to Gimpel, Capetian King of France Charles V (1338-1380) built two official clocks on buildings in Paris beside the one on the Royal Palace: Hôtel Saint Paul, and Château de Vincennes.  After building these he ordered that all the churches in Paris would ring their bells whenever the official clocks struck the hour. For Gimpel, the Church of Rome’s[12] willingness to perform this task signifies a monumental change in Western thought.  It symbolized “the acceptance of a new technology and a readiness to compromise with new ideas” (Gimpel 2003, 168-169).  Lastly, he claims that this idea is deeply rooted in the Italian middle class’s capitalistic mentality that “already knew that ‘time is money’” (170).   

Taxes, Bad Government, and Insurrection

For most of the Middle Ages taxes were imposed as “an established and perpetual obligation…. without any part of them being directly appropriated for the public interest” (Pirenne 1952, 207).  In many cases extensive taxation became the only means a king had to clean up the mistakes that either he or his forbears had created and in a place where the first two of the three estates were exempt from taxation, the burden fell on the backs of the third estate.  One example, stemming from the Hundred Years War, comes from France.  After a temporary truce initiated by Pope Innocent VI failed, England’s Prince Edward began collecting troops and headed back into France.  King Jean II, son of King Phillip IV, set out to recover some of France’s lost honor by raising his own army (with German mercenaries among his ranks) to meet the English at Poitiers. The young king was forced to seek financial assistance from the Assembly of the Three Estates to pay his army.  “The offer made by the Estates of 1355 revealed the French resources and the national loyalty beneath the discontents, and also a profound mistrust of the King’s government” (Tuchman, 1978, 142). 

While agreeing to support an army of 30,000 for one year, the Estates took a stand.  Since the taxes behind this financial support came from the third estate, they would be the ones to administer it.  A committee was formed to pay the troops directly without interference from the king’s administration.  Eventually the tax burden was to be shared by all three estates and when that wasn’t enough taxes were increased by means of salt tax.  “The new rates amounted to a tax of 4 percent on the incomes of the rich, 5 percent on the middle class, and 10 percent on the lowest taxable class” (Ibid. 142).  This is pertinent to this discussion for another reason.  It is one more element in the Renaissance transition that eventually contributes to the fertilization of the modern world[13]. 

The result of the terrible tax burden was troublesome for the French.  They suffered another debilitating military defeat and to make matters worse, King Jean II was captured and held for ransom in London, some of which was paid by the Estate, some by the sale of valuable castles and fortresses, and some by the sale of Jean’s eleven year old daughter Isabelle into marriage with the son of Italian tyrant Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan.  The third estate meanwhile struggled for control of France.  The heavy taxation and bad government planted seeds for insurrection.  One minor revolt took place in Arras, a textile city in Picardy.  The insurrection, called “the revolt of the ‘little against the great’” was easily put down but it served as a foreshadowing of things to come (Ibid.).  

France was not alone in its pressure upon the poor for financial support.  England provides a perhaps better example of a failing socio-political system.  English countrymen in London borderlands started a peasant revolt of their own.  20,000 peasants stood outside the city walls.  They wanted to talk to the king and promised his safety while calling for “the heads of Archbishop Sudbury and Sir Robert Hailes, the Chancellor and Treasurer, whom they held responsible for the poll tax, and for the head, too, of the arch ‘traitor,’ John of Gaunt[14], symbol of misgovernment and a failing war” (Ibid. 374). They had several demands.  Among them: revocation of the poll tax, abolition of all bonds of servile status, commutation at a rate of four pence an acre, free use of forests, abolition of the game laws (Ibid.).  Richard II and his administration conceded on these in order to disperse the mobs.  The concessions seemed successful until more extreme demands were issued: “all inequities of rank and status were to be abolished, all men to be equal below the King, the Church to be disendowed and its estates divided among the commons, England to have but one bishop and the rest of the hierarchy to be eliminated” (Ibid. 376).

According to Michael Mallet, the calamities of the fourteenth century “mark a dividing line between the Middle Ages and the modern world.” (Mallet 1997, 63).  At the same time, however, “the Italian Renaissance  was firmly rooted in the fourteenth century, the century of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, of Giotto, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini” (Ibid.).  Political instability, the rise of despotism, increased commerce and the development of big business were all contributing factors to this change.  As new forms of government began to take root, new and more elaborate sources of revenue were required.  This, according to Mallet, was one of the major issues leading to the “divided fifteenth century” as he states: “the costs of government and the needs of the state were soon to outrun, not so much the economic and fiscal resources of those states, as the willingness of the economic elites to contribute on the scales required” (Ibid. 68).   The real problem was that these rapidly developing states lacked the political unity that was necessary to form lasting systems of government. Leadership became nothing more than the incessant bickering of the rival elite families in the major cities.  In addition, the church added to the confusion by supporting some despots over others and actually encouraging and bankrolling several insurrections.  One example is Pope Sixtus IV’s support of the Pazzi conspiracy in Florence in its attempt to kill both Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici – Lorenzo escaped with minor injuries while Giuliano was stabbed to death – in order to restore power to the Pazzi family.  It did however spur the Pazzi War (1478-80) which eventually weakened the status of the Medici on both the political and popular levels.

Schism in the Church

The Great Schism added to the chaos and confusion of the fourteenth century and although it was resolved early in the fifteenth, its shadow was cast over the remainder of the century.  According to Tuchman, the schism is rooted in the days immediately following the plague but it began to sprout a quarter of a century later.  She claims that “war for control of the Papal States had renewed itself in 1375” (Tuchman 1982, 320).  A Frenchman, Pierre Roger de Beaufort, was crowned Pope Gregory XI in 1371.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Gregory XI made the fatal mistake of appointing Frenchmen, who did not understand the Italians and whom [sic] the Italians hated, as legates and governors of the ecclesiastical provinces in Italy” (Ott 2003, “Pope Gregory XI”).[15]  Tuchman also cites this mistake but focuses on one incident in particular.  In 1375, the nephew of the Abbot of Montmayeur who was a French legate in Perugia, broke into the chamber of the wife of a Perugian gentleman.  Attempting to escape from her attacker, the woman tried to climb out her window into an adjoining house.  She slipped and fell to her death.  The uncle of the perpetrator, the Abbot, exclaimed: “Did you suppose all Frenchman were eunuchs?” (Ibid.).  This story quickly spread from city to city in Italy, perpetuating and reinforcing the hatred of the French influence in Italy.

Anti-papal sentiment in the major Italian city-states was a direct result of such misfortunes.  The 12th century battles between the Guelphs and Ghibellines[16], as described in Dante’s Inferno, once again raged.  Florence, supported by Milan, Perugia, Pisa, Lucca, and Genoa, organized a revolt that “reached the point of belligerence” and claimed the slogan “Libertas, which was “inscribed in gold on a red banner” (Tuchman 1982, 321). The Papal Legate in Italy, Cardinal Robert of Geneva, convinced Gregory XI to hire the Bretons as mercenaries in order to gain back papal jurisdiction in Italy. These bloodthirsty warriors entered Lombardy in 1376.  In February 1377, the cardinal ordered the massacre of the city of Cesena after convincing the citizens to lay down their arms peacefully.  Between 2500 and 5000 were killed while “women were seized for rape, ransom was placed on children, plunder succeeded the killing, works of art were ruined, handicrafts laid waste…” (Ibid. 322).

Gregory, who had been living in Avignon recognized the necessity, perhaps in part through the unwavering behest of the Dominican Catherine of Siena – who wrote extensively to the pope and to kings, queens and other influential members of Italian society in attempt to restore order to the church – to return to Rome.  If the roots of the schism lay in the death of the Perugian woman, its fruition lay in the death of Gregory in Rome during the month of March 1378.  Under the pressure of the Italian mob gathering outside of the Vatican, an Italian pope was elected after the shortest enclave in history. The archbishop of Bari, Bartolomeo Prignano, became Pope Urban VI. Soon after, he made enemies with Italians and Frenchmen alike.  Philip Hughes asserts that after Prignano’s election, “his whole manner had changed….that there is something to be said for the theory that his reason had suffered” (Hughes 1954, 143). Saint Catherine of Siena desperately pleaded with him to no avail to act in accordance with God’s will and not his own human passions.  By July of 1378 his election was declared to be invalid.  It was said that the cardinals who elected him acted out of fear.  In Avignon a new election was held and Robert of Geneva became the antipope under the name Clement VII. 

               One of the last legacies of the medieval world, and one that by modern standards defined the medieval worldview, was cracking at its foundation.  Since the beginning the papacy had stood for stability, unity, and spiritual authority in Europe.  Twentieth century historian Christopher Dawson would later argue the world had never seen before and has never seen since such unity and that the era of the Middle Ages is the era of Christianity.  The church had collected the scattered pieces of the fallen Roman Empire and carved out a countryside that continued efficiently for centuries.  By the end of the fourteenth century the unity of the West was split.  Two men claimed to be the legitimate pope and European leaders chose their sides.  In addition, as Tuchman points out, “the financial effect of the schism was catastrophic” (Tuchman 1982, 335).  A split papacy meant that papal revenue was divided which meant that corrupt church practices that had been rooted out by medieval reforms were revived.  To avoid bankruptcy on either side, “simony redoubled, benefices and promotions were sold under pressure, charges for spiritual dispensations were increased, as were chancery taxes on every document required from the Curia” (Ibid.). Things got so bad that it is said that popes, when bishops refused to pay excessive taxes, in order to maintain the illusion of magnificence, had to pawn some of the Church’s sacred items including Clement’s tiara (Tuchman 1982, 482) and Innocent VII’s mitre (Jardine 1996, 122).

For the common people, the authentic Church leadership was nebulous. Nobody was sure who was pope, Clement or Urban. This was a rift that even death could not heal.  Boniface IX was elected in Rome after the death of Urban and he was succeeded by two more popes: Innocent VII in 1404 and Gregory XII in 1406.  When Clement died in Avignon, he was replaced by Benedict XIII.  Then in 1409, at the Council of Pisa, a third pope was elected, Alexander V.  Ironically, “it was the third pope, the one of the three who was most certainly not pope, whom practically the whole of Christendom obeyed” (Hughes 1954, 147).  After ten months Alexander died and was replaced in Pisa by Baldassare Cossa who became John XXIII[17], a man who had once been a “pirate” (Ibid.). 

               A new council met in November of 1414 at Constance.  Initiated by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, the Council of Constance goes into history books as “the strangest in all church history from its composition, its procedure, and the nature of what was effected through it” (Ibid). John XXIII was almost immediately deposed.  Gregory XII, at the age of eighty, abdicated in June of 1415.  Benedict XIII refused to resign but retained only an insignificant following in a small town in Spain.  On St. Martin’s Day, November 11, 1417, Odo Colonna wore the tiara under the name Pope Martin V thus ending the schism.   

The Rise of Capitalism

Another factor, perhaps one of the most significant, in the collapse of the medieval worldview was the gradual yet persistent rise of a capitalistic culture.  It not only created a sense of individualism in its adherents; it also helped to create a void in moral philosophy and civil ethics.  The old standard was ill equipped to handle the new issues that would inevitably arise out of an entirely new social and economic system.  Many historians will argue that the rise of capitalism is an offshoot of the calamities and crises that we have discussed here.  In fact, Max Weber in his famed Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism claims that big business and a focus on individual business-driven wealth did not exist in pre-Reformation days.  His claim was that the crisis forced cultural changes in Europe. The Reformation drove those changes into action and produced what we know as modern capitalism.  Frederic Mauro, in his essay “Merchant Communities, 1350-1750” states that merchant communities existed prior to his beginning date of 1350.  Edwin Hunt and James Murray also argue against Weber.  They say that “Weber’s ideas are explicitly antithetical to [their] central argument the ‘spirit of capitalism’ was alive and thriving through most of the Middle Ages,” claiming that the ideas of capitalism stem from ideas that long precede the fifteenth century crisis and in fact, in a certain sense helped to produce the crisis by contributing to fourteenth century calamities (Hunt and Murray 1999, 242). 

The Middle Ages inherited their tastes in food and fineries from the glory days of Rome. This is important because “what people ate, and just as importantly what they wanted to eat played a marked role in defining the possibilities and limitations of business organization” (Hunt and Murray 1999, 12).  During the reign of the Roman Emperors bread, wine, and oils, especially because of their sacralization by the Church became important staples. Soon massive economic and social structures were put into place in order to fulfill this need.  Crop specialization in particular areas of the empire, extensive shipping services, preservation of surpluses and to a certain extent the development of Roman latifundia are all part of the legacy that was handed down from Rome to her Mediterranean descendants.  The authors conclude that by the 11th century, cereals in the northern European diet increased from one third to three quarters of the total diet.  They also claim that after the seventh century[18], Christian prohibitions on the consumption of meat during the 150 designated fast days “dictated a prominent place for fish” (Ibid. 16-17).  To maintain these standards, some form of mercantilism had to persist through the period called “the dark ages.”  By the thirteenth century, the concept of a fair, which was usually set in place to honor a local patron saint, became synonymous with our modern idea of an open market.  This system created a need for coinage and eventually the market became an essential part of the medieval city.  According to Henri Pirenne, the market became a weekly event, a mint was established within the city walls, and people were charged a toll to enter the marketplace.  In fact, as early as the turn of the 11th century “the list of market tolls in London makes mention of the Flemings as if they were the most important group of foreigners carrying on business in that city” (Pirenne 1952, 98).  Hunt and Murray conclude that “as entrepreneurs medieval merchants succeeded in completing what were simply potential trading and commercial systems driven by the wealth and power of the seigneurial elite” (1999, 30).

As the Middle ages pressed on and the markets took root, a significant textile trade gained momentum.  Medieval technology – a phrase that is sometimes seen as an oxymoron – played a key role in this textile industry just as it had in the modern period.  In the 12th and 13th centuries, the spinning wheel was introduced, increasing production three-fold.  Another innovation was the treadle-operated horizontal loom which was quickly followed by the horizontal broadloom.  A third great development of the time was the water-driven fulling machine. According to Hunt and Murray these three implements increased production to a “level that was not exceeded until the late eighteenth century” (Ibid. 40). 

Industrialization in the cities led to an influx of migrants from the hinterlands providing the opportunity for the “exchange of commodities between the middle class and the rural population” (Pirenne 1952, 156).  The migrants served other purposes besides just an expanded clientele.  Hunt and Murray note that Florence’s third set of city walls, built in the fourteenth century “enclosed an area five times the area of its second set built in the late twelfth century” (1999, 42).  Jean Gimpel points out that this new population became the urban proletariat that fueled the expanding textile industry – a remarkably modern concept.  In Florence, to make and finish a typical piece of cloth “necessitated no less than twenty-six different operations, each performed by a specialist,” a system that is not unlike the modern assembly line approach (Gimpel, 1976, 104).  He claims further that “fourteenth-century Florentine industrialists were perfectly prepared to introduce some of the more reprehensible practices later adopted by nineteenth-century British industrialists” (Ibid. 105). One of these was granting advances in money or over-valued products that would need to be repaid in labor.  This ensured the stability of the relationship because of the workers’ dependency on the employer. 

Another effect of this medieval spirit of capitalism was its influence on the educational system of the day.  The typical scholastic education of the day required mastery of Latin – reading, writing, and speaking – and the study of theology, both of which were no value to the typical merchant.  

Merchants, however, did not require mastery of a dead language or the subtleties of dialectical argument, but rather the ability to read and write vernacular languages and to grasp the basic elements of mathematical calculations. As a result, in most European cities of the twelfth century, schools were established to teach the basics of a merchant education – a movement that did not go uncontested by the clergy, who felt their monopoly on education to be threatened. (Hunt and Murray 1999, 50-51)


Hence the roots of what we would now call vocational education, a phenomenon that is also resurrected in the modern, post-industrial society.  By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, most members of the merchant class could read in the vernacular since business records were generally kept in it.

               Another capitalistic creation of the High Middle Ages that contributed to the dissipation of the medieval worldview was the development of systems of credit.  These needed to be elaborate enough to circumvent the Church’s prohibition on usury.  The key technique was the issuing of bills of exchange.  Granting loans for interest was considered usury, immoral and thus illegal under canon law.  The Medici, a good illustration of this technique, specialized in converting money[19] and buying and selling foreign currency. One of the techniques that the Medici mastered was the bill of exchange, which took the place of a loan. “It did not consist in discounting as practiced today, but in the negotiation of bills payable in another place and usually in another currency” (DeRoover 1963, 11).  The Medici dealt with merchants that did business throughout Europe and “currency exchange is an area in which it is clear that paper accounting simplifies an otherwise onerous task of physically transporting different currency and coin from one geographical location to another” (Jardine 1996, 99).  In addition to simplifying the transaction, the merchants were able to buy a note to be paid at a later date.  For instance, a London merchant could come to Florence to buy wool.  He could buy a note for Florins from the Medici Bank and give the note to the wool manufacturer in exchange for the goods.  The manufacturer could then collect payment from the bank while the merchant returned to London to sell his newly acquired wool. Three months later, after the wool was sold, the merchant could pay off the loan in pounds at a branch in London. “Interest, of course, was included in the price of the bill which was fittingly called ‘bill of exchange’”(DeRoover 1963, 11).  The bank dictated the exchange rate and as long as the exchange was fair there would not be any problems with repayment.  Although the line between exchange and usury was incredibly fine, not only the Medici got rich from it. The church was “by far the best customer of the Italian banking” (Ibid. 1).  For example, the “papal indulgences sold in Burgundy between 1486 and 1480 took in 18,000 gold pieces in 70 different currencies” (Jardine 1996, 99).  These coins needed to be converted to something the church could use.  The Medici and competing banks had the solution.

During this capitalistic development, it is important to note, businessmen “could not escape the fact that in no European legal jurisdiction was there such a concept as ‘inalienable rights’: there were only legal privileges” which meant that “one’s legal standing depended on either the customary privileges attached to one’s legal status as a noble, peasant, or burgher” (Hunt and Murray 1999, 75).  The old system of ethics provided no map for appropriate actions.  The issues concerning fairness, justice, property, fraud, and dishonesty were new and a new legal system was needed to address these concerns.  St. Thomas Aquinas concluded in the third article, object 1 of his Summa Theologiae (written between 1266 and 1273) that man is governed by an eternal law that can be discerned through reason. In this sense, “it would seem that the reason of any person is competent to make laws” (Aquinas 1988, 15). Yet, a century earlier, The University in Bologna had begun a serious approach to the study and application of Roman law, especially as compiled by the emperor Justinian in his attempt to reunite the East and West,  to Medieval society.   By the thirteenth century law was an important part of the University and legalism was beginning to take root.

Hunt and Murray demonstrate that by the fourteenth century, Europe had the framework necessary for a truly modern system of business.  Several factors contributed to what the authors call “the super-company phenomenon.”[20] These were: organized systems of commerce, political structures, relationships between families, states, and the church, the development of lex mercatoria, banking techniques, and industrial technologies.  Something happened, however:

One of the best chronicled business news events of the Middle Ages was the sudden crash of the super-companies in the 1340s.  The conventional reason for the collapse is that the super-companies were victims of their own greed, suffering huge losses on their excessive loans to finance Edward III of England during the opening years of the Hundred Years’ War. (Hunt and Murray 1999, 116)


Hunt and Murray contend that others have blamed changes in the gold-silver ratio.  Whichever the case, the collapse of big business in the fourteenth, combined with the calamities already discussed certainly added to the chaotic atmosphere of the fifteenth century. In two and a half years, every super-company disappeared.  None reappeared (Ibid. 119).

Fifteenth Century Crisis

Old socio-political systems began to erode and by the fifteenth century they posed a serious threat to human dignity and purpose.  The century inherited a veritable mess.  Economically, Europe stood on the brink of collapse.  According to Joseph Strayer much of this could be attributed to the aftermath of the plague which continued to devastate the population for “at least three generations” (Strayer 1982, 173).  He claims that propertied classes fought over diminishing profits and became caught up in civil wars, merchants in urban uprisings, and peasants in protests for higher wages due to labor shortages (Ibid. 174).  In essence, the medieval way was quickly fading into something new and unprecedented.  The social and economic structure – those who worked, those who fought, those who prayed – provided purpose and direction to the Middle Ages.  “[T]he essence of the serf-lord relationship was not the application of despotic force; rather, it was a remarkable meshing of interests” (Hunt and Murray 1999, 15).  

Beyond economic disintegration and the dissipation of the feudal way of life, the plague had also tapped into an “underground lake of guilt in the soul” for succeeding generations (Tuchman 1982, 105).  What had they done to earn such punishment?  How would they reform society to avoid more of God’s wrath? These were among the questions that comprised the legacy handed down to the fifteenth century mind.  In addition, the schism had not only lowered the esteem of the church further but “the breaking-up of the old unity of the Faith and the rise of nationalism…were advanced by the schism” (Tuchman 1983, 520).

Although the Council of Constance (1414-1418) officially ended the schism in the Church, the lasting effects of the split were devastating. “By the second half of the fifteenth century the papal monarchy had become an Italian principality” (Strayer 1982, 175).  Maintaining temporal authority grew increasingly important, especially after 1453 when Constantinople, the spiritual sister-city to Rome, fell to the Ottoman Turks[21]. As the Church defended her temporal authority throughout the Italian peninsula, much needed religious reforms were put aside while European Christians began to seek alternative spirituality. “The people of Western Europe were still seeking personal experience in religion and most of them were not gaining it through the conventional ministrations of the church” (Ibid. 176).  The settlement of the schism left even deeper scars on the fifteenth century.  “The fact remained that the Council of Constance had judged two claimants to the papacy and condemned them, and that it had also elected a new pope” thus setting a precedent “in explicit terms, that General Councils were superior to popes” (Hughes 1954, 149).  Dissatisfaction with fourteenth century church authority contributed to a fifteenth century period of mysticism which stressed a personal relationship with God, thus avoiding the misadministration of the church hierarchy.

The misadministration and abuse of powers in light of the church’s fourteenth century of lost esteem, influence, and credibility caused a new movement, one of ecclesiastical reform.  The precedent was set that the pontiff could and sometimes should be judged which caused early fifteenth century churchmen to seek alternative religious direction.  The Franciscans reverted back to the primitive life prescribed by their founder.  The Dominicans experienced a revival due to the disciples of both Catherine of Siena and Antoninus – the Archbishop of Florence, a reformer, and “one of the first of the specialized moral theologians” (Hughes 1954, 151).  Thomas á Kempis published his Imitation of Christ which established a new sense of piety. John Hus, in Bohemia, promoted spirituality that looked at the scriptures as the main source of moral development.  John Wycliffe, considered to be a heretic, established Lollard communities in England, which denied the necessity of the mass, the sacraments and ultimately of the priesthood.  They too relied on the scripture as the sole authority.  According to Shannon McSheffrey in her study of Lollard communities in fifteenth century England:

The most striking aspect of Lollard doctrine …is its virulent anticlericalism.  Lollards not only condemned the clergy for their wicked lives but also denied that they had special powers conferred upon them as a result of their ordination… [and] that priests were not able to effect any of the seven sacraments…. Lollards repudiated other elements of medieval Catholicism, such as fasting, pilgrimages, the adoration of saints and the keeping of holy days as inventions that had no basis in scripture. (McSheffrey 1995, 8)


The circulation of such ideas caused much stirring in the fifteenth century world.  Who would guide the moral lives of man?  Was religion a personal activity and not a communal one?  Was there really no human representative of God on earth?  Other reformers tried to make sense of it all. 

               Italian humanism, a movement that had been forced into hibernation through the course of the cold fourteenth century, would become revitalized in the fifteenth century and would begin to address some of the issues that made up the fifteenth century crisis.  An old paradigm, the medieval one, stood on shaky ground yet a new one had not fully emerged yet.  The age of Christendom was being threatened by some modern tendencies and the humanists saw a holistic perspective, one that sought balance as a viable means to resolve the crisis.  To understand the humanist movement and its relevance to this case study, it is important to be familiar with some of the characters that provide the backdrop in fifteenth century Florence.  Historians have depicted an interesting battle that involves three major characters and some of their friends.  This ideological battle has been seen to represent the confrontation of the modern with the medieval.  The controversy involved a banker, a friar, and a painter who was stuck in the middle.






















Chapter Two- Part Two: The Humanist Response

Italian Humanism

By the last decade of the fifteenth century, the pieces of a broken worldview seemed hopelessly scattered and Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola found himself in a precarious position as he struggled to reform and preserve what was left.  In some regard, his death might be considered the boundary line after which the modern period began.  For one, he took a stand against the extravagance that abounded throughout the Italian peninsula, in the church and in the rising merchant class.  He lashed out against the bankers who were fueling the materialism:

‘You have found many ways of making money, and many exchanges, which you call lawful but which are most unjust; and you have corrupted the offices and magistrates of the city.  No one can persuade you that usury is sinful; you defend it at the peril of your souls. No one is ashamed of lending at usury; nay, those who do otherwise pass for fools… Your brow is that of a whore, and you will not blush.  You say, a good and glad life lies in gain; and Christ says, blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit heaven’ (Durant 1953, 146).


The Renaissance has been seen as a rebirth of humanity. The rebirth can be described as a holistic cultural awakening.  Technology, as we have seen, became a focal point for the Renaissance mind.  New techniques were developed for art, music, and even government. Technology also enhanced scientific knowledge by becoming an extension of man’s five natural, God-given senses, enabling science to move beyond its roots in natural philosophy.  At the same time, the humanist movement called some religious dogma into question, sharpening man’s knowledge of his metaphysical reality.  Humanity, through the interpolation of science, technology and metaphysics, was discovering itself more fully than ever before.  Crises like the Black Death and the Schism brought the church into decline.  In addition to contributing to the church decline because of its inability to deal with the mass deaths, it also put the so-called physicians on the stand because of their inefficiency.  The decline of the knight and the addition of a new mercantile class led to a mixed up legal system.  Super businesses too began to decline by the fifteenth century.  Inevitably, these changes led educators to question the traditional system in vocational education: theology, law, medicine and business. Humanists looked at a new mix of pedagogical ingredients.  This mix was beneficial insofar as it balanced humanity as an important, active entity in God’s world. 

Humanism thus became the “the new learning,” an approach that has been described as the quest for individuality on both a personal level, and a social one.  Paul Johnson claims that “the Renaissance was the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism” (Johnson 2002, 25). Out of this notion of individuality, and certainly with the aid of the printed vernacular word, a sense of community had begun to develop. The printing press ushered in a new era in human civilization. Burke and Ornstein say: “Printing broke up the Catholic Church and stimulated capitalism, modernizing a largely medieval society” (Burke and Ornstein 1997, 123). Local communities began to see themselves as individual entities.  By 1500 there were ten million books in print, and the majority of these were printed in the vernacular, which increased the world’s sense of membership in a particular group (Boorstin 1985, 533).      

               These groups were based on the spoken language, which led to an increased sense of nationalism and by making information available, ethnic groups were able to come to know the history of their people, giving them an even greater sense of belonging (Burke and Orinstein 1997, 132). As towns began to attain independence from the papacy, they gained a new identity.  In 1482 the town of Ascoli Piceno was given “special religious exemptions by Pope Sixtus IV” (Jardine 1996, 118). Two paintings, in the true humanist style, were commissioned to commemorate the event, one in the municipal chapel and the other in the Church of the Assumption. Each one bore “the inscription ‘Libertas Ecclesiastica’- the opening words of the papal document they had received” (Ibid. 119).

Along with the idea of individuality came a renewed interest in the classical world[22].  This neo-classical movement allowed several things to occur.  First, a renewal of literacy in the classical Greek and Latin allowed ancient texts to be reinterpreted. Second, as Italian merchants regained control of the Mediterranean and Islamic dominance was weakened in Europe, oriental texts, especially those of the Greek Gnostics and mystery religions, became more readily available.  Third, capitalistic enterprises created an economic atmosphere that provided artists and scholars with the patronage they needed to translate the works, use them as inspiration, and disseminate them among their peers.  Fourth, the new sense of individuality and human worth, in light of the new interpretations of ancient metaphysics drove the Renaissance man to reformulate his relationship to the cosmos. Fifth, it opened up an old conversation, settled once by the 5th century bishop, Augustine of Hippo, who aligned the Neo-Platonism of his day with Christianity.  It was settled again by the 13th century scholar, Thomas Aquinas, who reconciled Christianity with Aristotelian logic.  The Renaissance humanists desired to open the discussion up yet again.

The “new learning” was one of the first attempts to construct a curriculum that was designed “to educate laymen rather than priests, to form citizens rather than monks or scholars, to produce free and civilized men, men of taste and judgment rather than professionally trained doctors, lawyers, merchants, philosophers, or theologians” (Rice 1958, 87).

“To each species” wrote Battista Guarino, “has been allotted a peculiar and instinctive gift. To horses galloping, to birds flying, comes naturally.  To man only is given the desire to learn. Hence what the Greeks call πάίδείά [paideia] we call ‘studia humanitatis.’ For learning and training in Virtue are peculiar to man; therefore our forefathers called them Humanitas, the pursuits, the activities proper to mankind” (Eugene Rice’s “Foreward” in Woodward 1996, viii-ix).


In other words, the humanists recognized the need to educate holistically.  They educated in mind, body, and soul, focused intently on man’s rational being, dug deep into theology and explored the soul’s connective energy to the ultimate source that was God.[23] They also realized that specialization was secondary to a well-rounded education founded on ethics, morals, and virtues. The individual needed first to perfect his sapientia (wisdom), doctrina (learning), and scientia moralis (virtue).  At the same time, they encouraged a regular regimen of physical training, realizing that a healthy body was an integral part of a healthy mind and soul.  The success of this curriculum, however, was entirely dependent upon the will of its patrons as there was no such thing as state sponsored public education.   

Lorenzo de'Medici in the second half of the fifteenth century was the most powerful man in Florence and his wealth and fame supported the work of Italy’s most famous humanist scholars and artists. He was a banker, a politician and a patron of the arts, but most importantly he was a believer in what Donald Weinstein refers to as "the myth of Florence" as his armor contained the French phrase, Le temps revient, the golden age returns.   Lorenzo is an interesting figure in Florentine history who scholars have viewed as “a bundle of contradictions as puzzling to modern historians as to his contemporaries” (Hankins 1997, 14). At the age of twenty, after the death of his father Piero, Lorenzo inherited the leadership of the Medici dynasty and with that, control of the city.  He also became the richest man in Florence although he had “little interest in business.” Lorenzo was the heir of Medici Bank started by his great-grandfather, Giovanni Di Bicci De’ Medici.  Whereas his grandfather and father had been primarily businessmen, and not major patrons, Lorenzo, called il Magnifico, “led the second generation who wanted works of art for their own homes” (Gorringe 1999). Creighton Gilbert’s study of the social history of patronage concludes: “What these patrons wanted to buy from the artists, it seems, was enhancement of their honor and splendor” (Gilbert 1998).

               Renaissance historian Lisa Jardine defines what it was to be “magnificent” in the Italian Renaissance:

To be magnificent was to be someone with the means to acquire all those coveted possessions which expanding trade made available, someone who proclaimed that purchasing power by the public ostentation of his or her apparel and furnishings.  To be magnificent was also to be someone with a credit rating high enough to put together significant amounts of gold and silver, which enabled the purchase of expensive goods at will (Jardine 1996, 141).


Lorenzo certainly could acquire what he wanted, but even more importantly, he could allow others to do the same by providing them with sufficient funding.

Lorenzo offered Savonarola large gifts to keep him but the friar gave them away, replying in a sermon that “a faithful dog does not leave off barking in his master’s defense because a bone has been thrown at him” (Durant 1953, 147).  For Savonarola, opposing Lorenzo was “opposing the evil features of the Renaissance, its unbridled egotism, its moral corruption in both the private and the public worlds, the very features which rendered ineffective its essential achievement- the awakening of an independent spirit” (Weinstein 1970, 5).  Second and more than anything else, however, he found himself in a struggle with the pedagogical movement that was responding to the crisis that his beloved city of Florence was facing. He took particular issue with Lorenzo de’Medici and his circle of friends who espoused and helped to further develop what would later become known as the “new learning.”

The Medici had both the desire and the means to fuel the humanistic fire in fifteenth century Florence. Under both Cosimo and Lorenzo a new, Platonic approach to learning was propagated in their city:

It was the dream of Gemisthos Plethon, the founder of the Florentine Academy, to reconcile in one harmonious whole the pagan and the Christian philosophical systems, and by an ingenious process of subtraction and adaptation he eventually evolved a compromise, in which Olympus and the Pagan gods figure strangely side by side with the doctrine of redemption and the sacramental mysteries (Horsburgh 1905, 207).


Gemisto changed his name to Plethon as a token of his reverence for Plato.  He was able to convince Cosimo of the importance of resurrecting the Academy in order to better understand the works of his most venerated Plato. His neo-Platonism reflected his familiarity with eastern mysticism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, but mostly it reflected his insistence that the philosophy of Plato was superior to that of his student Aristotle.  In Plato, Plethon and his followers were able to find an intelligence governing the operations of nature that was compatible with the Christian concept of an omnipotent God.

As a patron of humanism, Lorenzo was a success and his library was extensive.  “Among the ‘moderns’ the great writers of the fourteenth century-Dante and Boccaccio, with their complete works, occupied the first place.  Then followed 25 select humanists, invariably with both their Latin and Italian writings and with all the translations” (Burckhardt 2002, 134). Lorenzo was so enamored with the classics that he even wrote poetry and song verses that imitated their style. The following is from his song The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne:

Quant’ é bella giovanezza

Che si fugge tuttavia!

Chi vuol essere lieta sia:

Di doman non c’é certezza.[24]


Lorenzo’s goal was nothing less than to make Florence the heir to Athens and Rome, to make her the capital of the third great civilization of the western world” (Hankins 1997 14).  This was the myth of Florence.  For most of the fifteenth century Florentines believed themselves to be the continuation of the Roman Empire.  Some even believed that a second Charlemagne would come and usher Florence into a period of peace with Christ after a period of ecclesiastical cleansing (Weinstein 1970, 27-66).  Lorenzo, indoctrinated in this myth, surrounded himself with scholars whom he believed would help him with his task. “Platonism, the most sublime of the ancient philosophical traditions, was revived through the efforts of Lorenzo’s protégé, Marsilio Ficino” (Hankins 1997, 15).  Burckhardt illuminates what Lorenzo’s circle of friends may have looked like:

Lorenzo had sounded all the depths of the platonic philosophy, and had uttered his conviction that without Plato it would be hard to be a good Christian or a good citizen.  The famous band of scholars that surrounded Lorenzo was united together, and distinguished from all of the circles of the kind, by this passion for higher and idealistic philosophy (Burckhardt 2002, 151).


               This was a major cause of Savonarola’s dissatisfaction with Lorenzo and his circle of influence. Girolamo had himself received a quality humanist education and then had gone on to medical school at the University of Bologna.  He was disappointed with the morals and extravagance of his fellow students and at 23 he left school to become a Dominican friar.  He studied the apocalyptic writings of Saint John and “inherited the eschatology of the mystic Joachim of Flora.” Girolamo began to believe that angels were speaking to him and saw himself as a messenger of God (Durant 1953, 145).  Burckhardt called him “the greatest of the prophets and apostles” (Burckhardt 2002, 133).  Martin Luther extolled him as a saint (Durant 1953, 161).

 Savonarola himself claimed: “It is not I who preach but God who speaks through me” (qtd. in Hibbert 1980, 180). Harold Acton, on the other hand, denounces him: “Under the influence of Savonarola there was a brief and bloodthirsty return to the middle ages” (Acton 1952, 133).

               In 1491 he became the prior of his community in the Convent of San Marco, which had been rebuilt by Cosimo de’Medici and was supported by the special patronage of the Medici family.  According to Acton, “Without Lorenzo’s favour he could not have been elected” (Ibid. 131).  In fact, Pico della Mirandola had expressed an interest in the young friar.  Having mentioned this to Lorenzo, Savonarola was sent to San Marco at il Magnifico’s behest.   The friar transformed his convent into a reformed community, eventually separating it from the provincial house.  Savonarola had a fiery eloquence that captivated his audience. Burckhardt describes it as “the expression of a lofty and commanding personality, the like of which was not seen again until the time of Luther” (2002, 133).

 His popularity was known throughout Florence as he drew crowds upward of 14,000 in a city of 60,000 (Hankins 1997, 15).

               According to Savonarola, “the revival of Platonism that had taken place under his aegis threatened to undermine the sound theological traditions of the church” (Ibid. 17).  The friar claimed that the art of the humanists made “the Virgin Mary look like a harlot” and declared further that “only a return to the simplicity of the Christian Church could save them [Florence]. They must turn their back on Plato and Aristotle who are now rotting in hell” (Hibbert 1980, 181).  In some ways humanism was seen as a contradiction to the church of the Middle Ages, the one that the friar wanted to resurrect.  “‘The literature and art,’ said Savonarola, ‘are pagan; the humanists merely pretend to be Christians; those ancient authors whom they so sedulously exhume and edit and praise are strangers to Christ and the Christian virtues, and their art is an idolatry of heathen gods, or a shameless display of naked women and men’” (Durant 1943 156).  In his own work, The Triumph of the Cross, Savonarola – in reference to the classical idea that the soul could function separate from the body which contradicts the Christian idea of resurrection of body and soul – begs the question: “What sane person then, should abandon Christianity, for the tenets of heathen philosophy….that the soul in the form [in a Platonic sense] of the body” (Savonarola 1901). 

         Savonarola was an enigmatic figure himself.  Modern historians, as noted here, have painted a bleak picture of him, presenting him as a thorn in the side of modernity and an outright enemy of humanism.  Yet not all historians have agreed with this interpretation.  John Allard, Dominican scholar of Savonarola, claimed in a recent discussion[25] that his research revealed a different view of Savonarola.  He found that Savonarola’s library was well-stocked with humanist literature and that he even allowed humanists to meet in the priory study for regular meetings.  Another historian, Michael de la Bedoyere, claims that the friar was not as puritanical as history has made him out to be.  He describes Savonarola as being characteristic of the typical Italian Renaissance figure and states that the friar’s “mission was not to deny the renaissance, but to Christianize it…. What Savonarola wanted was to see the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, as Christianised [sic] by Aquinas” (Bedoyere 1958).  Ironically this was the same claim that Lorenzo’s humanists were making.  The struggle for these neo-Platonists



 was not replacing Christianity with Platonic paganism.  It was to blend the Christian with both the Platonic and the Aristotelian.  Schevill refers to the paintings from this period as “semi-pagan,” and that the artists were continuing “the old medieval search for God” (Schevill 158).  He claimed that Platonism added a new dimension to this search and in fact added stimulation.  The idea of mystic love was “compounded of Platonism and Christianity” and consequently became “a prized possession of the day” (Ibid.).   

Savonarola had serious reservations in regard to the vanity and materialism that surrounded Lorenzo and the humanists that were attached to him, but these were not accusations against humanism as an intellectual movement.  One of the main philosophical areas that became an obstacle in the blend of Platonism with Christianity was doctrinal in nature. Savonarola, as we have mentioned, took issue with the Platonic concept of the afterlife.  Plato believed that the physical body was a hindrance and that the soul desired freedom from its captivity in the body.  Death then, was the release of the soul while the body was laid to waste.  Christian doctrine teaches a full resurrection of the body and soul, which was more Aristotelian since Aristotle believed that the soul could not exist without the material body.  Here he believed the humanists had crossed the line.  In addition, it is important to recall here his reference to the artists in the Medici circle and their depictions of the Blessed Virgin as a “harlot.”

One Florentine painter is important for several reasons.  First, he was employed mainly by the Medici. Second, he gained his earlier recognition through his Madonna paintings, and third, he is said to have undergone a major religious conversion after the death of Lorenzo.  Ferdinand Schevill called the painter Alessandro Filipeppi, known as Botticelli “the most tender and tortured spirit of the age” (Schevill 1960, 19) Yet, despite the alleged torture, he “soon became the favorite painter of the so called Medici circle, those patricians, the literati, scholars, and poets surrounding Lorenzo the Magnificent” (Jansen 1982, 411). According to the British historian Harold Acton, Botticelli “reveals the taste and sentiment of the period more vividly than those whose visions he interpreted.”  He goes on to describe some works: “His Birth of Venus, his Primavera, his Mars and Venus, breathe the same atmosphere as the poems of Lorenzo and Poliziano” (Acton 1952, 130). 

In 1478, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a cousin of il Magnifico, commissioned Botticelli to paint Primavera to adorn his villa.  In 1484 Botticelli completed the Birth of Venus for the same patron; this became one of his most famous and perhaps most recognizable works.  Both paintings were works of neo-classical humanism, incorporating the mythology of the Greeks.  In Primavera, “the inspiration for the subject could have come from reading the Latin poet Ovid’s ‘Fasti.’” It is also possible and “more likely to have come from ‘Verses for the Joust’, by the contemporary scholar, Agnolo Poliziano, in which he described a meadow where grasses and plants grew, where winds blew, and where ‘Happy Spring was ever present’”(Ufizzi Website “Primavera”).  Poliziano’s poem “is full of references to neo-Platonic thought, a philosophy brought to Italy by the Byzantine humanist Giorgio Gemisto (known as Pletone), and which was adhered to by the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, and by Lorenzo the Magnificent himself” (Ibid.).  Venus also has similarity “to Ovid's ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘Fasti’, as well as Poliziano's ‘Verses’” (Ufizzi Website “Venus”).

Another key background figure in this story was Marsilio Ficino.  He was a physician and philosopher in the Medici court.  His father had served under Cosimo and Piero, and Marsilio continued his family’s service under Lorenzo.  His first major project was the translation of Plato from the Greek to the Latin. In 1439, when the Council of Florence began bringing in Greek scholars, Ficino became ardently interested in the works of Plato and soon became a teacher of neo-Platonism (and later President) at Florence’s Platonic Academy.  Ficino felt that Socrates and Plato were precursors to Christ and although he had deep respect for Aquinas’ Aristotelian philosophy in the Summa, he felt that the theology of Christianity rested squarely on Platonic philosophy.  Plato, for Ficino established a bridge between the ancient world of the mystery religions and (especially Egyptian) mythology, on the one hand, and the Western Christian age on the other.  The interesting point about Ficino is that despite all of his humanistic and neo-Platonist synthesis, he was able to find religious comfort in the doctrines of the Catholic Church.  In 1477, inspired by the sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, he was ordained a priest and became a canon at the Florence cathedral. His time in the Medici court allowed him to influence many Florentine scholars. Among those that became his pupils were Lorenzo, Pico, Poliziano, and Botticelli. 

In many ways, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is the antithesis to medieval art.  According to Janson’s art history, in the Middle Ages:

[C]lassical form had become divorced from classical subject matter. Artists could only draw upon the ancient repertory of poses, gestures, expressions, etc., by changing the identity of their sources: philosophers became apostles, Orpheus turned into Adam, Hercules into Samson (Jansen 1982, 411).


Rather than Christianizing classical imagery, Botticelli classicized Christian imagery.  Botticelli’s work, however, seemed to contradict in many ways what Savonarola preached.  Yet they coincided well with Ficino’s thought, which was:

the very opposite of the orderly system of medieval scholasticism.  He believed that the life of the universe, including that of man, was linked to God by a spiritual circuit continuously ascending and descending, so that all revelation, whether from Bible, Plato, or classical myths, were one. (Ibid. 412).  


Beauty “draws the soul to God, and God is the source of beauty and as the most beautiful of all things, the final end of contemplation” (Gorringe 1999). 

In this respect, the image itself is a mere representation of an eternal ideal. According to Neo-Platonism, the celestial Venus exists in the mind and it corresponds to an ideal metaphysical form.  The Venus that we see is a representation of that form which may be described in a sense as human love.  In fact the identical character that represents Venus in Birth of Venus, is depicted in several of his other paintings, including Primavera and Calumny of Apelles.   In this sense, the Virgin Mary can be used interchangeably with Venus as a representation of the same ideal.  The wind gods on the left look like angels and the Spring can be seen to represent John the Baptist welcoming Christ ashore during his baptism (Jansen 1982, 412).  Fleming agrees with this interpretation but adds that the “composition of his picture is still that of the traditional Christian iconography of the Madonna surrounded by saints and angels” (Fleming 1992, 277).

               According to Helen Gardner, The Birth of Venus could have been an altarpiece to the Neo-Platonic cult headed by Ficino:

Ficino believed that the soul could ascend toward a union with god through contemplation of beauty, which reveals and manifests the two supreme principles of the divine: love and light.  This kind of mystical approach, so different from the earnest search of the fifteenth century to comprehend man and the natural world through a rational and empirical order, finds expression and Botticelli’s strange and beautiful style, which ignores – or seems to – all the scientific ground gained by experimental art. (Gardner 1980, 511)


Gardner also sees something strange in Botticelli’s work: “the lovely figure of Venus, strangely weightless and ethereal, is the intellectual or spiritual apparition of beauty, not at all the queen of sensual love whom the Venetian renaissance will create” (Ibid. 518). 


Botticelli seems to subscribe to a Neo-Platonic theory, which may account for the “strangeness” of his work. “Through ancient philosophy, artists and writers would tap the esoteric wisdom thought to be concealed in the greatest ancient poetry and art” (Hankins 1997, 15).  The technique was less important:

Neo-Platonism, like Platonic idealism itself, was the expression of a purely contemplative attitude to the world and, like every philosophy that falls back on pure ideas as the only authoritative principles, it implied a renunciation of the things of `common reality'. It left the fate of this reality to the actual holders of power; for the true philosopher strives, as Ficino thought, only to die to temporal reality and to live in the timeless world of ideas. (Gorringe 1999)


Despite the obvious philosophical differences between Savonarola and the humanists, his resentment toward them was not universally applicable to humanism.   The Archbishop of Florence, Antoninus, who was later canonized, was a humanist. Pope Pius II (1458-1464) prior to his election was the famed humanist Enea Silvio de' Piccolomini who wrote History of Bohemia. Pope Nicholas V “happily patronized the translation of Thucydides and other Greek writers into Latin” (Holmes 1997, 94). Also, as mentioned earlier, a group of humanists used a room in San Marco for regular meetings while the monastery was under the auspices of Savonarola. In addition, Roberto Ridolfi, in his biography of Savonarola, refers to Pico della Mirandola – the famed humanist and mutual friend of both Lorenzo and Botticelli – as Savonarola’s “dearest friend” (Ridolfi, 1959).  Perhaps more significant is the friar’s decision to preserve the Medici library.  He made sure that the Medici Library did not go to France after Charles’ invasion.  He spent a considerable amount of money to purchase the library and add it to the San Marco library so it could be used by scholars.  This shows that at least on some levels the struggle between Savonarola and the humanists was amenable to discussion.  It is important to recall here the contents of that library.  It may have been stocked extensively by humanists at the behest of Lorenzo but it was his grandfather – who was no stranger to humanism – that initially began the collection.  “The roster of humanists with whom Cosimo came into direct contact includes practically all the outstanding members of the tribe” (Schevill 88).  Savonarola, often depicted as an enemy of humanism, thought that the works of these scholars warranted preservation.

The source of the problem that Savonarola had with Lorenzo and his humanists is that they subscribed to the same Florentine myth. But, whereas Lorenzo and his circle saw a new version of classical Rome, Savonarola sought to create a Christianized one that has been called the “new Jerusalem.”[26] For Savonarola and his followers (called piagnoni, or the weepers), the Medici regime had been nothing but “a thinly veiled tyranny that had brought about the moral enslavement of the Florentines” (Hankins 1997, 15).  Savonarola was to be the savior of the city.  He would lead them out of slavery into the Promised Land.  According to Will Durant, Savonarola “proposed that Florence should think of its government as having an invisible king-Christ Himself” (Durant 1953, 150).  Even the famous Florentine carnival was replaced. The Bon Fire of the Vanities took place the day before the great Mardi Gras celebrations on February 7, 1497. 

Instead of celebrating with indulgence and intoxication, Florentines were advised to bring their elaborate clothes, books, works of art[27], and other worldly goods, to be burned in the piazza. He envisioned a new theocracy that would lead to an eventual utopia that was built upon the Florentine myth: “‘O Florence!  Then wilt thou be rich with the virtual and temporal wealth; thou wilt achieve the reformation of Rome, of Italy, of all countries; the wings of thy greatness shall spread over the world’” (Durant 1953, 150).  Under Savonarola “The Florentines suddenly found themselves transformed from a race doomed to perdition into a Chosen People” (Hankins 1997, 17).

Ultimately, despite any good that may have resulted from his work, Savonarola was defeated.  The defeat was itself prophetic and the metaphor serves us well in this study.  In the figure of this Dominican friar “was the Middle Ages surviving into the Renaissance, and the Renaissance destroyed him.” Durant continues to explain that he failed because of his “intellectual limitations and a forgiving but irritating egotism; he exaggerated his illumination and his capacity, and naïvely underestimated the task of opposing at once the power of the papacy and the instincts of men” (Durant 1953, 161).  His support of France’s Charles VIII as a controlling power in Italy had set him at odds with the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI. The reason for his downfall, however, had nothing – officially speaking – to do with his political alignment.  In 1496, he was forbidden by Alexander from preaching yet he refused, citing illness, to travel to Rome to exonerate himself.  He resumed preaching and got especially violent toward the Church in his Lenten sermons of 1497.  In May of that year he was excommunicated but this did not stop his defiance.  He celebrated Christmas mass and administered communion that year and by the beginning of 1498, he found himself in a precarious position. The pope offered him clemency if he recanted some of his teachings and prophesies but he remained defiant.  Then some local Franciscans offered to prove him wrong in an ordeal by fire, but he refused. Finally, with virtually no one on his side minus a few of his fellow friars, he was hanged and burned on May 23, 1498.

Two questions arise from this controversy: Why did it happen in Florence when it did?  What value can be gleaned from each side of this equation?  Philip Weinstein addresses the first one:

The extensive development of a bourgeois, mercantile society, a lay culture, and an ardent republicanism stimulated the Florentines to reflect on the meaning of their city’s history and destiny, and provided the myths by humanists, artists and prophets to a degree and in an intensity that appear to have been unique up to that time. (Weinstein 1970, 377)


The second question requires some deeper explication. The end of the fifteenth century was a tumultuous time.  In 1492 alone, as James Hankins points out,  Spain captured Granada after 700 years of Muslim rule, the Jews were expelled from Spain, the most corrupt of the Renaissance popes, Alexander VI was installed, Columbus discovered a new and unexplored world and Lorenzo died passing his dynasty onto his incapable son inviting an invasion from the French King Charles VIII.  Many artists left Florence, an exodus that not only coincided with the depression uncovered by Professor DeRoover in his study of the Medici dynasty but corresponds with the apocalyptic movements that prevailed.  It is likely that Florence was swayed by the words of Savonarola not because they were new and in a sense countercultural but because they were rooted in a very real social awareness.  1500 was thought to be an apocalyptic year as millennialism permeated Florentine society.  In the 1480s, astrologers predicted a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that would bring about great changes in religion.  A man believing himself to be the reincarnation of Hermes Trismegistus[28] dressed in black silk, with a crown of thorns on his head warned men to “prepare themselves for the coming renovation of the church by repenting their sins” (Erlanger 1988, 39).  Some foresaw the coming of the anti-Christ and others thought a new Charlemagne would descend to establish a renovated church and a purified empire.

So the task here is to not choose a side: the medieval church or the “new learning,” but to see the crisis in its totality.  Each side was responding to the same questions but from very different perspectives.  Truth can be discerned and lessons can be learned from each side.  As old paradigms began to collapse, new inquiries into the human condition were necessary to achieve complete adjustment.  Each was seeking the answer to one of the most fundamental question known to mankind:  What does it mean to be human? 

Pedagogy of the Early Humanists

Humanism took on the ancient Greek attitude toward learning.  The Renaissance historian, Ferdinand Schevill in the introduction to a collection of Humanist letters, entitled The First Century of Italian Humanism, thoroughly sums up the attitude of early Humanism:

These early Italian humanists were all passionate champions of antiquity, at bottom for no other reason than that the classical authors by disclosing the highly developed secular civilization of Greece and Rome provided the novelty-seeking Italians not only with a point of reference and guidance but also – a very important matter in view of the overwhelming authority of the Church – with a moral and intellectual sanction for the independent course they steered…. The humanists became closely attentive to nature….they recognized scholasticism, ensconced in both the church and the universities, as the immediate enemy…. Though they bowed to the authority of the Church as an institution, and in the main continued to reverence Christianity, they became very critical of the ministers and servants of the Church, the clergy. (Schevil 1928, 6)


The purpose of life was to be happy and to attain happiness required wisdom, learning, and virtue. With a collapsing worldview, many people – not only the humanists – felt that the church was not adjusting to the times and thus not providing the proper guidance. 

The problem with scholasticism was not its reliance upon Aristotle, materialism, logic, or science as its basis.  One problem stemmed from the entrapment that it produced.  It trained for vocations, thus limiting the exposure that a student received in order to shape him as one would a tool.  He in turn, having been indoctrinated in the ideology, would become an advocate.  Another problem was intellectual.  The physics espoused created a sharp contrast to the metaphysics that was supposed to accompany it.  William of Ockham and his nominalist disciples began to find fault in its dialectic.  The doctrine of the Trinity posed a particular problem. Three persons with a unity of essence was seen as a contradiction of words.  In addition, they criticized the fact that Jesus was begotten and yet proceeds from the Father.  “How is generation to be distinguished from procession?” Paul Vignaux asks in his Philosophy in the Middle Ages: An Introduction (Vigneax 1962, 177).  Critics of Aristotelian teaching concluded that in light of the scientific yet dialectic nature of its concepts and the “vanity of Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy…it is established that Aristotle does not know what he affirms” (Ibid. 193).  One might assume that the error did not lay in Aristotle but with the medieval approach to him.  The humanists believed that scholasticism had created an unbalanced perspective in their strict adherence to the writings of Aristotle.  This imbalance could not keep up with the pace of inquiry, especially in the realm of natural philosophy which was quickly burgeoning into what we now recognize as modern science.  Shutting out the rest of the intellectual legacy of the classical age was only seeing part of the spectrum.  This is what was most unacceptable to the promoters of the “new learning.”  This cycle of interpretation, application, and disputation was another inescapable trap produced by the scholastic approach to education. 

Petrarch in the early fourteenth century set out to climb Ventosum, the highest mountain in the region of Vaucluse, France.  It had been on his mind for years but as he ascended, he read the words of Augustine’s Confessions which upset him: “And men go to wonder at the heights of the mountains and the mighty waves of the sea and the wide sweep of the rivers and the circuit of the ocean and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not” (qtd. by Petrarch 1928, 18).  He was upset with himself that he “should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from the philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself” and soon after he claimed “I turned my inward eye upon myself” (Ibid.).  To turn an inward eye upon oneself became one of the great challenges of the humanists.  This inward view had to begin with freedom of the mind.

According to Vittorino da Feltre, one of the first to respond to the crisis and one of the foremost humanist educators of the fourteenth century, the curriculum was designed to perfect man and ultimately make him free. He “was perhaps the first to prove that humanism not only had made possible, but indeed demanded, a new ideal of a teacher of youth” (Woodward, 1996, 64-65).  One of the key ingredients in this method was self discovery.[29] For Vittorino, history was attractive for its “moral and anecdotal interest” and furthermore, he “treated Ethics, not from the speculative side, but as a guide to the art of living” (Ibid. 59).  Piccolomini saw the study of literature in the same light: Morality is “forwarded by the judicious use of Literature in education” (Piccolomini 1996, 150).

Although fifteenth century Humanism became synonymous with the concepts of Neo-Platonism, it was not always such.  Much of this is a direct result of the patronage of the Medici, especially Lorenzo.  The humanism of the fourteenth century was open to all classical wisdom and clung to none exclusively.  In a letter to Maffeo Gambara of Brescia, Battista Guarino gives instructions regarding the teaching of literature: “a student should read the Ethics of Aristotle, and the dialogues of Plato; for these are necessary aids to the proper understanding of Cicero,” and he further recommends some “knowledge of the principles of Roman Law” (Guarino 1996, 172). 

For Vergerio, another humanist schoolmaster of the fourteenth century the humane studies were those:

by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of the body and of the mind, which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank in dignity to virtue only (Vergerio 1996, 102). 


Late in his letter he stresses a seemingly modern warning.  Although individuality is to be encouraged in human development – ultimately leading toward self-discovery – the encouragement of such at too early an age is harmful.  He laments:

Our youth of today, it is to be feared, is backward to learn; studies are 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 [serious] grave studies. (Vergerio 1996, 102)


Just what did these serious studies entail?  For Vergerio liberal studies consist of the following courses of study in order of importance: history, moral philosophy, eloquence, the art of letters – grammar, literature, rhetoric, logic, rhetoric, and disputation – poetry, music, both singing and playing, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy  (Vergerio 1996, 106-108). 

Vergerio warned, as did Aristotle, about vocational education.  Although medicine, law, and theology are attractive to students, they should not be considered liberal studies.  They do not liberate man in themselves because they are seen as the application of knowledge.  Medicine is applied science.  Law is a trade. Theology deals with the abstract world that escapes the senses.  These professions should only be sought after the proper liberal foundation has been laid.  Vergerio is also practical, admitting that mastery of all the liberal studies is impossible and that it would take a lifetime to master one.  Mastery is to follow the proper exposure because each is connected to the other.    

In a letter to Lady Baptista Malatesta regarding her humanist education, Leonardo Bruni recommends a similar approach to her studies although he adds a series of Christian writers to the standard classical repertoire – Lactantius, Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Cyprian, Gregory of Nazianzen, John Crysostom, Basil. He also says that the subtleties of arithmetic and geometry, and astrology in general should be avoided.  The main point that is stressed by Bruni is the two-fold nature of a liberal education:

Poet, Orator, Historian, and the rest, all must be studied, each must contribute a share.  Our learning thus becomes full, ready, varied and elegant, available for action or for discourse in all subjects.  But to enable us to make effectual use of what we know we must add to our knowledge the power of expression. (Bruni 2005) 


True intelligence must attempt to attain both faculties: knowledge and expression.

The fact remains that these early humanists never saw themselves as diverting the Christian spirit.  Coluccio Salutati, in a letter to the chancellor of Bologna in October 1378, defends humanism against criticism of its use of pagan sources.  The chancellor refused to purchase a copy of Virgil calling him a “lying soothsayer” (Salutati 1928, 39).  To this the humanist responded:

How do you happen, my dear colleague, to have this dread of Virgil? You say…because he did not, as you say, walk in the way of the Lord, he leads his readers from the straight path of the faith….Don’t imagine that I have ever so read Virgil as to be led to accept his fables about the heathen gods! What I enjoy is his style, hitherto unequalled in verse… (Ibid. 40)


In a later letter, in 1379, he defends Virgil again, this time to accusations that Christians should not waste their time with pagan authors.  Salutati admits that “living in a world of transient things, that it is better to reach heaven by the straight way, through the study of the sacred writings than through the twistings and turnings of the poets” but adds that “in view of the fact that both roads properly followed lead to the same desired goal, though the former is to be preferred, the latter should not be neglected” (Ibid.).  That both lead to the same place is a key to understanding humanism.  Although concurring that Christian teaching is the ultimate key to salvation, Salutati is denying the Church’s exclusive authority in salvation. 

Piccolomini, who later became Pius II, advised his young pupil that in addition to the classics he should learn his prayers, his devotion to the Blessed Mother, the way of salvation and the Gospel of St. John – ironically not one of the synoptics but perhaps the most theological of the four – and “the doctrine of the Life of the world to come” which he adds was “indeed taught by Socrates” (Piccolomini 1996, 141).  He therefore assumes that there is an ultimate source of Divine Wisdom to which Socrates, himself a pagan, had some connection. 

Lorenzo’s Brand of Humanism

Lorenzo de’Medici certainly did not invent humanism, but in a sense he created a new generation of humanists.  During his time in the second half of the fifteenth century “the humanist movement reached a peak, due largely to Lorenzo himself” (Schevil 1949, 153).   His participation in and patronizing of the Platonic Academy in Florence helped raise the image of humanist scholars. In addition, the printing press added to the growing prestige of humanism in Florentine culture: “The first book printed at Florence appeared in 1471, at the very beginning of Lorenzo’s rule. Almost over night presses were set up in all towns of Italy and a wave of humanist popularization washed over the country” (Ibid. 154).  This also coincides with the time when the Academy was headed by Marsilio Ficino who had given the study of Plato a major boost in his day.  Accordingly, Lorenzo’s humanism became synonymous with neo-Platonism. 

Several things can be stated about his form of humanism.  First, it resembled the Christian mysticism that was already popular at the time.  Second, according to Schevill, their neo-Platonist version of the love doctrine was hardly different from the “old medieval search of God” (Ibid. 158).  The Florentines believed: “To every individual soul there comes the call to choose between the animal and the spiritual love, and as it chooses, it is lost or saved” (Ibid.).  A criticism of Lorenzo’s brand of humanism is offered by Schevill:

Every present day university graduate who has occupied himself at all seriously with the movement of philosophy through the ages will quickly discover that what Ficino, Landino, and Pico Della Mirandola dished out in their time as Platonism was a completely unscholarly hodge-podge….what it offered as Platonism was not the doctrine of  the Athenian sage of the fourth century B.C. but a capriciously distorted version thereof developed 400 years later at Alexandria in Egypt….this later and perverted form of Platonism was already so abundantly superstitious and darkly mystical that it falls completely apart under systematic rational attack. (Ibid. 157).


With this criticism in mind it becomes easy to see why Savonarola, while tolerating and even promoting to an extent some humanist teaching, despised and contested Lorenzo’s brand of it.

Final Thoughts on “The New Learning”

               If one can find no value in the specific teachings of the Florentine humanists, their goals and methods can certainly be of utility in the modern world.  The motive of the Humanists was not to create a new philosophy. They had a disdain for logic, as it was the language of the scholastics.  They called themselves Christians but stayed out of the theological arena.  In politics, they lacked a coherent view, each subscribing to systems in accordance with his own taste.  Perhaps one of the few things they agreed on was that there was immeasurable value in the study of history, moral philosophy, and the art of letters. Until the days of Lorenzo and Ficino’s academy, even metaphysics was a subject left unexplored.  So what, one might ask, was the goal of this new learning?

Perhaps the comment by Petrarch, sometimes called the father of humanism, sums it all up: to turn an inward eye upon oneself.  The new learning was a program of study that relied on the Greek and Roman classics as primary sources. The goal was to educate individuals in a way that would free them from conformity imposed upon them by lopsided, one-directional systems of education.  The new learning sought to understand core human values that they believed to be universal.  They imagined a society of virtuous citizens that could think rationally for themselves and express themselves eloquently whenever the need might arise.

From their understanding of authors like Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, they realized several things.  It became apparent that man had a divine purpose that had to be sought and pursued.  This purpose could only be discerned through wisdom, virtue, and learning.  History was a record of man’s actions from which lessons might be gleaned in order to provide guidance for what is to come.  Moral Philosophy taught man how to live the good life, and ultimately, in the Greek sense, to attain happiness. Letters taught expression, the final puzzle piece for the student of the new learning – being able to not only know and understand right from wrong, but to be able to articulate and thus disseminate these truths to the greater society. 

The conversations initiated by the ancients are timeless.  Answers to their questions have yet to surface.  In a sense they exist as the foundation of intellectual history.  By the fifteenth century, this construction had fallen to pieces.  As survivors of the medieval mind struggled to patch the holes and perhaps slow the process of dilapidation, the humanists decided to raze the structure and start afresh.   

Aristotle established that to be happy is to be virtuous.  He also provided a means of arriving there: the Doctrine of the Golden Mean. He claimed that each man contains a defined potential, which might be defined as the thing one is best suited for.  He saw the aim of education as to lead a student toward the discernment of this potential.  Aristotle believed that liberal education alone could free the mind from the anguish of ignorance.  Consequently, he despised vocational education.  He was “particularly derogatory about using education for any extrinsic or instrumental purposes” (Hobson 2001, 18). The medieval world did not focus on these Aristotelian attributes.  Instead of his concepts on liberal education they used him to justify a system both vocational, and according to the humanists, oppressive.  While his ideas of virtue ethics to encourage morality was helpful, they felt that scholasticism relied too much on his metaphysics to justify matters of faith.  In the end, much of Aristotle’s ideas concerning human dignity and purpose, seemed to be less important, but his materialist leanings led him to become one of the founding fathers of modern science.  The new learning of the humanists aimed to correct this.

Plato, in all his sublime wisdom, became the opponent of Aristotelianism for the scholastics.  Augustine used Plato as a guide as he developed ideas concerning Christian doctrine. The medieval mind, in their excitement over the rediscovery of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, had turned their backs on Plato. The humanists wanted to go back to Plato, and although as pointed out by Ferdinand Schevill he was not utilized as wisely as possible, the humanists succeeded in reopening the Platonist conversation. These humanists tended to be more mystical than their Aristotelian counterparts but they added to the intellectual legacy that sought the restoration of human dignity.  Aristotle gave man potential in a materialist sense in the same way an acorn has the potential of becoming a giant oak tree.  Platonists like Pico della Mirandola used metaphysics to demonstrate the dignity of man.  He added a new twist, however. Rather than seeing man as a depraved creature, he focuses on freedom to choose one’s own destiny: “On man when he came into life the Father conferred the seeds of all kinds and the germs of every way of life.  Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit” (Mirandola 1948 225). According to Paul Kristeller and John Randall, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, “This [Platonist] influence can be traced down to the end of the eighteenth century and is still apparent in such thinkers as Berkeley and Coleridge” (8).

In sum, man has dignity, purpose, and freedom.  The aim of education is to cultivate these values by encouraging a life of virtue.  The German historian Hannelore Sachs claimed that humanism was the “starting point for the civilization of modern times” (Sachs 1971, 8).  To justify this claim he adds that “by the 16th century, European education had been improved by fourteenth and fifteenth century humanism” (Ibid. 14).  This remained true well into the seventeenth century, only to face major reconstruction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  For Renaissance historian Eugene Rice Jr., “the humanist idea of education is among the permanently influential legacies of the Italian renaissance” (Rice in Woodward 1996, vii).  These statements are crucial for this study in general because they allude to a humanistic thread that has navigated its way down through the centuries in the form of various educational philosophies.

The Scientific Revolution, culminating in the Enlightenment, would not only modify the conception of modern humanism but it would change Western intellect dramatically. Modern Western ideology and the educational systems that support it would be challenged in the centuries to come by humanists of the Renaissance tradition.  They would advocate a holistic perspective that seeks balance and seeks to restore some of the dignity and wonder to the human condition.  The first of theses challenges will arise in eighteenth century France in a movement that would become the prototype to nineteenth century Romanticism.









Chapter 3- The Second Case Study

The Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau


               Tracing the history of ideas that flows from the Renaissance to the modern era, it seems that the Enlightenment becomes a necessary stop.  While the Scientific Revolution might be seen as the next step in human thought, the social crisis – the focal point of this discussion – appears to be no better exemplified than in France during the second half of the eighteenth century.  These decades represent not only a major shift in humanist thought but intellectual revolutions in philosophy (especially metaphysics and epistemology), theology, and politics.  Two major motivations were able to effectively mesh during this period which would forever change human thinking.  An intense hatred of a Church dominated old order by a capitalistic bourgeois coupled with a growing faith and consequent misapplication of methodology derived from the physical sciences created a gale-force movement that challenged western ideology.  Jeffrey Stout’s The Flight from Authority, refers to this as a “crisis of authority” and claims “what was for Aquinas the virtue of faith became for the Enlightenment the vice of gullibility, soft-mindedness, and superstition,” and further that “what Aquinas found authoritative the philosophes found authoritarian” (Stout 1981, 108). 

               It becomes difficult to strip away revolutionary language in order to resurrect a true humanist of the Renaissance tradition.  Part of the difficulty lies in the system against which the philosophes had allied themselves.  They were educated in Catholic schools that adhered to a strict Jesuit tradition.  According to Louis Dupré, Ignatius of Loyola represented the Christian humanism that evolved out of the Renaissance.  He claims that must shape themselves under the guidance of God’s spirit” (Dupré 1993, 224). Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises teaches one to control his own life by shaping his will-power in a way that suits his individual potential.  In Dupré’s words, he “methodically direct[s] nature’s potential toward a transcendent goal” (Ibid. 224-225).  Most of the prominent thinkers of the time are responding to this but it is possible to find one that does not make a complete break.   

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been called the father of educational psychology (Dobson 1969, 8).  By the late-nineteenth century, for example, Rousseau's Émile was considered a standard part of formal teacher training insofar as it was deemed necessary to the historical study of pedagogical techniques” (Baker 2001, 24). He arrived there by a circuitous route.  He was a delinquent father and lived a life of marked instability beginning his career in education as an admittedly unsuccessful music tutor.  He was a gifted writer, however.  “He came to the philosophy of education by way of social theory.  Disgusted with the artificiality of royal courts and the pursuit of luxuries in the city, he regarded civilization as a departure from nature” (Brumbaugh 1963, 155).  Departing from nature for Rousseau was the biggest downfall of man, since in his opinion we were not only born good, but we were born free.  This is an important link with the Renaissance humanists and serves as a point of departure from his rationalist predecessor John Locke, the scholar most celebrated by Rousseau’s peers, who argued that man was depraved as a result of his fall from grace.  Rousseau, picking up one piece of the humanist thread claims that man is good and is morally perfectible, that the imperfection and apparent lack of goodness is a result of human society.  “Since civilization corrupts, education can’t aim primarily at civilizing.  Good education trains the young to resist society and its evils” (Ibid).

               Rousseau believed earnestly that children needed to have a childhood, and that they would discover themselves during it.  It frustrated him that people viewed children as small versions of adults.  It robbed them of their identity.  This, he felt, led to the problem of superficiality that was endemic in the adulthood of his time.  “The man of this world almost always wears a mask.  He is scarcely ever himself and is almost a stranger to himself; he is ill at ease when he is forced into his own company.  Not what he is, but what he appears to be is all he cares for” (Rousseau 1955, 11).  This concern for the internal person as opposed to the “mask” that is shown to the rest of the world has earned him another title. He has been called the “originator of romantic sensibility” because he broke away from the traditional rationalism of his day (Cordasco 1976, 84).  In his autobiography, Confessions, he expressed a belief that rationalism proposes an argument against God and immortality. He thought that feeling is in line with both.  Having revealed the limits of reason, he championed the “superiority of insight and intuition,” giving him yet one more title: the father of “modern introspective literature” (Postman 1999, 13).

Rousseau had not completely turned against the Jesuit pedagogy.  Whereas the hostility that his peers held for the Church was expanded to encompass anything that was non-material, Rousseau avoided their lop-sided metaphysics.  He insisted on a transcendent side or reality and had faith that humans had the capacity to discover it when properly trained.  If Thomas Merton was right in saying that the basic purpose of education is learning to live by "defining oneself authentically" (Del Prete 1990, 31), then Rousseau is perhaps the best place to start building the forms for a new foundation.  "Everything is good that comes from the hands of the creator; everything degenerates in the hands of man" (Rousseau in Dobson 1969, 87).  This was a tremendous weight on Rousseau’s shoulders.  It demonstrated forcefully the difficulty that he believed man faced in his struggle to retain goodness.  For this reason, he stressed the importance of keeping natural morality at the front of his philosophy.  He felt that universal law was inherent in all cultures, and that education could help decipher that law.  He also thought that the role of a teacher was to awaken the natural goodness in youth to ensure the evolution of a fully developed, civilized society.  This society would be naturally drawn to a quasi-universal code of morality.  A properly conducted education should awaken the innate tendencies toward the goodness that God created in us. 

"All teachers, whatever their subject, carry great responsibility; as Jean Jacques Rousseau made clear, the greatest responsibility is borne by those who teach religion or history" (Dobson 1969, 121).  Rousseau was also counter-cultural in that he fit religion into his secondary educational curriculum while most of his companions shunned its inclusion completely.  “To Rousseau the religious outlook of the person would mean not what group or sect he professed to belong to, but his whole outlook on mankind and the criteria by which the young man would seek to regulate and judge his own actions” (ibid. 60).  The Renaissance Italian Humanist Pietro Paolo Vergerio, in his De Ingenuis Moribus, declared that Liberal Studies, which consisted of ethics and history, were the “secret of true freedom;” one taught how man should live and the other how he has lived (Schevill 1928, 65).

Rousseau thus carried some of the Renaissance humanist threads into the Age of Reason.  He felt that teaching was an indispensable vocation and that a well rounded educational plan was something to be carefully constructed.  Also in line with the humanists, he believed that education should begin in the home and that during the early years of childhood, parents played an important part in child’s education, insisting that parents take active roles.  He was well versed in the classics and certainly used them as counsel in his treatises.  In fact, Plato, the muse for the writings of most of the Renaissance humanists, serves to inspire Rousseau’s educational philosophy as well. Yet more important than these, Rousseau’s belief in the goodness of man, his insistence on a balanced curriculum, and his inclusion of the transcendent in his epistemological equation make him the humanist spokesman of his fellow philosophes in Enlightenment France.  For these reasons he will be considered in this study; however, to label Rousseau as a true humanist of the Renaissance variety would be a dangerous claim to stake.   

Rousseau has been an enigmatic figure over the past couple centuries.  His works have been loved, hated, dismissed and respected.  Many have found his works to be terribly confusing and even contradictory.  Aspects of his personal life are downright despicable and it becomes difficult to appreciate Rousseau as a person.  These things make it difficult to read Rousseau objectively.  Nevertheless, his educational works “form an integrated whole” and the philosophy outlined in them serves an important function: “Rousseau’s philosophy of education opposes the establishment and calls for a return to nature because civilization is corrupt” (Sahakian and Sahakian 1974, 28).  Yet, even when focusing on his pedagogy and identifying his motivation as opposing “the establishment, both of which resemble humanist ideals, one is still left with a problem.  As counter-cultural as Rousseau might appear, he is still a product of his world. 

The Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment was for the most part unprecedented and it is impossible to extract Rousseau completely from his surroundings.  On a pedagogical level Rousseau disagrees and rebels against Locke on several levels, yet his categorization of levels of learning in childhood and his opposition to using books before children have gained significant life experiences are a testament to an empirical worldview.  Renaissance humanists would have found the exclusion of books for so long into childhood as an aberration.  On a religious level, and perhaps a cultural one too, Rousseau is also very different from his humanist predecessors.  The humanists of the Italian Renaissance were Catholic and intended to remain so.  While there were on occasions fiery debates between some of the humanists and orthodox Catholics (e.g. il Magnifico’s circle and Savonarola), the groups were less factions than groups of mutual adherents.  Rousseau, although he converted to Catholicism for a very short time, was definitely anti-Catholic, clerically, and educationally.  He was a product of his time.  But he was not anti-transcendent, as were his philosophe peers.

Rather than studying Rousseau as an image of the ideal Renaissance humanist, we will proceed to analyze him as an Enlightenment philosophe, indoctrinated in Enlightenment ideology, who attempted to balance the equation of reform with some humanistic threads that he had picked up along the way in his own educational journey.  Yet before Rousseau can be explored in this context, it is first crucial to understand exactly what this Zeitgeist consisted of.  The first part of this chapter will trace cultural threads that emerge out of the Renaissance and reach a climax in Rousseau’s France.  Once the crisis of worldview is established, part two will address Rousseau, a romantic, a reformer, and a bearer of humanistic ideas.

Chapter Three-Part One: From Renaissance to the Age of Reason

This case study must begin with the history bridging our previous case study to this one.  Only then might we understand the moral issues that Rousseau was concerned with.  The work of the Italian Humanists was a response – as described earlier in this study – to the lopsided curriculum of the Middle Ages.  The old curriculum did not fairly represent the values of education.  Its vocational nature did not fit in with the Latin word for education – educere – which meant to lead out from.  Perhaps Francesco Petrarca’s famous journey to the top of a local mountain is an apt metaphor to describe the purpose of education in the Latin sense.  When one is standing in the forest, he can only see the trees around him.  As he is led out of the forest, up the mountain, the forest as a whole will become clearer as he ascends.  These humanist educators intended to balance the equation; they did not intend to destroy the status quo, but to see it from a new perspective and then enhance it with a new focus on human dignity. In the end, this new view would liberate the scholar from the chains that society had placed upon him.  The classics reemerged as a source for inspiration and a springboard for the creation of l’uomo universale.  As the Renaissance spread north, thanks to the efforts of scholars like Desiderius Erasmus, the humanist message began to affect education throughout the continent and in many ways it defined European pedagogies.

There are several legacies that pervade Western culture between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries which are rooted directly in the Italian Renaissance.  Each of these contributes to a crisis in worldview at the tail end of the eighteenth century, especially in France.  This section will trace some of the humanist threads as they twist and turn through these centuries.  My intention here is not to reveal any new thesis regarding the history of ideas but to narrate the generally agreed upon course of events that eventually leads to the crisis that Rousseau will observe in his age.  We will proceed by looking at the Northern Renaissance, the Baroque period, the decline of the Roman Catholic Church, the Scientific Revolution, and finally the Enlightenment, and determine how these social, cultural, and intellectual movements contributed to the Zeitgeist that Rousseau will find himself not only a part of, but responding to. 

We will see that the Northern Renaissance becomes fully expressed in the Protestant Reformation which leads to a new religious crusade and a battle for independence from the reins of Rome.  The Zeitgeist of reform, individuality, and independence combined with the rise of nationalistic sentiment and in some cases absolutism, gives rise to a form of art resurrected from the depths of classical history: the theater.  The theater and its close cousin – literature – embody a new age and exemplify the cultural period that bears the name, Baroque.   Theater, according to Allison Brown, “with its role-playing and masking, becomes a metaphor for life itself – thereby providing us with a key to understanding a more complicated world, and a more complicated Renaissance, than a straightforward reading of texts suggests” (Brown 1999, 91). 

While these cultural developments certainly contribute to the crisis of the late eighteenth century, we will note two others that helped close the coffin that contained the remains of an old-world paradigm.  The “new learning” was quickly united with the scientific method and the “new science” was born.  This new approach to rational inquiry rocked the foundation of Western ideology.  As this scientific paradigm gained momentum, it gained a new grasp on the human condition.  The Enlightenment became the pivotal moment of the Scientific Revolution as it used methods originally intended to gain insight into the physical world to understand the metaphysical. 

The crisis that Rousseau is responding to is complex.  Over a century earlier, René Descartes, the founder of French rationalism, maintained a balance in quantitative, scientific inquiry and its application to humanity.  He divided the world into two separate planes: the material world and the non-material world.  Reason’s offspring, science, was deemed applicable to the physical world only.  This satisfied both the Church and proponents of the new learning.  Science and mathematics were highly effective tools for investigation but their utility was restricted to that which is tangible and thus quantifiable.  Theology and politics did not fall into this category.  The Enlightenment philosophes were no longer convinced a century later.  The “Enlightened Despots,” as history refers to them, patronized the world’s best scientists and sought literary figures that would justify their rule through reason.  Royal academies embraced the new science as the sole source of reliable intellectual dialog. By the end of the eighteenth century, under strong pressure from the academies, French intellectuals had given up on Descartes to exalt the ideas of Locke and Newton. 

The crisis then is twofold.  On the surface it seems to be one of intellectual perspectives, a crisis of ideology.  Yet it seems appropriate to argue that this serves mainly as a façade. Underlying this was a political crisis rooted in economics.  French salons were inundated with intellectuals extracted from the ranks of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.  These intellectuals, or philosophes, were concerned largely with attaining a level of equality that would remove the obstacles that stood in their way in regard to social privileges.  This intellectual current produced a barrage of literature that was powerful enough to create an atmosphere of animosity between this rising class of capitalists and the Church, which was intimately linked with the French monarchy.  Rousseau was part of the ideological dialog, and while he was clearly a product of his times, he expressed dissatisfaction with the attempts of his contemporaries to completely root out human spirituality. He sought balance to another lopsided equation.        

The Northern Renaissance

               Erasmus carried the spirit of Italian Renaissance Humanism northward and soon the rest of Europe found itself in a state of change.  A return to the classics took on a much different meaning in the North.  Reformation scholar Owen Chadwick claims that the educated, humanist reformers during the Northern Renaissance were in line with Erasmus.  They sought “administrative, legal, or moral reformation” and thought “hardly ever of doctrinal reformation.” He continues that “They did not suppose the Pope’s doctrine to be erroneous” (Chadwick 1990, 13).  The socio-political atmosphere of Northern Europe, however, served to reshape the humanist message.  Chadwick argues that the emergence of the Reformation in the Northern Renaissance can not be attributed to the simple explanation that the Church was “too bad” and needed to be cleaned up (Ibid. 24).  He adds two more factors: “the increasing control of kings over their kingdoms, and the improved education of the intelligent minds of the western world” (Ibid.).

Growing animosity between the politics of the North and the religious grip from Rome created a culture of revolution.  Chadwick argues his first point – regarding the control of kings – well, saying that the “Protestant revolt was associated with a political revolt against an external or foreign sovereign” (Ibid. 26).   The early Church’s ideal of a unified Christian Europe was dissolving as the power of the king increased at the expense of the pope.  The weakening of Christendom coincided with “the rise of national states” (Ibid. 28).   Chadwick then cites that during this period of nationalistic development, the “new learning” was beginning to have an effect on the rulers along with the upper and merchant classes.

As the Italians had sought inspiration from the ancient Greeks and Romans, northern scholars sought it in the early Christian texts.  Chadwick thus lays out the first transition in Renaissance humanism: “Italian humanism was literary, artistic, and philosophical, whereas northern humanism was religious, even theological” (Ibid. 30).  Church tradition was called into question and it seemed that a political shift could be justified by scripture itself.  As reformers sought to restore the Church to what they perceived as its original condition, powerful princes saw a lucrative opportunity.  To invalidate claims that Rome was the sole heir of the apostolic mission was to invalidate its role in the world’s affairs. If the Church could be wrong, then its greatest weapon, excommunication, might be rendered useless.  Removing this power and exposing inconsistencies in the Church’s teaching gave secular powers, especially in Germany, the potential to discontinue their financial obligation to Rome, and take control over the vast Church lands within the boundaries of their provinces.  This action had two significant effects on the northern population.  In one regard it damaged the Church’s prestige, but perhaps more significantly, it created a new nobility.  Princes were able to create a circle of loyalists by redistributing church lands.  This new class of people created another mechanism of support with special interest in keeping the Church’s authority subdued, since it had everything to gain from her demise[30].   

Culture of the Baroque

               The term baroque has carried a mix of interpretive nuances.  It is sometimes difficult to determine exactly what constitutes baroqueness.  It is most often used as a reference to an exaggerated style of painting and architecture in the seventeenth century.  If Raffaele’s School of Athens might be seen as the epitome of the Italian Renaissance, then perhaps Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles might be presented as a veritable statement of what it means to be baroque.   Built toward the end of the seventeenth century, its art and architecture represent something deeper than just gaudy and ostentatious visual art.  Beneath the surface of frescos depicting contemporary subjects in mythological scenes lays a powerful force, a Zeitgeist that germinated during the Italian Renaissance and had its growth spurt during the Northern Renaissance.  The Baroque in this sense is “a cultural phenomenon,” and furthermore, an “attitude to life which arose after the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, and found expression in music, literature, and painting” (Skrine 1978, vii). 

               According to Peter Skrine, in The Baroque: Literature and Culture in Seventeenth-Century Europe, Protestant countries tend to regard the baroque as a Roman Catholic movement and it is sometimes lumped into the category of Counter-Reformation; however, he argues that “two significant phenomena were perhaps more responsible for the baroque’s emergence than any other factors” (Ibid. viii). These two developments were absolutism and the theater.  The combination of these forces produced a hotbed for the transmission of baroque culture.  He also notes that the Church remained mainly interested in and was the patron for visual art.  For those that see the baroque as predominantly a visual movement, it is clear how it becomes intertwined with the Counter-Reformation. Using period literature, music, and theater as vibrant snapshots of the baroque Zeitgeist, Skrine exposes some important cultural threads that will contribute to the cultural tapestry of the Enlightenment. 

In literature and drama the Baroque might be seen as a continuation of the Italian Renaissance.  It retained the keen interest in classical antiquity, especially Greek and Roman epic poetry as well as dramatic dialog, but the aims were less concerned with the restoration of original classical languages.  In fact, in some regard it had the opposite effect.  The obsession with the classics evolved into a nationalistic and linguistic goal to surpass their greatness.

It was a cultural ambition which all major Western European countries put the finishing touch to the progress of their respective languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, German – towards literary maturity and national prestige, objectives which often manifested themselves in the paradoxical yet compulsive desire to imitate the ancients and even to outdo them (Skrine 1978, 5-6).


This competitive spirit brought both civic pride and the feeling that one’s nation was the cultural heir to their deified ancestors.   But in some regard this competition went further: “baroque imagination delighted above all in the creation of an illusory reality more opulent and splendid than any the ordinary world could offer, and chose audaciously to presume that man could use his wealth and artistry to outshine his maker” (Ibid. 20).

               The harmonious coexistence between the moderns and the ancients had dissipated.  Humanism began to take on a new identity. Extreme individualism, excessive patronage, and exaggerated magnificence caused the world to become a stage.  Skrine argues this point: “Life is a constant struggle for self-preservation against the malice and hostility of one’s fellows, and self-assertion is the obvious way to achieve a position of supremacy in others’ eyes and to maintain it” (Ibid. 22).  

Church Decline in France

               “Do not annoy the pious. They will never forgive you” (Skrine 1978, 33).  Supposedly this warning was given to Moliére by Louis XIV as the playwright spurred the anger of a Catholic secret society – Company of the Holy Sacrament.  Moliére did not heed the warning.  In 1669 the final draft of his “most effective of all comic exposures of self-seeking duplicity masquerading as sanctimonious self-righteousness” was published and it was entitled Tartuffe: the Imposter (Ibid.).  In the final act, Tartuffe the imposter leads the king’s guard in to arrest Orgon, the man who had taken him in his house as a distinguished guest.  This aspect of the baroque in France is important to this discussion because it exposes some of the roots – and perhaps tenacity – of anticlericalism in Rousseau’s world.

Tartuffe had presented himself as a noble, holy man.  He shouts loudly to his servant so that those around him would hear about his corporal mortification and piety: “Put back my scourge and hair shirt in their place, Laurent and pray for heaven’s enlightening grace.  If someone asks for me I can be found among the prisoners giving alms all around” (Moliére 1981, 273). He tells those around him about his vespers to further convince his hosts of his religious zeal: “Sir it is half past-three: I have devotions at this time of day” (Ibid, 287).  The last scene is a powerful one.  Tartuffe, accompanied by the guard, shouts to Orgon, “Hold on… we arrest you now, in the King’s name” (Ibid, 309).  To this Orgon replies: “Traitor, you’ve brought me to this final shame! This is the stroke, scoundrel, that lays me low and all your treachery is in this blow” (Ibid.).  Tartuffe retorts self-righteously:

Your insults have no power to rouse my gall, and for the sake of Heaven I’ll suffer all….You can not anger me with all your spite; and all I want to do is what is right…. I know about your help and everything but my first duty is to serve my King; the power of that sacred obligation, annihilates my own appreciation…” (Ibid., 310).


In this last scene, Moliére’s message is powerfully exposed.  This serves as more than a mere example of Baroque literary style; it exposes a deep wound that would not only refuse to heal over the course of the next century, but would become infected.

               The passage reveals several sentiments that would fester in the French worldview.  First and perhaps most obvious is the growing resentment toward the Church, especially among the wealthier citizens. The intellectual culture of France was becoming more mobile and thus worldly; their travels revealed a world that was much wider than that which was confined in the four walls of their salons. The Church was seen as an enemy of cultural progress.  It was the embodiment of the status quo.  French minds had witnessed several of their European neighbors free themselves from the tethers of Rome and intellectuals sought justification for the Church’s position of power.  In seeking justification they were inevitably adding fuel to their own fires of resentment.  The follies and hypocrisies of Tartuffe were symbolic of the hypocrisy of the Church in general and for the growing group of elites that felt pinched by the Church’s cultural domination.

               The second sentiment is directly related to the first and perhaps is the foundation for the first.  Tartuffe expresses a loyalty to the king symbolizing the intimacy of the church and state.  Louis XIV’s signature phrase was “L’état c’est moi,” yet the phrase was incomplete.  It does not describe the Church in state affairs.  The disgust for the Church expressed in the previous sentiment might be the direct result of the Church’s relationship with the state and Louis’ direct control of the Church in France.  Linked together, the union represented the old order.  

               A handful of malcontents steeped in a culture of flamboyant art, religious reform, and growing nationalism was not enough, however, to drive France into the crisis that it finds itself in at the end of the eighteenth century.  The issue becomes far more complex.  The Baroque in one sense might be seen as extreme humanism.  In another it helps usher in an early sense of nationalistic pride.  The Northern Renaissance and the Reformation that stems from it aids the individualistic and nationalistic crusade, and together these present both an inspiration and focus of envy for France.  The intellectuals of the eighteenth century begin to see England as a model, and philosophes like Voltaire begin to adopt the philosophies of English thinkers, lamenting the French adherence to one of their most influential rationalist philosophers – René Descartes. 

               The most significant thread that leads to the metaphysical crisis of the eighteenth century also has its roots in the Renaissance.  It runs parallel with and complementary to the movements that we have discussed.  The Scientific Revolution gave thinkers of the Enlightenment the tools that they needed to accomplish their intellectual revolution.  It will be helpful to consider the roots and course of this movement.

The Scientific Revolution

               To place exact dates on this revolution is a daunting task.  It seems that it is less a particular moment in time than an ongoing series of movements that serve to facilitate the progression of modern scientific thought.  For this case study it is imperative to designate some sense of a starting point.  The “scientific revolution” might then be understood as “a very real process of fundamental change” (Henry 2001, 2).  Most historians place the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, noting that the worldviews of the 1500s are noticeably incompatible with worldviews of the 1700s.  While it is true that the birth of modern science had made tremendous contributions toward this change, one must also concede that the revolution itself is a product of the Zeitgeist in which it was born.   

               In The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, John Henry states: “If we want to seek out the causes of the Scientific Revolution, we must look for them among the wider changes taking place in that sea-change of European history known as the Renaissance,” and further that, “The Scientific Revolution cannot be explained without reference to the Renaissance” (Ibid. 9).  In 1930, George Sarton gave a lecture at Brown University called “The History of Science and the New Humanism” which was later published as a book.  In his preface, he recalls being in Florence and coming to realize the role of the humanists in modern science.  He said, “I know that the individual is only a fragment of the race, that it is the race that counts” (Sarton 1956, xviii).  He continues: “I believe that I am only a fragment of humanity, yet that I must try to look at things from the point of view of the whole, and not of the fragment” (Ibid.).    He places science alongside history and religion as one of the means available to understand life from this holistic perspective. He saw a balance in the Renaissance roots of science and lamented the lack of balance that he saw in the twentieth century.  Sarton’s analysis is significant because in a sense this shift that he describes may be seen as the revolution.  Sarton concludes that to get back to our roots, scientists and scholars of the humanities, in order to “bear our full share of the burden… must be historians, scientists, craftsmen; - and we shall be true humanists only to the extent of our success in combining the historical and the scientific spirit” (Ibid. xix). 

               If we place the roots of science in the Renaissance, and we recognize that these roots have pure, holistic, intellectual seeds, then we must ask what causes the worldview of the 1500s to be incompatible with that of the 1700s.  One might first consider the humanists’ attempt to dethrone medieval scholasticism which maintained Aristotle as their official spokesman.  As ancient texts were rediscovered, alternatives were sought to Aristotle’s teaching, especially those regarding natural philosophy.   While “Aristotle downplayed the importance of mathematics… Plato clearly saw it as an exemplary means of gaining knowledge.  Immediately mathematics began to be taken more seriously” (Henry 2001, 11).  Astronomy was one of the first sciences to be affected by this.  Astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo were much in tune with their ancient Pythagorean predecessors who believed that the rational quality of math would ultimately lead to a rational understanding of the cosmos.  Copernicus and Galileo were able to make sense of a cosmological  model of the solar system which had been discounted as hypothetical by the medievals because of its incompatibility with Aristotelianism.

               Such intellectual movements led to an epistemological conundrum.  How is knowledge best acquired and to what degree of certainty can we know?  Whereas the Reformation had determined that knowledge of God, the cosmos, and humanity could be gleaned through revelation recorded in the pages of scripture[31], the new scientists saw the story of these things written in the book of nature.  “It was commonplace in the sixteenth century to speak of nature as ‘God’s other book’ …. One of the features of the Scientific Revolution… was a new emphasis upon experience and observation as a means of discovering truth” (Henry 2001, 12).

The Enlightenment: Science’s Next Step

               While the Scientific Revolution is usually planted in the sixteenth and sometimes the seventeenth centuries, it becomes difficult for an intellectual historian to draw a hard line.  Thomas Hankins, in Science and the Enlightenment, claims that eighteenth century thinkers – namely Immanuel Kant and Jean Lerond d’Alembert – “thought it was a revolution still in progress…one that was continuing its course” (Hankins 1985, 1). Despite the overlap, the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s century, has come to be most commonly known as the era of the Enlightenment, but it seems plausible to propose that the eighteenth century in many ways represents the universalization of the techniques embraced by the new science.  The Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment can be characterized as rationalistic and in many ways these thinkers were attempting to do the very same thing that their predecessors in the Renaissance[32] were attempting.  Both periods rejected traditional authorities. Both rejected medieval theology.  Both sought new ways to interpret the world and the cosmos.  Yet the spirit of the Enlightenment had a different twist.  Louis Snyder’s classic work The Age of Reason sums up the difference: “In contrast both to Renaissance humanism and the motivating ideas of the Reformation, the Age of Reason was an intellectual, rational movement, which substituted for the medieval Age of Faith an Age of Faith in Science” (Snyder 1955, 7).

               The Enlightenment lacked the balance that the Renaissance tried to maintain and this directly led to the crisis that Rousseau perceived.  The “new learning” of the Renaissance encouraged mathematics as a viable method of ascertaining truth but at the same time it encouraged metaphysics, especially Plato’s version. They were in some cases mystics and in other cases those who believed in magic.  Hermetic cults – tied to Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient Egyptian priest – embraced the two.  The rationalists of the Enlightenment were different. Blind faith in an invisible world was archaic.  According to Snyder, “advances in science and technology, resulting from a new spirit of inquiry and encouraged by the opportunities of an expanding commerce, confirmed the rationalists in their faith” (Snyder 1955, 7-8).

               By the eighteenth century philosophers had a different attitude toward religious tradition.  In the sixteenth century, Galileo made his famous statement regarding natural philosophy in The Assayer: “Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze….It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures” (Galileo 1967, 126). He believed that the abstract world could be discovered through an analysis of the rational, tangible world.  In the seventeenth century, John Locke “could enthusiastically claim that ‘the works of Nature everywhere sufficiently evidence a Deity’” and Robert Boyle “agreed that he had never seen any ‘inanimate production of nature, or of chance, whose contrivance was comparable to that of the meanest limb of the despicabilist [sic] animal’” (Hankins 1985, 3).  Yet by the eighteenth century God was on trial.    

               In 1784 Immanuel Kant addressed an important question in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”  He declared that “enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (Kant 1995, 1). By tutelage he is referring to “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another” (Ibid.). This tutelage for Kant is self-incurred because we lack the courage to think for ourselves.  Because of this, he exclaims that “Sapere aude[33]! … is the motto of enlightenment” (Ibid.).  Enlightenment in this sense can only be accomplished “after throwing off the yoke of tutelage” (Ibid. 4).  Among the various yokes that weigh man down and distract him from free thought, matters of religion seem to hold a prominent position.  He claims that “religious incompetence is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all” (Ibid. 6).  Kant maintained that there was moral value to religion but severely criticized some key elements of organized religion – ritual, hierarchy, and superstition – and rejected the possibility of theoretical proof of God’s existence.

               Kant claims that it was David Hume that awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber” and caused him to develop his critical philosophy.  Hume “ridiculed revelation” and “attacked natural Christianity” (Snyder 1955, 42).  His 1748 “Essay on Miracles” vehemently attacked Christian claims to miracles and other supernatural events claiming that these are violations of the laws of nature.  The problem of evil was another major issue in Hume’s commentaries on religion.  Stout sees Hume as the third stage (of three) in the development of eighteenth century deistic thought (Stout 1981, 112). Hume stabs deeper into religion in his Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects twenty years later:

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophesies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind (Hume 1995, 112).


This sentiment is one that was shared among many of the eighteenth century philosophers.  In fact removing superstition from society was an important task that Enlightenment thinkers took on.  Hume, like many of the others, had been heavily influenced by the techniques of the “new science.”

               The concept of a priori knowledge, placed in our minds by our creator – as proposed by Descartes and some of his contemporaries – was replaced by the belief that all knowledge was gained a posteriori, after experience. Also in the wake of Descartes, “the mathematical study of probability had begun in 1664 in a correspondence between Pascal and Pierre de Fermat” (Hankins1985, 179).  John Locke, a contemporary of Pascal and Fermat argued that “it is from probable knowledge that he [man] must make all the numerous decisions of mundane life” (Ibid.).  He accepted that “how far soever human industry may advance useful and experimental philosophy in physical things, scientifical [knowledge] will still be out of our reach” (qtd. Ibid.). 

David Hume was born 7 years after Locke died and he experienced the power of science in new ways.  He was still convinced that a scientific approach could be successfully applied to the study of human nature. Yet in the end he found his brand of empiricism to come up short. Hume too was forced to accept the unavoidable conclusion that man acts in accordance with probable knowledge that results from experience. According to Hankins, the attempts made by Locke and his successor, Hume, and the conclusions that they adopted, added another component to the Enlightenment: “[that] the study of probability would have to be an essential part of the science of man” (Ibid.).

               Hume was not the only person affected by the work of the previous generation.  In his Letters Concerning the English Nation, Francois-Marie Arouet – who later renamed himself Voltaire – extols the virtue of the “famous personages which England has given birth to,” beginning with “Lord Bacon, Mr. Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, etc.” (Voltaire, 2001, 125).  Voltaire proclaimed Francis Bacon to be “father of experimental philosophy” and attributed this title to Bacon’s Novum Scientiarum Organum, which he calls the “the scaffold with which the new philosophy was raised” (Voltaire 2001,126). The scientific method was a hidden treasure that changed the way philosophy would view the world.  The problem with the method, a problem that the Enlightenment thinkers have been criticized for, is that it fails to take into consideration the metaphysical world.  It seems to actually reason its way around metaphysics.

               In reference to Locke, Voltaire said: “perhaps no man ever had a more judicious or more methodical genius or was a more acute logician than Mr. Locke” (Voltaire 2001, 127).  Voltaire was most impressed with Locke’s work regarding the soul as it opposed the “multitude of reasoners [that had] written the romance of the soul” (Ibid. 128).  Voltaire takes particular aim at Descartes:

Our Descartes, born not to discover the errors of antiquity, but to substitute his own in the room of them, and hurried away by the systematic spirit which throws a cloud over the minds of the greatest men ….He asserted that man thinks eternally, and that the soul [which is the same thing as thought], on its coming into the body, is informed with the whole series of metaphysical notions; knowing God, infinite space, possessing all abstract ideas; in a word, completely endued with the most sublime lights, which it unhappily forgets at its issuing from the womb… (Voltaire 2001, 128).


The empirical approach on the other hand, serves to correct the misconceptions of the past because “Mr. Locke has displayed the human soul in the same manner as an excellent anatomist explains the springs of the human body,” and further that he “takes the light of physics for his Guide” (Ibid.). 

               This statement is important because it reflects an ideology that Voltaire shares with his contemporaries.  The above proposition is not presented in an argumentative manner. It is stated as a matter of fact which is evidence that the new ideology had at last begun to take solid form itself.  This ideology represents a break from the Renaissance forebears in two significant ways. First, his rejection of the metaphysical world undermined the Renaissance’s claims regarding the dignity of man, as he believed that humans were a pile of decaying matter destined for misery, that God played no role in human affairs, and that nature had nothing to teach humanity.  Second, as noted in the passage, Voltaire rejects the philosophy of the ancients, calling Greece the “the infant seat of the arts and of errors… [Where] the folly of the human mind went such prodigious lengths…” (Voltaire 2001, 127).   In addition, he said that Aristotle was “unintelligible” and criticized Plato’s concept of the soul, saying that the “demon of Socrates had instructed him [Plato] in the nature of it” (Ibid. 128).

               Voltaire refers to Newton as the “destroyer of the Cartesian system” claiming that “the very essence of things is totally changed” (Ibid. 132).  One might ask what Newton in fact destroyed.  Perhaps Voltaire shines light on this several paragraphs down in his address:

Nature had indulged Descartes a shining and strong imagination whence he became a very singular person both in private life and in his manner of reasoning.  This imagination could not conceal itself even in his philosophical works, which are everywhere adorned with very shining, and ingenious metaphors and figures. Nature had almost made him a poet. (Ibid. 133)


It seems that by the Age of Reason, imagination was reserved for the literary arts and was not conducive to the philosophical vocation. Voltaire concludes that “few people in England read Descartes, whose works indeed are now useless” (Ibid. 134). 

               Another key factor that may be deduced from Voltaire’s letter is that he doesn’t lay the blame on Descartes for his imagination or his obscurity; his times reduced his genius. Voltaire explains that “his [Descartes’] contemporaries were not knowing enough to improve and enlighten his understanding, and were capable of little else than giving him uneasiness” and the reason for this was that France was plagued and “persecuted by the wretched philosophy of the Schools” which were controlled and operated by Roman Catholic clergy (Ibid. 133).  This sentiment echoes loudly in Voltaire’s writing.  His letter, “On Mr. Locke,” exclaims that “the superstitious are the same in society as cowards in the army” (Ibid 129).

               Voltaire’s terminology raises several questions.  He uses the word “superstitious” in many of his writings.  In his Philosophical Dictionary he says: “the superstitious man is to the rogue what the slave is to the tyrant” (Voltaire 1924), but what exactly is meant by superstition?  Locke, one of the thinkers that Voltaire looked up to, also used the term:

I think it would be better, if men generally rested in such an idea of God, without being too curious in their notions about a Being, which all must acknowledge incomprehensible; whereby many, who have not strength and clearness of thought to distinguish between what they can, and what they cannot know run themselves into superstition or atheism, making God like themselves, or (because they cannot comprehend anything else) none at all. (Locke, 2001, 89)


Locke’s use of the term seems to be different than Voltaire’s.  Several lines further in his 1693 essay, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” Locke describes what he is trying to avoid in the mind of the youths: “preserve his tender mind from all impressions and notions of spirits and goblins, or any fearful apprehensions in the dark” (Ibid. 90).  Locke’s version of the term superstitious does not include all matters of religion.  For him, superstition is what results from premature exposure to the concepts that surround a belief in God. The mind needs to be prepared for this experience.  He states: “Having laid the foundations of virtue in a true notion of a God, such as the creed wisely teaches, as far as his age is capable, and by accustoming him to pray to him” and furthermore that, “the next thing to be taken care of is to keep him exactly to speaking of truth and by all the ways imaginable inclining him to be good-natured” (Locke 2001, 90).  Thus, Locke still holds religion as a viable means of instilling morality in youths and does not intend to disband the idea of God because it surpasses human comprehension. 

On the surface it seems that Voltaire is striking out against the church as an organized institution: “The superstitious man is governed by the fanatic and becomes fanatic. Superstition born in Paganism, adopted by Judaism, infested the Christian Church from the earliest times” (Voltaire 1924). In most cases his attack is focused on the Roman Church. He declares that a “Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly mistaken” (Ibid.).  He goes on to show that each religion has some form of superstition in it and concludes: “It is therefore clear that it is the fundamentals of the religion of one sect which is considered as superstition by another sect” (Ibid.).  Voltaire’s entry on superstition in his Philosophical Dictionary ends without a definition of superstition.  One is left with the thought that “no one agrees as to what superstition is” (Ibid.).

               While Voltaire may have remained vague on his definition of his formidable foe, superstition, his contemporaries may shed some light on his connotation. Margaret Jacob describes a “mid-century crisis” that struck Western Europe beginning in the 1740s (Jacob 2001, 50).  Imperialist wars tied up Britain, Austria, and Prussia while France was attacking the southern Dutch territories.  Meanwhile, urban life in places like Paris was changing. According to Jacob, Paris prisons “began to be filled with publishers, freemasons, pornographers, critics, and would-be conspirators” and by the middle of the eighteenth century the spirit of the Enlightenment changed: “Wit, sarcasm, and bawdiness had given way to a search for new philosophical systems and new ways of organizing knowledge” (Ibid.).  The French scientific academies began to influence Voltaire and his comrades to the point that European enlightenment shifted from the north to France, with Paris as its capital. 

               Voltaire’s use of the term superstition is a product of Parisian society and provides a clue regarding Rousseau’s character.  French society was composed of three estates, or social classes.  The first estate was the Church; the second was the nobility, and the third consisted of everyone else.  This structure put the first two estates at odds with a large population, the most influential portion being the bourgeoisie. Members of this class had been steadily making their way to the top economically. By the end of the eighteenth century these capitalists owned almost as much of France’s real estate as the nobility[34], yet enjoyed none of the same privileges.  Sought after offices within the church, state, and university were dominated by nobles who had for the most part bought their positions. A legacy of purchased positions inevitably led to incompetence and the bourgeoisie demanded a role in administration that stretched beyond merely bearing the burden of excessive taxes aimed at salvaging a nearly bankrupt treasury.     

Immediately beneath the royal family stood the Church. The Church’s position in this society allowed for many coveted privileges both economic and social.  It is estimated that she owned between ten and fifteen percent of all the land in France[35].  In addition to land ownership, she collected fees for services and collected tithes from parishioners. Yet the Church remained exempt from taxes, even on her land ownership.  In addition to tax breaks, the Church retained an intimate link to the nobility.  High offices within the church were held by members of noble families and members of the third estate had little opportunity to attain important positions.  Without such opportunity, the third estate would remain in a position of subservience.  The structure that allowed for self-made wealth did not allow for self-motivated social mobility.

In historical terms, the Church, along with the nobility, represented a reviled past that the rising bourgeoisie had been struggling to forget.  Capitalism had changed the rules of a game that had been long-played.  Yet France’s social system resisted the transition.  The three-tiered system was medieval and reminiscent of the feudalism of the Middle Ages: those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed.  This agrarian setup persisted in some rural areas but urban centers like Paris had long surpassed the necessity of such a system.  For the Enlightenment thinkers, the Renaissance had not succeeded completely.  As long as remnants of the medieval existed, even if it was limited to ideology alone, the world had not entered the modern era.     

The philosophes were intellectual historians and it was on this level that the Church became the enemy of progress.  Intellectually in the eighteenth century, the Church remained the source of education, through its various levels of institutions, and wielded considerable authority on moral matters.  Most of the literary figures of the French Enlightenment were, in their early years, trained in Jesuit schools; however, midway through their lives, the Church became their enemy.  They recalled the troubles faced by their predecessors when they went up against the church intellectually: “Descartes was injuriously accused of being an atheist, the last refuge of religious scandal; and he who had employed all the sagacity and penetration of his genius in searching for new proofs of the existence of a God was suspected to believe there was no such Being” (Voltaire 2001, 133). 

In addition to the historical examples of clashes between the Church and Reason, Voltaire saw contemporary examples.  J.H. Brumfitt claims that Denis Diderot “embodies the rich variety of the enlightenment spirit[36] more than any other man;” however, he notes that “his only rival is surely Voltaire” (Brumfitt 1979, 162).  Whether Voltaire saw himself as Diderot’s rival or not, he found it necessary to support Diderot and “champion his cause” during Diderot’s Parisian imprisonment (Jacob 2001, 53).  Diderot was an eclectic philosopher relying on knowledge he gained from the ancients and the moderns alike.  Eventually he became caught up in the scientific method and embraced materialism as his metaphysics platform. By the 1740s “he migrated from an anticlerical deism to atheism and materialism,” believing that the soul was “a superfluous hypothesis, that matter had existed for all eternity, and that it may even display the capacity for thought and feeling” (Ibid.). Eventually Diderot published tracts that put him at odds with church and state.  In 1746 he published Philosophic Thoughts which called God into question and eventually was condemned.  In addition, in 1748 he published the pornographic novel The Indiscreet Jewels.  These and other controversial pieces landed him in prison by July of 1749.

According to Brumfitt, in his lecture to the Royal Institute of Philosophy, “Diderot: Man and Society,” Diderot is given less attention than Voltaire and Rousseau by “philosophers proper” while “historians of ideas” pay him as much homage (Brumfitt 1979, 164).  His influence must be acknowledged since both Voltaire and Rousseau visited him in prison and the three seemed to be in literary dialog on several key issues. Brumfitt points out that in a letter to Voltaire in 1765 Diderot claims that the idea of God “was philosophically both unnecessary and confusing, and that it had proved an endless source of conflict among men” (Ibid. 165).  His Philosophic Thoughts is intended to free humanity from the burden of God and the age of science becomes the vehicle of this freedom.  The main character, a blind man named Saunderson, declares that it would be impossible for him to believe in God unless he could touch him. Empiricism had taken the final leap in this character.  Outside of the senses, nothing exists and thus man is freed from the burden of God. 

Another issue, political philosophy, puts Diderot in conversation with Rousseau.  Brumfitt proposes that Diderot’s inclusion of political articles in The Encyclopedia may have been a response to Rousseau’s projected work, Institutions Politiques – a work that was eventually absorbed into his Social Contract (Brumfitt 1979, 167).  Brumfitt asserts that Diderot’s concept of the social contract was more consistent than Rousseau’s and that Diderot coined the phrase “general will” well before it was popularized by Rousseau (167-169).  In addition, a chapter of Rousseau’s Social Contract, “De la société générale du genre humain” “was clearly aimed at refuting Diderot” because, while both accepted that the general will can be discerned by man as the highest form of human will, and Rousseau “could not accept a theory in which universal human rationality precedes, both temporally and morally, the establishments of specific societies” (Ibid. 169).

Eventually the French government pulled the license for Diderot’s Encyclopedia.  His article, “Autorité politique,” certainly did not help his cause: “It opened with a powerfully phrased assertion that no man had the divine right of commanding other.” Furthermore, in regard to the French, “it rejected the idea of the paternal origin of monarchy, and it insisted that the king belonged to the state and not the other way around” (Ibid.).  While this criticism was poignant it was far from new. Diderot’s imprisonment undoubtedly added some fuel to the anti-clerical fire that was brewing among the French bourgeoisie.  To the philosophes this could be seen as verification of what they saw as the Church’s unjustified attempt to control the morality of the French people.  They believed that this action infringed on human rights such as liberty.  Writers like Diderot and Voltaire were surely finding wisdom and ammunition in Locke’s words regarding church and state:

First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another, as to compel any one to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people; because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true, and the other well-pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation. (Locke 1995, 83)


In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke urges a separation of church and state, declaring that no civil authority could ever be put in place by God himself, and therefore be His earthly representative.  This was superstitious.  The French philosophes sought to adopt the perspectives of the English writers and adapt them to the atmosphere of social reform that these French intellects were creating.  



The Triumph of Materialism

Our discussion has shown that the Enlightenment can be characterized as the next step in the Scientific Revolution and perhaps it is appropriate to regard the crisis that Rousseau was responding to as the triumph of materialism.  By the end of the eighteenth century, the Church seemed to have run its course in France.  What began as a political revolution, ended in a major intellectual paradigm shift.   The English seemed to have a head start in the movement.  Whereas people like Copernicus were afraid to publish their findings and those like Galileo were persecuted in the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, Newton gained incredible popularity and earned widespread acceptance by the eighteenth century in England.  He was a member of Parliament, director of the Royal mint, President of the Royal Academy, and was actually knighted by Queen Anne.  By the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century science had entered the popular milieu.  It was widely held that the educated person should be familiar with scientific methodology. 

In 1761 Newton’s discoveries were brought down to a child’s level as a fictitious character named Tom Telescope instructed them in a book thought to be written by John Newbury called  The Newtonian System of Philosophy, Adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies.  Published first in English, it quickly rose in popularity, went through many editions and was translated into several languages.  Newton had become a cultural icon long before the publication of this children’s book.  Upon his death, the great English poet Alexander Pope wrote an epitaph: “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.  God said, ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was Light.”  The eighteenth century intellectual circles credited Newton with bringing light to a dark age. 

Newton was not the only Englishman to achieve this status in the minds of the French philosophes.  John Locke moved to the next level of rationalization.  Writers like Diderot, Voltaire, and Montesquieu believed that they needed Locke to realize their liberal modernization in France.  Locke’s application of the scientific method to human psychology in his monumental work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was momentous. It broke down Descartes’ dualistic model which reserved an important place for the transcendent in metaphysics.  Eighteenth century French intellectuals looked upon Descartes’ dualism with contempt.  They wanted for France what England seemed to already have.  Politically, economically, and philosophically England seemed to have pulled away from France in the race for national greatness. 

By the end of the eighteenth century, France was at a significant crossroad.  Margaret Jacob, in The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans, argues that the “radical enlightenment,” one that took place in the salons of Paris, was the direct result of two “profoundly different revolutions:” the English Revolution of the 1640s and 50s, which helped nurture ideas of republicanism, and the post-Newtonian Scientific Revolution, which added the materialist ingredient (Jacobs 1981, 29).  Regardless of their influence, one thing was clear: the main obstacle in the way of progress for the rising capitalist class was the old order.  This old order was comprised of two forces, the archenemies of the modern movement:  The monarchy and the Church.  By the second half of the century the monarchy had already contributed significantly to its own demise.  Poor administrative skills, callousness, a lack of concern for the poor, and mismanagement of finances that led to an inconceivable national debt had done irreparable damage to the Bourbons.  The Church, on the other hand, required a bit more force to be torn down from its pedestal. Materialism provided the vehicle to accomplish this task.      

The Crisis of the Eighteenth Century

               The bourgeois rebels posed themselves as a liberal group that was putting up a defense against an order that stood in the way of progress. This is illogical in that the bourgeois proponents of the revolution were in fact the insurgent class and therefore their move must be considered as an offensive.  They had an agenda but sensed that their success was inhibited by an ancient and perhaps obsolete establishment. Their attack on the church, and eventually metaphysics itself, was an offensive maneuver for the sole purpose of removing a perceived obstacle in their way.  The modern movement was the cultural manifestation of ideas that have preceded it. It embraced three cultural threads and each served as fuel for the other. Capitalism brought about a taste of economic freedom that gave an emerging class the material resources to challenge the cultural hegemony. Science provided an incontrovertible method for disqualifying that which cannot be proven outside of its own doctrine.   Finally, anticlericalism in France provided ample ammunition to sustain the battle. 

               The three threads together created an environment of hostility that surpassed previous religious reform movements.  The Church became the major target. In order to depose it, one had to first discredit it. Once its authority was discredited, religion was put on trial. The Italian capitalists of the fifteenth century did not hold the same kind of animosity toward the Church and did not share the anticlerical sentiments.  They were able to cohabitate and even cooperate with it.  The events that occur between the fifteenth century and eighteenth century in France represent the germination of the seeds of ideas planted in the Renaissance. 

               The eighteenth century crisis then had several levels.  The revolutionary tension which demanded social and political reform was the most prevalent level of crisis and it was in this crisis that Rousseau stood, with both feet, in union with his contemporaries.  However, the crisis, as we have seen, stretched into intellectual and spiritual levels as well. It was in these realms that Rousseau made his stand.  Humanism underwent a major overhaul in the three centuries of history that we have looked at.  By Rousseau’s day, the dignity of the human individual had been converted to an obsessive faith in human reason.  Furthermore, faith in God had been replaced by faith in science.  In metaphysics materialism replaced interest in the transcendent and in epistemology, Locke’s empiricism seemed to be the only feasible approach.  It is here that Rousseau would part company with his companions.  They saw all of these strands as part of the modern movement; he saw reforms at such levels as having crossed the line.










Chapter Three- Part Two: The Romantic Response

The Birth of Romanticism

               Jean-Jacques Rousseau enters the pedagogical scene at a crucial moment.  According to R.L. Archer in the introduction to his translation of Émile, Julie and Other Writings he “appeared at a time of educational stagnation” and brought back a renewed sense of optimism among pedagogues (Archer [ed. of Rousseau] 1964, 3).  Up until the French Revolution education was still mainly in the hands of the Church.  In fact most of the philosophes themselves – certainly Voltaire and Diderot – were in fact educated by the Jesuits.  Archer identifies three strands of influence that shaped the education of the day:  “Renaissance humanism which made Latin and Greek literature the foundation of education, remnants of scholasticism in the form of logic and ethics which was retained by the Jesuits, and the more recent addition of seventeenth century scientific discoveries” (Ibid. 2).  Educational philosophers Mabel and William Sahakian also comment on the schools of Rousseau’s France: “The Jesuit schools, with their emphasis upon Latin, theological hair-splitting and medieval logic, harsh discipline, and frivolous memoriter learning, began to come into disrepute” (Sahakian and Sahakian 1974, 60). 

               The stagnation for the moment did not signify the possibility of preserving the status quo in French education, however.  The opposite was true.  By the end of the eighteenth century, salons were flooded with propaganda from libertarian educators like René de la Chalotais, who wrote Essay on National Education in 1763.  Such literature promoted nationalistic programs of instruction that fostered citizenship.  The world of pedagogy was finally swept up into the crisis; but Rousseau had the foresight to anticipate the forthcoming danger to education.  His initial entry into the world of educational philosophy took place in 1750 with the publication of his essay, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.  His next contribution was one of his major works, Julie, or the New Heloise, published in 1761.  A year later, his most influential work in education, Émile, was published.  Rousseau responded to the climate of the modern movement and asks the question: Should a society train the man or the citizen?  Rousseau points to a serious contradiction: “we cannot be both” (Rousseau 1964, 58).  The result would be confusion: “Ever contradicting himself, ever wavering between duty and inclination, he will be neither man nor citizen…. He will be the modern man, the Englishman, a Frenchman, a bourgeois; he will be – nothing” (Ibid. 60).  As the modern revolution held France captive, it was inevitable that the materialist agenda would strike at the heart of French pedagogy.  Rousseau, holding humanist threads, anticipated the need for balance and reacted in a revolutionary way.  “Had Rousseau not been a revolutionary, he would at that period have been ineffective,” and furthermore, Archer claims: “what was needed was a man who could feel more intensely than others the evils which others saw, or were ready to see, and one who could make them believe that these evils could be swept away in favour of a new system by a short, sharp and decisive revolution” (Ibid. 4-5).

               Rousseau’s proposed reforms, and the passion with which he articulated his views set him at odds with most of his contemporaries.  Many of his earlier friendships were destroyed.  In fact Matthew Josephson’s work, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, claims that following Rousseau’s death, a book of memoirs was published which promulgated a caricature “of a jealous, bitter, treacherous Rousseau,” and that it was “a fabrication, presented as a true chronicle for posterity by Diderot, Grimm and Madame d’Epinay” (Josephson 1931, 533).  Nonetheless, Rousseau “made the French public into such a mob, and the contagious influence did not die away in education till it had affected the whole of the civilized Western world” (Archer [ed. of Rousseau] 1964, 5).

               In many respects Rousseau’s theory of education can be seen as a humanist agenda.  As we have noted, he believed that man was genuinely good and that it was society that corrupted him.  He also believed that society could become the vehicle for salvation.  According to Peter Gay, editor of Ernst Cassirer’s The Question of Rousseau, this humanistic tendency of Rousseau “affirms not only that reform is desirable but, more important, that it is possible” (Gay [ed. of Cassirer] 1963, 27).  The idea that mankind has the possibility to improve itself is an essentially humanistic trait.  Rousseau may have gleaned this idea from his own humanistic background.  His mastery of the classics pervades all aspects of his theory.  His own early years were spent reading the classics.  He says, “Tedium drove me at an early age to books. At six I happened to light upon Plutarch; at eight I knew him by heart” (Rousseau 1964, 21).  In regard to pedagogy itself, he again conjures up the classics, praising Plato: “To form an idea of public education, read Plato’s Republic. It is not a system of politics, as imagined by those who judge of books only by their titles; it is the finest treatise on education ever written” (Rousseau 1964, 60).

               Rousseau describes the epiphany that he had on his way to visit Diderot in prison at Vincennes.  “I felt suddenly dazzled by flashes of illumination; crowds of clear ideas came to me in a moment, with a confusing force which left me inexpressibly troubled; my brain seemed dazed, like that of a drunken man” (Rousseau 1964, 23).  The revelation seemed simple enough: “I should have exposed the abuses of our institutions! With what ease I should have shown that man is naturally good and only becomes bad through our institutions” (Ibid.).  He suddenly recalled the Renaissance idea of human dignity.  Goodness lies at the heart of humanity and it is precisely that goodness that needs to be teased out by a properly administered education. 

Also in the tradition of the Renaissance humanists, and perhaps of the ancients that provided the model, he claims that education should proceed from a personal relationship between a teacher and his students.  In this situation the teacher becomes a combination of a mentor and educational guide.  In order to maintain such a relationship three things are required: time, undivided attention, and parental involvement.  Rousseau believed that the tutor-pupil relationship should endure “from infancy to manhood” (Rousseau 1964, 24).  In a 1740 letter to M. D’Eybens he expresses one of his fears: “What troubles me most is the fear that the number of pupils may spoil my work….I should not be obliged to divide my attention between so many” (Ibid. 25).  The key for Rousseau was “close co-operation between the child’s father and the teacher in order to achieve effective educational results” (Sahakian and Sahakian 1972, 49).  This is part of his balanced approach to education.  The role of the parent was important in that it served to reinforce the lessons of the teacher.  The Sahakians also make a valid point regarding the mutual nature of this parent/teacher relationship in stating that “education left [solely] to parents is subject to parental ignorance and prejudice” (43). 

Human reason is an area of concern for Rousseau as well.  He responds to the cult of reason that had permeated his culture and began to apply limitations upon its utility.  He first makes a distinction between children and adults.  Amidst the jubilation for reason he came to “realize that the earliest and most important education is precisely that which is universally neglected; it is to put a child in a position to be educated” (Rousseau 1964, 27).   Rousseau pointed out an important fact that has been corroborated by modern research.  He claimed that approaching children as small versions of adults with adult capacities is to neglect the core meaning of education: “A general mistake amongst parents who pride themselves on being intellectual is to imagine that children are rational beings from their birth and to talk to them as if they were grown up, even before they can talk.” (Ibid.).  He continues in his discussion of reason:

Reason is regarded as an instrument to instruct them….Reason is of all the human powers the latest and the most difficult to train.  In speaking to them so early in a language which they do not understand, we accustom them to be satisfied with words, to pay others in the same coin, to cavil at everything which is said to them, to think themselves as wise as their masters, and to become argumentative and captious. (Ibid. 28-29)


Rousseau’s romantic sentiments are expressed in this dialog as he begins to look at nature as an epistemological source.  Without the proper foundation, elucidated by nature itself, rational knowledge becomes empty, transparent, and vain.  His fictitious character Julie, in his 1761 work Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, argues, “Nature… means children to be children before they become men. If we deviate from this order, we produce a forced fruit, without taste, maturity, or power of lasting; we make young philosophers and old children” (Ibid. 28). 

               Rousseau’s comments on the superficiality of reason without substance might be seen as a reaction to L'âge de raison. He sensed a metaphysical crisis on the horizon and sought to correct it by giving young students the proper foundation so that they could not only embrace reason when they were ready, but embrace it from a position of poise and thus acquire a sense of reason that is authentic and in line with nature.  At a time when the epistemological dispute burned between empiricism (a posteriori) and rationalism (a priori), Rousseau was adding a third ingredient that had been lost since the Renaissance – the power of intuition.  Natural inclinations are not to be repressed; they are to be nurtured.  In fact, as the Renaissance theorists had proclaimed, the cosmos are harmonious and man must be sure to fit into the harmony, e.g. a single musical instrument taking its place in a symphony orchestra.  He said: “Everything tends to the common good in the general scheme. Every man has his special place in the ideal order of the universe; it is a question of finding out his place, not of changing the universe” (Ibid. 29).  To further discuss the proper role of education as a means of extracting and developing a particular vocation, he draws an analogy to Plato and to modern science:  “Did not your master Plato maintain that all human knowledge and all philosophy could not extract from a human soul anything which nature had not placed in it, just as all the operations of chemistry can never obtain from an alloy more gold than it contains?” (Ibid. 32)

               The reference to Plato reflects his thoughts recorded in the Republic and might be misconstrued to be justification for a class society based on innate intelligence and perhaps even a disproportionate distribution of goods and services to the population.  At first glance this seems to fit in with the bourgeois project that Rousseau’s contemporaries are promoting; however, Rousseau’s use of these Platonic terms seems to be intended to discover human dignity in all human activity.  In the conclusion to Julie, he claims that “Nature is justified and everything serves to convince me that the faults of which we accuse her are not hers but our own” (Ibid. 53).  The evil associated with inequality then is a matter of social perception.  His most significant educational work, Émile, begins with the following passage:

Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Creator; everything degenerates in the hands of man.  He compels one soil to nourish the products of another and one tree to bear the fruits of another; he mingles and confounds elements, climates, and seasons; he mutilates his horses, dogs, and slaves; he defaces everything, he reverses everything; he delights in deformity and in monsters.  He is not content with anything as Nature made it, not even his fellow-man. Even his offspring must be trained up for him like a horse in his stable, and must grow after his fancy like a tree in his garden. (Rousseau 1964, 55).


If a particular role in life is devalued or considered unworthy, it is thusly appropriated by man himself and never is ordained to a lowly position by nature.  His view is holistic and reminiscent of a twentieth century ecological concept, that which Fritjof Capra calls a systems view.

The value of man in a civilized state is weighed in terms of usefulness.  The dignity of man is found in his contribution to his society.  No matter how small the part, each person plays one.  It would be better for one to be a good street sweeper than a bad lawyer.

The natural man has a value in his own right; he is a numerical unit, an absolute integer, and has no relation but to himself and to his fellow-man. Civilized man is only a relative unit, the numerator of a fraction, that depends on its denominator, and whose value consists in its relation to the integral body of society. (Rousseau 1964, 59)


The sentiment is perhaps better expressed as the antecedent to a warning which seems to be directed at his contemporaries: “a man should be useful to those among whom he lives” (Ibid.).  Since it is impossible for man to live in a natural state, it becomes important for him to be both dignified in his nature and to contribute, in a Ciceronian sense, to the overall good of his society.  The warning follows several lines later: “Always distrust those cosmopolitans who preach obligations to mankind and neglect to practice them towards their neighbours.  Such a philosopher loves the Tartars as an excuse for not loving his own people” (Ibid.).  This might be seen as a direct attack on his “philosopher” contemporary Voltaire who spoke positively about the Turks and Tartars often in his writings and letters.[37] At another point, in a letter to the Abbé Conti, Voltaire exclaims:

These people are not as unpolished as we represent them. ‘Tis true their magnificence is of a very different taste from ours, and perhaps of a better. I am almost of opinion they have the right notion of life. (Voltaire in Jacob 2001, 155)


This must have been enough to drive the classically educated Rousseau into rage – to assert that the culture and lifestyle of the Arabs had surpassed that of European society. Voltaire sings a similar praise in a letter to Alexander Pope: “I am so much pleased with them, I really believe I should learn to read Arabic if I was to stay here a few months” (Voltaire in Jacob 2001, 148). For Rousseau, part of living the good life was contributing to your own community.  This is significant because it shows Rousseau’s attempt to discredit the work of his fellow philosophes signaling an ideological break from the Zeitgeist of his day. 

Rousseau and Metaphysics

               Another key factor to consider in an analysis of Rousseau as a humanist reformer who is seeking balance during a period of metaphysical crisis is his view on religion.  His contemporaries sought to completely crush the religious spirit and most of the renowned intellectuals of his time and place were crossing the fine line between a stripped down theology and atheism.  Rousseau tried to maintain a middle position that seemed to satisfy the extremes.  Like his peers, Rousseau sees a problem with the Catholic domination of education in France.  In his Treatise of the Government of Poland, he clarifies his position: “I would not tolerate the usual course of study directed by priests and by foreigners,” and to this he adds a warning: “Always be careful not to make teaching a trade” (Rousseau 1964, 65). This is surely a warning against trends toward standardization and scientized methodologies. 

Rousseau may seem harsh in his characterization of Roman Catholic education but in many ways he is reiterating the humanist ideal that denounced scholasticism as being overly vocational and methodical.  Also like the humanists, he is not attempting to completely remove metaphysics from the intellectual milieu.  He acknowledged that religion was important; he also acknowledged that there was a problem in the way it was professed in his day.  The problem existed at two levels.  The first level is ideological and lies in accord with the ideas of his contemporaries; preserving a catechetical pedagogy seemed incongruous to their political agenda. Therefore, his educational tracts needed to be somewhat consistent with the philosophy laid out in his political works which hinge on a liberal notion of nationalism.  Catholic education was seen to muffle that.  The second reason is epistemological.  Rousseau felt that teaching abstract ideas, such as God and eternity, to minds that are incapable of understanding is a bigger detriment than never mentioning the concepts at all.  He said in Émile: “It were better to have no idea of God than to entertain mean, fantastic, injurious and unworthy ideas; it is a smaller evil to be ignorant of Him than to insult Him” (Rousseau 1964, 203). 

In regard to children learning prayers and the catechism, Julie says: “As regards prayers, every night and morning, I say mine in my children’s room…they learn them without any compulsion; as for the catechism, they never heard of it” (Rousseau 1964, 51). When prodded as to what she expected the result of this to be she replied “I wish my children someday to be Christians” (Ibid. 52).  To this the narrator of the story exclaims emphatically, “Ah!... you do not wish that their belief should consist merely of words; you wish them not only to know their religion but to believe it; and you hold rightly that a man cannot believe what he does not understand” (Ibid.).  It seems that we are naturally inclined to develop a religious consciousness.  In the conclusion to Julie Rousseau says: “Thus, given up to the inclinations of their own hearts without disguise or alteration, our children are not cast in an internal or artificial mould, but preserve the exact form of their original disposition” (Ibid. 53).

               In retrospect the aged Rousseau “was convinced that he had been born into a family noteworthy for its ‘piety and morals’ and that a ‘sound’ and ‘reasonable’ education had merely served to develop the ethical and religious principles of his early environment” (Grimsley, 1968,1).  The renowned Rousseau scholar Ronald Grimsley doubts the veracity of this belief, but the significance is no less important.  Whether an older Rousseau was romanticizing a disenchanting past or not matters little.  The key factor here is that Rousseau the philosopher believed in three essential threads.  First, Rousseau believes that childhood is a crucial age, during which a sound foundation must be established.  It shows secondly that an education, stimulating a student’s sense of reason, should reinforce the values that were laid during the formative years.  Third, and perhaps less obtrusive, is the notion of religious expression.  In a de-Catholicized[38] Thomistic sense, he is declaring that reason would not conflict with religious thought, but rather reinforce it.

Grimsley raises several important points regarding Rousseau and religion that demonstrate Rousseau’s humanistic tendencies, his revolutionary spirit, and his search for balance. Rousseau in many ways agreed with the intellectuals of his day but he determined early on in his career that they were heading too far down a road that would prove to be fatal to the human condition.  Much of his writing focused on the fate of humanity.  He felt that many of the philosophers that he was familiar with were superficial, and concerned with personal vanities.  He believed that there was a fundamental flaw in modern thought, “which had mistaken man’s intellectual side for his whole being, thus developing reason to the exclusion of morality” (Grimsley 1968, x).  In this sense, man had become a slave to reason as opposed to his passion.  Rousseau was not implying however that reason was bad but simply that it had a proper place in the ordered human person.  According to Grimsley, he agreed on religion with Voltaire: “Nobody ought to acquiesce passively in another’s ideas, however excellent or convincing these might seem to be” (Ibid. xi).  In Platonic – and perhaps even Kantian – terms, Rousseau sought to educate autonomous moral agents; these should employ a balance of reason, experience, intuition, and natural instinct. 

The Pedagogy of Rousseau

As described, Rousseau’s relationship with his contemporaries had degenerated by the time his philosophy developed into the pedagogy that we see in Julie (1761) and Émile (1762). By then he had a less than honorable reputation with the vast majority of his contemporaries.  Perhaps his thinking strayed too far from the standard line of thought which focused on reason.  To Voltaire he was a “monster of vanity and vileness;” David Hume once admired Rousseau but then accused him of being an “egotistical monster;” even Diderot, often likened to him,  charged that he was “deceitful, cruel and hypocritical”  (Qtd. in Postman 1999, 31).   Characterized by these unkind descriptions, one might wonder why anyone would waste their time studying such a beast.  It is equally important to note that some reputable scholars thought highly of him.  One of the chief proponents of the German Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant said that Rousseau's “sensibility of the soul was perfect;” Percy Shelley assumed him to have “sublime genius,” and Friedrich von Schiller considered him to be “Christ-like” (Ibid.). 

Peter Gay discusses this paradox in some detail.  He admits that Rousseau’s influence left an indelible mark “on the most diverse spirits and movements” and that his “disciples contradicted each other as vigorously as his opponents did” (Gay 1964, 4-5).  While the politics expressed in his Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract have drawn the most criticism, other aspects of his theories have suffered similar consequence.  His philosophy was seen by some as rationalistic and by others irrationalist; his theology was condemned as being Deist by some, Catholic by some, and Protestant by others; his economics was used to justify communism and at the same time private ownership (Ibid.).  It is my contention that some of this controversy can be attributed to his humanistic approach.  By seeking balance in his ideology, he identifies a middle ground, one that in many ways may be amenable to two opposing camps.  

Only a short discussion of Rousseau’s political theories is necessary to understand the foundation for his pedagogy.  He thought very highly of both patriotism and public education to nurture it, but did not think that his contemporaries were capable of the latter.  He believed that his approach to teaching and learning would usher in an age where a proper public education would be possible.  His major educational tracts, Émile and Julie, certainly opened up discussions in the realm of educational philosophy.  The amount of publicity he received, both good and bad, is evidence of his impact.  In fact his influence stretched far into modern educational philosophy.  “Rousseau gained fame in his lifetime not because of imagination and skill but because he expressed the fears, hopes, and yearnings of a great many of his contemporaries” (Chisick 1981, 203).  The Social Contract expressed the view – one that is essential for the understanding of his pedagogy – that man could never be more valuable as an individual than the worth of the society as a whole.  In other words, the value of the numerator is always relative to its denominator.  In this situation he envisioned a society in which citizens were dependent upon one another, where each man had a unique purpose. 

A second key factor can be discerned in his political writing.  He had incredible respect for the early church and recognized a true brotherhood of man in its beginnings; but as with all other things, divine institutions will atrophy in our hands.   In The Social Contract he laments what he saw as the disintegration of Christian society: “What the pagans had feared had come to pass. The humble Christians had altered their tone, and soon this pretended kingdom of the other world became, under a visible chief, the most violent despotism in the world” (Rousseau 1967, 18).  He may have been harsh but this was surely a reflection of the tremendous animus between the French minds and the Church’s role in French government.  Such sentiments, as we have seen, place him in line intellectually on one level with his fellow intellectuals.

His criticism here, however, was aimed to strike at the heart of human society, not at divine revelation (Rousseau 1964, 55). “Everything is good that comes from the hands of the creator; everything degenerates in the hands of man” (Ibid. 20).  This was a tremendous weight on his shoulders.  For this reason he struggled to keep a natural morality at the front of his philosophy.  The philosophe did not condemn Christianity.  He simply wanted freedom, a Greek sense of freedom that, in Aristotelian terms, could be discovered in a critical analysis of the polis. He felt that universal law was inherent in all cultures and that education could help decipher that law.  The role of a teacher was to awaken the natural goodness in youth to insure the development of a fully developed, civilized society.  This society would be naturally drawn to a universal code of morality.  A properly conducted education should in effect eliminate the need for religious education in the elementary school.  He felt that his system would awaken the innate tendencies toward the goodness that God created in us. 

Some modern scholars are perplexed by his concept of the noble savage that is illuminated in some of his writing and thus find it difficult to tolerate his educational theory; however, in Émile he tried to further elucidate his intentions.  While many interpret his premise of the savage as a call to return to the nomadic life of our primordial ancestors, in light of his educational treatise his theory seems to argue the contrary and in fact seems quite in line with the Renaissance idea of educere – leading one out from. He says:

Remember, in the first place, that when I want to train a natural man, I do not want to make him a savage and to send him back to the woods, but that living in the whirl of social life it is enough that he should not let himself be carried away by the passions and prejudices of men; let him see with his eyes and feel with his heart, let him own no sway but that of reason (Rousseau 1974, 217).


Training the savage, to Rousseau, was taking a step back in order to see the big picture.  Society walls us in and hands over its own set of values, ideas, and directions.  In being led out from these walls, one is able to experience truths for oneself and cast judgments accordingly.  Furthermore, since education should help an individual discern his or her particular purpose in the order of things, and that one must execute this purpose without trying to exact change in the universe, his system was both civic and individualistic, or more specifically for the discussion at hand, both idealistic and materialistic.  A gap was bridged by Rousseau.  Education not only trained students to be good, active citizens but it also excited people toward their natural disposition rather than simply pouring them into the centuries-old mold as is arguably going on in our present educational setting. 

To combat the standard education of his time he wrote Julie and Émile.  According to the Sahakians, Émile expressed the ideas already stated in Julie, but “in a more systematic form,” and that even though Émile’s story represented an ideal situation that was unlikely to occur, “the methods of instruction delineated for Émile would effectively elucidate his philosophy of education” (Sahakian and Sahakian 1974, 79). In these works he presented his Recapitulation Theory of Education.  This expressed his disapproval for the treatment of children as smaller versions of adults.  It formatted four stages of intellectual development.  The first, infancy, was the animal stage, which spanned from birth to age two.  In this stage a child is closest to his nature and should be allowed to act instinctively.  The next stage, childhood, spans from age five to twelve. This is the savage stage where a child developed a self-consciousness that evolves eventually into a personality.  The third stage, which lasted from the age of twelve to fifteen, was labeled preadolescence.  This period, for Rousseau, is a crucial time because it builds a foundation of character that will be built upon for the rest of the student’s life (Dobson 1969, 112).  Adolescence, Rousseau’s fourth stage, stretches from age fifteen to twenty.  During this period, according to the Sahakians, the student “exhibits a soul, that is a conscience, social outlook, sex interests, and the personalization of values of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Ibid. 80).  The last stage spans the remainder of adult life of the student and represents the practical application of his education in life.  For Rousseau, living was learning.  

In the first two stages, infancy and childhood, Rousseau is most concerned with the physical being.  His hope was that children would develop strong, vigorous bodies that would grow accustomed to the natural world. He said: “A feeble body makes a feeble mind” (Rousseau 1974, 21).   More importantly he desired to fine tune the senses.  Locke’s sensationalist epistemology had, by the eighteenth century, superseded Descartes’ concept of innate ideas.  While Rousseau does not completely abandon the idea of innate knowledge, his insistence on this natural development of the senses in the early years demonstrates his adoption of empiricism to some extent.  He will reserve a place for the a priori, in the form of intuition, for later childhood development.  This serves as another example of Rousseau’s attempt to find a middle ground in his pedagogy.  His epistemological approach here represents a system of checks and balances.  Reason and intuition work in conjunction with one another and both are held in check by experience, man’s most basic level of intellectual activity.    

The very beginning of Émile reveals the importance that Rousseau places on early childhood as he compares the young child to a sapling.  He says: “Tender, anxious mother, I appeal to you. You can remove this young tree from the highway and shield it from the crushing force of social conventions. Tend and water it ere it dies.  One day its fruit will reward your care” (Rousseau 1974, 5).  Rousseau adds in a footnote that this early care, infancy, is to be entrusted to the mother: “If the author of nature had meant to assign it to men he would have given them milk to feed the child” (Ibid.).[39]  Book I of Émile also spends a considerable amount of time discussing an infant’s patterns of speech. He warns: “The child who is trying to speak should hear nothing but words he can understand, nor should he say words he cannot articulate,” and later that “children who are forced to speak too soon have no time to learn either to pronounce correctly or to understand what they are made to say” (Rousseau 1974, 39).  

As the infant moves into childhood, the responsibility of his education moves to the shoulders of his father.  Rousseau says that begetting children constitutes only one third of a father’s responsibility. In addition he “owes men to humanity” and “citizens to the state” (Rousseau 1974, 17). These debts are paid through the education of his children. If he cannot educate his children himself, he must see that a suitable tutor – whom Rousseau calls a “mercenary man” – takes his place.  According to Rousseau, a man “has no right to be a father if he cannot fulfill a father’s duties” (Ibid.).[40]  One of the essential qualities that must be mastered by the young child is understanding his place in his society, and much of Rousseau’s prescription for this level of learning focuses on this.  He said: “The wise man can keep his own place; but the child who does not know what his place is, is unable to keep it” (Rousseau 1974, 48).  A significant part of this lesson is the realization that man is one of many.  It is dangerous for him to see himself as master of slaves; it is equally so for him to see himself as slave to a master. 

Rousseau takes the opportunity to criticize Locke’s “chief maxim” which was “at the height of fashion” at the time (Rousseau 1974, 53).  Locke says to “reason with children” but Rousseau responds: “I hardly think it is justified by its results; those children who have been constantly reasoned with strike me as exceedingly silly” (Ibid.).  His basic argument is that reason is the desired outcome of an education and as such it cannot logically be present in childhood.  He said that when you try to teach a child by using reason, “you start at the wrong end, you make the end the means” (Ibid.).  In the end, according to Rousseau, we will have produced “fruit which will be rotten before it is ripe” (Ibid. 54).   Yet, despite the child’s lack of reasoning ability, it must be recognized that “the most dangerous period in human life lies between birth and the age of twelve” (Ibid. 57).  Perhaps this idea springs from his most fundamental belief regarding human goodness: “there is no original sin in the human heart; the how and why of the entrance of every vice can be traced” (Ibid. 56).

The education that he is outlining for the first twelve years is known as negative education.  It is concerned more with preserving goodness than with teaching virtue.  In addition the teacher must use this time to discover the “child’s individual bent” and help keep that undisturbed as well (Ibid. 58).  Understanding individuality is not only important to the child, it is essential to the teacher as well. He must be aware of the constitution of the student before he can move to the next level.  “The wise physician does not hastily give prescriptions at first sight, but he studies the constitution of the sick man before he prescribes anything” (Ibid. 58).  In order for the teacher to gain a clear and accurate picture of the individual makeup of his student, it is imperative that his approach be negative.  Otherwise the student will gain a false sense of identity and perhaps exhibit an outward personality that is not a pure reflection of himself.  According to Rousseau, the only rule “which is suited for a child – the most important lesson for every time of life – is this: ‘Never hurt anybody’” (Ibid. 69).[41]

The majority of Rousseau’s pedagogy is purely idealistic.  It describes perfect conditions, expected outcomes, and abstract philosophies.  Bits and pieces of practical educational methods, however, can be gleaned in Émile.  Rousseau commented on several aspects of the standard elementary education of his day.  He said: “I reckon the study of languages among the useless lumber of [elementary] education” (Ibid. 73).  He continues: “It is still a more ridiculous error to set them to study history, which is considered to be within their grasp because it is merely a collection of facts” (Ibid. 74).  Recalling mere facts is not learning for Rousseau and the child’s mind is not ready to understand historical facts in their proper context.  He goes a step further and removes books from a child’s education claiming that “reading is the curse of childhood” (Ibid. 80). Rousseau thought that the student’s natural curiosity will cause him to learn to read everyday things like notes, invitations, and signs.  He said: “I am pretty sure Émile will learn to read and write before he is ten” (Ibid. 81).  

Much of Rousseau’s prescription for childhood education is hands on.  A tactful teacher must arrange, or perhaps manipulate, the environment in a way that is conducive to the learning process.  As the student encounters new things, the teacher must ignite the child’s curiosity and use each experience as an opportunity to instill an important lesson. This holds true for geometry as well.  When the subject is taught in the traditional manner – a teacher dictating proofs and theorems – “geometry is beyond the child’s reach” because it demands higher level thinking (Ibid 109).  Drawing pictures and shapes should be the gateway into discovering geometric concepts.  “Draw accurate figures, combine them together, put them one upon another, examine their relations and you will discover the whole of elementary geometry in passing from one observation to another, without a word of definitions, problems, or any other form of demonstration but super-position” (Ibid. 110). 

Book III of Émile is dedicated to preadolescence.  During this middle school age the student reaches a rational plane of thought. It is in this third stage that he begins to reason.  Yet, Rousseau is still careful about what he teaches.  Subject matter is still student-guided at this point; Émile chooses his lessons based on his own curiosity.  The method however becomes more positive than negative.  Science can be introduced practically.  Despite his distaste for textbooks, he encouraged teachers to rely on works like Robinson Crusoe for their glorification of resourcefulness and enterprise.  “Let him think he is Robinson himself” (Rousseau 1964, 163).   This pragmatic introduction to the physical sciences establishes a transition into the industrial arts.  For Rousseau, working with one’s own hands was a worthy vocation.  It was the point at which art and science coalesce, the apex of intellect, where human hands create what the mind had fathomed.  This stage, if properly executed, should help alleviate the worst feature of society, "forced precocity" (Brumbaugh 1963, 78). This sentiment expresses several aspects of his pedagogy: self-reliance, the dignity of work, and the Platonic aspect of vocation. In addition to practical knowledge, Rousseau takes care to begin cultivating his student’s moral and aesthetic faculties.

Science, like geometry, must be discovered rather than taught.  He said: “Let him know nothing because you have told him, but because he has learnt it for himself” and continues to warn that, “if ever you substitute authority for reason he will cease to reason; he will be a mere plaything of other people’s thoughts” (Rousseau 1974, 131).  In many ways this type of thinking is directly in line with his contemporaries, as discussed in Stout’s The Flight from Authority, yet Rousseau is not attempting to shift authority (from superstition to science).  He believed that authority lies within the human person.  “The splendour of nature lives in man’s heart; to be seen, it must be felt” (Ibid.).  The study of science must be approached loosely: “It is not your business to teach him the various sciences, but to give him a taste for them and methods of learning them when this taste is more mature” (Ibid. 135).  Among the methods that he describes as common to the sciences is deductive reasoning.  Setting up basic experiments and noting observations is another.  He also stressed the importance of keeping these experiments simple.  Scientific instruments should be kept to a minimum because the student “is distracted by their appearance” and furthermore that experiments should be “connected by some chain of reasoning” because “purely theoretical science is hardly suitable for children” (Ibid. 139-140).

Rousseau was very concerned with instilling a sense of cooperation among men in his student.  To aid this process he leans on the industrial arts, “which call for the cooperation of many hands” (Rousseau 1974, 148). These arts “make man useful to one another” (Ibid.).  Although Rousseau was called egotistical by his peers, he put much care into keeping his fictitious[42] students levelheaded.  His hope was that as the pupil entered the stage of learning which passed from age fifteen to twenty, his previous exposure to manual arts would curb the tendency toward intellectual snobbery.  Émile makes clear that usefulness should be man's top motivation and not the pretentiousness and allure of scholastic notoriety and false dignity.  True dignity lay in the hands of the man that engages in work complementary to his fellow citizens.  "The essential point is that a man should be made useful to those among whom he lives" (Rousseau 1964, 59).

Rousseau felt that some artists produced works “that are valued directly according to their uselessness” while artisans are looked down upon (Ibid. 149).  He claimed: “The rich think so much of these things not because they are useful, but because they are beyond the reach of the poor” and he asked “What will become of your pupils if you let them acquire this foolish prejudice? (Ibid.).   Before he attempts to address such an issue with his student, Rousseau allows Émile to be exposed to various arts beginning with agriculture which he calls “the earliest and most honourable” and continuing to metal work and then carpentry (Ibid. 151).  He demands that Émile learn a trade before he is able to continue with his education.  The trade must be an “honest” one that “does not develop detestable qualities in the mind, qualities incompatible with humanity” (Ibid. 160).  His young student chose carpentry and Rousseau was pleased with this decision because it is “clean and useful… [and] calls for skill and industry” (Ibid. 163).   

While this approval of seemingly vocational education seems to be in conflict with the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, several issues must be considered. Most importantly, Rousseau is writing during a cultural, intellectual, and political revolution that was quite different than the crisis of the fifteenth century.  It may be helpful to investigate these issues by analyzing the differences and similarities in conjunction with one another.  Both Renaissance humanists and Rousseau believed that man had dignity and with that came a responsibility to be a useful, contributing member of society.  Both viewed the education of man holistically and each sought balance.  The humanists, although they recognized the importance of egalitarian education, would not have condoned the practice of instilling skills that would not, in the long-run, be useful to the student.  This is evident in Leonardo Bruni’s decision to dissuade his female students from wasting their time studying rhetoric.  It seems fair to conclude that he would have made the same distinction in regard to the industrial arts and the sons of noblemen.  These are skills that women and noblemen, respectfully, would never use because Renaissance society, although taking the first steps toward modernity, was still caught within a medieval, class-oriented paradigm. Rousseau did not see the same barriers[43] because France of the eighteenth century was engaged in a project designed to further weaken the old paradigm.  Rousseau discusses this issue in Émile:

Why have kings no pity on their people? Because they never expect to be ordinary men. Why are the rich so hard on the poor? Because they have no fear of becoming poor.  Why do the nobles look down upon the people?  Because a nobleman will never be on of the lower classes…. So do not train your pupil to look down from the height of his glory upon the sufferings of the unfortunate, the labours of the wretched, and do not hope to teach him to pity them while he considers them as far removed from himself…. Teach him to put no trust in birth, health, or riches; show him all the changes of fortune (Rousseau 1974, 185).


In light of the progress of thought and modernization that occurred between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries (as described in part one of this chapter), it seems plausible to draw parallels between Rousseau’s humanism and that of his predecessors. 

At the age of fifteen, Rousseau’s pedagogy takes on a new look and begins to resemble Renaissance humanism a bit more.  By this age, Rousseau felt that his student was ready to progress to the next level of learning.  He said of the student: “His body is healthy, his limbs are supple, his mind is accurate and unprejudiced, his heart is free and untroubled by passion” (Ibid. 171).  In a sense the student has learned that he is an inseparable piece of a whole that has an important role to play.  It is a brotherhood of humanity, and is endowed with various responsibilities by the creator.  It becomes the next phase of education that will break the student out of his shell in order to discover what his actual, and appropriate, role is.  Adolescence is where reason comes to fruition through the exploration of the humanities – history, philosophy, art and religion, as is applicable to one's time and place.  Students should learn how to self-analyze in a Socratic sense; it is a period of self-individuation as Carl Jung would later call it or self-actualization, as described by Maslow.  One of the first lessons for an adolescent, and one that makes self discovery possible, is learning to dig beneath the mask that humanity wears.  “The man of the world,” Rousseau explains, “almost always wears a mask.  He is scarcely ever himself and is almost a stranger to himself” (Ibid. 191).  The humanities, for Rousseau, can help by bringing students face to face with core human values.

The Role of the Humanities in Education

Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to reiterate an earlier quote: “All teachers, whatever their subject, carry great responsibility; as Jean Jacques Rousseau made clear, the greatest responsibility is borne by those who teach religion or history” (Dobson 1969, 121).  This is the call to the humanists.  At the primary level students are incapable, according to Rousseau, of fully comprehending history because they have not yet attained the level of consciousness required to formulate cause and effect relationships between historical facts.  The result would be an indefinable conglomerate of memorized particles of a whole.  History must be understood in its context.  Events must be woven into the fabric of life.  As a red piece of thread is seemingly insignificant to the most beautiful oriental tapestry so is an historical fact.  It is not until the whole tapestry is viewed that the perceiver can appreciate uninhibitedly the splendor of the creation.

For younger children, perhaps at the middle school level, Rousseau suggests the use of stories, which contain morals or lessons.  Stories can sometimes reinforce learned experiences if chosen carefully by the teacher.  He is careful to point out, however, that this should not be done earlier as a means of getting children to understand morality: “How can we be so blind as to think fables as moral training, without reflecting that the moral, while amusing, only deceives them, and that, charmed by the fiction, they miss the underlying truth” (Rousseau 1964, 115)? Even if they could understand the fables, “the case would still be worse; for the moral is so complicated and so far above their capacities that it would rather incline them to vice than to virtue” (Ibid.).  Ultimately his complaint about relying solely on a child’s reading of fables is related to that of the young student reading history: “the words of fables are no more fables than the words of history books are history” (Ibid.).

Presenting students with too much information at too early an age gives them the illusion that they are capable of understanding the eider perspective and are able to cast judgment.  The students must be presented with historical context only when they have developed their sense of reason; at this point they might be left alone to cast judgment using their newly acquired reasoning skills.  Secondary school is the only time that this should be attempted.  According to the Sahakians’ interpretation of Rousseau, while “negative education dominates the second stage” and “Nature study and science constitute the main program in the third,” the fourth must consist of “the study of history and religion (at eighteen years of age), and social relationships learned from social contacts, great literature, and the theater” (Sahakian and Sahakian 1974, 80). It appears that, for Rousseau, the humanities constitute the highest form of learning and should be reserved, by standards of the modern institution, until the first two years of higher education.

By later adolescence, however, students are ready to tackle humanistic studies.  History, like fables must not be taught by imposing impractical memorization.  Like morals in a fable, historical facts out of context are more damaging than useful.  “The worst historians for a youth” Rousseau says “are those who give their own opinions.  Facts! Facts! And let him decide for himself; this is how he will learn to know mankind” (Rousseau 1974, 201).  He is weary of modern historians because they are “wholly taken up with effect, [and] think of nothing but highly coloured portraits, which often represent nothing” (Ibid.). Rousseau uses Thucydides[44] as an example of the ideal historian because he evaluates the Greek as having a total lack of bias in his presentation (Ibid.).  Modern historians do not do this according to Rousseau, and for a reason, he points to what he calls a “system.”  The word is actually strikingly similar to the word paradigm, which we have been using in this study.  He says: “The rage for systems has got possession of all alike, no one seeks to see things as they are, but only as they agree with his system” (Ibid. 202).   For Rousseau, the “study of the human heart” in historical inquiry is preferable and he recommends that this be done by studying “the character of the individual man” in history as opposed to various wars and other actions attributed to nations or masses (Ibid.).

The proper study of history in Rousseau’s pedagogy is actually a more effective means of acquiring philosophical knowledge than the study of philosophy proper.  The problem is again attributed to the question of paradigm.  A true humanist should make every effort to transcend the paradigm, or system, within which he is writing.  He says that “it is not philosophers who know most about men; they only view them through the preconceived ideas of philosophy, and I know no one so prejudiced as philosophers” (Ibid. 205).  He describes what is necessary for the genuine study of humanity: “A great wish to know men, great impartiality of judgment, a heart sufficiently sensitive to understand every human passion, and calm enough to be free from passion” (Ibid. 206).   This proposition is an important one and it demonstrates in an indirect way the disdain he held for his peer philosophes.  Without denouncing the ideas of the liberal movement, he warns that passion cannot be the motivating force.  “We are led astray by those passions which we share; we are disgusted by those that militate against our own interests; and with a want of logic due to these very passions, we blame in others what we feign would imitate” (Ibid.). He begs that reformers transcend their own paradigms in order to see the whole picture more clearly. This is undoubtedly the task of the humanists. 

Rousseau was also counter-cultural in that he included religion in his curriculum while most of his companions shunned it completely.  Teaching religion, however, before it is time is a danger for many reasons.  Some of our most common teaching strategies are the most perilous to Rousseau.  Many God-fearing adults are still crippled because of the deficient methods of religious instruction that they experienced as children.  John 4:24 says that God is spirit and so he must be worshipped in spirit.  In teaching religion before a student is ready we create an anthropomorphism that, once established in the mind, may never be rectified.  Perhaps it would have been more efficacious to use one of the more traditional hagiographies to relay the message of God.  How many adults today cannot get over the idea that God is a Santa Claus-like man in the sky who watches what we do?  Rousseau wanted to avoid this impediment to the learning process.

Some modern readers may be put off by his insistence against teaching religion to children and perhaps this may be seen as being spawned from anti-Christian sentiments.  But it must be considered in the proper context.  As with the study of the humanities in general, religion has a place and time in the curriculum.  Of the Christian educators of his day, he says “If I had to depict the most heart-breaking stupidity, I would paint a pedant teaching children the catechism” (Rousseau 1974, 220).  It is imperative that religion in the theological sense be avoided until reason has emerged and the adequate level of development would not occur until at least the age of eighteen.  He says that the “only difference” between the Catholic educators of his day and him is that they “profess that children of seven years old are able to do this [perceive the Godhead]” (Ibid. 221).  He believed that “it would be better to have no idea at all of the Divinity than to have mean, grotesque, harmful and unworthy ideas” (Ibid.).  For Rousseau, “the religious outlook of the person would mean not what group or sect he professed to belong to, but his whole outlook on mankind and the criteria by which the young man would seek to regulate and judge his own actions” (Dobson 1969, 60).  He believed, as did many idealists, especially the Transcendentalists, that God revealed himself through nature. By this late adolescent stage in development a pupil has already come to know God through empirical means.  He may require the assistance now of an informed teacher and guide to make the revelation known and the humanities might offer sufficient stimulus.

Rousseau laid out his religious views in “The Creed of a Savoyard Priest,” a chapter in Émile, wherein an Italian priest divulges his theology.  This is quite revealing in regard to Rousseau’s own religious view.  In Rousseau’s autobiography, Confessions, one finds that Rousseau, a born Calvinist, moved to a Catholic hostel and was for a while converted to Catholicism.  In Émile a boy undergoes the same conversion and he became disillusioned and angry with what he discovered.  Rousseau said of the boy: “Tears of anger flowed from his eyes, he was wild with rage; he prayed to heaven and to man, and his prayers were unheard; he spoke to every one and no one listened” (Rousseau 1974, 223).  Ironically, he says that the boy “would have been ruined had not a worthy priest visited the hostel” (Ibid.).  The priest is described as being witty and well-read and it was said that he fell out of favor with his bishop “by some youthful fault” and was thus moving across the Alps to find a new position (Ibid. 224).  In the prelude to “The Creed” Rousseau puts forth one his most important foundational tenets, one that speaks to a modern world forcefully, especially to his eighteenth century salon peers.  The Italian priest, later called a “worthy master” (Ibid. 226), helps the character to realize that “the neglect of all religion soon leads to the neglect of a man’s duties” (Ibid. 225). This is evidence of Rousseau’s belief that religion is both important and necessary.  The disillusioned “young libertine” in the story had been heading down the path that was “leading him into the conduct of a rascal and the morals of an atheist” (Ibid.).      

The priest describes the danger of dogmatic[45] religious training: “My perplexity was increased by the fact that I had been brought up in a church which decides everything and permits no doubts, so that having rejected one article of faith I was forced to reject the rest; as I could not accept absurd decisions, I was deprived of those which were not absurd” (Rousseau 1974, 230).  While rigid interpretation of religious sentiment is dangerous, the priest makes it clear that philosophy – perhaps as practiced by Rousseau’s contemporaries – is not a harmless alternative.  He says:

When I was told to believe everything, I could believe nothing… I consulted the philosophers, I searched their books and examined their various theories; I found them all alike, proud, assertive dogmatic, professing, even in their so-called scepticism [sic.], to know everything, proving nothing, scoffing at each other…. Braggarts in attack, they are weaklings in defence [sic.]. Weigh their arguments, they are all destructive; count their voices, every one speaks for himself; they are only agreed in arguing with each other. I could find no way out of my uncertainty by listening to them. (Ibid.) 


Also responding to his contemporaries, he accuses them of the fallacy of ignorance: “Every system has its insoluble problems, for the finite mind of man is too small to deal with them; these difficulties are therefore no final arguments, against any system” (Ibid. 231).  He again is warning about the danger of paradigms.  Rousseau, also realizing the short-comings of reason – which his opposition is unwilling to concede – chooses intuition as his means of clearer understanding: “So I chose another guide and said, ‘Let me follow the Inner Light; it will not lead me so far astray as others have done, or if it does it will be my own fault, and I shall not go so far wrong if I follow my own illusions as if I trusted to their deceits’” (Ibid.).

This places a tremendous burden on the shoulders of the humanist teacher.  It is important for the teacher to provide the opportunity to experience the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical without showing a bias and without leaning in a particular direction.  The priest says: “The disputes of the idealists and the realists have no meaning for me; their distinctions between the appearance and the reality of bodies are wholly fanciful” (Ibid. 232).  These opportunities need not be complex for Rousseau: “the inner voice makes this [external, first] cause so apparent to me that I cannot watch the course of the sun without imagining a force which drives it, and when the earth revolves I think I see the hand that sets it in motion” (Ibid. 235).  He continues in this line of reasoning and concludes the natural inclination to believe in a cause is to believe in a will and the confirmation of a will points to a natural order initiated by an intelligence.  When the teacher loses sight of this and leans to either side of the pedagogical equation, prejudices arise:

Let us compare the special ends, the means, the ordered relations of every kind, then let us listen to the inner voice of feeling, what healthy mind can reject its evidence? Unless the eyes are blinded by prejudices, can they fail to see that the visible order of the universe proclaims a supreme intelligence? (Ibid. 237)


This perhaps steps away from the original Greek humanists who sought to understand the cosmos through reason but some things to Rousseau are not within our intellectual grasp. 

               Rousseau refers to human pride several times in “The Creed” as a hindrance to human understanding.  A shining example of this sentiment is his reaction to the Dutch doctor (1654-1718) who wrote a book entitled The Existence of God Demonstrated by the Wonders of Nature:

I was surprised and almost shocked when I read Neuwentit. How could this man desire to make a book out of the wonders of nature, wonders which show the wisdom of the Author of nature? His book would have been as large as the world itself before he had exhausted his subject, and as soon as we attempt to give details, that greatest wonder of all, the concord and harmony of the whole, escapes us. (Ibid. 238)


It seems that materialism in general may be one of the biggest pieces of evidence that points to hubris.  He says that he “would regard [a pure materialist] as a dishonest sophist, who prefers to say that stones have feeling rather than that men have souls” (Rousseau 1974, 242).  Such an attitude assumes that man is the central object of perception and therefore if something cannot be sensed by human means, it cannot exist.  He compares this to a deaf man who “denies the existence of sounds because he has never heard them” (Ibid.). 

Between Rousseau’s warning about subscribing to a particular “system,” his criticism of widespread adoption of Locke’s epistemology, and his comparison of materialism to a deaf man denying sound, one may conclude that his philosophy is urging a balanced, holistic perspective.  Like the Renaissance humanists, he is trying to step outside of the Zeitgeist and gather tenets from different systems, which he views as the best the world has to offer.  When Rousseau advocated Descartes – itself a contradiction to the spirit of his age – he did not recommend a wholesale commitment.  He advises that one system inform the other:

With the help of dice Descartes made heaven and earth; but he could not set his dice in motion, nor start the action of his centrifugal force without the help of rotation.  Newton discovered the law of gravitation; but gravitation alone would soon reduce the universe to a motionless mass; he was compelled to add a projectile force to account for the elliptical course of the celestial bodies; let Newton show us the hand that launched the planets in the tangent of their orbits. (Rousseau 1974, 235)


Rousseau thus attempts to tie together Cartesian reasoning with Newtonian physics using Aristotelian logic.

Another concept that is difficult for the unseasoned mind to grasp is the dichotomy of man, but it is the Renaissance concept of balance in the cosmos that helps Rousseau to understand and finally believe in the immortality of the soul as a separate entity from the body[46].    Being a slave to his senses and of his passions, man can sometimes separate himself from God knowingly.  In “The Creed” he almost reiterates Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7:19[47].  “I feel myself at once a slave and a free man; I perceive what is right; I love what is right and I do what is wrong” (Rousseau 1974, 241).  This kind of contradiction in thought and action contradicts an ordered universe.  Taking this a step further, he notes that the wicked “triumph” in this world while the righteous suffer “oppression” (Ibid. 245).  Thinking this to be “so appalling a discord in the universal harmony” he concludes that “all is not over with life, everything finds its place at death” (Ibid. 245-246).   His sentiments then become Ficinoesque: “Alas! My vices make me only too well aware that man is but half alive during this life; the life of the soul only begins with the death of the body” (Ibid. 246). 

Education takes on an additional responsibility when Rousseau takes the leap into the realm of immortality.  To form good citizens who discern and pursue their particular purpose in the world is part of the task.  But immortality of the soul adds another component. The idea of an ordered universe is part of it: “I only assume that the laws of order are constant and that God is true to himself” (Ibid. 247).  Besides man being in harmony with the universe, he must also be in harmony with humankind: “man finds his happiness in the welfare of his kind, God’s happiness consists in the love of order; for it is through order that he maintains what is, and unites each part with the whole” (Ibid. 248).  In this we see that man has two levels of happiness. One is here on earth while the other is in the eternal world of the soul.  Attention must be paid to both.  “Man’s justice consists in giving to each his due; God’s justice consists in demanding from each of us an account of that which he has given us” (Ibid.).  We then have a responsibility to God and to man and the key to understanding this lies not in the usual avenues: “I do not derive these rules from the principles of the higher philosophy” (Ibid. 249).  Education needs to train something beyond mere reason because “too often does reason deceive us; we have only too good a right to doubt her” (Ibid.). 

Rousseau then is arguing, from a humanistic perspective, that man should strive for happiness on both levels.  In an Aristotelian sense, man can find happiness through his harmony within the polis.  This requires that he live a just life with an emphasis on social justice and a focus on his interactions with fellow man.  The other level, however, might be seen as Platonic in that it is concerned with the welfare of the soul and requires that man maintain harmony with the cosmos and with God.  The secret to blending the two “systems” of thought goes back to Pico and the Renaissance humanists.  Within each individual person lies a special connection to the wisdom of God.  It is the very thing that makes us dignified, gives us the capacity to improve ourselves and is that which separates us from the animals.  Yet it is not reason as Aristotle had theorized, although it works in conjunction with it.  Rousseau said that he finds guidance “in the debts of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface” (Rousseau 1974, 249).  He continues that “conscience never deceives us; she is the true guide of man; it is to the soul what instinct is to the body” (Ibid.).  Later he gives a concise definition of conscience:

“There is therefore at the bottom of our hearts an innate principle of justice and virtue, by which, in spite of our maxims, we judge our own actions or those of others to be good or evil; and it is this principle that I call conscience” (Ibid. 252).

               This level of learning is reserved for early adulthood, after all the necessary faculties have been developed.  The age he prescribes, eighteen to twenty, roughly coincides with students in their first two years of college by modern standards and the curriculum that he advocates might be summed up as a humanities-based core curriculum.  He claims that “it is not enough to be aware that there exists such a guide; we must know her and follow her” (Ibid. 254).  Learning to do this is the trickiest part of the education process.  The question of authority must first be tackled as he determines that morality does not lie not in dogmatic religion, customs, or social constructs but in “natural religion” which can only be found in the individual heart.  The Italian priest gives the following advice: “Return to your own country, go back to the religion of your fathers, and follow it in sincerity of heart, and never forsake it” (Ibid. 275).  But this advice is followed up with a warning against imbalance: “A haughty philosophy leads to atheism just as blind devotion leads to fanaticism.  Avoid these extremes; keep steadfastly to the path of truth, or what seems to you truth, in simplicity of heart, and never let yourself be turned aside by pride or weakness” (Ibid. 277).  This is yet one more attempt to instill balance and to avoid the allure of hubris, but even more difficult is his call to action.  The priest declares that the young man should “dare to confess God to the philosophers; dare to preach humanity to the intolerant,” even if it means standing alone (Ibid.).

               The curriculum that would lead a student to be able to accomplish this begins with the introduction of the student to the things that had been hidden from him through the course of his studies.  Rousseau says that the teacher must “remember that to guide a grown man you must reverse all that you did to guide the child” (Ibid. 283).  It becomes necessary to “speak to him of those dangerous mysteries which you have so carefully concealed from him hitherto” (Ibid.). The process should begin in a traditional liberal arts sense – “by rousing his imagination” (Ibid. 288).  Once his appetite has been whetted, it becomes time for the next step which is exposure to classical literature.  According to Rousseau, “Emile will have more taste for the books of the ancients than for our own, just because they were the first, and therefore the ancients are nearer to nature and their genius is more distinct” (Ibid. 309).   After exposure to the “pure literature” Rousseau would introduce him to the “reservoirs of modern compilers; journals, translations, dictionaries,” and “he shall cast a glance at them and leave them all forever” (Ibid.).  From literature Rousseau would move on to theater and finally poetry which should drive him to “study the languages of the poets, Greek, Latin, and Italian!” (Ibid.).  

The Renaissance Revisited

The main character in Rousseau’s “Creed of a Savoyard Priest” represents the humanism of the Italian Renaissance, especially, as we have seen, its neo-Platonism: “Man is but half alive during this life; the life of the soul only begins with the death of the body” (Rousseau 1974, 246).  This is the very same sentiment that Marsilio Ficino preached to his humanist disciples in fifteenth century Florence; it is the sentiment that spurred an intellectual response from the Dominican friar, Savonarola. Can the soul endure the ordeal of death in which the material is laid to waste and thus separated from its material existence?  Platonists said yes.  Aristotelians said no.  Once again, School of Athens becomes the epitome of humanistic dialog.  The image of Plato and Aristotle locked in eternal dialog in the Raffaele’s Fresco has carried the torch into a new age.  The humanism that endures into the eighteenth century from the fifteenth can be seen in metaphysical, epistemological (perhaps ontological as well), and theological inquiries.  It seeks the balance between the material and immaterial, between the rational and the empirical, and Rousseau has contributed much to the conversation.   

Lifelong learning, another major theme in Rousseau’s writing, is also reminiscent of the elusiveness of wisdom that one finds in Plato. Our French philosophe sees education as a lifelong process: “True education lies less in knowing than in doing. We begin to learn when we begin to live” (Rousseau 1964, 63).  In a sense, his humanism is emerging in such statements.  Like his Renaissance forefathers and their ancient Greek predecessors, real dignity lies in human life itself.  Homer’s epics espoused heroic values that demanded nobility of thought and action.  Rousseau is thinking along these lines and here he seeks balance between the physical and the metaphysical. In Émile he says:

To live is not merely to breathe; it is to act; to make use of…all parts of our being which contribute to our consciousness of life. He has not had most life, who has had most years, but he who has felt life the most. A man may be buried at a hundred years old and have died in his cradle.  (Rousseau 1964, 64)


Perhaps this is an appropriate foreshadowing of what is to become of Rousseau’s romanticism in the next century as it related to Henry David Thoreau’s timeless quote from the introduction to his Walden: “Live deep and suck out all of the marrow of life.”  The question becomes: how does one accomplish this? 

It seems that the answer lies in nature itself.  Nature seeks equilibrium.   Humanists seek the same.

It must consist therefore in lessening the disproportion between our capacities and our desires, in reducing our inclinations and our powers to a perfect equilibrium…. It is thus in nature, which always acts for the best…. It is only in this primitive state that there is equilibrium between desires and capacities and that man is not unhappy. (Rousseau 1964, 90)


Rousseau is invoking Aristotelian ideas, but with a bit of a twist.  He is acknowledging the relationship and role of passion and reason but is not stressing the complete subordination of passion to the faculty of reason as Aristotle does.  He falls more in line with the Renaissance humanists in regard to a balanced equation.  He leans even further toward the Italians in regard to imagination:

As soon as his potentialities are raised to action, Imagination, the most active of them all awakes and outstrips the others.  It is Imagination which extends the horizon of our possibilities, both for good and ill; this is the power which excites and nourishes our desires with the hope of satisfying them. (Rousseau 1964, 90).


Rousseau’s Legacy

In fact, many have found inspiration in his words.  The Pestalozzi Method of the early nineteenth century takes Rousseau’s pedagogy to the next level.  It is well documented that Zurich-born educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and his disciple Friedrick Froebel trace their roots to Rousseau[48].  In fact, he was so caught up in Rousseau’s pedagogy that he named his first born son Jean-Jacques in his honor.[49] Pestalozzi was one of the pioneers in holistic education: teaching the mind, body, and spirit. He also had a sharp focus on social justice especially among the peasants of his day.  In one sense he moved beyond Rousseau by taking education from a tutor for the aristocracy to a classroom for all.  According to Southern Adventist University’s School of Education website, “Pestalozzi's pedagogical doctrines stressed that instructions should proceed from the familiar to the new, incorporate the performance of concrete arts and the experience of actual emotional responses, and be paced to follow the gradual unfolding of the child's development” (Egbert and Green 2000).  This pedagogy reflected and was in fact “modeled after Jean-Jacques Rousseau's plan in Émile” which “focused on such participatory activities as drawing, writing, singing, physical exercise, model making, collecting, map making, and field trips” (Ibid.).   Rousseau’s ideas, as incorporated by Pestalozzi, did not stop in Zurich; they went continued to exist in the “same stream of thought that includes Johann Friedrich Herbart, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and more recently Jean Piaget” (Ibid.).

Rousseau, because he is seen as an enemy of the Catholic Church as a result of his political philosophies which strongly advocated the separation of church and state in revolutionary France, is seldom remembered as an inspiration to the Catholic renewal in post-revolutionary France. However, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he deserves credit for the changes that “the French literature of the nineteenth century owes to him. Rousseau, by causing a reaction against the philosophy of his time, prepared the revival of religious sentiment” (Doumac 2003).  Jean-Baptiste-Henri Dominique Lacordaire, a Domincan friar called “the greatest pulpit orator of the nineteenth century” by the Catholic Encyclopedia, was making arrangements to become a priest in the Diocese of New York when he was invited by the Abbé Lamennais, a key “defender of the church” to stay in France and “fight for the cause of God and freedom” (Scannell 2003).  Lacordaire was a disciple of Rousseau[50] and remained so until his death (Ashley, 1990 part 8).   He also went on to inspire one of the great French romantic writers who was a devout Catholic through his lectures at the Collège Stanislas: François-René de Chateaubriand who became a major defender of Christianity (Ibid.).

Rousseau’s influence traveled far beyond the borders of eighteenth century France.  Whether directly as in the case of William Ellery Channing, or indirectly through the works of writers like Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo (another writer exposed to the Rousseauian lectures of Lacordaire), Rousseau’s ideas made their way into the works of many nineteenth century American writers.  The Unitarian Universalist website claims that Margaret Fuller grew up reading Rousseau[51].  Charles Sumner, in his 1860 lecture “The Barbarism of Slavery,” claims that Rousseau and William Ellery Channing together “vindicated humanity” from slavery[52].   Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Protégé Henry David Thoreau was labeled as “one of Rousseau’s wild men” by American Platonist-Christian philosopher Paul Elmer Moore[53].  All of these references serve to establish an intellectual lineage between late eighteenth century French thought and mid-nineteenth century American thought, a connection that will be elucidated in the next section. 


















Chapter 4- A Case Study in American Transcendentalism


         In many ways the crisis faced by the nineteenth century American romantics who referred to themselves as Transcendentalists was similar to the one that Rousseau faced a century earlier in France.  Both crises could be seen as being metaphysical in nature and the balance depicted in School of Athens had been knocked out of kilter.  The triumph over reason and the long-term effects of the New Science had exaggerated humanist ideals that the Renaissance sought to promote and pushed the world so far away from the idea of metaphysical truth that it seemed religion itself was on a crash course with the human condition.  Both idealistic movements, Rousseau’s and that of the Transcendentalists, responded to challenges stemming from Newtonian science and technological advancement, especially in the form of the Industrial Revolution, and sought to reopen humanistic dialog.  Both were responding to perhaps their most formidable opponent, John Locke.  Both schools of thought rejected extreme empiricism and both sought to bring about a return of the metaphysical.  Lastly, both movements were responding to a crisis that posed a threat to religion and both prescribed a new approach to education.

               At the same time, the crises that these movements addressed exhibit much dissimilarity. The key areas in which these differences might be most noticeable are in American government, religion, and its intellectual legacy.  Rousseau found himself in the middle of a bitter feud between a rising bourgeoisie and an obsolete form of government which retained its absolutist tendencies.  This relationship was further complicated by the government’s intimate relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, a relationship that put the Church in a position which made it equally at odds with the revolution.  Third, Rousseau’s France was an old civilization whose wilderness had been tamed and whose land had already been fully exploited, so the Industrial Revolution would impact France in a different way than it would America. 

The idea of wilderness itself would add a new element to American life.  This idea has been studied by Roderick Nash who claimed that for Europeans wilderness “was instinctively understood as something alien to man – an insecure and uncomfortable environment against which civilization had waged an increasing struggle” (Nash 1982 8). Nash further points out that Rousseau’s “primitivism” in Émile and Julie “generated a generation of artists and writers to adopt the Romantic mode” and furthermore that “the New World with its abundance of pathless forests and savages intrigued the Romantic imagination[54]” (Ibid. 49).  He felt that this wilderness factor greatly contributed to the transformation from Rousseau’s “primitivism” to the Transcendentalists of nineteenth century New England.  One of the most influential literary figures that stands on the threshold between the Romanticism of Europe and that of the New World variety was William Cullen Bryant who Nash calls “one of the first major American writers to turn to the wilderness” and to reveal “full acceptance of the Romantic mood” (Ibid. 75).  But Bryant took the Romantic ideal of nature to the next level because he “grasped the moral and religious significance of wild country,” and he “began with the idea that ‘the groves were God’s first temples’” (Ibid.).  Viewing nature at this level signaled the transition into a Transcendental philosophy that was counter-current.  Nash continues:

The core of Transcendentalism was the belief that a correspondence or parallelism existed between the higher realm of spiritual truth and the lower one of material objects. For this reason natural objects assumed importance because, if rightly seen, they reflected universal spiritual truths (Ibid. 85). 


In this manner, the American Transcendentalists saw a crisis that differed from Europe’s in these respects.  The American government grew out of and was thus fertilized by the soil of the Enlightenment.  In this sense, the crisis that Rousseau found himself engulfed in had reached its maturity.  The American religious experience was different than that of Rousseau’s France in two major ways.  First, the tension between church and state did not exist so the kind of anti-clericalism that came to a head in eighteenth century France did not exist in nineteenth century America.  Second, by the time the New England Transcendentalists were writing, Roman Catholicism had little to no impact on the metaphysical crisis. The third difference adds another dimension to the American crisis.  The idea of the new nation developing into a mature and stable democratic system preoccupied the minds of many intellectuals in the early nineteenth century.

Another factor, and one that newly arriving immigrants – many of whom were Roman Catholics – would contribute to was industrialization.  Industrialized cities, especially in the north began to attract large flocks of European immigrants which helped to polarize the country changing the American social and political life.  A greater supply of cheap labor reduced the need for slave labor in northern states.  Subsequently, the demands that northern manufacturers placed on southern agriculturalists for raw materials increased the need for slavery in the south in order to keep up a sufficient supply.  This issue would serve as fuel for the New England Transcendentalists who would adopt the abolitionist movement as one of their most active causes. 

Yet American industrialization changed more than the politics and social justice issues of the country.  The metaphysical crisis with its emphasis on the material world combined with the pragmatism of the industrial revolution created a national mindset that was hands-on; it was preoccupied with production and practicality, or “things” as Emerson would describe them in his Ode Inscribed to William H. Channing[55]:

'Tis the day of the chattel,

Web to weave, and corn to grind,

Things are in the saddle,

And ride mankind.


Such a collective mentality seemed to have produced noticeable effects in the nation’s priorities.  It seemed to mute out the desire to attain higher truths.  Regarding the intellectual legacy of American culture, the oft quoted line from Alexis de Tocqueville may be aptly applied here:

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own; and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them (Tocqueville 1840 Book 2 chapter 1). 


Tocqueville began his American journey in Newport RI in 1831, seeking to discover how democracy could work in a culture that lacked an attachment between church and state.  His comment about our intellectual legacy in one sense explains why the crisis experienced by the New England Transcendentalists was different than Rousseau’s; the bitter entanglements of philosophical schools of thought never got in the way.  At the same time perhaps, Tocqueville’s comment adds an underlying essence to the American crisis.  Theodore Parker, a Massachusetts abolitionist and social reformer, is ranked by the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society with William Ellery Channing as one of the most influential Unitarian ministers of the nineteenth century[56]. Parker addressed the cultural nature that Tocqueville alluded to: finding a sense of American identity separate from European roots. 

               Young American society was developing a sense of cultural awareness that grappled with several issues: political and ethical, and at the same time, religious and metaphysical.  The American philosophical tradition was not identified with academics and might be seen as the practical application of philosophical concepts (Kurtz 1966, 16). In many ways the early American republic shares developmental characteristics with the early days of the Roman republic.  The Greco-Roman world saw the practical application of Greek philosophy.  The Roman republic absorbed ideas and applied them as circumstances dictated.  American philosophy at the time of Tocqueville’s critique resembled this. In lieu of its participation in the dialog of academic philosophy (philosophy proper), American creative thought may be seen as a response to practical interests.  In this sense, European ideas were “transformed in light of American needs” (Ibid. 15).  The Transcendentalist Charles Ellis sums up the crisis of his day in 1842:

To each race in each age is given a problem. Ours solved one when they got the charter from John; another when they got the habeas corpus act passed; one when they came to America; one at the revolution; so too the world in every epoch.  The one now before it seems to be this: What is the true foundation of governments, and religion, and right? (Ellis 1954, 31).


Amos Bronson Alcott adds a humanistic facet to the dilemma in his 1836 work The Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture: “Encumbered by the gluts of the appetites, sunk in the corporeal sense, men know not the divine life that stirs within them, yet hidden and enchained” (Alcott 1960, 40).  Theodore Parker lays the blame on a specific school of thought when he says that a metaphysical school of philosophy “soon becomes a school in physics, in politics, ethics, religion.  The sensational school [italics mine] has been long enough in existence to assert itself in each of the four great forms of human action” (Parker 1973, 53).

               The following two sections will show the evolution of the crisis of nineteenth century America as described by the New England Transcendentalists.  It will show that an overemphasis on materialist philosophy combined with a full adoption of Locke’s empiricism brought about a crisis that might be described as epistemological and metaphysical in that its approach lacked the balance that the Renaissance humanists sought. Secondly, it will show how this American crisis was similar to the one that Rousseau spoke out against in eighteenth century France, and furthermore elucidate the characteristics that were particular to the American experience and thus served to modify the crisis as it evolved in the New World.  The next section will discuss the Transcendentalists’ methods of correcting this crisis, especially as these approaches relate to nineteenth century American pedagogy.  Clear connections should be discerned between the humanists of the Renaissance and the Transcendentalist pedagogues like A. Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller.







Chapter Four- Part One: Nineteenth Century American Crisis

               The nineteenth century was a unique period in history because it marked a new beginning for Western Civilization.  By the early 1800s the American project seemed complete.  Full independence from the Old World had been won.  A new form of government seemed to be firmly in place and it seemed that many of the wrinkles of the first attempt made by the Continental Congress had been ironed out in the United States Constitution. The eighteenth century could begin to investigate inquiries that had been previously been neglected.    

Seventeenth century colonial America found itself preoccupied with establishing permanent settlements in a vast and largely uninhabited (by European standards) territory. This preoccupation in addition to their desire to purify humanity from its “popish practices” and build the new Zion left them little room for developments in science or philosophy as their brethren in the Old World were pursuing.  The next century brought some changes.  Settlements were significantly more stable and immigration to the new world brought new people with interests that were different than the original New England Puritans. 

During the eighteenth century “intellectual, philosophic, and scientific interests were more directly nourished” (Kurtz 19). Whereas the previous generation of young Americans had been influenced largely by the Northern Renaissance, the eighteenth century Americans were moved by Newton, Locke, and the materialists.  American versions of European materialism and deism appeared in the works of people like Benjamin Franklin and Scottish-born Cadwallader Colden whose scientific interest might be seen as a footing for the American Enlightenment. According to the intellectual historian Paul Kurtz,

The [American] materialists had strong interests in science and they attempted to extend what they considered to be the legitimate aims of science to other areas of the cosmos including man. Thus, they consistently attempted to apply physical and mechanistic explanations to mind and morality. (Kurtz 1966, 21)


In this respect, Rousseau would have felt quite at home with the Age of Reason as it had carried itself across the Atlantic.  Eighteenth century Americans were highly influenced by the French writers, especially “Condillac, Condorcet, Cabanis, Holbach, Volney, La Mettrie, and Voltaire,” although “it was the empiricism and liberalism of the British philosopher John Locke that had the most important and direct influence on American thought – though once again his major impact was practical” (Kurtz 1966, 20).

Kurtz points out further that the American Enlightenment took on three forms: materialism and deism, secularistic and naturalistic morality, and republicanism.  These forms are important to consider in order for us to understand the crisis of the nineteenth century.  Being swept by the current of revolution, the third form will absorb key elements of the first two and thus take precedence, holding the main focus of the late eighteenth century.  It is only when the smoke clears and the nation is able to rise from the disarray that American intellectuals will be able to comprehend the repercussions of this movement. The time for this would be the early nineteenth century.

The first form of American enlightenment took the form of materialism and culminated in deism[57]. Newtonian materialism germinates later in America than it had in Europe: the latter part of the eighteenth century (Kurtz 1966, 21).  However, it travels a path quite similar to the Enlightenment in Europe.  Materialism sought its next target: the metaphysical which would soon be dominated by deistic concepts: “The revealed religion of the early settlers was gradually supplanted by a religion of reason” (Ibid. 20).  While reason reigned supreme, revelation, miracles, and other components of traditional religion were denied.  In addition, it was feared that “things” were beginning to take precedence over mankind, a sentiment that Emerson expressed in his Ode Inscribed to William H. Channing.

 This inevitably led to the secularism of morality which Kurtz sees as the second form of Enlightenment in America. He claims that happiness and pleasure became the moral standards and that the movement “manifested as optimistic faith in science, in reason, and in education, as the instruments of human progress,” and furthermore, that in the Lockian tradition, “all knowledge was reduced to original sensations” (Kurtz 1966, 21).  Social justice was important as the natural order that the deists sought seemed to contain elements of human welfare; the discovery of these natural laws would be helpful in the conditioning of American citizens.  The relationship between social conditioning and education is what Rousseau had been responding to in France but the Americans had priorities that surpassed it and no individual rises to the occasion as Rousseau did until the next generation of intellectuals. 

Natural laws would show themselves in a different way.  As the revolutionary tides reached their highest levels, the American Enlightenment would take on its third form.  It has been said that “if America contributed anything original in this period, it was the practical development of new political and social ideals” (Kurtz 1966, 21). Justice was soon to be related to natural rights by revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

The Romantic Connection

Rousseau struggled to keep Locke’s empiricism at bay, acknowledging the validity of modern science yet encouraging a more balanced relationship between science and man.  In several ways the New England Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century were doing the same thing.  While American intellectuals were caught up in the aftermath of the revolution, European romanticism was establishing itself as a powerful literary force.  By the mid-nineteenth century, that literature began to flow across the Atlantic and influence American literary figures.  The century also showed an influx of mature scientific dialog that flowed from European academia.  In this sense, American intellectuals were inheriting two distinct brands of thinking.  A balance was naturally sought. 

Rollins College English Professor Alan Nordstrom recently wrote a verse dialog to express his own disparate emotions regarding two distinct schools of thought: “the skeptical secular humanist and the mystical transcendentalist” (Nordstrom 2003, 481).  His dialog is apt for several reasons.  While it is set to describe a current conversation, one that continuously clouds his own thinking, the dialog also reiterates the perennial dialog depicted in School of Athens.  Yet the conversation is important for other reasons as well.  He continues: “These two personas have been duking it out in me since before college, when I found myself drawn equally to Bertrand Russell and to Ralph Waldo Emerson” (Ibid.).  He quotes Robert Frost’s The Secret Sits:

We dance around in a ring and suppose

But the secret sits in the middle and knows (qtd. Ibid.).


Frost’s stanza is important for several reasons.  First it sums up the quest that Professor Nordstrom describes: to find out whether there is “more to the universe in the way of intention, purpose, and meaning than the secular scientific cosmology (or scientism) acknowledges” (Ibid.).  Second, it explains the reason why he and most other Humanists in the Renaissance tradition would be attracted to the conversation.  The answer lies in the middle.  This has been the battle cry for humanists from the fifteenth century on.  In fact Frost’s quote is perhaps most significant because it demonstrates the reason why, when he started to write the dialog, “Emerson” for Nordstrom, “was in the ascendant and took the lead part in the debate” (Ibid.).  According to Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People Emerson was “in some ways the archetypal American of the eighteenth century” (Johnson 1997, 405).  He represented the collective ideology of the New England Transcendentalists, a group of Romantic writers that sought to balance the materialist school of thought that was beginning to prevail.

               Several strands of European thought influenced New England Transcendentalism. German Philosophy (Kant), German Romanticism (Goethe), French Philosophy (Cousin), English poetry (Coleridge), and classic Greco-Roman literature all found their way into the literature of the movement.  At the same time, a theological backdrop pervaded it and thus affected its absorption of any one of the aforementioned influences that helped shape it.  Prior to investigating these intellectuals, it may be helpful to briefly mention the theology that the New England thinkers were submerged in, as the movement is often referred to as a theological one.

               William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), a native of Newport, Rhode Island, is sometimes called the “Great Awakener” of New England. He stood between two major periods in American intellectual history and, straddling these, helped to synthesize their tenets.  In one sense he was a man of the American Enlightenment.  Yet, he preached during a time where Americans were in the midst of an evangelical movement known as the Second Great Awakening.  After studying at Harvard Divinity School he was ordained, at the age of 23, minister at the Congregational Church of Boston, where he remained until his death at the age of 62. According to Kurtz, “he helped to redeem the heirs of Calvinism from dogmatism” and later became known as “the apostle of Unitarianism” (Kurtz 1966, 261). 

               Channing’s goal was to synthesize strands of Enlightenment thought with religion in order to create a rational religion.  Kurtz argues that, although Channing was not a philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker were both moved by his sermons and thus “he paved the way for transcendentalism” (Kurtz 1966, 261).  The Unitarian theological perspective that Channing pronounced was conducive to the philosophical tenets of the New England Transcendentalist school. This theology agreed with the deists of the Enlightenment that reason would lead man to a better understanding of religion; however, they disagreed on the kind of relationship that God maintained with his people.  The deists claimed that God was totally aloof, refraining from any interaction with man especially in the form of revelations, supernatural actions, or miracles.  Channing admitted these, and in his 1821 The Evidences of Revealed Religions he argues against David Hume, Thomas Paine, and Ethan Allen on the possibility of miracles, and the validity of the Bible as revealed word. 

               Although he argued against the deists on some of their major dogmatic points, he must not be seen as a defender of traditional American Protestantism.  The Second Great Awakening was gaining momentum.  According to “Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening” an essay by Queen’s College, SUNY professor Donald Scott, “By the l820s evangelicalism had become one of the most dynamic and important cultural forces in American life” (Scott 2000, “Evangelicalism, Revivalism”).  Their Calvinism contained a new twist: “For all they preached hellfire and damnation, they nonetheless harbored an unshakable practical belief in the capacity of humans for moral action, in the ability of humans to turn away from sinful behavior and embrace moral action” (Ibid.). 

               Scott’s follow-up essay – in a series put out for humanities teachers by the National Humanities Center- is called “Evangelicalism as a Social Movement.”  This piece adds an essential ingredient to the discussion:

Americans embraced this new society as unprecedentedly democratic, a land of vast opportunity in which the individual (so long as he was male and white) was free to rise to whatever position his talent and effort took him. But if American society held out unprecedented opportunity for "rise," "betterment," and "improvement," it was also a site of uncertainty, isolation, frustration, and anxiety. (Scott 2000, “Evangelicalism”)

This analysis not only provides reason for the great momentum of the religious movements of nineteenth century America, but it also adds another dimension to the social crisis faced by the New England Transcendentalists.  Besides the metaphysical crisis resulting from the materialist debate which we have outlined, there was a certain instability and sense of need that serves as a backlash to the great promise of the new nation. The religious movements were one means of fulfilling that need.  Scott continues: “For many, evangelicalism provided a counterworld to the chaos and isolation of American life and an antidote to its insecurities and anxieties” (Ibid.).

               Channing was also responding to this crisis but he was far less inclined to embrace Calvinism.  In his 1820 treatise The Moral Argument against Calvinism, he argued against the depravity of man and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.  He proposed that “every item of theology must be judged not only by reason but by moral sense… [he] defended the moral perfection of God and of man… [and proposed that] there was no distinction between saint and sinner” (Kurtz 1966, 261). Man was dignified, capable of moral improvement and Christian virtue by his own power. 

               Channing is a good transitional figure for several reasons.  He straddled the American Age of Reason and the evangelical movement that followed it.  He carries some Renaissance humanist threads in his teaching.  For instance, he accentuated human dignity and the moral perfectibility of man, and sought to balance an equation without leaning too far toward Enlightenment rationalism or staunch American Protestantism.  The third reason is outlined by Kurtz: “Although Channing consistently defended reason, there was still a perceptible romantic thread running through his work, especially in his attitude toward nature” (Kurtz 1966, 262).  He continues to conclude that Channing was a humanitarian because social reform was at the center of his ideology, and that Channing “was sympathetic to the social and political ideals of Godwin[58] and Rousseau” (Ibid.).   According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, during his first few years out of Harvard, “he became acquainted with the works of Rousseau, Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and from that time on the kinship of many of his ideas with those of French Revolutionary origin can be clearly traced” (Ward & Trent 2000, v. XV, book II, ch. VIII, section 4, paragraph 13).

The Transcendentalist Response

               New England was the right place for this literary movement to develop, as Paris had been a couple of generations earlier.  Boston, in the early nineteenth century was seen as “America’s Athens” (Kurtz 1966, 272). According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, “The spirit of the eighteenth century had survived in the neighbourhood of Boston long after the eighteenth century was dead. And suddenly—so at least it seemed—this group of young men and women became intensely aware of that fact” (Ward & Trent 2000, v. XV, book II, ch. VIII, section 2, paragraph 6). New England was in dire need of an identity, which was independent from Europe. The Transcendentalists sought to liberate themselves on two accounts: “Emerson’s address, The American Scholar, is called our intellectual Declaration of Independence…. his little volume, Nature, might be called our religious Declaration of Independence” (Ibid.).

               Anthony Harding also comments on the significance of these two works.  Of The American Scholar he says that it marks “a joyful affirmation of each individual’s right to drink in the universal sources of inspiration” and furthermore it expresses Emerson’s belief that “the American people will be the first true nation on earth” when each citizen comes to realize that he is inspired by the Divine Soul (Harding 1985, 26).  Harding mentions Nature, claiming that “Emerson attempts to hold physical actuality and divine power in balance by stressing that Nature is constantly shaped and permeated by Spirit” (Ibid. 27).  This perhaps sums up Emerson’s response to the social crisis.  Freedom from the European intellectual legacy and from its religious dogma might advance the fledgling country into its prophesied position of greatness. It may be this underlying thesis that makes Transcendentalism, for many literary historians, “the distinctive development in American letters of the nineteenth century” (Kurtz 1966, 25).  It has also been noted that the movement “attempted to establish Boston as the cultural center of America” (Ibid. 25-26).

               On the religious level, the movement converted the pessimism of the Calvinism that they had inherited into optimism.  That God was loving and just, and man was capable of virtue and goodness, breaks not only from their Calvinist ancestors, but from the deists of the immediately preceding generation. On the intellectual level they also broke with their predecessors. Their reaction to the deists led them to revolt against the mechanistic concept of nature that supported such an image of God.  For the Transcendentalist, “Nature manifested divine purpose, and man might know and appreciate its full beauty…. man must transcend ordinary understanding of experience and his soul must have direct contact with divinity” (Kurtz 1966, 26). 

               While the impetus for the transcendentalist may have come from the Unitarian movement, in its intellectual reforms it begins to pull away by incorporating the ideals of several philosophical schools of thought – both current and ancient.  “Influenced by the romantic idealists, Coleridge, Kant, Schelling, Cousin, by Platonism, and by Indian mysticism, they attempted to expand the categories of the enlightenment” (Kurtz 1966, 26).  They believed that a transcendent world existed beyond the phenomena of physical appearances and sought to reconcile the physical world with its eternal oversoul. These scholars were responding to a metaphysical crisis by exposing the limitations of one that was overly relied upon, the Lockian concept of empiricism. 

               Transcendentalists did not seek rational proofs or scientific methodology. They believed in the power of intuition as a means of transcending the world of appearances.  They reopened Plato’s discussion of Forms and added an optimistic view of human nature that made it seem plausible.  They identified two realms: Plato’s world of shadows which consists of our sensual experiences and is the object of science, and the unseen world which becomes the object of poetry, literature, art, and philosophy. 

The focus on this invisible world however, does not render the transcendentalist movement impracticable.  Rather, their humanistic tendencies made transcendentalism practical for the material world.  They concerned themselves with morality and virtue, and stressed the importance of discerning how one should live. An example is Emerson’s The Conduct of Life.  Perhaps the best example of this practice in action is Thoreau’s famous Civil Disobedience which reiterates Christ’s mandate in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NIV).  The members of this New England movement were “humanitarians concerned with moral progress, with political and social justice and equality” (Kurtz 1966, 27).  Their interests bring them into the ancient humanistic dialog.  Francesco Petrarca, the father of Italian humanism, used classical literature to develop his theory of education which claimed that learning should consist of gaining knowledge and then being able to communicate it and use for public good.  This required training in moral philosophy as well as literature, rhetoric, and eloquence.  Shaking off the image of man’s state of depravity, resurrecting the Renaissance humanist ideal of human dignity, accepting the possibility of moral perfection of man, and adopting a concept of education that requires one to develop the skills and talents that will help that individual contribute to the public good qualifies the Transcendentalists as humanists.

Metaphysics Return in Transcendentalism

Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the most notable New England Transcendentalist.  He purports strongly that his movement was the answer to society's woes.  “Do not cumber yourself with fruitless pains to mend and remedy remote effects; let the soul be erect, and all things will go well” (Emerson 1999, 94).  While Emerson’s works have been widely read and discussed in modern classrooms, it is also helpful to look at some of the work of lesser known Transcendentalists who, in a sense worked in the shadow of Emerson[59].  Theodore Parker, another orator of the time, shared many ideas with Emerson, as did Charles Ellis, who anonymously published an essay on Transcendentalism during the height of its prominence.  For pedagogy, Amos Bronson Alcott – the founder of several schools and superintendent of the Concord School District – is important, as is Margaret Fuller – who taught under his direct influence and later went on to advocate the cause of education for women.  Finally, I will examine Henry David Thoreau[60] – who only taught for a short time but whose journals reveal a transcendental view of the sciences. 

 American Transcendentalism was an enhanced form of Romantic idealism.  William Channing said that the movement’s dogma was "to trust in individual reason as correlative to Supreme Wisdom, which had been grafted in German idealism” (Leighton 1968, 16).  But there was more to it.  The Transcendental quarterly, The Dial, became the official communicator of the movement.  In January 1843, an anonymously written essay[61] describing the movement appeared in The Dial[62].  The pamphlet was reviewed by Charles Lane who apparently found “remarkably little in it to challenge and much to praise” (Harding in Ellis 1954, viii).  Furthermore, Harding claims that “Charles Lane found it to be ‘clear, instructive, poetic, warm, religious’” and that it seems to be “the only attempt of a transcendentalist to present its basic beliefs as a whole toward the major philosophical problems of life” (Ibid. ix). While other tracts were certainly written about the Transcendentalist movement by other noted members like Emerson, I believe that Ellis’ pamphlet is a good place to start the discussion.  It presents the movement as it relates to a variety of philosophical questions.  It was written anonymously which seems to remove any motive of promoting a distinct brand of Transcendentalism and because it was found to be conducive to the general tenets by the movement’s signature periodical, The Dial, seems to be an indication that it was accurate, and unbiased.  The essay defined Transcendentalism simply: "Man has ideas that come not through the five senses, or the power of reason; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world" (Ellis 1954, 11).

Charles Mayo Ellis is a relatively obscure figure. He was born in Boston in 1818 and died in Brookline in 1878.  His only other literary contribution was A History of Roxbury which was published in 1848.  Unlike many of the other figures of the Transcendentalist movement, his training was not in theology, education, or literature.  After graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in 1839, Ellis became a practicing lawyer and through an analysis of his legal career, it seems safe to assume that he was an abolitionist fairly early in the development of the movement.  Although it was rare for lawyers of his day, he provided legal services to a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns. 

The introduction of the essay cleverly begins with a metaphor regarding ancient geographic maps:

They drew only the few countries they knew and set down all else as Terra Incognita…in the spiritual world they call all beyond the regions unknown Transcendentalism.  Every new doctrine in philosophy, every new dogma in theology, is transcendental; and so is every plan for improving man’s religious institutions, or the organization of the social system (Ellis 1954, 8).


The terra incognita that Ellis is referring to is the vast world of knowledge that exists outside of the scope of materialism.  Also significant to our discussion is the fact that he adds a dimension of reform: improving the organization of religion and society.  So it carries a message of social awareness, justice, and making a positive contribution to one’s community.

               In addition to laying out his idea of what the movement represents, he also conjures up the ancients, especially Plato and Aristotle, to resume the eternal dialog.  He says: “Man has a body, wherein he is allied with the beasts; reason, which is his peculiar endowment; a soul, which connects him with Deity” (Ellis 1954, 10). This trinitarian view of the human person reflects Aristotelian reason, Platonic metaphysics, and the romantic faith in intuition as a means of connecting with the deity.  He argues that man is more than the animal that the materialists reduce him to. He is also more than the animal with reason that Aristotle had projected.  “His nature is triple – animal, rational, spiritual; and it is to those systems, on whatever subject, which contemplate him as a spiritual being, that we apply the term transcendental” (Ibid.). 

               The first line of his chapter called “Principles” seems to be aimed at spoken to the materialists: “The history of man is not told by the account of the particles of matter of which his body is formed.”  He continues the conversation in the next paragraph but broadens his attack claiming that “any theory which seeks to show that man is a mere ‘conformation of material particles,’ or ‘of these immaterial ideas the whole of which form the universe,’ leads to the conclusion that man does not exist” (Ellis 1954, 15).   Such a statement is aimed at the materialists and the idealists at once.  In true humanist style, Ellis is begging for balance, one that connotes the dignity of man as the result of the perfect mix: “But besides matter and mind there is also man” (Ibid. 16). Man in this regard has a special need.  Having mind, body and spirit, his “affections [are] bodily, mental, religious” (Ibid. 17). Religion is to the spirit as appetite is to the body and understanding is to the mind; it serves to “answer the wants of the spiritual part of his nature” (Ibid.).

               The chapter concludes with an important principle regarding pedagogy.  Man’s morality, sense of duty, religiosity, and sense of aesthetics are “not dependent on education, custom, command, or anything beyond man himself” (Ellis 1954, 19).  Education cannot eradicate the law within man and only serves to “add new motives for obedience to that which he feels to be of imperative obligation” (Ibid. 19-20).  This idea resembles Rousseau’s in that it is a reaction to both materialism and the empiricists who developed out of it, those who promote the idea of a “tabula rasa – a blank sheet, on which these ideas of ours are afterwards written by the outward world” (Ibid. 21).  While Ellis’s statement is a reaction against the dogmatic tendencies of religious schools, it is more ardently speaking against the materialist pedagogy that he calls the “sensationalist school” which

deriving all ideas from sensation, leads to atheism, to a religion which is but self-interest – an ethical code which makes right synonymous with indulgence of appetite, justice one with expediency, and reduces our love of what is good, beautiful, true and divine, to habit, association or interest. (Ellis 1954, 23)


He refers to this as the old philosophy and presents his as the “new philosophy” which in many ways is analogous to the Renaissance humanists’ “new learning.”  Besides embracing the ideology of artes liberales – the freeing of the mind from society’s constructs in order to discover oneself – it also contains elements of Pico’s oration on the dignity of man:

The new [philosophy] asserts the continual presence of God in all his works, spirit as well as matter; makes religion the natural impulse of every breast; the moral law, God’s voice in every heart, independent in interest, expediency or appetite, which enables us to resist these; an universal, eternal standard of truth, beauty, goodness, holiness, to which every man can turn and follow, if he will (Ellis 1954, 24).


Where Ellis is asserting that God is present in his works and that he is available to anyone that will seek him out of it, Pico took it a step further by asserting that man was actually created for the very purpose of seeking out the wisdom of God through his vast works.  Pico said in The Oration:

God the Father, the supreme Architect, had already built this cosmic home we behold, the most sacred temple of His godhead, by the laws of His mysterious wisdom…. But, when the work was finished, the Craftsman kept wishing that there were someone to ponder the plan of so great a work, to love its beauty, and to wonder at its vastness.[63]


The new learning of the Renaissance humanists was designed to help man discover this wisdom.

The “new philosophy” described in the essay is certainly not part of philosophy proper and in fact speaks against the practices of philosophers: “The world at large seldom turn their attention to anything beyond what they can see, feel, and taste; and philosophy, even, has not infrequently been limited to an attempt to classify these and the impressions which they produce” (Ellis 1954, 28). This is important for two reasons.  The Renaissance humanists in many ways were also criticizing the academic philosophy of their day – the one that was branded scholasticism – in a manner that was very similar.  Recall the comment in Janson’s art history regarding Botticelli and Renaissance humanism. He said that Botticelli’s work coincided with Ficino’s thought, which was:

the very opposite of the orderly system of medieval scholasticism.  He believed that the life of the universe, including that of man, was linked to God by a spiritual circuit continuously ascending and descending, so that all revelation, whether from Bible, Plato, or classical myths, were one (Janson 1982 412). 


Ellis states that “in the midst of the heathen world we find men who saw the light” (Ellis 1954, 30).  Among these he mentions Plato and Jesus.  It seems that they are speaking from within the same circuit.  The second point to note relates to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm shift where he claims that a shift within a discipline is usually induced by someone who is either new to the field or who is from outside of it.  

               Ellis’ chapter “Progress and Obstacles” discusses some of the things that humanity had accomplished recently, citing the French Revolution as evidence of “the hand of God in all” (Ibid. 34).  Yet despite the progress, more changes are necessary: “There are yet many traces of barbarian hands; men are not rid of the influence under which they grew” and in a manner reminiscent of some of the Renaissance humanists he adds “religion has not yet parted with superstition and intolerance. Now the system says, the law of your being is to love God and man….What does not conform to this law is wrong and ought to be reformed” (Ibid. 35-36).  It is also clear that he sees education as a viable tool to overcome these obstacles.  In fact, for a democratic society to work, universal education was imperative.   He said: “Instead of one man born to wealth and education, and ten thousand, his serfs, to ignorance and beggary, the distinctions of rank are fading away, and each is educated, and has a chance in the scramble of life” (Ellis 1954, 37).

               In some respects, the improvements that Ellis cites might be attributed to the work of the Renaissance humanists.  He admits that “the tone of society and literature have changed” and that more of it “is moral and addressed to man as man” and it also is in some ways “elevating and ennobling” (Ibid. 38).  His tone is positive and reflects a hopefulness that the currents of reform which he feels in Boston will actually take root.  He says: “Reforms are every where going on to ameliorate the physical condition of men, to secure them education, religious instruction, and abolish the countless acknowledged evils of the world” (Ibid.). 

Where much of Ellis’ tract on the essence of Transcendentalism is akin to the work of the Renaissance humanists, the final line of his chapter “Progress and Obstacles” is perhaps the most glowing example: “The work can never end, for men can never be so good that they may not see wherein they may be better, and they can never cease to strive while there is room for improvement” (Ellis 1954, 38). The Greek notion of areté – reaching your highest potential – resurrected once in the Italian Renaissance where men like il Magnifico and Ficino saw themselves living in the new Athens, was once again revived by the American Renaissance in a place where people like Ellis and Emerson saw themselves living in the new Athens that was Boston. 

In some ways, however, he was urging educators to go beyond the Renaissance humanists.  He says that we should not be obsessed with meeting the standards set by the earlier generations.  In order to prove oneself to the critics, an orator “could not read an oration without stopping to see how every part compared with one of Cicero’s,” while a builder “must go, rule in hand, and measure the Parthenon” (Ellis 1954, 45).  He continues: “None strove for any thing new, all was made to conform with the old” (Ibid. 46).   Ellis is in line with Emerson in relation to the young nation’s identity crisis: “Thus all were blind worshippers of the past; the exertions of men were limited to trials to equal what they ought to excel” (Ibid.). The “new learning” recovered the classics and brought them to the world’s attention.  The “new philosophy” demanded that educators surpass them.    

















Chapter Four- Part Two: Transcendentalist Pedagogy

               Charles Ellis’ description of Transcendentalism makes several things clear.  The movement must be seen as a response to a crisis.  The crisis involves metaphysics (the debate between the idealists and materialists); it involves religion; it involves morality; it involves technological advancement; it involves government and economics. In addition it adds the American identity crisis to the mix where a newly settled nation needed to gain cultural, intellectual, and religious independence from its European ancestry.   Another thing that is clear is that education should play a crucial role for reform that will move this world beyond the parameters imposed by this crisis.  In trying to discern practical applications of the “new philosophy” we find that much is left unclear and that it requires a close reading of the transcendentalist writings to answer the simple question: what is the pedagogy of this “new philosophy?”

               Ellis has left some hints in regard to art, civics, religion, and morality, but true praxis seems to be missing.  Theodore Parker will provide some other interesting clues through his powerful essays and sermons.  Amos Bronson Alcott, although largely unsuccessful, attempted to put the transcendentalist pedagogy to use in his Boston school. And Margaret Fuller attempted to do the same in the Greene Street School in Providence. 

At a very general level, it may be helpful to consider Ellis’ essay for insight into the Transcendentalists’ approach to education.  Later it seems appropriate to include some material from Theodore Parker’s essay, similarly titled, Transcendentalism.  Parker, a lesser known member of the movement, has left an impressive body of writings that also contribute to our knowledge of Transcendental pedagogy.  In fact, Robert E. Collins’ work, Theodore Parker: American Transcendentalist, claims that Parker “deserves to take at least equal rank with Emerson” (Collins 1973, 1).  Parker saw America as a new land that was already ridden with many evils: “poverty, exploitation, unjust war, mistreatment of the Indians, and especially slavery” and he believed that it was the task of the scholar to “’represent higher modes of human consciousness’” and to “move people to lessen or erase these evils” (Ibid. 2).  His words reveal a deep belief that education was a means of ushering the young nation into a brighter era.  Following a general discussion of Ellis and Parker, which will reveal basic tenets of Transcendentalist pedagogy, we will briefly look at Alcott, Fuller, and Thoreau, to see how each fulfilled these transcendental ideals in their own lives.

For Charles Ellis, the arts are of utmost importance in education: “the pursuits of art are ennobling.  Man is made better by them.  He is cultivated, as he never could be by other teachers” (Ellis 1954, 51).   He further goes into a Platonic approach in his description of the value of art as a means of being educated: “Well does Plato describe the process…by which from beauty in its lowest forms, man gradually ascends, and is at last enabled to contemplate the beauty in itself” (Ellis 1954, 51).  He believed that the study of art and the practice of engaging in art would naturally bring the mind to a higher step of consciousness, similar to the manner expressed in Plato’s Divided Line.  Once educated as a “true artist,” one will display more than mere skill or technique, art requires “genius, the perception of higher beauty, nobler thoughts, holier aspirations, than those commonly felt” (Ibid. 53).

               In regard to government, society, and law, Ellis is skeptical about the pedagogies commonly associated with history and philosophy.  He says that “men have justified tyranny or anarchy,” and further that “on one answer empires have been built; another has overthrown them” (Ibid. 57).  He wonders how this paradox had come about and asks rhetorically, “By history, philosophical theories, or by reason?” (Ibid. 58). Of history he says it “only gives a rule to make man degenerate” and of philosophy he says that it “presupposes in us a knowledge of the result desired, and so infers the means of attaining it; or…obeys them, regardless of consequences” (Ibid.).  He associates history with “tyrants” and philosophers with “traders” while the “rational system …contains elements of truth” (Ibid. 59).  Reason “can lead to nothing higher than expediency” (Ibid. 58).  It is the motivating force that drives us to embrace that which we believe ourselves to have discerned by either, or both, of the first two methods.  It is this combination that created the ideas of political philosophers like Hobbes who claim that in the natural state, men “obey no law but his own will, wander like a beast over the earth, taking without asking, at war with all” (Ibid. 61).

               Ellis details the state of nature that the transcendentalists seek: “[it] is not the wild liberty of beasts, but the state in which wrong and injustice shall be done to no man, in which the law of God shall not be violated” (Ellis 1954, 62).  Again it may be noted that his prescriptions warn against what need be avoided yet it provides little practical advice on how this kind of education should be laid out.  In one sense he sheds a bit of hope: “men do not relinquish the pursuit of truth because they cannot attain all knowledge; they do not turn away from beauty because all loveliness is not theirs, and injustice is not to be upheld, because perfect right cannot be done” (Ellis 1954, 63-64). Ellis’ comment here reveals his desire for a balanced approach to education.  Because materialists have not found all the answers in the physical world does not mean that they should give up, nor should the metaphysicians and ethicists give up.  A well-rounded approach to learning that incorporates all of these schools of thought is the best way to move closer to true knowledge.  To illuminate this he claims: “the chief obstacle to overcome is prejudice. The only danger to be feared, that doctrines shall be extended beyond their legitimate sphere” (Ibid. 67). For Ellis, education – “physical, mental, and moral” – is the most powerful tool for reform and furthermore, to accomplish change, “bloody revolutions are not requisite, nor charters, petitions, nor declarations” (Ibid. 67-68).  

               In addition to teaching the arts and sciences in a balanced manner, and avoiding the tendency to use history and philosophy as a means to promote a particular worldview, Ellis has much to say about religion as a means of attaining a sense of moral obligation. He makes it clear that his use of religion, and consequently its intended purpose in pedagogy, is not to be doctrinal, nor is it to conflict essentially with materialism or empiricism.  Religion is an essential tool for Ellis but he describes religion in a different way than one might in the twenty first century.  For him, it is:

[the] inborn capacity to perceive truth and right, so that moral and religious truths can be proved to him with the same degree of certainty that attends mathematical demonstration; and for the same reason, because they can be shown to conform to certain fundamental truths, axioms, which we all know, none can prove or deny, beyond which we cannot go….it relates nothing that is any wise connected with biblical criticism or theology….He who can hear the word, believe and obey, is religious. (Ellis 1954, 71-72).


While we all have the ability to discover truth, and this ability is both innate and lies outside of our senses, the role of experience is still an important one.  They help us “gain knowledge of what is not part of ourselves” (Ibid. 73).  In a sense it helps us make sense of things by allowing us to put ourselves into some sort of context.  For Ellis,  the role of education, in a Rousseauian vein, is to provide a balanced perspective on religion.  To fully understand religion one must be “free from the prejudices of early education, the principles of the popular philosophy, the influences of the old theology” (Ibid. 78).  Ultimately the role of the “new philosophy” is to find the truth in religion: “It forms no creeds, adopts no rules of faith or practice, organizes no body which shall compel men to receive or reject it” (Ibid.).

               Ethics is the highest level of human knowledge for the Transcendentalists.  Individual morality leads to the Greek concept of eudaimonia. “Right and justice are to be observed by man, because this will promote his happiness” (Ellis 1954, 94).  Eventually individual moral decisions extend beyond the individual and affect the community at large.  Human character then becomes the hallmark of a people.  What, then, ought man do?  Ellis says that “right is that which the voice within approves, wrong what it condemns” (Ibid. 97).  How does education play a role in this?  Again, he makes no positive, directive statement.  He merely says what education should not do: “Education cannot eradicate this moral sense without depriving one of an attribute of humanity” (Ibid.).  This too points to the earlier pedagogy of Rousseau.  Education should not negate what an individual has naturally within himself.  It should help flesh out the intuitive knowledge that resides within.  “Man knows them [the principles of right] from his nature, because he is man” (Ellis 1954, 98).  Ellis’ closing words reiterate the purpose of the “new philosophy” in a way that resembles the words of the Renaissance.  The simple explanation also hints toward the reason why the school of thought may have been seen as visionary and perhaps too idealistic. “The end proposed is almost too sublime for human conception, the perfection of humanity” (Ibid. 102).  

               Theodore Parker is a bit more strident and perhaps more practical than the highly idealistic Ellis.  He has much to say about education and is quite hopeful that it may cure the ills of his society.  In describing the American government, he praises the “gigantic strength of educated intellect” and describes it as a people that “triumphed over Theocracy, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Despotocracy, and have got a Democracy – a government of all, for all, and by all – a Church without a bishop, a State without a king, a community without a lord, and a family without a slave” (qtd. in Collins 1973, 4).  In a democracy, education is the key to its success.  In his 1848 essay Education of the People he claims that American democracy “can never be realized except on the condition that the people, the whole people, are well educated, in the large sense of that word” (Ibid 10).  Besides acknowledging that everyone has a right to an education, Parker also urges the New England community to pay their teachers more[64].  In the same essay he says:

Some men are born with a genius for teaching; many with a talent for it.  Offer a sufficient pay and they will come, and the results will appear in the character of the next generation…. It is easy to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and it seems to us that the system of small salaries for schoolmasters hitherto pursued, even in New England, is like sacrificing a whole cloak of velvet to save the end of a farthing candle (Ibid. 10).[65]


               There are two parallels here that are important to this study because they reflect the modern dialog as well.  This demonstrates the timelessness of the conversation.  While Parker demanded higher wages in order to attract better teachers, his society worked against him.  Modern teachers face the same battle.  Another issue that is perhaps more closely aligned with the modern crisis is his critique of the popular view of education of his day: “education is valued, as it helps to make men able to serve as tools in the great workshop of society” (Ibid. 11).  His essay on education claims that “we think the end of man is to live for this: wealth, fame, social rank.  Genius, wisdom, power of mind, of heart and soul, are counted as only means to such an end…. Never till education is valued for itself, can we have a wide, generous culture, even among the wealthiest class” (Ibid.).     

               Parker and Ellis are good people to begin with because they agree on many issues.  One of the biggest issues that they agree upon is their idea of a balanced education.  Parker seems to be mature in his application of transcendentalist ideals. He warns against an over reliance upon transcendental philosophy and mentions some of the positive qualities of science.  He gives practical examples and paints a holistic picture of the transcendent, the sensual, and the material. 

               In regard to science, Parker feels that given the limited capacity of human senses, and the limited evidence that might be drawn from them, science loses its universality.  Conclusions that are potentially universal extend beyond the limits of human sensibility and therefore reason.  “As a result, human science, including even mathematics, loses its scientific character and becomes instead a kind of elegant farmers’ almanac” (Collins 1973, 17).  The problem for Parker is not in science or empiricism themselves; it is in their misappropriation.  When science moves beyond the subjects which are observable and quantifiable, it enters dangerous waters.  Theology is one of the areas he cites: “They tell us that God is not knowable; the existence of God is not a certainty to us” and furthermore that God “is a probability, a credibility, a possibility, a certainty to none” (Parker 1973, 62).  Parker’s argument is that the “sensationalist” cannot see outside of the paradigm that he is bound up in.  For Parker such matters can be known for certain through other human epistemological faculties, namely intuition.  Parker holds the Enlightenment responsible for this and points to David Hume by name:

‘Man is a body, with blood, brains, nerves – nothing more; the organization gone, all is gone.’ Now that is sound, logical, consistent; that was the conclusion of Hume, of many of the English Deists, and of many of the French philosophers in the last century; they looked the fact in the face.  But mortality, annihilation, is rather an ugly fact to look fairly in the face; but Mr. Hume and others have done it, and died brave with the sensational philosophy. (Parker 1973, 62).


The problem for Parker is that when science is applied inappropriately, “[i]t leads to boundless uncertainty” (Ibid. 63).  In the end all is thrown into question: society (originating in divinity), social contracts, justice, rights, etc.. Out of this social nihilism comes various schools of political thought which claim that might makes right or that the greater good for the greatest number makes right (Ibid. 63-64). 

Transcendentalism plays a role in science as well as sensationalism.  Parker claims that physics “starts with the maxim that the senses acquaint us actually with body, and therefore the mind gives us the idea of substance, answering to an objective reality;” he then boldly claims that “the whole matter of geometry is transcendental” because it is the result of deduction from first truths which are self-evident (Ibid. 65).  It is important to understand that Parker talks of balance between the transcendental approach and the scientific approach, citing also the negative aspects of pure transcendentalism in the case of physics: “Evils from the transcendental method in physics; men have scorned observation, have taken but a few facts from which to learn universal laws, and so failed of getting what is universal, even general” (Ibid.).  He argues further that “the generalizations of the transcendental naturalists have been often hasty; they attempt to determine what nature shall be, not to learn what nature is” (Parker 1973, 65).  He directly criticizes Schelling for his overzealous transcendentalism.  Schelling “said there are only seven primary planets in the solar system, and from the nature of things, a priori known, it is impossible there should be more”  and furthermore that “many of the statements of Schelling in physics are of this same character” (Ibid. 66).   

               Parker advocated limits on transcendentalism as much as he acknowledged those of the sciences.  Relying too much on the transcendental brings out a perilous situation in politics as well: “the transcendental politician may seek to ignore the past, and scorn its lessons; may take his own personal whims for oracles of human nature” (Parker 1973, 68). Transcendentalism used properly, however, could be the mortar that holds knowledge together in one complete epistemological mosaic.  “Transcendentalism has work to do” he admits, “to show that physics, politics, ethics, religion rest on facts of necessity, facts of intuition, facts of demonstration, and have their witness and confirmation in facts of observation” (Ibid. 74).   He expects much from the Transcendentalist movement:

It is the work of transcendentalism to give us politics which represent God’s thought of a state, -- the whole world, each man free; to give us morals which leave the man a complete individual, no chord rent from the human harp, -- yet complete in his social character, no string discordant in the social choir; to give us religion worthy of God and man (Ibid.).


Creating the grand symphony that he describes is the task of transcendentalism, and while it seems wholly idealistic it is certainly reminiscent of the ratios of Brunelleschi’s dome as mentioned in part two. Parker was hopeful that man would be in tune with the cosmos: “That is the human dream of the transcendental philosophy. Shall it ever become a fact? History says, No; human nature says, Yes” (Ibid.).

               The brunt of this burden falls upon the shoulders of the scholar and thus it lies in the hands of education.  Parker claims that “a change in ideas makes all the difference” and further that “all things are first an idea in the mind, then a fact out of the mind….as the thought is, the thing becomes” (Parker 1973, 49).  These ideas, the seeds that will eventually grow and bear fruit[66], must be planted within the corridors of our institutions of education.  The triumph of the American scholar, a sentiment shared by both Parker and Emerson, depends on the cultivation of these seeds.  Parker calls scholars – both male and female – to action:

Oh, ingenuous young maid or man, if such you are, -- if not, then let me dream you such, --seek you this beauty, complete perfection of a man, and having this, go hold the purse, the office, or the pen, as suits you best; but out of that life, writing, voting, acting, living in all forms, you shall pay men back for your culture, and in the scholar’s noble kind, and represent the higher facts of human thought (Parker, The American Scholar 1973, 138).


The scholar, for Parker, has the capacity and duty to correct the “licentiousness of the American press,” and to help stamp out the “vulgarity of the American church,” which he calls “the poor prostitute of every wealthy sin” (Ibid.).

               The church is not the only institution that Parker criticizes for its prostitution.  Academia deserves blame as well.  The rich will “tell the professor…that he must teach ‘such doctrines as the merchants approve,’ or they will not give money to the college” (Parker Am. Sch. 1973, 119).  He asks who the benefactors of a college are.  His reply is simple: “it is the purse, not the pen that is the symbol of honour” (Ibid.).  Wealth is a formidable force that needs to be dealt with in the development of a true humanistic education. He says that money is “the only power which continually impedes the progress of mankind” (Ibid. 112).  Most of his frustration is aimed at the clergy and writers of his day who were afraid to annoy the rich, slave-owning population but he sensed that other areas of academia were being caught in the trap as well.  He says that “blind money would put out the heavenly eyes of science, and lead her also into his own ditch” (Parker Am. Sch. 1973, 119).  Even the artists were guilty: “[he] prostitutes his pencil and his skill, and takes his law of beauty from the fat clown, whose barns and pigs, and wife, he paints for daily bread” (Parker Am. Sch. 1973, 131).  This is a serious issue in the modern dialog as well and it parallels some of the pedagogical conversation of the twenty first century.

               The idea that educated Americans, who have been exposed to the eternal truths and to beauty would turn their backs on wisdom in exchange for the relentless pursuit of “the purse” is appalling to Parker.  There was tremendous power in education and he expressed a confidence in the scholar.  He saw a country full of promise, one which had “no class [royal, patrician, or aristocratic] organized, accredited, and confided in, to resist a new idea” (Parker Am. Sch. 1973, 111).  America provided an environment where, “speaking is free, preaching is free, printing free” (Ibid.).  One of the academic areas that had much potential was literature.  He claimed that the American literature of his time was “poor” and that “most of it is rather milk for babes than meat for men” (Ibid. 122).  This was unacceptable to him because of the scholar’s unique American experience: “Here the greatest man stands nearest to the people, and without mediator speaks to them face to face” (Ibid. 114). Scholars have the access and exposure to the general public that would allow them to make a difference.  In earlier days, “all writing was done for the few” (Ibid.).  He continues: “Literature, which was once the sacrament of the few, only a shew-bread to the people, is now the daily meat of the multitude” (Ibid. 115).  Moreover, the potential to diffuse new ideas rapidly is another advantage for the American scholar: “The Americans are more metaphysical than the English; have departed more from the old sensational philosophy, have welcomed more warmly the transcendental philosophy of Germany and France” (Parker Am. Sch. 1973, 116).

               The potential for spreading ideas and the less significant level of resistance faced by the American scholars create the duty of the scholar.  He spends “a long time at school and college; not earning, but learning; living therefore at the cost of mankind, with an obligation and an implied promise to pay back when he comes of age and takes possession of his educated faculties” (Ibid. 103).   In addition to history and religion, which seem to be common threads in most of the transcendentalist writing, we can conclude that Parker sees a need for science and literature in his pedagogical system.  The literature should contain two elements: “[the first is] human and universal” and “the other is of the tribe in special, and of the writer in particular” (Ibid 124). This description resembles aspects of the pedagogy of Rousseau, and clearly represents the Renaissance humanist ideal.  The scholar must seek out core human values and create a literature that does not merely imitate the work of the ancients or of the older generations, but funnels the ancient truths into a modern vessel.  He says: “the universal human substance accepts the author’s form, and the public wine of mankind runs into the private bottle of the author” (Ibid.).  

               Regarding American science Parker claims “[it] is something of which we may be proud” (Ibid. 121).  Yet there are some dangers.  He says that scientists are getting caught up in the financial aspect of their craft: “A man’s respectability would be in danger, in America, if he loved any science better than the money or fame it would bring” (Ibid.). Because of this attitude “unprofitable parts of science fall to the lot of poor men” (Ibid.).   Science, in Parker’s pedagogy had to be studied “solely for her own sweet sake” and the areas that he is most concerned with are in the natural sciences (Parker Am. Sch. 1973, 121).  Perhaps most importantly, Parker believes that the role of the scholar is to pass on the torch of wisdom to the wider world.  This is his duty in science as well as in literature: “But even science, the proudest of the day, must come down from the clouds of the academy, lay off its scholastic garb, and appear before the eyes of the multitude in common work-day clothes” (Parker Am. Sch. 1973, 121).  High ideas need to be transformed into plain language so that the masses can comprehend.  This is the real challenge for the scholar and this is where his talents are truly exposed.  This is also where the scholar fits into the educational equation.  “He is to represent the higher facets of human consciousness to the people, and express them in the speech of the people; to think with the sage and saint, but talk with common man.” In keeping with the Renaissance tradition, “our American scholar must cultivate the dialectics of speech as well as thought” (Ibid. 115).

               As we have seen, a general understanding of the Transcendental pedagogy can be gleaned from the writing of Charles Ellis and Theodore Parker.  Both see the American society of their day as facing a crisis and both see a “new philosophy” as the means to save the nation from its impending doom.  They cite metaphysical materialism, extreme empiricism, and extreme capitalism (materialism in the monetary sense) as both causes and sustainers of the crisis.  In addition they add rapid expansion and the growing pains of the new nation to the mix. Also for both writers, education is seen as the chief hope for the coming generations.  Both believe that education should avoid Lockian theories and focus on the individual’s innate talents and strengths.  They also add intuition as a vital a priori source of knowledge.  They advocate curricula that integrate religion, philosophy, and history with both art and science.  For both transcendental philosophers balance is a central idea and the essence of School of Athens is again revealed. 

               This general platform would be built upon by several other well-known Transcendentalists. The backdrop for this philosophy is the hope that education in a democratic society was intended to promote social reform, justice, and human values.  One of the central concerns for most, if not all, of the Transcendental writers was the issue of slavery as they all stood on the abolitionist side of the debate, but each of the following focused on some area within these broad categories and thus created their own brand of Transcendentalism and consequently, their own pedagogical variations.  Amos Bronson Alcott forged ahead in an educational career that led him to open a school in Boston, and later to become superintendent of schools in Concord.  His focus was on educating young children.  Margaret Fuller at the Greene Street School based her curriculum on Transcendental philosophy and focused on the education of women.  Thoreau has become the monument to praxis in Transcendental ideology.  

Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott attempted this Transcendental, or idealist conception of education in Boston in the 1830’s.  He tried to teach strictly by the Socratic method of self-analysis and conversational discussions.  He wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the ancient Greek Academy.  His classroom contained the busts of Jesus, Plato, and Milton and had a picture of William Channing.  His vision was short lived because:

Alcott’s educational method was far more radical than his supporters had realized.  It was based on a belief that children were the purest of all human beings, having come so recently from God.  It was the priestly duty of the schoolmaster, Alcott believed, to encourage this spark of divinity by allowing children to express themselves freely, and so classes were conducted by a conversational method, and no topic was banned. (Blanchard 1978, 105-106)


Of Amos, Emerson said, "Alcott declares that a teacher is one who can assist the child in obeying his own mind, and can remove all unfavorable circumstances” (Leighton 1968, 77). 

               According to Walter Harding, in his introduction to Alcott’s Essays on Education, “the schools [Alcott] conducted as a young man were among the most frequently discussed of their time” and furthermore that his “influence on the educational theories of his fellow transcendentalists – men such as Emerson and Thoreau – was marked” (Harding 1960, vii).  Alcott’s Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture (1836) and Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1837) resulted from his work at the Temple School and they are “an exposition of the theories he practiced therein” (Ibid. xi). These works, especially the first one, and Alcott’s Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction (1830) give an outline of Alcott’s brand of Transcendental pedagogy.

               Like his fellow Transcendentalists, Alcott saw education as the hope of society: “At this day, men need some revelation of Genius, to arouse them to a sense of their nature; for the Divine Idea of a Man seems to have died out of our consciousness.”  Hindered “by the gluts of appetites, sunk in the corporeal senses, men know not the divine life that stirs within them, yet hidden and enchained” (Alcott Doc. and Disc. 1960, 40).  His desire for reform and his call to educators to carry man out of this crisis is reminiscent of the Humanism of the Italian Renaissance:

The faded image of Humanity is to be restored, and man reappear in his original brightness.  It is to mould anew our Institutions, Our Manners, our Men.  It is to restore Nature to its rightful use; purify Life; hallow the functions of the Human Body, and regenerate Philosophy, Literature, Art, Society.  The Divine Idea of a man is to be formed in the common consciousness of this age, and genius mould all its products in accordance with it (Alcott Doc. and Disc. 1960, 35).


He is pleading for man to rediscover his dignity and reassert himself as a divine entity capable of perfecting himself.  “Human culture” to Alcott “is the art of revealing to a man the true Idea of his Being – his endowments – his possessions – and of fitting him to use these for the growth, renewal, and perfection of his Spirit;” an education is “the art of completing man” (Ibid. 32). 

               Plato’s presence in the Temple School is significant, especially in light of Alcott’s journal entries years later.  Plato and his student Aristotle represent a balance of Hellenistic intellectualism.  He cites an ancient legend that claimed that Apollo bore Æsculapius and Plato, “one to cure bodies, the other, souls” (Alcott 1962, 217).  This divine ancestry of Plato is important because he would become the mouthpiece of the classical world and Alcott makes this clear as he traces the voyages of and influences on Plato.  He claims that after the death of Socrates he feared the Athenian atmosphere and fled to study with Euclid in Megara.  From there he spent time in Italy where he “addicted himself to the discipline of Pythagoras” and later learned geometry from Theodorus in Cyrene (Ibid. 220).  He was also exposed to the teachings of Hermes Trismagistus in Egypt and Alcott concludes that Plato then became influenced by Judaism citing a quote from Numenius as evidence: “Of philosophers, what is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?” (Ibid.).  Plato’s Academy then became an eclectic yet refined version of the best the Hellenistic world had to offer.[67]  The school was based on the idea that “education should be conducted with a sense of serene sweetness…gentleness, accompanied with persuasion and every kind of invitation,” and further that it should be conducted using dialog and conversation (Ibid. 222).  Plato’s system was based on the educational philosophies of Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Socrates which might be divided into three parts: moral, natural, and rational (Ibid. 223).

               Alcott uses Jesus Christ as an image of the perfected individual.  He claims that Christ was the first to reveal man’s true identity and thus destiny.  “[Jesus] set no limits to the growth of our nature. ‘Be ye perfect as my Father in Heaven is perfect,’ was the high aim which he placed before his disciples” (Alcott 1962, 33). This perspective of Christ eventually got Alcott into trouble with some of his original supporters.  According to Walter Harding, when this image was expounded upon in his Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1837) it was “pronounced as both blasphemous and obscene… [and] most of the parents withdrew their children from his school” (Harding 1960, ix).  This view claimed that all men were God-like and that Christ’s “achievements are a glimpse of the Apotheosis of Humanity” and that “they are a glorious unfolding of the God-like in man” (Alcott Doc. and Disc. 1960, 33).

               As the image of the perfected human, Jesus then becomes a pedagogical model for Alcott: “Jesus was a Teacher; he sought to renovate humanity” (Ibid. 36).  Jesus’ method did not reflect “formal and austere means” but instead relied “chiefly on the living word” (Ibid 37).  Conversation is the key to Christ’s methodology and Alcott embraces this in his own pedagogy.  The schools of his day embraced methods that demanded memorization and rote learning while Alcott began his lessons with dialog.  He said that Jesus’ preference for conversation as “the fittest organ of utterance, is a striking proof of his comprehensive Idea of Education” (Ibid. 38).  Alcott also cites Socrates and “the divine Plato” as employing similar methodology.  Of these Greeks he says: “They rank next in finish and beauty, to the specimens of Jesus as recorded by his own beloved John” (Alcott Doc. and Disc. 1960, 39).  Among other proponents of conversation in pedagogy he cites “the masters” Plutarch, Pythagoras and although not naming Rousseau himself, he named Pestalozzi[68] his disciple claiming that “conversation is the mind’s mouthpiece” and that “good teaching makes the child an eye witness, he seeing, then telling what is seen” (Alcott Superintendent’s Report of the Concord Schools- 1860-61 1960, 157). He says finally that everyone “deserving the name of teacher employs a conversational method of instruction” (Ibid.).  

Conversation stimulates the spirit, and an awakened spirit for Alcott leads to a “Whole Man.” This spirit is innate in all humans and “it is the province of education to wake it, and discipline it into the perfection which is its end, and for which it ever thirsts” (Ibid. 42). Conversation was a means for the spirit to uncover the ideas that lie beneath the text. He said: “Books were thoughts first, their contents the result of thinking, they should be baits for thought and study” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 158).  In a similar vein as Rousseau, Alcott claims that a child’s life “is too precious to be wasted in committing words to the memory from books they never learn the use of” and furthermore that “next to thinking for themselves, the best service any teacher can render to his scholars is to show them how to use books” (Ibid.). He did not see this happening in the classrooms of his day. He said: “there is little genius in our schoolrooms” (Ibid. 43).  Society eats away at the integrity of the soul and it eventually becomes muted in the background: “The soul is split out in lust; buried in appetite; or wasted in vulgar toils; and retreats, at last ignobly from the scene of life’s temptations; despoiled of its innocence; bereft of its hopes, and sets in the dark night of disquietude, lost to the race” (Ibid.).  If educational institutions and methodologies are tools of society, then they are not living up to the humanist ideal of artes liberales and are serving to perpetuate the corrupted system, “the race” as Alcott described it.  One of the reasons for this loss is a result of eighteenth century philosophy: “It springs from our low estimate of human nature and consequent want of reverence and regard for it” and in the end “the young repeat the vices and reproduce the opinions of parents” (Ibid. 44). 

Education is the best means available to combat this influence.  Alcott’s writings outline three significant roles in American education.  The first is the role of the state, the second is the role of teacher, and the third is the role of the parents.  He says that the “object of a free people is the preservation of their liberty,” so then the main task of the state is to “assume the training of all the children in the principles of right, knowledge and virtue, as the only safeguard of their liberties” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 187).  He concludes the matter of state responsibility in education in a humanistic light: “The simplest humanities are also the least costly and the nearest home….A virtuous education is the greatest alms it can bestow on any of its children” (Ibid.).

The second role in education is the role of the teacher. He refers to the good ones as “the chosen ones, the masters, the mistresses of the art” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 98).   The position in Alcott’s terms becomes literally a spiritual vocation.  As Parker demanded better pay and more respect for teachers, Alcott demanded better teachers.  Teachers could not be created or formed; they are called.  Nature is their guide and teaching is their art.  He says that “teaching is the instinct of the heart” and that a teacher must act according to her heart because “mind refuses to be driven by mechanism, it moves by magnetism.  It hates routine, dislikes more rote and repetition[69]” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 154).  A teacher can not be judged on credentials because it “is a personal influence” and it operates “as a spirit unsuspected at the moment” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 153).  Certifications are meaningless to Alcott, who claims that we should not “hazard our children with every candidate who shows credentials from learned faculties, or school committees…none can teach anything who does not love it and find his reward in it” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 97).  He says that processes and methodologies are not important because only results demonstrate whether the teacher is “worthy of the vocation” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 99).  In regard to what good teaching is, he asks: “Does the teacher awaken thought, strengthen the mind, kindle the affections, call the conscience, the common sense, into lively and controlling activity, so promoting the love of study, the practice of virtues; habits that shall accompany the children outwards into life” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 153-4)?   The faithful application of learned methodologies in teacher formation detracts from the art of teaching that the genuine teacher carries naturally in her heart, turning the classroom into an assembly line: “The heart must inspire the head and so sway the will, or the place is but a factory, the tasked and task-mistress meeting day by day to fulfill the unwilling engagements” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 98).

               Parents also play an important role in Alcott’s schools.  In his report for the 1859-60 school year he expresses disappointment: “I am sorry to find by the register so few credits for visits to the schools by parents” (Alcott SRCS- 1850-60 1960, 91).  In the report concluding his second term as superintendent, his disappointment turns into an outright plea to parents and a diatribe stressing the importance of their participation:

The school stands nearest the family of all our institutions, - is indeed an extension and image of it, and claims its fostering interest and sympathy. It should enlist the parents’ affection, and some of their freshest hours.  Its teachers deserve to be taken into their hearts as friends, the friends of their children, and their assistants in the work of training them in the ways of learning and virtue. (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 185).


He cannot understand why parents are unwilling to take part in the process.  He says: “A visit cannot fail to benefit all and parents most if they enter as parents should” (Ibid.). For Alcott the home-school connection was of vital importance because the two need not work against each other but should work in conjunction with one another to reinforce values and virtue.  He says “the school is an index to that family, the key to home influences; it is the readiest reading of the town’s population” and furthermore refers back to the Greeks: “Socrates comprised all objects of his search ‘what e’er of good or ill can man befall in his own house, - his homestead, sole,’ rightly perceiving this to be the seminary of the virtues, and the foundation of states” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 183).  To aid the process by which families, faculties, and administrators might work together, Alcott held Sunday evening meetings at the school houses.  They were open to all members of the community including the children themselves.  Alcott took pride in these meetings and said: “I can conceive of no better disposition of an evening than the meeting together of parents and children to converse or hear discussions on the family relations, the duties of neighborhood, the spirit of childhood, and the laws of life and of the virtues” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 181).[70]

               Alcott’s Superintendent reports are significant for other reasons too.  Their intended audience is the general population of Concord and the language is far more practical.  It might be seen as the practical application of the highly philosophical ideas presented in his educational treatises.  These reports might be seen as pragmatic transcendentalism.  In fact, they steer completely clear of philosophical jargon and of claiming support of any particular school of philosophy.  Besides the duties and qualities of his teachers, Alcott makes several curricular matters clear.  Math and science are important as are literature and the classics. In addition to these standards he designates the arts and physical education as essential to the curriculum.

               After his first year as superintendent, he remarked that methods of teaching math were exemplary because they were using the Pestalozzi method of instruction, which he refers to as “an example of pure teaching” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 90).  He has no recommendations for improvements and concludes that “Arithmetic is the only thing yet taught at all as a master would teach, and it is taught perfectly” (Ibid.). His want of recommended improvements, however, should certainly not be taken as an indication of his impression that math is less important than other subjects.  He believed that math was essential to understanding natural science and called geometry, algebra, and arithmetic, the “science which are the alphabet and prime symbols of natural things” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-61 1960, 173).  He also alludes constantly to Pythagoras whom he refers to as the “Great Master,” and makes the strong point that there is no “book better deserving the study of teachers and parents than this Life of Pythagoras, from which my extracts are taken” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 192-3).  In one of his journals he exclaimed: “Of the greatest educators of antiquity, I esteem Pythagoras the most eminent and successful” and further that “everything of his doctrine and discipline comes commended by its elegance and humanity” (Alcott 1962, 88).

               Alcott’s reports also acknowledge the importance of the natural sciences although his advocacy also includes a warning.  While studies of physiology are important, “studies in anatomy are best deferred…. The ends of science are sometimes served at the cost of the innocence and of humanity” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 168).  He is recommending a balanced approach to science.  The high school teacher who introduced the subject of chemistry into the curriculum is praised by Alcott: “Mr. Allen’s methods are scholastic and pains-taking” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 109).  In addition, Alcott’s 1861-2 school year report contains a list of recommended books for the teachers to use in class.  Of the nineteen books in English (there is a separate list for classical and French books) recommended for the high school classes, seven are science related (five are math, two are geography, one is history and the rest are English language related).  The list contains the following science books[71]: Olmstead’s Astronomy, Well’s Natural Philosophy, Well’s Chemistry, Tenney’s Geology, Smellie’s Natural History, and a Manual of Agriculture (Alcott SRCS- 1861-2 1960, 242).  His list for teachers in the year preceding had in addition Jarvis’ Physiology and Gray’s Elementary Botany (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 161). 

               The primary focus in history for Alcott seems to be in United States and local history.  Although he only recommends one United States History book (Quackenbush’s), he admits that “histories... are prime aids in teaching; the readiest means of influence and inspiration; the liveliest substitutes for flagging spirits, fatigued wits” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 164).  This correlates to the transcendental philosophy of teaching history as a living legacy of ideas[72].  The lack of proper history text books should come as no surprise because their deficiency is well compensated for in the literature that Alcott chooses to recommend.  Works in English that he advocates are Shakespeare, Milton, and Thomson.  Pilgrim’s Progress according to Alcott “stands next to the parables of the New Testament in the value of its insinuating moralities” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 163).   Regarding poets he refers to Tennyson, Scott, Wordsworth, Bryant, Whittier, and Longfellow among others.  While most of these only require a small amount of historical context to support their comprehension and absorption of the Zeitgeists they represent, Alcott’s insistence upon classic literature, read in its original Greek and Latin, demands a sturdy historical framework. 

               Like his Italian Renaissance humanist predecessors, Alcott required knowledge in the classical languages and provided an intense reading list to reinforce the necessary skills.  He said that “in our hurrying and practical country [the classic authors] are apt to be much neglected” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 84).  In his first school report he gives high school teacher Mr. Allen credit for the students’ performance in the classical languages.  He says that Allen “has wished to emancipate the memory from the dead letter of the text and to make his teaching less formal and literal” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 109). The result of his non-traditional methods (which are not described in detail) was that the students showed “good knowledge of the [Greek] grammar and the principles of construction,” and that “Latin translations were good” (Ibid.). 

His second report gives a hint of what he thought to be adequate for these high school students.  For most of the high school students, he feels that they should understand the rudiments of the language and be able to sift easily through the excerpts found in the textbooks. But the “studious few” should go well beyond and for them he recommends they read Cæsar, Virgil, Cicero, Sallust, portions of Livy, Tacitus’ prose, Horace, half of Catullus, and all of Lucretius (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 202).  If time permits, he would add Pliny’s letters, portions of Seneca, Ovid, Juvenal, Persius, Lucan, and Martial (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 202). In Greek his recommendations are equally rigorous: Xenophon, Homer, Herodotus, parts of Plutarch, Æschylus, Sophocles, Hesiod, Pindar, Orphics, Aristophanes, Plato, Thucydides, and Aristotle (Ibid. 202-209).  In addition to these, “the Euchiridion of Epictetus and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius should be read by all who would know the sweetness of the Stoic philosophy” (Ibid. 203).  Many of these are in fact histories and students assuredly must gain an historical awareness by reading them.  For the others, an historical context must surely be provided as part of the method of instruction. 

               Also in the humanistic tradition, Alcott makes a sharp point regarding the significance of the arts.  In regard to drawing he laments: “This pleasing and really useful art has been hitherto much neglected in the schools” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-1 1960, 167). He suggests to the instructor adding the “Greek Pantheon as a gallery of forms for illustrating the first metaphysics in an attractive style to the senses” (Ibid.).  This is helpful in two ways. First it provides an image to help develop the technical skills of the art. Second “of all the forms, the human form is most marvelous and the modest reverence for its shadings intimates the proper mode of studying it rightly and religiously” (Ibid.).  In this sense he believes that it will help students develop a sense of piety in relation to the human body.       

               Also within the realm of the arts he places a tremendous emphasis on music.  He believes that “it softens the manners, cultivates the voice, and purifies the taste of children” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 89).  Furthermore, he says that singing “is a proper qualification of a teacher, and a cordial gift, indispensable in our primary, and desirable in all our schools; since making melody in the heart soonest brightens the wits and kindles the desire for excellence” (Alcott SRCS- 1859-60 1960, 89).  To enforce the position of music in the curriculum, he required that all of the schools in the district participate in an annual “School Exhibition” which was attended by the general public.  During this production, each of the three primary schools, the six elementary schools, the intermediate school, and the high school performed several songs and recitations for the audience. 

               Another area that reflects the visions of Renaissance educator Vittorino da’Feltre is Alcott’s insistence on physical education in the curriculum.  The physical body is an essential piece of the trinitarian model (mind, body, spirit). He says that “Body and mind are yokefellows and love to draw together in these life tasks and pleasures of ours” (Alcott SRCS- 1860-61 1960, 169). He later claims that “a sound mind proves itself best by keeping its body sound and swift to serve its turns; its senses keen, its limbs strong and agile for the movement” (Ibid.).   This is reflective of the philosophy he puts forth in The Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture where he claims: “Man’s mission is…to hold his dominion over his own Body… [to be used] for the growth, renewal, and perfection of his Being” (Alcott Doc. and Disc. 1960, 51). 

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller was one of the teachers at Bronson Alcott’s famed Temple School in Boston. Although she was reluctant to enter the teaching profession it was under Alcott that she found her vocation and developed her own philosophy of education.  One of her students at the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island remarked, “She is everything to me- my teacher, my counselor, my guide, my friend, my pillar on which I lean for support when disheartened and discouraged” (Kornfield 1997, 23).  Her method was simple.  She never intended to stand in front of a class and talk at them.  She engaged them, and they came to know each other fully. It was an active learning.  Fuller understood the importance of the teaching profession. 

Fuller was well respected by her contemporaries for her efforts in education but more importantly for her efforts in the cause of women.  Upon the posthumous publication of Fuller’s writing by Horace Greeley, Alcott said in his journal: “The sex has had no abler advocate…. That she wrote books was the least of her merits. She was the greatest when she dropped her pen” (Alcott 1962, 77).  Her eloquence impressed him and he claimed that she “spoke what others essayed to say,” and continued by comparing her to his classical hero: “She seemed to have divined the significance of women, dared where her sex has hesitated hitherto, was gifted to untie social knots which the genius of a Plato even failed to disentangle” (Ibid. 88).

Fuller laments the fact that her father pushed her as hard as he did when she was a child.  She claims, “He made one great mistake…. He thought to gain time by bringing forward the intellect as early as possible” (Fuller 1965, 106).  In addition she concluded that the tasks he had given her were “on subjects beyond [her] age” (Ibid.).  Finally she admits: “I look back on these glooms and terrors, wherein I was enveloped, and perceive that I had no natural childhood” (Ibid. 108).  These memories of her childhood education helped shape the way she would eventually respond to the call to teach.  Fuller resented having to teach, but because she needed to alleviate some financial constraints,[73] she took on the task.  After a year teaching at Alcott’s Temple School she became the head teacher at Greene Street School, which was developed by Hiram Fuller (no relation) and was based on Alcott’s principles. 

She found the students to be severely lacking intellectually and she began to see herself as having a vital role to play in their lives. Thus her mission began to take shape.  She describes the state of education in her day:

The gulf is vast, wider than I could have conceived possible, between me and my pupils; but the sight of such deplorable ignorance, such absolute burial of the best powers, as I find in some instances, makes me comprehend, better than before, how such a man as Mr. Alcott could devote his life to renovate elementary education. I have pleasant feelings when I see that a new world has already been opened to them. (Fuller 1965, 109)


While her experience at Greene Street was in teaching both girls and boys, her mission began to take on a new direction by the end of the school year.  She summoned the “elder girls, who had been [her] especial charge” so that she could give them their final dismissal but found that “none stirred, and [they] all sat for some moments, weeping” (Ibid 111).

               The satisfaction she gained in enlightening her students and the emotion that she felt in departing from her elder girls gave her a new sense of mission.  From 1839 to 1844 she conducted a new kind of education in Boston.  She held courses for women that were based on conversation circles.  In these conversations we begin to see Fuller the humanist emerge.  We also see the development of her women’s advocacy.  Her mission went beyond merely imparting knowledge.  Her ambition she said was “to systematize thought, and give a precision and clearness in which our sex are so deficient, chiefly, I think, because they have so few inducements to test and classify what they receive” (Fuller 1965, 113).  She hoped that these discussions of the material would help solidify the learning and make it applicable to life. Her second mission resembles Leonardo Bruni’s argument and prescription for humanist education for women and Rousseau’s argument for the formation of citizens.  This was “to ascertain what pursuits are best suited to us, in our time and state of society, and how we may make best use of our means for building up the life of thought upon the life of action” (Ibid.). 

Fuller’s approach to the conversations was balanced and highly humanistic.  She argues that men are constantly called to use what they learn: “Their college exercises, their political duties, their professional studies, the first actions of life in any direction, call on them to put to use what they have learned. But women learn without any attempt to reproduce” (Fuller 1965, 117).  Her method was to introduce a subject in a general sense and to give some thoughts on it.  An example of such a subject that she gives is: “the history of a nation to be studied in – its religious and civil institutions; its literature and arts, the characters of its great men” (Ibid. 115).  After discussing the topics she would have her students write their thoughts on it and the result would spur another dialog, as she would anonymously read the responses aloud to the class.  It appears that her classes were successful.  She says: “My class is prosperous…. All seem in a glow and quite receptive as I wish” (Fuller 1965, 116).  She continues: “I assure you, there is more Greek than Bostonian spoken at the meetings; and we may have pure honey of Hymettus[74] to give you yet” (Ibid. 117).

In some ways her methods were not original.  Some aspects of her style could be labeled Socratic.  In other ways she resembled the fifth century bishop, Augustine of Hippo.  He too knew that learning does not come from the teacher, and that the revelation of true knowledge is discovered within the student.  Her use of analogies was similar to Jesus’ parables.  The concerns of Jean Baptiste De LaSalle were also her concerns.  In the thirty-third entry of his Meditations, he states that “to know their pupils and to discern the right way to lead them, is one of the principal duties of those entrusted with the instruction of youth” (Battersby 1949, 81).  In fact, this seems to be the common thread that runs through all of the great teachers we have seen.

Henry David Thoreau

               Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and began teaching in the Concord school district.  He quit after he was criticized by a school board member for not having control of his classroom.   Refusing to employ stricter methods of discipline, like corporal punishment, he left his position.  In 1839, he and his older brother John established the Concord Academy.  In 1841 his brother died of tuberculosis and Thoreau went into a depressive state that caused him to close the doors of the academy.  Thoreau later did scattered tutoring for friends and family and became a frequent lecturer at the Concord Lyceum.

Thoreau is perhaps the best example of general praxis within the New England school of thought.  He stands out in our memories as the non-conformist naturalist in Walden, who is famous for his doctrine of nonviolence and his stand in Civil Disobedience, the anthem for individuals concerned with the “freedom of the individual against coercion” (Kurtz 1966, 305).   Freedom for Thoreau is a means to obtaining self-fulfillment.  His stress on human freedom, moral obligation, and conscience is reminiscent of the ancient Greeks and is a telltale sign of his classical education.  He exemplifies the ancient Greek ideal of humanism, which emphasizes the nobility of thought and action in the hero.  Thoreau said in an August 19, 1840 journal entry: “Homer was a greater hero than Ajax or Achilles…. When nobleness of soul is accompanied by grace and dignity of action – then especially has it a current stamp and value” (Thoreau 1958, 157). Alcott actually noted these heroic qualities in Thoreau. In one of his journal entries in Concord Days, he writes of Thoreau: “He belonged to the Homeric age, - was older than the pastures and gardens, as if he were of the race of heroes and one with the elements” (Alcott 1962, 13).  Alcott continues for several paragraphs to draw parallels between the Concord naturalist and the intellectual giants of the classical age.  About Thoreau’s concern for social justice his journal says that “there was in him an integrity and love of justice that made possible and actual the virtues of Sparta and the Stoics….Plutarch would have made him immortal in his pages had he lived before his day” (Ibid. 13-14).

               Thoreau’s famous Civil Disobedience is a hallmark for the case of social justice and many see it as an example of praxis within an idealistic philosophy.  However, the ideals espoused in the essay and the kinds of justice issues addressed – slavery and unjust war – are concerns that all members of the movement shared.  Therefore I have focused on some of his lesser known journal entries in order to see another side of Thoreau.  I used Thoreau’s “Lost Journals,” a collection compiled by Perry Miller in the 1950s.  In these journals Thoreau adds another element to his brand of transcendentalism, one that would both set him apart from his peers and distinguish him as a pioneer thinker among late twentieth and early twenty-first century readers.  Alcott’s journal records: “Nature, poetry, life. – not politics, not strict science, not society as it is, - were his preferred themes,” and that he believed that “the world was holy, the things seen symbolizing the things unseen, and thus worthy of worship, calling men out-of-doors and under the firmament for health and wholesomeness to be insinuated into their souls, not as idolaters, but as idealists” (Alcott 1962, 15).  His philosophy was Platonic yet pantheistic.  His belief that the physical world was a mere representation of eternal things is akin to Alcott’s own philosophy expressed in his dialog about shadows with his young student as recorded by Elizabeth Peabody, his assistant at the Temple School.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Alcott was so drawn to Thoreau’s intellect.  But it seems to be the other side of Thoreau that was most intriguing.  Alcott says: “More primitive and Homeric than any American, his style of thinking was robust, racy, as if Nature herself had built his sentences and seasoned the sense of his paragraphs with her own vigor and salubrity” (Alcott 1962, 16).   Thoreau’s naturalism set him apart. 

               Thoreau stressed the divinity in man and believed that nature was the appropriate avenue to discern this divinity and from it develop wisdom.  Of divinity he said in his August 1, 1840 journal: “The divinity in man is the vestal fire of the temple, which is never permitted to go out, but burns as steadily, and with as pure a flame, on the obscure provincial altar, as in Numa’s temple at Rome” (Thoreau 1958, 139). This is certainly in line with the philosophies of his contemporaries, but Thoreau insisted, more than any of the others, on nature being a means to awaken the inner spirit.  Thoreau separates genius from art.  He claims that the artist is the one who “detects & applies for himself the true laws from observation of the works of Genius. – He is the artisan who merely applies the rules which others have detected” (Thoreau 1958, 151). The passage continues to claim that there is no man who is complete genius, yet there is no man who completely lacks it.  Nature is the means to discover the genius. He says: “When the accents of wisdom and eloquence have died away – I discover that the chirp of the crickets is still clear in advance” (Ibid. 152).   Knowing nature was knowing God for Thoreau, who believed that “God’s order is nature” (Thoreau 1958, 161).  In the same entry, he quotes the Greek “matter philosopher” Thales: “’It is hard, but good, to know oneself; virtue consists in leading a life conformable to nature’” (Ibid), and a few days later concludes that “Virtue will be known…. When man is in harmony with nature” (Ibid. 163).

               Thoreau’s concern for nature raises questions about the study of science.  At first glance it seems (especially in his quoting of materialist philosophers) that Thoreau is bordering on a materialist philosophy and is proclaiming a faith in natural science; however, this is not the case.  The following quote in Thoreau’s journal was taken from a book of comparative philosophy[75] that was popular among Thoreau and his contemporaries.  The last entry for Saturday, September 26, 1840 says: “’Plato gives science sublime counsels, directs her toward the region of the ideal; Aristotle gives her positive and severe laws, and directs her toward a practical end.’ Degerando” (Thoreau 1958, 163).   Herein lies the ancient dialog – the focal point of Raffaele’s painting.  Plato and Aristotle are two sides to the same equation and both are required to maintain a balanced approach to epistemology.  He says that the scientist will be “the healthiest man” but the kind of science that he is talking about is different than his eighteenth century predecessors would have described (Thoreau 1958, 171). He says that the “true man of science will have a rare Indian wisdom – and will know nature better by his finer organization” (Ibid.). Learning, for Thoreau, does not come from “inference and deduction, and the application of mathematics to philosophy but by direct intercourse” (Ibid.).  He takes this a step further when he writes: “It is not with science as with ethics – we cannot know truth by method and contrivance – the Baconian is as false as any other method” (Ibid.).   Finally, he concludes October 11, 1840 with one last statement about science: “In a lifetime you can hardly expect to convince a man of an error – but must content yourself with the reflection that the progress of science is slow” (Thoreau 1958, 172).  

               Science and the humanities, Aristotle and Plato, the material in light of the immaterial.  These are the concerns of Thoreau in many of his journal entries.  To see the material world as a reflection of the metaphysical is to understand it more fully.  Science for Thoreau is a noble art: “The eye that can appreciate that naked and absolute beauty of a scientific truth, is far rarer than that which discerns moral beauty” (Thoreau 1958, 182).  Nature “preaches not abstract but practical truth…. Unlike the man of science she teaches that skeletons are only good to wear the flesh, and make fast the sinews to – that better is the man than his bones” (Thoreau 1958, 191).  This is a call away from the modern scientific perspective.  Is one sense he is attempting to restore the scientific curiosity of Galileo and the original movers of the Scientific Revolution.  His statement about the bones is significant and it is important that it followed his praises of science.  In a sense it is a warning to avoid scientism, before scientism, as a term, existed.  He is saying: Understand science for its whole picture – that which is seen in light of that which is unseen.  He more importantly is trying to dissuade scientists from their reductionistic tendencies.  If we reduce man to his smallest parts, we have lost track of our essence, the very thing that makes us human.

The Transcendentalist Legacy

               On a theological level the Transcendentalists may have made some progress; however, Perry Miller says of the movement: “little or nothing ever came from it” (Miller 1950, 13).  He argues that “American society went on its way undisturbed” and that by the 1850s “it had virtually ceased to be” (Ibid.).  He suggests a reason why this might have happened:

One reason – possibly a sufficient reason – for the disappearance of the movement was simply that it won its point, or at any rate most of its points….younger ministers tinged with Emersonianism, took over the pulpits, and strife between the church and the “new school” ceased…. The channelizing of reforming energies in to the antislavery crusade also helped make Transcendentalism respectable.  And finally, in America of the late nineteenth century, when religion became less of a battleground and anxieties were centered upon the economic problem, Transcendentalism – or what little was left of it – seemed no more than a harmless exhortation to self-reliance and optimism. (Ibid.)


Still, some of the battles may have been won on the theological and even social level, one may not feasibly conclude that the war as a whole was won. 

Miller argues that some of the Transcendental school was absorbed into the American cultural fabric (e.g. the antislavery movement and the spiritual awakening) but other aspects of it were, to paraphrase, ran their course and eventually lost momentum.  Fuller, while experiencing some early success in her education and advocacy for women, in the end lost her battle.  Society was not ready for her and the “American Scholars” of her day[76] were not strong enough to carry out her mission.  She fled to Italy, spent time in Florence, and felt at home there during the 1848 revolutions, marrying an Italian nobleman Giovanni Ossoli and having a son there.[77] Thoreau secluded himself from society and quietly died of tuberculosis in 1862.  Thoreau was not renowned outside of the transcendentalist circles until the mid twentieth century.  Theodore Parker, who upon his death was dubbed the Savonarola of the Transcendentalist movement by Emerson[78], exhausted himself and died in Florence in 1860, never seeing the emancipation of slaves or suffrage for women, the two social issues that drove him to the end.  Miller mentions several others: “Cranch took refuge in Florence…Emerson dissolved into aphasia, Ripley subsided into disillusion…Brownson became a Catholic, as did Sophia Ripley, and Elizabeth Peabody became a ‘character’…Ellery Channing spent a life of futility” (Miller 1950, 14).

Besides the small victories in theology and society, it could be argued that some were also gained in the realm of education. Alcott may be one of the few members of the circle that hung on.  Miller says that he “alone endured to the end as the irreducible and indestructible Transcendentalist” but adds that he “lived a life of meditative leisure shamelessly parasitic on the labors of his wife and daughters” (Ibid.).   His idealistic philosophies of education were explored in his early ventures like the Temple School and his ideas spread to other schools like the Greene Street School in Providence.  In the late 1850s and early 1860s he was able to apply his ideas more practically as the superintendent of the Concord Public School District which became a model district for the rapidly developing public school movement.  Later in his life, he lectured throughout the east and into the Midwest spreading his educational philosophy. Finally, in 1879 he achieved his dream of opening the Concord School of Philosophy for adults.  He died in 1888 at the age of 89.

Paul Boller’s 1974 work, American Transcendentalism, 1830-1860: an Intellectual Movement, is more optimistic than Miller’s anthology.  In education and theology alike the transcendentalists made a serious impact on American culture.  He says: “The Transcendentalists broadened the outlook of educated Americans; they encouraged them to look beyond the horizon of English and classical art and literature” (Boller 1974, 203).  He claimed further that they “made permanent contributions to American and to world literature, and their influence here and abroad has been persistent” (Ibid. 204). This intellectual historian argues that the “appeal of the Transcendentalists has rested largely on their impassioned quest for noble ways of using the great gifts of life” and that although it reached all levels of the American intellect, “it remained essentially religious in its quest for meaning and purpose” (Ibid. 205).  The book skillfully concludes with a quote from Emerson that describes the purpose of the movement: “Emerson advised: ‘be an opener of doors to those who come after us.’ ... So were all the Transcendentalists” (Ibid 210).


               A study of the Transcendentalist pedagogy as a response to social crisis is important.  It not only uncovers a nineteenth century philosophy of education, it shows the thread of humanist ideals weaving through a modern worldview, one that is not far removed from our own. Perry Miller, in the introduction to his Transcendentalist anthology claims that,

however few or confused or faltering were the so-called Transcendentalists, they were, often despite themselves, caught up in a crisis of the spirit and of the nation, a crisis that carries immense implications for the American predicament not only in their time but also in ours (Miller 1950 7).


What can be gleaned from these idealistic philosophies, many of which might be considered to have failed? 

               We must first consider the crisis as they described it.  They saw the American Enlightenment and its utter reliance upon reason as a threat to American spirituality and consequently its morality.  They also saw the momentum of the Second Great Awakening’s evangelical Christianity as an equally unbalanced alternative.  Most of them noted the dangers of excessive capitalistic principles, especially as they affected education, science, technology, and the human condition.  These thinkers wanted to forge a new path in American intellectual life and saw themselves as standing at a monumental moment in the nation’s history.  Reflecting this moment in history, they believed that a true republican nation required that its populace be educated.  Yet education for them went beyond the shaping of model citizens as had been proposed by others in the past (Rousseau and Jefferson[79]).  The Transcendentalist saw education as a means of salvation.  It was liberation first for the soul and then for the man as a whole.

               The Transcendentalists were humanists in the Italian Renaissance tradition. By the twentieth century, humanists came to mean those who relied on the human person and his sense of reason and who had abandoned their faith in the metaphysical which had shackled mankind in previous ages; it had become secular.  These nineteenth century humanists resembled the Italian model more closely. They strove for moral progress.  They sought wisdom in the words of the classics, which are regarded by many as the original humanists (See Perry and “Greek Humanism”).  They believed in human dignity and the perfectibility of man who is made in God’s image and likeness.  The Transcendentalists resurrected the Greek idea of excellence and social justice, but most importantly believed that the source of correction for society’s evils lie in education.  The Italian humanists wanted to balance a pedagogical equation.  The liberal arts needed to free man from the system imposed on him by his surroundings and this would be accomplished by reopening the eternal dialog.  The image of Raffaele’s School of Athens is equally an image of nineteenth century Boston, the “New Athens.” 







































Chapter 5- Wisdom for Our Times


               Jonathan Glover’s[80] Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century begins with a powerful title for his first chapter: “Never Such Innocence Again.”  He says that when the twentieth century began “most people accepted the authority of morality. They thought there was a moral law, which was self-evidently to be obeyed” (Glover 1999, 1).  Yet things were much different by the end of the century, about which he claims, “It is hard to be confident either about the moral law or about moral progress” (Ibid.).  He acknowledges that morality’s major challenge is intellectual in nature.  In the modern dialog one must prove first that a moral law exists and second that it holds sway over us. He also admits that this dialog is nothing new and cites Plato as one of the precursors of the discussion.  He then identifies several reasons why the crisis has intensified in the twentieth century.  He says: “the collapse of the authority of religion and decline in belief in God are reasons for it now being a problem for many who are not philosophers” (Ibid.).  Another factor that Glover considers is the role of technology in the modern age.  He says that barbarism is not a twentieth century phenomenon but adds that “technology has made a difference,” citing that “the decisions of a few people can mean horror and death for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of other people” (Ibid. 3).

               Technology for Glover is a key element in the modern crisis.  As he outlines the century’s extensive list of human atrocities one is left to ponder the devastating effects that techno-scientific progress has had upon our culture.  He claims that the atrocities outlined in the books serve to demonstrate “how naturally inhumanity combines with technology,” and that “it is hard to see that there was much chance to escape some variant of the bloody twentieth century we know” (Ibid 414).   Technology has in a sense removed us from the devastation making us blind to it.  He says:

Technology has created forms of cold violence which should disturb us far more than the beast of rage in man.  The great military atrocities now use bombs or missiles.  The decisions are taken coldly, far away…At the start of the twentieth century, massacres by soldiers were seen as aberrations…. Mass killing of civilians at a distance, having been made easier by technology, is now central to modern war. (Ibid. 64).


This mentality, however, is consistent with human nature according to Glover.  He says that “our species won a dominant position on earth partly by using intelligence to devise methods of killing at a distance.  And the packs of hunters who survived were often those who were best at killing other humans who were members of rival packs” (Ibid. 41). 

               This view is important to our discussion for several reasons.  First it expresses a Hobbesian view of human nature.  Second it reflects the influence of the nineteenth century philosophy of social Darwinism.  Both ideas have been cited by humanists as detrimental to the human condition and were seen as concepts that must be thwarted by education.  In a sense Glover is doing the same thing. The twentieth century has given us the power to kill larger numbers of people at a time and from a distance; it has also given us the ability to see what is going on in the world at a global level.  Glover retains a Hobbesian view of human nature but sees Kant as providing the solution.  In a later article, regarding the war on Iraq, Glover says: “Our present international world seems alarmingly like the Hobbesian state of nature” but refers to Kant saying: “In his book, Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant saw that the Hobbesian solution was not the best possible” (Glover 2003).  The reason why it was not a good solution was because the “the Hobbesian ruler has no moral authority. His only claim to impose peace is his strength” (Ibid.).

               Glover claims: “One feature of our time is the fading of the moral law” and that “the idea of a moral law external to us may never have had secure foundations, but, partly because of the decline of religion in the Western world, awareness of this is now widespread” (Glover 1999, 405).  Glover seems to be in an ideological crisis himself at this point.  He is not in favor of religious morality yet he knows that there is some value in it.  He says: “Those of us who do not believe in a religious moral law should still be troubled by its fading” (Ibid.).   He continues to explain this sentiment, starting off with a disclaimer: “The evils of religious intolerance, religious prosecution and religious wars are well known, but it is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment” and finally admits that “the decline of this moral commitment would be a huge loss” (Ibid.). 

               So the question arises: If parts of the system are broken, yet dispensing with the system would be “a huge loss,” then why not fix what we have?  Glover’s response is humanist but not in Renaissance terms.  His humanism is the one proclaimed by the Enlightenment, the one that isolates humanity from its divinity and from its larger context by relying squarely on the human intellect and its faculties of reason. It is an adulterated version of what the Renaissance humanists believed.  Glover wants to restore the “optimism, coming from the Enlightenment, that the spread of a humane and scientific outlook would lead to the fading away, not only of war, but also of other forms of cruelty and barbarism” (Glover 1999, 6).  Another aim of the book is to “defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and more humane, … by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery” (Ibid. 7).  At a later point he says that another goal is to “construct a more empirical form of ethics” (Ibid. 43).  These are the things that Rousseau, and later the Transcendentalists were responding to. 

The response of an historian of ideas is simple: Haven’t we tried this before?  One of the initial questions in this dissertation came from a book on historical methodology which asked: “Can stories about other peoples in other places and other times have any meaning in an age of vaulting technology and traumatizing change?” (Gilderhus 1992, 1)  My answer is yes, and yet one is left to wonder: If we have been down this road before, and in many regards the present crisis is a result of traveling this road, why would we be willing to start it over again? Glover is not alone.  Many scholars find themselves in this paradox because the world of academia is stuck in an intellectual paradigm, a paradigm that germinated in the Enlightenment and was fertilized by nineteenth century positivists and early twentieth century “social scientists.” Glover ends his first chapter with an important line.  He says “we need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them” (Glover 1999, 7).   I agree with this but I extend this to academia itself. It is time to look at some of our own monsters.

The twentieth century is laden with references to crisis from literature and academia in general.  Many of these writings express a fear that humanity is somehow being lost in a shuffle.  The shuffle appears to be the result of a techno-scientific tangle that is commonly referred to as scientism.  The crisis outlined by the works discussed in the first chapter has several distinguishing characteristics.  First, a faith in science has created an academic culture that is materialist, reductionist and empirical. Second, these qualities have contributed to the problem in such a way that, the crisis in many respects might be seen as being metaphysical in nature.  Third, there exists a general fear that the human condition is suffering – morally, spiritually, etc. – as a result of these first two qualities.  Fourth, education is seen as having the potential to avert disaster and restore human dignity by instituting one that is balanced and holistic. This kind of learning will help uncover core human values. 

               Our case studies have shown us that this crisis is not unique to our time.   Similar crises has come and gone in history and education has responded in very specific ways.  In some cases, these educational reforms made valuable contributions to the world at large; in other cases these pedagogical movements were absorbed into the Zeitgeist and lost in the momentum of social, cultural, and political currents.  In any case, each movement contains certain clues about the role of education in a society and expresses the sheer importance of the teaching profession.  Those who are called to the vocation have a serious responsibility in their charge.  It is imperative in the twenty-first century – a time which may be seen as the mature stage of the scientific revolution – that educators take notice of pedagogies of the past and begin to glean wisdom from what history has to offer.  

               The first part of this chapter will investigate the modern crisis from a purely educational standpoint in light of the three previous crises. Then it will discuss the lessons that each of the three case studies has to offer and finally discuss some twentieth century educational philosophers that have picked up the humanist thread. Part Two will look at some of the innovative movements of the twentieth century and suggest ways to expand and integrate them into the twenty-first century. Then it will use contemporary examples in order to develop a firm schema that demonstrates what the humanist philosophy of the present century should consist of.

Chapter Five- Part One:

The Modern Crisis from an Educational Perspective

The Industrial Revolution under the scientific paradigm forced dramatic change upon educational institutions.   In many ways, science and technology developed an intricate codependency. Edwards and Richey claim that “science and invention, translated into technology, were incredibly improving methods of production and increasing the output of industry.”  Further, they state: “it is clear that with each passing year the US was caught more firmly in the grip of a technological revolution” (Edwards and Richey 1963 395).  Shortly after, “the percentage of the nation’s children and youth attending school increased rapidly; the school term was lengthened and attendance made more regular; and education was given more adequate financial support” (Ibid. 497).  Curriculum became an important issue. There were no solid educational standards yet and most were relying on the traditional liberal arts curriculum with little science.  

Political Science and Economics have been in development certainly since the Enlightenment, and arguably from the time of Machiavelli, but the industrial revolution made these disciplines necessary.  Rapid urbanization and an industrial economy posed new challenges to humanity in the late modern era.  Schools became the perfect training ground for the young industrialist society. “Leaders of each community included in the educational program the content and the activities that seemed to them desirable” (ibid. 530). These new motivations stemmed from the revolution itself.  The late nineteenth century social movement called positivism contributed to the paradigm.  The positivist creed was based solidly in the scientific method and the result was the invention of the social sciences.  The scientific method, along with mathematical reasoning launched political science, economics, and the social sciences in general, into higher education programs.  This social science movement became the next major technological step toward a standardized education.

“No matter where one turned…one found that industry had brought science and invention into its service” (Edwards and Richey 1963 395).  The scientization of society had begun.  Even popular literature of the early twentieth century talked about the scientific approach to education and likewise the economic motivation behind it. The movement can be traced to the 1890’s when “[educational] leaders were subjecting the process of education to scientific analysis.”  In particular, “J.M. Rice in 1897 initiated the testing movement by his investigation of spelling, and it was not long before objective tests of many kind begin to appear” (Ibid 531).

Rice tested 30,000 students and concluded that “those who spent only fifteen minutes a day on the study of the subject learned to spell just as well as those who devoted an hour or more to the task.” His conclusion was ill received but his method was used as a springboard.  The Seventeenth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education was published in 1918. It contained eighty-four standard tests for use in elementary schools and twenty-five for high schools and covered virtually every subject of the curriculum.” (Pulliam and Van Patten 1995 134)

Neil Postman, the contemporary sociologist and critic of technology, discusses the fact that modern society has found a new metaphysic to replace the old:

At some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of technology- in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for the most part it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will offer their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it.  If this is not a form of religion, what is? (Postman 1996, 38)


Howard Gardner expects the trend to continue into the future when “almost everything that can be handled algorithmically, will be carried out by automata” (Gardner 2000, 45).  The Baconian method proved to be an effective technique in the worlds of science and the social science disciplines, while technology improved the efficiency of production in every industry in America; it was only a matter of time until it was used to categorize the human mind. “American factories were moving toward mass production and efficiency, and the schools reflected society in the rush to adopt standardized testing of students” (Janesick 2001 89).

Positivism insisted on a scientific approach to the human, as well as the natural world, and had a tendency to organize and classify everything. This American sense of Comte’s positivist system, as employed by the social sciences, created a phenomenon that Peter Sacks refers to as “the scientific management of its schools” (Sacks 1999, 70). According to Edward Thorndike, developer of the first formal achievement tests in 1904, “the nature of educational measurement is the same as that of all scientific measurement,” and in this vein, “the evaluation of student progress would be considered in the same realm with measuring tolerances of automobile pistons or the trajectory of missiles.” Some have suggested that the original motivation behind the application of the scientific approach was not done for the purest of reasons: “The main reason for the achievement testing was not to assess student progress or improve teaching but to establish the profession of psychology as a science separate from philosophy,” yet another side effect of the positivist movement (McKenna, 1977, 7).

Progressive philosopher John Dewey claimed that “our mechanical, industrialized civilization is concerned with averages and percents. The mental habit which reflects this social scene subordinates education and social arrangements based on average gross inferiorities and superiorities” (qtd. Sacks 1999, 73).  Postman agrees and bleakly admits that humans have become subordinate: “The technology is here or will be; we must use it because it is there; we will be the kind of people the technology requires us to be; and, whether we like it or not, we will remake our institutions to accommodate the technology” (Postman 1996, 39).  Applying this to technology, we see that if it is averages and predictability that technology prefers, we will remake our curricula and consequently ourselves to fit into the “average” mold fulfilling Postman’s prophecy.

Perhaps the epitome of American mechanization is the automobile industry.  In 1991 Lee Iococca spoke to a conference hall full of teachers.  In reference to social conditions of students, he said: “Your product needs a lot of work, and in the end, it’s your job…your customers don’t want to hear about your raw materials problem- they care about results” (qtd. Sacks 1999, 72).  His approach is an unquestionable product of America’s what’s–the-bottom-line mentality.  In regard to this attitude Sacks comments:  “Government or corporate leaders will often argue that your neighborhood schools ought to function like any good business.  In these terms schools are like any enterprises with raw materials of production“ (Sacks 1999). 

               University of Rhode Island’s Jeff Seemann, Dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, recently said in the Providence Journal:

To establish Rhode Island as a hub for innovation, we must develop a comprehensive, sustainable long-term plan for science and technology that supports our academic institutions and strengthens our commercial enterprise.  By bringing together both the public and private sector, the science-and-technology council will help Rhode Island’s legislative leadership create a statewide strategy for science and technology development, which strengthens our research base, supports our commercial endeavors, and improves the lives of all Rhode Islanders. (Seemann 2005, A8)


Seemann is referring to the research facilities at Rhode Island institutions of higher education, and for the most part it seems that graduate schools would be the ones that really feel the effect of such actions.  In a sense this seems to be harmless to higher education, yet Theodore Parker’s warning about the relationship between higher education and commercial enterprises is alarming.  In fact the implications of Seemann’s plan needs to be considered.  He says that he is responding to Governor Carcieri’s[81] commission of “a Science and Technology Council,” which was designed to advise state government in its investment and support of the “science-and-technology enterprise” (Ibid.). In a more recent interview regarding an initiative to boost math and science in high schools – called “Physics First Rhode Island” – Carcieri claimed that “if we cede the brain power to China and India, we are in big trouble” (Jordan Nov. 30 2005, A8). The plan itself is not a bad idea; the state’s commissioner of education, Peter McWalters says that they are flipping the science curriculum around so that high school students begin with physics in their first year, a sequence that is more in line with the math curriculum.  His goal is to teach “science in way that excites students” (Ibid.).  Yet it is the attitude behind this that makes the issue a concern.  Somehow “brain power” is associated with performance in math and science.  The plan comes from discussions in a panel of “business and education leaders led by the governor and Daniel L. Smith, vice president of Raytheon” (Jordan Sept. 29 2005, B1).  Raytheon’s involvement is no surprise since the defense technology corporation is the sponsor of several academic programs for students in Rhode Island.  Corporate sponsorship of academic programs has become commonplace and the governor is excited about the trend. He said the “business community” has to be involved in the state’s education since “we need to be preparing our kids for the jobs of the future” (Ibid.). Are economics and politics now defining what it means to be an educated person?

               This is reflective of the nation’s obsession that: “our economic success depends on our ability to build an innovation economy driven by excellence and technology” (Seeman 2005, A8).  This myth has been propagated for a while now.  Over a decade ago, a concerned high school English teacher, Nancy King, asked the question: “Can the humanities survive technology?”  (King, 1992).  She felt that technology was sweeping the curriculum and that the humanities were the areas that were suffering the wrath of this stampede. She refers to the myth that American schools are falling behind other countries and claims that the reason may be quite different than the ones commonly cited.  She claims that the schools are “serving so many masters [that] they seem to serve none of them well” (Ibid.). She asks the reader for a moment to “not consider the sciences and the humanities as rivals competing at the expense of one another” but to think of them instead “as two of the basic building blocks that complement each other in turning out well-rounded educated human beings” (Ibid.).  She cites other reasons why education is in decline.  For one, “the attitude that the quick dollar is our most desirable and the most plausible justification for education” and adds that this attitude “cannot help but to filter down to the lowest grades in elementary schools” (Ibid.).  Education, in light of her argument is not valued outside of its practical (monetary) function. It is not appreciated as an end in itself.  Teaching students moral values is a problem that “few people recognize when they speak of the failure of American schools to keep up with those in other parts of the world” (Ibid.). She claims further that “one of the most crucial issues in U.S. education is teaching students to stop fighting, scrapping, calling each other names, destroying property, and stealing from one another” and that with such an “immediate and so human a need, technology and global education hardly seem applicable” (Ibid.).

               The problem is that not everyone agrees on what an educated person should be.  Modern capitalists are complaining about the same issues.  Franklin Schargel, in his 1996 article “Why we need total quality management in education,” claims in productionist fashion:

US's public school graduates fall far short of those in the rest of the industrialized world. US graduates consistently score at the bottom or near the bottom of most standardized examinations. Imagine a business where one-third of the product is scrapped before it ever reaches the end of the production process.  Imagine a business where the product reaching the end of the production process fails to satisfy the customer because it is incapable of doing what is required of it. This is a description of the US public school system of today. Schools are failing to deliver the product that they have designed to produce—an educated individual. (Schargel 1996, 213-14).


Standardized examinations, a technological innovation designed to streamline student assessment, seems to be the barometer to determine learning outcomes.  The article concludes with an indirect warning, especially to policy makers: “If the educational system fails to deliver qualified graduates as workers, then the business community will have three choices: to educate the new workers at a cost of billions of dollars, to accept the shoddy results or to remove all industrial production from the nation” (Ibid. 217).

               Nine years later the same threats are repeated and our politicians are responding.  Initiatives like those of Rhode Island’s Governor Carcieri show that policy makers accept and endorse the American corporate definition of what an educated person should be.



Lessons from the Past

               Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the humanists of the Italian Renaissance can be summed up in the words of one of its greatest legacies.  In his Oration on the Dignity of Man he describes man’s purpose for living: “But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him” (Mirandola 1994).  Man’s purpose is to freely raise himself up and live out his potential.  This is expressed by Pico in the words he places in the mouth of God:

We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine. (Ibid.).


It is man’s decision where he would take his life, yet he is endowed by his creator with tremendous possibilities.  Humanism understood in this sense is a faith in the ability of man to achieve tremendous things.  Yet this ability for the Renaissance man is not independent of God; it is rather dependent upon God’s freely given gift. 

               For the humanists of the Renaissance reaching human potential meant taking in all that was available.  They did not seek to overthrow religion or even deny its authority.  The humanists sought to balance the equation; they wanted to improve their religion and justify it by studying the great philosophies of the world and aligning them.  This is the same question that I ask of modern thinkers who lament the loss of religious morality but would rather reproduce Enlightenment ideals than fix the broken system.  Huston Smith’s concept of wisdom tradition reflects Renaissance sentiment as it seeks out the essence of various religions as a means of better understanding our human identity.  The wisdom tradition avoids the trappings of specific doctrines or dogma.  It begins with the premise that a transcendent world exists outside of the scope of the quantitative sciences.  Building on this idea, it adds that many of the mysteries of this transcendence can be discerned through the study of world religions and mythologies.  This study is complex and requires a high level of intellectual dialog.  Huston Smith argues that these traditions offer a sense of hope and overall balance in our lives.  In an interview at The California Institute of Integral Studies Smith responded to a question of the most important theme in his book Why Religion Matters:

That we have this wonderful heritage in the wisdom tradition, but we have through a small but fatal slip in logic assumed that the scientific worldview retires that other worldview. But the scientific worldview includes nothing in the way of fact or evidence that on this deepest level of the conceptual spine that the traditional worldview is mistaken. That is the message I would hope would come through so people would take the traditional/wisdom/religious world in its deepest import seriously again. I think it holds a greater potential and a greater safeguard against pessimism and despair and cynicism of which there is a great deal in our culture today. (Smith 2001)[82]


With religion, philosophy, and the classics cut out of our education we neglect this balance and our reliance upon scientific quantification remains unchallenged and uninformed.  Students get a one sided perspective of life.  Yet, we will see in the next section that Religious Studies departments and humanities-based programs that incorporate the wisdom traditions have been dwindling in twenty-first century institutions.

Pico, in the tradition of Renaissance humanism, argued his case for the liberal arts as an alternative to the one-track pedagogies (Law, Medicine, Theology, and Business) of his day.  Advocating the study of classical literature, philosophy, and theology, he said: “I come now to those matters which I have drawn from the ancient mysteries of the Hebrews and here adduce in confirmation of the inviolable Catholic faith” (Mirandola 1994).  He describes himself as a devoted student who is “eager in the pursuit of the good arts” (Ibid.).  His use of the term good arts can be seen as the liberal arts as he further describes his approach to philosophical inquiry:

All those who attach themselves to one or another of the philosophers, to Thomas, for instance or Scotus, who at present enjoy the widest following, can indeed test their doctrine in a discussion of a few questions. By contrast, I have so trained myself that, committed to the teachings of no one man, I have ranged through all the masters of philosophy, examined all their works, become acquainted with all schools. (Ibid).


This is the humanism that Raffaele painted.  Pico is calling for balance.  Besides Christian and Hebraic literature, including the cabala, Pico uses classical literature Seneca, Boethius, John the Grammarian, the Neo-Platonists (Plotinus and Porphyry), the Pythagoreans, the Chaldeans, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Averroës, Avicenna (an 11th century Arab physician that blended Aristotelian and Neo-Platonist philosophies),  and many others to justify his humanistic treatise. Balance is the key that seems to be missing in the humanists of recent generations.  In all his faith in humanity, he claims that something of divinity or transcendence “which is the special mark of the Platonists, always shines out” (Ibid.).  Divinity and transcendence are key elements.

               Pico’s Oration reveals one other important element which can be seen in much of the Renaissance literature.  That was the power of individual conscience. He says: “Philosophy has taught me to rely on my own convictions rather than on the judgments of others” (Mirandola 1994). This is an important element. In learning to think for oneself, it becomes probable that the individual may find himself at odds with those around him and then he has an added responsibility.  Pico describes it like this: “to concern myself less with whether I am well thought of than whether what I do or say is evil” (Ibid.).  Discourse will further serve to balance this. Good conversation will seek out the truth by either convincing others of the truth within your own conviction or by pointing to the error in your conviction and allowing that conviction to be informed and reformulated by the truths that oppose it.  In order to accomplish any of this, the “new learning” focused on communication skills as the main vehicle of learning. 

               Italian Humanism spread northward and its essence began to change.  Its first metamorphosis – late sixteenth through the seventeenth – was toward a method of instruction that focused on Christian literature. From there its philosophical purview became more sharply focused. Its goal was to realign the Christian church with Christianity itself.   By the eighteenth century humanism had taken on a new appearance. Its confidence in human reason sought to separate man from his dependence upon a metaphysical world.  It opened the door to the application of science to humanity which reduced man to a material specimen under the scope of empirical methodology.  Ironically the Enlightenment brand of humanism was diametrically opposed to its Renaissance predecessor. 

               Jean-Jacques Rousseau in many ways stood up for the original humanist values.  While he remained a man of his Enlightenment times, especially exemplified by his disdain for the Catholic Church, he also tried to halt the Enlightenment agenda of completely removing the metaphysical from humanity.  He felt that the philosophes of his day had gone too far in their atheistic diatribes.  He attempted to restore Pico’s ideology on several levels.  For one he agreed that God had created man in his image, and that man had been given special faculties which would help him navigate his way through life on earth.  He attempted to restore man’s sense of purpose and encouraged him to look for meaning in life.  Also in the tradition of the Italian Humanists, he encouraged reliance upon intuition as an epistemological means of reaching truth. Lastly, he encouraged a well-rounded education that fostered communication skills, the tools necessary to be a good citizen. 

               Unfortunately Rousseau’s philosophies have been mutilated over the last two centuries.  This is a result of several factors.  First, his works are consistent within themselves but in sum they are laden with contradictions.  Rousseau’s philosophy seems to develop as he writes and there is much disparity between his earlier works and his later works, despite his attempts to correct them along the way.  Another problem with Rousseau is that despite his Christian view of morality and his relatively conservative (compared to others like Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, etc.) views regarding God, his ideas on civil religion, as proclaimed in The Social Contract seem to fall out of his radical line and appear to fit nicely with what the other deists of his time were preaching.  Lastly, his political writings have been adopted by leaders that did not strengthen his cause.  Robespierre and Napoleon both claimed to embrace Rousseauian ideology.  Napoleon even used Rousseau’s educational philosophies when he designed the national education system for France which would indoctrinate young French students with nationalistic ideals. 

               Despite Rousseau’s inconsistencies and the misappropriation of some of his ideas, he remains an important figure in the dialog.  His pedagogy has been applied successfully by many movements in modern education. Rousseau stood between two writers that influenced his world: Hobbes and Locke.  He agreed with Hobbes on one level; he saw self preservation as the main motivating force in human action.  His accord stopped there however.  Hobbes believed that morality did not exist until laws were put in place to determine right from wrong, hence his concept of the leviathan.  Rousseau argued that self –love was good because it was part of God’s natural plan.  The key was to balance selfishness with reason on one hand and conscience or intuition on the other.  Conscience is older than reason but requires reason to transform it from sentiment to virtue.  This represents his break with Locke[83] and it is also what led his contemporaries to call him irrational (Sahakian and Sahakian 1974, 32).

               This is the key that brings Rousseau’s ideal of man’s natural state to light.  What may not work in his political writing takes form in his educational works.  He said in book 4 of Emile “When I want to train a natural man, I do not want to make him a savage and send him back to the woods.”  An educated person, for Rousseau, is one whose intuitive sentiments are not repressed by reason but rather filtered through it.  In this manner he retains his natural undistorted state.  Rousseau’s famous line – “Man is born free but is everywhere else in chains” – begins to make sense in this context.  According to the Sahakians’ book, Rousseau as Educator, Rousseau has a Platonic approach to education which consists of “bringing to consciousness what lies dormant in the unconscious” (Ibid. 33).  Education had failed civilization.  This was the claim that Rousseau made in his Discourses on the Sciences and the Arts, and it is further reflection of his idea of a proper education.  Rather than emphasizing the Greek notion of the good life, or areté, the education of Rousseau’s time stressed wealth, conveniences, and human pride.

               Despite the problems that arise in Rousseau’s philosophy, especially after the encounter between his political writings and his educational works, some of his disciples were able to make the most of what he had to offer. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s 1801 book, How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, sets up a practical method of instruction for children.  He took a holistic approach of which intellectual development was only a portion.  His goal was to find balance between the heart, the head, and the hands and his methodology was informal.  Yet despite the informality of instruction it quickly became recognized as a methodology and became part of teacher formation in higher education.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which refers to Pestalozzi as “one of the greatest pioneers of education,” his ideas were carried into the U.S. in 1808 by an Alsatian Joseph Neef, and from there it went on to influence the American reformer Horace Mann (Schwickerath 2003).

               Frederick Froebel absorbed Pestalozzi’s method and applied it to early childhood education.  Seeking to holistically develop young children and at the same time bring them closer to God by allowing them to develop by nature, he saw himself as a gardener of the young.  In 1836 he developed the idea of a kindergarten for children age three to six.  In the same line of thought, Maria Montessori, the first woman to qualify as a physician in Italy, took the philosophies of Rousseau and Pestalozzi and developed a method of instruction for children similar to Froebel’s in its natural approach. Interestingly, Montessori broke from the Protestant vein that characterized her predecessors and wrote books concerning the importance of teaching the Catholic faith.  This is an important element of balance in her approach which she considered to be a work in modern science.[84] 

               The Transcendentalists provide another example of a modern pedagogy that is based in the humanistic perspective of the Renaissance.  These nineteenth century intellectuals stood at a crossroads in United States history and they saw themselves as creating an American intellectual culture. While this culture was opposed to the “humanists” – those who represented the enlightenment idea of humanism – of its day, it actually picked up a thread from the older, fifteenth century, strain of humanism.  Another aspect of the Transcendentalists is that they were less men of their times as was Rousseau, so their humanistic beacons burned brighter.  They saw themselves as revolutionaries and were not trying to fit their ideology into an enlightened paradigm.  For this reason the lessons that they have to offer are refined and applicable.

               The Transcendentalists have taught us much about the important role of education in the modern world.  The Renaissance humanists were faced with a dilemma that the Transcendentalists had avoided.  In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, women and peasant students were at odds with their society.  Their educations did not help them as much in their careers as it did for the aristocracy.  The modern age is marked by a change in that status.  In a sense Rousseau was standing on the cusp of that change, which may explain some of the disparity in his writing.  By the time we arrive at the nineteenth century, almost everyone had a say in government, and those who were marginalized – blacks and women – became part of the Transcendentalist agenda.   This is reflective of their conviction that social justice and human rights are of the utmost importance and that education was the perfect tool to convey this message upon the world.  In addition it was the means by which democracy would prevail.

               In addition to demonstrating the importance of a good education, the Transcendentalists also identified the responsibilities of the scholar.  The scholar has some hefty duties which are set forth by these nineteenth century intellectuals.  He is to be the voice of reason, of balance, and of justice.  He is to stand up for the sake of righteousness and make his petitions heard.  The scholar for these thinkers is the salvation of man in a civilized world.  Scholars are representatives of wisdom and thus become civil servants in an intellectual sense. 


The scholar’s calling a sacred vocation.  In a world where teachers are constantly criticized in local newspapers, positions are getting cut, schools and libraries are closing up, and important courses of instruction are getting stripped out of the curriculum, this is a message that must be shouted from rooftops.  In Rhode Island, for example, these issues come up regularly.  Tom Coyne, in a Providence Journal article on June 9, 2005, claimed that “public-school teachers in Rhode Island have a very sweet deal” (Coyne 2005, B6). He was responding to the reaction of local teachers who were upset about their benefits being cut back. The State of Rhode Island decided to change state and municipal health insurance plans to an inferior one and also to make teachers pay a percentage of it, an unprecedented practice.  When the yearly inflation raise was placed side by side with this insurance contribution, teachers ended up with less take-home pay than they did prior to their raises. This was effective for all levels of educators, including state colleges and universities.  The article fails to take into consideration the fact that while the benefit package is better than many in the private sector, it is also one of the things that balances the inadequate wages offered for the positions.  His point was that teachers have no room to complain since they are already overly compensated, thus the “sweet deal.”  Another recent Providence Journal article expresses a primarily instrumental view of education: “Rhode Island businesses need to play a role in shaping the state’s education system” (Stape 2005, B1).

As more schools adopt the methods proposed by these pedagogies of the past, the seeds will be planted and we will have invested in the future of our civilization.  A balanced curriculum with a focus on core human values must be part of every level of learning, but we must begin with higher education.  If these values are instilled during the first couple of years in the formation of the modern scholar, the project will be initiated.  More students will recognize their call to the teaching vocation and our schools will hopefully attract begin true teachers.  Other scholars who pursue other livelihoods will have gained the necessary respect for the institution and will share in the love of education.  This will surely trickle down to their children.  This is a crucial starting point for pedagogical change[85].  Perhaps then teachers in our elementary and secondary schools will bring with them a passion for teaching and the children will come into the classroom with the passion for learning that was instilled by their parents. 

               This leads to another idea that has come down to us through the Transcendentalist legacy.  Parents are a child’s first and most effective teachers.  As long as we have parents saying things like “education isn’t for everybody,” we will have students who are justified in their own distaste for school.  In Alcott’s day, his disappointment with the lack of parental involvement was justified, yet the attitudes of those parents was perhaps more understandable than those in our current generation.  In those days most were poorly educated and some were not educated at all.  The initiative to educate everyone was in its early stages.  Our generation has no excuse.  Everyone receives an education.  The question is: How do we make it a good one?

Twentieth Century Humanist Contributions:

Adler, Dawson, and Schwehn

               Despite the hardships and disappointments that the twentieth century has brought, several things have been done in the direction of humanistic education.  The century opened with a major push toward the scientization of education.  Positivism and the social science movement relegated the liberal arts to inferior roles.  Disciplines like history struggled to maintain their respectability by joining the scientific crusade.  In fact, the final exam question from a course that I took in historical methodology almost a decade ago confused me:  Is history an art or a science?  Now it makes all the sense in the world.  If history is a science, then it is the kind of history that our humanist pedagogues have warned us to stay away from. 

               By the middle of the century many scholars began to speak up and by the end of the twentieth century, some changes were beginning to be made.  In 1952 Mortimer Adler’s first “Great Books” collection was completed and published through Encyclopedia Britannica.  At around the same time, Christopher Dawson was writing some of his monumental works regarding history and education.  Toward the end of the century, several programs of higher education had heard the call and began to facilitate quality humanities-based learning.  Furthermore, Mark Schwehn’s study on the academic vocation, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, was published in 1993 after a decade of research. 

When Mortimer Adler set out to answer the question, “Can anything be done about American Education?,” he began by analyzing the Greek term paideia, which is roughly “the equivalent of the Latin humanitas” (Adler 1988, xii). Geraldine Van Doran, the editor of Adler’s 1988 work defined paideia as “what we need to know and know how to do in order to enable us to earn a living, to perform the duties of citizenship, to live decent lives, and to improve ourselves and our lives” (Ibid.). Also, according to Van Doran, his dedication to educational reform was the result of a lifelong “brutal struggle against the forces of utilitarianism, elitism, scientism, specialism, and any other dogma infesting American education” (Ibid. xv).  In his 1962 essay, “Liberal Schooling in the Twentieth Century,” Adler defines what the humanities approach to education should consist of:

When I say that the course of study in a liberal arts college should be exclusively humanistic, I do not mean to exclude the study of mathematics or of the natural sciences.  When these subjects are approached in a certain way, they are as much a part of the humanities as are philosophy, history, and the social sciences, or the fine arts of poetry, music, painting, and sculpture. (Adler 1988, 147). 


This concept fits in beautifully with the humanist pedagogues of the past, especially the Transcendentalists like Alcott and Thoreau.  The key for Adler is finding the “permanence” in the field and applying it to human needs.  The permanence is explained as looking “for the universal and abiding principles, the fundamental ideas and insights, the controlling canons of procedure or method, all of which are determined by the faculties of man as inquirer or learner” (Ibid.).

               His answer to the problem was the “Great Books Program.”  Ironically he claimed that these works were not to be read by college students for the “nourishment which they provide but for the exercise they afford” (Adler 1988, 147).  In other words, he does not expect his student to fully embrace the meaning of the great works of literature.  It is the role of the teacher to help draw these meanings out. It is also the role of the teacher to facilitate in the absorption of what he calls the “liberal skills” (Ibid.).  These skills are of major concern to Adler.  He claims that “graduates of our high schools, as they are currently operated, do not enter college with sufficient training in the liberal arts or a sufficient appreciation for the humanities” (Ibid. 148).  Furthermore, “they are neither well read nor are they able to read well” (Ibid.).  

Undergraduate schools have to focus on remedial skills before they can deal with professional training.  Consequently, he argues, “the Bachelor of Arts degree, which should certify that a young man or woman has the liberal skills prerequisite to specialized study, no longer certifies anything of the sort” (Ibid. 148-9). Ultimately, given the crisis, he believes that specialized training should not begin until graduate school.  Colleges, for Adler, need to “provide the remedy for the deficiencies of our high schools” (Ibid. 149).  He believes that all four years should be dedicated to this task but admits that this would not be feasible and suggests at least the first two years dedicated to it.  If colleges cannot accomplish this, it “would be a disaster – a measureless personal and social disaster – which we should do everything in our power to avoid” (Ibid.).

Several schools have adopted the model over the course of the twentieth century.  Some have embraced it as an entire curriculum consisting of four years intensive study of the books in the Great Books index[86].  Other schools have modified the approach and created a core curriculum that is centered on Adler’s program.  In some cases these core curricula are mandatory for all students. In others they are optional.  Clearly, however, some of the nation’s premier institutions have at least given the idea some consideration, but two questions emerge.  First, is his approach practical and is it reasonable for twenty-first century college students to embrace a four-year degree program that may not prepare them for any particular career path, whether that is the work force or graduate and professional schools?  Second, does it fully embrace the model set up by the Renaissance humanists of the fifteenth century?

Mortimer Adler expanded ideas that were filtering through the U.S. community of higher education in the 1930s.  In 1931 P. F. Valentine published The Art of the Teacher: an Essay in Humanism, which warned about the scientization of education.  He argued that viewing teaching as a system of standard means that led to the inculcation of specific objectives and quantifiable ends is dangerous.  For him, this was a “problem concerning which every citizen – not only educators – should be made to think” (Valentine 1931, vii). He said it was imperative that “education is portrayed as art” (Ibid.). University reformers like Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago and John Erskine (Adler’s Ph.D. advisor) of Columbia University, during the same decade, were working on a program of liberal education.  The program of studies pivoted around what Hutchins referred to as “The Great Conversation,” of which he said “No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue” (Hutchins, “The Great Conversation”). Since its dawn, with the help of Adler’s insistent advocacy, the Great Books program of study has made its way into many of the nation’s mainstream colleges and universities. 

               Adler’s advocacy of the Great Books program is significant for two reasons. First is the idea of helping students in the acquisition of liberal arts skills.  The second reason is its reflection of Adler’s idea of effective teaching.  He embraces the Socratic Method and believes that conversation is the basis for a good education.  In his 1941 lecture to the American Catholic Philosophical Association, “The Order of Learning,” he claims that it is “the only way to avoid the substitution of verbal memory for the intellectual habit,” and it further “puts questions before answers” (Adler 1988, 190).  He tries to avoid what he calls “parrotlike speech” which is indicative of rote memory.  To converse is to embrace ideas, and not to memorize the things taught. The books represent the only works of value to the good teacher.  A teacher must only use books that are “the very greatest books, on a given subject that have ever been written,” because “only such books will be above both himself and his students; only such books will stimulate him to inquire and thus to lead his students in inquiry; only such books will pose both teacher and students problems rather than give them simply codified, and readily memorizable, answers” (Ibid.). 

               Adler’s methodology reflects most of the humanists that we have discussed; however his ideas regarding religion in the humanities curriculum are scarce.  In his lecture to the American Catholic Philosophical Association he declared that he would “neglect religious education entirely” in the discussion (Ibid. 177).  He justifies his statement with the disclaimer that he is leaving it out “not because it is negligible – far from it, it is the least negligible part of education – but for two reasons” (Adler 1988, 177). His reasons are his lack of competency in the subject and the fact that it falls outside of the scope of “philosophical discussion.”  The only hint we get from that lecture is his criticism of Catholic educators that put the ends before the means.  He says that he is “deeply disturbed by seeing the miscarriage of education in Catholic institutions” but he again ends with a disclaimer: “precisely because I know their ends are right” (Ibid. 179).   His argument is that the liberal arts are human rather than Catholic and the means should reflect that.  Catholicism should be taught through the scope of the liberal arts and not vice versa. 

Christopher Dawson, the eminent English intellectual historian, was the first recipient of the prestigious Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University (1958-1962).  He remained in the humanist tradition but took a radically different approach to the subject of religion in his writings regarding the reformation of academic institutions. Before describing his views on religion, however, I must validate my labeling of Dawson as a humanist because he might not have agreed with the categorization.  In his essay, “The Study of Christian Culture,” he said that the study of Christianity “had never received the attention it deserved” by the humanists who “concentrated their attention on the study of classical antiquity” (Dawson 1968, 5).  He admits, however, perhaps the key to my distinction, that “the Humanists may have been good Christians, and the theologians may have been good Humanists” (Ibid.). 

From my perspective, the fact that the humanists were good Christians is what sets them apart from later generations who claim the title of Humanist.  The former sought to balance, or inform their Christian identity through a careful study of the classics.  To reiterate, they were taking the best that civilization had to offer and putting it into dialog.  I believe that the Italian humanists ignored medieval literature because they were already familiar with it.  It was the older, classical literature that needed to be reconciled to it.  It was later humanists, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ones, that sought to eliminate medieval literature for different reasons.  For them, the medievals represented the Church, and it was this they desired to eliminate.  Dawson does admit a couple years later, in his The Crisis of Western Education, that “the old humanist education, with all its limitations and faults, possessed something that modern education has lost” (Dawson 2003). He adds that humanist education “possessed an intelligible form, owing to the fact that the classical culture which it studied was seen as a whole” (Ibid.).  In this regard he respected the humanists for their holistic approach.  He continues to say that education in the twentieth century “lacked this formal unity, because it never attempted to study modern civilization with the care and earnestness which humanist education devoted to classical culture…. Modern education finds its goal in competing specialisms” (Ibid.)  In light of his admission that the humanists did something valuable and considering that the crisis they faced was different than that of the twentieth century while Dawson was writing, it seems feasible and justifiable to extend the humanist label to Dawson.  His desire was to go a step further than they did and his time and place actually demanded that.

Dawson puts the development of Western Civilization at the forefront of any education. He says that “a systematic study of Western Civilization has become a necessary part of education, not only in Europe itself, but still more in non-European lands which still belong to the tradition of Western Civilization” (Ibid.).   For Dawson, Western Civilization was founded upon two great traditions – “the inheritance of classical culture and the Christian religion” (Dawson 2003).  He has faith in our current understanding of the classical age but sees the need to focus on the other great tradition in addition to it.  He admires the humanists in their methodology: “The humanist was not merely a grammarian and a philologist, he studied the whole course of ancient civilization…its languages and literatures, its history and institutions, its religion and philosophy, its architecture and art” (Dawson 1968, 7).  He admits that this approach is difficult in a modern paradigm because “from the point of view of the scientific specialist, the field of study was too wide” but adds a vision of hope: “as a form of education it was by no means impracticable or ineffective, and has survived down to our own time in such forms as the school of Litterae Humaniores at Oxford” (Ibid.). 

Dawson is advocating the humanist approach to studying the big picture with a major focus on the Christian culture as a significant shaper of the modern western world.  He claims in his essay. “The Sociological Foundations of Medieval Christendom,” that studying “medieval religion is of primary importance alike for those who wish to know something of the history of Christianity and…the history of Europe” (Dawson 1968, 53).  In “The Study of Christian Culture” he says directly: “religion is the key to history and it is impossible to understand a culture unless we understand its religious roots” (Ibid. 1). This is an important stance to be taken and it is one of the factors that separate him from Adler’s version of the Great Books program.  Dawson says that post-Renaissance scholars made up the term “medieval” to refer to the time “between two periods of positive achievement which were regarded as the only ones worth worthy of the attention of educated man” (Dawson 1968, 1). Dawson believes that this period is of vital importance because it is the period of Christian culture.  He says: “It is not a kind of waiting-room between two different worlds, but the age which made the new world, the world from which we come and to which, in a sense, we still belong” (Dawson 1968, 1).  Adler’s series contains an enormous gap in great works that stretches from Augustine to Aquinas.  This time frame coincides with Dawson’s Christian age. For Dawson this would be unacceptable considering his belief that “if we begin our study with Christian culture we immediately discover the sources of the moral values of Western culture, as well as the sources of the intellectual traditions that have determined the course of Western education” (Dawson 2003).

Mark Schwehn, Professor of the Humanities at Valparaiso University, describes the impetus that he received to embark upon his study.  In a conversation with colleagues he discovered that he was the only one who filled out the occupation box of his tax return as “college teacher” (Schwehn 1993, vii).  The others listed sociologist, psychologist, historian, anthropologist, etc. He argues that although he was a “trained intellectual historian” his job was teaching (Ibid.). This concept of teaching in higher education was a contradiction to what he was hearing around him.  He describes “the familiar academic lament ‘Because this is a terribly busy semester for me, I do not have any time to do my own work’” (Ibid. 4).   To this he asks “Well then, whose work are you doing?” (Ibid.). Surprisingly he finds that most of his colleagues believe that experimenting, writing, and composing is their work and that teaching gets in the way. 

The academic vocation, according to Schwehn is a delicate balance of three elements: “making knowledge, transmitting knowledge and skills, and helping students learn how to lead more ethical, fulfilling lives” (Ibid.).  This is a powerful statement and is reflective of the humanism that we have encountered in the present study.  It is the kind of teaching that will trickle down to our students and help them to place a high value on education as means of attaining the good life.  The teachers in the programs that we have discussed are doing that and their efforts will certainly be absorbed by those that encounter their influence, but there is still much work to be done. Schwehn claims that a big part of the problem is the myth created in graduate schools: “There students learn, regardless of their field of study, that research and publication constitute their tasks and that all other activities…somehow just go with the territory” (Schwehn 1993, 5).  This myth is hard to work through because, he says, “to expect a recent Ph.D. to think otherwise would be the same as expecting a recent law school graduate to think like an engineer” (Ibid.).

The next section will analyze the state of present day education in terms of the case studies we have examined and draw some conclusions based on this review.  It will look at some of the educational reforms that fall in line with the ideas of Adler, Dawson, and Schwehn and are thus consistent with the Renaissance legacy and it will evaluate some of the trends in modern higher education that veer off this course. Finally, it will provide a definition of humanism for the twenty-first century and answer Eugene Rice’s question of hope for the new learning in the modern world.        






Chapter Five- Part Two: Conclusions

Schwehn largely agrees with Christopher Dawson in reference to the role of religion in education.  In his concluding chapter he claims that the kind of teaching he is promoting “insists both that religion needs Enlightenment and that Enlightenment needs religion” (Schwehn 1993, 136).   This is balance. This is the eternal dialog in Raffaele’s painting.  While some colleges have embraced this idea and incorporated it into a holistic study of Western Civilization, other schools have sought to eliminate the religious influence.  Ronald Nash’s 1991 article “The Myth of a Value-Free Education” argues, perhaps in a more strident voice that Huston Smith, that the claims of higher education to promote curricula that are free from “coerced exposure to the values of anyone” (Nash 1991) do not hold up.  He argues further that “traditional religious and moral values are under assault at every level of public and higher education,” and that “our educational system is engaged in a systematic undermining of these values” (Ibid.).  As we have seen, Dawson saw Western Civilization as necessary to any academic study and that religion is the most essential element of that program.  Yet our culture still finds itself at odds on the issue of religion and morality and the opposition to it is finding its way into our schools at every level.  While a couple of schools have been directly influenced by Dawson, it never gained the momentum that Adler’s movement enjoyed.  It is difficult to find schools that require a course in Western Civilization.  It is equally as uncommon to see religious studies departments in state and private, non-religious colleges and universities or even to see a course in religion in their degree requirements. 

Adler’s reforms may have been an easier sell because they avoided the controversial placement of religion.  There are several schools that have outwardly adopted the Great Books model either as a full, four year program, a liberal arts option, or as a complement to their core curricula.  These programs seem to be running strong at present and the official website of the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas, founded by Adler and Max Weisman, keeps track of the progress of these schools[87] (see figure 5-1).  Tracking Dawson’s influence is a bit more difficult because he never advocated a specific curriculum.  He made recommendations regarding the kind of education that students should have and how schools should go about administering it on a general level.  In the case of Adler, institutions officially attached themselves to his signature program.  Dawson’s Western Civilization model would have had to trickle down through the educators and administrators that had read and studied him.  To get an idea of how many schools have been influenced by either his ideas or by similar ideas from other sources, I found it helpful to look into the core curricula of some of the nation’s top schools. 

A survey of the liberal arts programs outlined in U.S. News and World Report’sAmerica’s Best Colleges 2006”[88] has revealed some interesting data regarding the position of the humanities in the curriculum in general.  In order to get a picture, on the national level, of the state of higher education, I evaluated the top twenty liberal arts schools in the country (figure 5-2), the top six state liberal arts schools (figure 5-3), and all eight of the Ivy League schools (figure 5-4).  I first set out to determine if they had any sort of core curriculum, whether in the form of distribution requirements, a mandatory core sequence of courses, or a list of courses that satisfy a general education component.  I then sorted through the requirements to see what types of humanities courses were offered and how many of them were actually mandatory[89]. I was particularly interested in courses in Western Civilization, Philosophy, and Religion.  Next I looked at the pedagogical approach to see whether the required Western Civilization courses were interdisciplinary in nature. Beyond the core curriculum requirements, I looked at some characteristics of each school in order to evaluate the humanistic climate of the institution. Some of the factors that I thought were important were the kinds of programs they offered, the kinds of departments that they had, and the way they viewed the discipline of history: as either part of the social sciences or the humanities.        

Fifteen of the top twenty liberal arts colleges had a clearly delineated core of general education requirements.  Of the fifteen, only one (Colgate) required a course in Western Civilization – the course that Dawson thought essential to every curriculum – and it only required one semester of it.  Five others offered anywhere between one and four semesters of Western Civilization courses as options within the core curriculum yet gave no stipulations making any mandatory classes.  Among the six public schools that made it into the rankings of liberal arts colleges, five established some sort of core curriculum and Western Civilization gained a little more prominence in these.  Two did not require any, while one offered two semesters of it as a possible option to satisfy one of the distribution requirements.  One school required 2 semesters and another required only part 2 of Western Civilization, which is modern Western history, completely eliminating the crucial portion that Dawson wrote about.  The last of the six schools, University of North Carolina at Asheville, made three semesters of World History (the syllabus of which was similar to a traditional Western Civilization course) a mandatory sequence.  In the eight Ivy League schools, only one (Brown) had no distribution requirements are all.  Of the other seven, five made no mention of Western Civilization as a requirement and one (Dartmouth) stipulated one semester of it.  Columbia University, perhaps reflecting the influence of Adler and Van Doran[90], displayed the best example of a humanistic approach to Western Civilization in the core curriculum of all the ivies, requiring six semesters[91]. Another important discovery at Columbia for me was the pedagogical approach.  All of the Western Civilization courses that were mandatory were taught from an interdisciplinary perspective that was exemplary and accurately reflected the humanistic tradition, especially the ideas of Adler and Dawson that we have mentioned. Of the other schools that required Western Civilization, both UNC Asheville and Colgate utilized this pedagogical approach.  In addition to these, several of the schools that offered Western Civilization as an option used an interdisciplinary model (see charts that follow). 

Philosophy and religion courses in the required curriculum can tell much about a school’s humanist climate.  Jacob Needleman, in his The Heart of Philosophy argues that these subjects[92] “orient men and women toward the path that leads to becoming fully human” (Needlemen 1982, xi).  Inclusion of these courses in a core curriculum says that the school is interested in what these disciplines have to say. Yet it is astonishing to find that many of the top liberal arts colleges and most of the Ivy League schools are not requiring these courses at any level.  In the top twenty liberal arts schools only two require a course in philosophy (Davidson and Pomona) and one (Middlebury) says either a course in philosophy or one in religion is required.  Eight say that philosophy is one of the courses that can be taken to satisfy distribution requirements, but it is possible to opt out of philosophy in favor of something else.  Of the six state liberal arts colleges none require it and one (St Mary’s of Maryland) gives the philosophy or religion option.  In the Ivy Leagues, Princeton and Columbia require it, while Yale and Dartmouth make philosophy and option. 

One finds similar results regarding religion in the core curriculum.  Of the top twenty, only Davidson College in North Carolina requires it.  Middlebury College offers the either/or option with philosophy as its counterpart, while nine others made religion one of many distribution requirement possibilities (thus students may opt out of them).  Of the six state schools, none require religion, one (St Mary’s of Maryland) allows a student to take it in the place of philosophy, and one (Richard Stockton College) lists it as a distribution option.  Religion suffers the same fate in the Ivy League schools.  Five do not require it at all.  Columbia makes it mandatory through a civilization course that is taught from an interdisciplinary perspective which includes religious studies. Students at Yale and Dartmouth have religion simply as an option.  

While humanities courses in the core curriculum help paint a picture of the culture of a school, I began to wonder how many of these schools offered actual programs in the humanities.  Of the top twenty, two (Colgate and Davidson) offered a degree program in the humanities while nine offered interdisciplinary programs[93] that rested on courses taught by humanities faculty.  Of the state schools, New College of Florida offered a major in the humanities and UNC Asheville offered a minor.  The other four did not offer any programs.  In the Ivy League schools, ironically, half offered degrees in the humanities and two offered degrees in an interdisciplinary area that rested upon the humanities.  The University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth offered neither.          

Another factor that I thought would be revealing about the humanistic climate of these institutions would be the kinds of departments they had.  I looked at each school to determine if they had a humanities department, a classics department (separate form literature or something related), and a religious studies department (separate from philosophy).  A humanities department was by far the least common. Of all the schools only two existed: Davidson College and Columbia’s Teachers College.  Regarding a Classics department, all of the Ivy League schools and all but two of the top twenty liberal arts colleges had one.  Within the six state schools, the results were different.  UNC Asheville was the only one.  Statistics on Religious Studies departments were similar.  All of the Ivy League Schools except Harvard[94] had an undergraduate department in Religious Studies.  All but three of the top twenty private liberal arts schools had one, but astonishingly, none of the top state liberal arts schools maintains an independent Religious Studies department.   

Evaluating core curricula, and humanities programs or departments shed much light on the state of humanistic training in our nation’s top liberal arts schools, but I decided to take one more step that reveals an additional clue.  The discipline of history can be approached from two very distinct perspectives, and how an institution answers the question – Is history an art or a science? – tells much about their persuasion.  I noticed as I sorted through many of the distribution requirement lists that in some cases history met a social science requirement while in other cases it satisfied one in the humanities or liberal arts.  Where an institution places history in this schema determines whether they weigh it as a largely qualitative or quantitative discipline.  In most cases determining an institution’s position was easy because it was clearly stated.  For instance, does the history department fall under the social science division of the school or the humanities division?  The other determining factor that I used has already been mentioned: what type of distribution requirement does it fulfill?  Within the top twenty liberal arts schools I was able to determine that history was considered to be one of the social sciences in ten of them and part of the humanities in six.  In the remaining four I was unable to determine history’s position using the information available on the school’s website.  At the state schools, four considered it to be in the social sciences and two (UNC Asheville and Richard Stockton) called it humanities.  With the Ivy League schools, I was unable to conclude anything at half of them.  Within the other half, three saw it as a social science and one (Yale) as humanities.   In total, of the twenty six schools that gave me enough information to determine the institution’s position, only nine saw history as a discipline that falls under the umbrella of the humanities.

This brief survey was important for several reasons.  It brings to light some of the schools that are doing a fine job with the humanities.  Columbia easily rose to the top, even in the competitive Ivy League category.  UNC Asheville showed that state schools could still maintain a humanistic culture. And Davidson College’s profile, despite the fact that Western Civilization is not mandatory, is fairly impressive.  Most importantly, however, the descriptions show that the scientific paradigm has affected the structure of higher education even among our finest liberal arts colleges and most prestigious universities.  Secondly, it shows that the twentieth century dialog that warned of this is still relevant in the first decade of the twenty first century. Third, it demands that further work be done by today’s educators of the Renaissance humanist tradition. Fourth, it gives us a base-line by which we can evaluate some of the programs at colleges and universities on the local level.  Finally, and related, it will help justify the claim I make in the next section regarding local programs that are moving in the right direction in terms of humanistic pedagogy.

Higher Education on the Local Level

On the state level, Rhode Island seems to have little to offer students as far as humanities programs are concerned (see figure 5-5).  The state oversees three institutions of higher education: the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island (a two year college).  While a fairly open liberal arts degree is offered at the associates degree level, the humanities begin to disintegrate as one moves up the academic ladder.  A recent article in the Providence Journal (Jordan, Oct. 22 2005, A1) outlined several cutbacks in academic programs in the humanities at both the undergraduate and graduate level.  Among the programs cut were: Medieval and Renaissance Studies (BA at RIC), Philosophy (MA at URI), French (MA at RIC), and Comparative Literature (MA at URI).  These were trimmed off of a tree that is scarcely alive.  Between the college and university there are no departments or programs in the classics or religious studies.  In addition, neither requires a philosophy or religious studies course in the core requirements.  Neither offers core coursework that is interdisciplinary and neither requires an extensive study of Western Civilization.  RIC requires one semester of it and URI, although it has wisely divided the Western Civilization program into 4 semesters, requires none.  At the bachelor’s level in Rhode Island, a student who chooses the humanities has few options: Art History, English, History, or Philosophy.  At URI a student can add Classical Literature to the list of choices.  Beyond the four year degree, things get even worse.  A student of the humanities can receive an M.A. at either school in two areas: History and English.  Finally, at the doctoral level, the options are whittled to one humanities option; URI offers a Ph.D. in English.    

It is disconcerting that the state schools seem to be nurturing academic environments that are not conducive to humanistic studies. It is equally disappointing, and perhaps more relevant to this study, that teachers’ training does not cultivate an ethos of humanism either.  Rhode Island College, the state’s biggest program for the formation of teachers, has cut its Western Civilization program down to one semester.  According to the catalog “The evolution of European society from the Hebrews to the contemporary world is explored. Focus is on themes central to the lives of Western peoples. This course serves as an introduction to historical thinking and related skills” (  The course has been streamlined to fit into a standard package and a universal syllabus is provided to ensure that the subject is taught in the proper manner.  In addition, in order to accommodate the entire course of western history in a single semester, something had to be sacrificed.  For starters the Renaissance is barely mentioned but the bulk of the sacrifice comes from the religious side of the course.  The Church pops in and out of the curriculum and when it does, it is presented in a negative light.  In the introduction to the ancient world, listed in the course syllabus, it states:

Humans of all races and cultures strive to understand the meaning of life. This is, certainly, one of the most obvious ways in which history is relevant to each of us. In studying the past, we can examine how other peoples have confronted this problem. In the ancient world, for instance, cultures often developed myths to help them explain the world (


Among the mythmakers listed are the Hebrews, the Christians, the Greeks, and the Moslems (Ibid.).  The next mention of the Church is in the late middle ages.  The topics are: Corruption in the Church, Gregory VII and the Investiture Controversy, Innocent III and the Peak of Papal Power, and the Crusades with the intention of discrediting the Christian influence ( 

               The next reference is during the Reformation. The introduction to this period claims:

As the institution of the Catholic Church became more politically involved and grew increasingly remote from its flock, various individuals within the church cried out for reform. The church initially ignored these people. Excommunicated from the Roman church, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, which adhered to a more basic Christianity than that currently practiced. (


Finally the course enters the modern ages which is marked by the following description:

While scientists and Enlightenment philosophers saw the world, and even God, as operating like a clock, mechanically and on its own without direct guidance from God, others continued to believe that God could intervene in the world at any time, and that the ultimate reality lay in the spiritual, not the material, world. (


Dawson suggests that one should not be surprised about such a program because “a secularized society must inevitably be unfavorable to the study of Christian culture, since its own way of life and its beliefs and ideals are totally alien” (Dawson 1968, 4).  Two fundamental questions emerge from this discussion. Is this value-free education?  What message does this send out to future teachers?  It does not reflect the holism or the balance that the humanists in our discussion have been urging.  It is reflective of the crisis and warrants our attention.  Huston Smith has already made this clear.  In Why Religion Matters he claims that relegating religion to the position of pre-scientific mythology and seeing the metaphysical world as superstitious is the equivalent of directly teaching atheism.  He says that “courts rightly assume that theism is a religious position, while wrongly assuming that atheism is not.” He adds that “if God is omitted from accounts of human origins, students will take that absence as implying that God has no place in the picture” (Smith 2001, 132).

Model Humanities Programs for the Twenty-first Century

It is not my intention to expose inadequacies in the curriculum in local institutions but rather to demonstrate the trend in American education to construct curricula that conform to the techno-scientific paradigm.  It is also not my intention to hyperbolize the crisis that critics have outlined.  The situation may not be as bleak on the local level as it seems.  Some strides have been made in the name of humanistic studies in the state of Rhode Island at all academic levels.  Our public institutions are in a precarious position because their overarching authority is the state government and is thus political.  In this light, it may not be fair to conclude that the institutions themselves are responsible for animosity toward the humanities.  We have already seen where the governor’s academic concerns lie.  Yet at the community college level, some improvement has been made on the part of several liberal arts faculty and certain administrators.  At the bachelor’s degree level, Providence College – a private, Catholic school – has made tremendous leaps, as has Salve Regina University – another private, Catholic school – at the graduate level.

The Community College of Rhode Island is an example of an institution of higher education in dire need of a humanistic approach to education.  The school is the biggest provider of associate’s degrees, vocational programs, and professional certificates in the state and is perhaps most affected, considering the nature of its programs, by compartmentalization of disciplines and a techno-scientific approach to education.  The Community College has very limited time to form its students.  They offer two year degrees and most of the certificate programs are administered in a year or less.   This is a tremendous challenge considering the vocational aspect of the programs which demand technical training applicable to the desired career. 

Yet limited time and severe budget constraints have not stamped out the humanist flame.  Several members of the liberal arts team, under the direction of the deans, have pooled their resources and begun developing learning communities.  These LCs are team taught and interdisciplinary.  They focus on content while facilitating the development of skills pertinent to the program.  One of the most significant LCs was created by faculty from the English and foreign language departments.  The course was called “Man and the Machine” and is described as “an interdisciplinary WebCT-based approach to the study of the Humanities” (CCRI Web Page[95]). In this innovative program, “an individual work of literature becomes the prism through which students examine historic, cultural, and other contemporary issues” (Ibid.).  In addition to the humanities side of the program, essential technical skills are addressed.  Because it is not the traditional 3 credit course, faculty can incorporate the development of various computer skills, adeptness in Web research, and communication skills.   Another LC at CCRI, “Man and the Environment,” is offered through the social science department but incorporates Biology and Chemistry as well.  They use various technologies to “jointly examine, discuss, formulate, and debate positions based on case studies of pressing sustainability issues concerning the environment and food systems” (Ibid.).  According to the NEASC accreditation study, “this pedagogical approach has received national recognition and funding from the Community College Humanities Association and the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education” (Ibid.).

The Development of Western Civilization program instituted at Providence College in 1971 is perhaps the finest example of a humanities-based education in action in that it employs the methods suggested by both Adler (requiring a large portion of his Great Books list) and more importantly Dawson (paying particular attention to Western Christendom).  All students are required to take a four semester course in Western Civilization.  The twenty credit course is interdisciplinary and team taught.  Meeting five times per week, it covers all aspects of an historical epoch:  literature, philosophy, theology, and fine arts.  History is both the foundation of the program and the mortar that binds this interdisciplinary structure together.

The approach, which has been “hailed by educators as one of the finest and most academically ambitious programs in the country,”[96] is truly humanistic in its mission.  In a manner similar to the one recommended by Adler, it provides all students, whether majors in the arts or sciences, with an integrated liberal arts foundation.  The approach serves several of the purposes that we have encountered in our historical case studies in this project.  First, it brings students to understand the emergence of the twentieth century world from the ideas and cultures of the past.  This is significant because it traces the legacies of people, ideas, and identities in a way that establishes a relationship with the past, thus opening up a living dialog with our civilization’s forebears.  Second, it helps students to get beyond the compartmentalization of disciplines that they had experienced in the past and move into a holistic mode of learning.  This helps students to bring the connection of human knowledge and human civilization to the next level.  Third, it enforces the arts skills that Adler speaks about. Fourth, it brings the humanistic quest to all areas of scholarship because it “has become an intellectual rite of passage” (Ibid). Last, it meets Dawson’s requirements by teaching the story of the development of Western civilization with a theological backdrop and it provides significant treatment of the Christian culture of the middle ages.  After experiencing the Development of Western Civilization, a student has gained a mastery of the humanities approach to understanding our world and this valuable skill will then be carried into their own individual programs of study.  This background will also be carried into whatever excursion lies ahead, whether it be work, home life, graduate skill, professional school, military, etc. 

Salve Regina University has also begun to take major strides in the humanistic tradition.  The school’s mission statement is highly consistent with the purpose of education that has emerged from this study.  The mission is to provide a curriculum that “seeks wisdom and promotes universal justice,” and furthermore “the university encourages students to work for a world that is harmonious, just, and merciful.”[97]  This mission serves the humanistic tradition well.  It recognizes the importance of education and instills the sense of responsibility in the scholar.  At the undergraduate level students are encouraged to participate in service-learning projects which further expose students to the idea that it is essential to work for justice and stand up for righteousness in the everyday world.

Salve Regina University has made strides on all levels.  For undergraduates they have added a new undergraduate core that requires students to take 5 specific, writing intensive courses in the humanities: Seeking Wisdom (a philosophy/religion hybrid), What it Means to be Human,  Philosophy and Responsibility, Christianity in Dialog with World Religions, and Living Wisdom (a capstone course).  But perhaps most impressive, and also consistent with the humanist mission, is Salve Regina University’s Graduate Program[98] in the Humanities.  The Ph.D. program “provides an interdisciplinary investigation of the question ‘What does it mean to be human in an age of advanced technology?’”[99].  It gets to the heart of the humanistic tradition by attempting to place a modern technological paradigm in the context of its historical legacy.  According to the program’s web page, the humanities degree “was developed to integrate philosophical and humane insights into the educational process while addressing current and anticipated technological challenges” (Ibid).   It seeks to analyze the human condition though the lenses of humanistic studies – art, philosophy, religion, ethics, and literature – in order to understand our place in the world’s unfolding, and recognize the appropriate means of serving core human values such as wisdom and justice.  Such a graduate program is important for the cause of the humanities because it embraces scholars from various disciplines and puts them into conversation with one another, leading to the transcendence of disciplinary boundaries.  Upon completion, graduates are ready and able to carry these humanistic ideals into their own classrooms, whether as teachers in local secondary schools or as college and university professors who can contribute to the humanistic culture of various institutions.  These scholars may also lead young students, imbued with the humanist ideal, toward the teaching vocation.  Perhaps many of these aspiring educators will wisely seek out programs that will provide them with the humanities background that they require.   

The work that is being done by these institutions falls in line with the conception of teaching that Mark Schwehn is pursuing in Exiles from Eden. Helping students understand themselves is an important part of the vocation even though, according to Schwehn, “over the last century, the modern university has ceased, as we have seen, to attend to character formation” (Schwehn 1993, 45).  The plan that he offers to assist in this process considers the grand conversation that we have been alluding to.  He says: “to think about thinkers and texts and to think with them: this is conversation, the conversation of the present with its own past” (Ibid. 17).  This is exactly what our model programs are doing.  They are tracing the development of ideas and applying them to the modern paradigm.  Students ask: How does this fit into my world?  What implication can be discerned through these dialogs? 

The New Intellectualism:

Defining Humanism for the Twenty-First Century

               In tracing the threads of Italian Humanism through modern educational movements we find that it becomes necessary to redefine humanism in twenty-first century terms.  Over the years the term has been used by many educators to refer to many diverse applications of educational methods.  Frederick Edwords, former president of the American Humanist Association says: “The word ‘humanism’ has a number of meanings, and because authors and speakers often don't clarify which meaning they intend, those trying to explain humanism can easily become a source of confusion” (Edwords 1989). He then outlines several variations of humanism that have evolved over the centuries.  Renaissance humanism is marked by the “revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood” (Edwords 1989).  In addition to reading the classics and having faith in the human capacity to discern truth, there was a Christian element to it.  Edwords adds the following: “Christian Humanism is defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary as ‘a philosophy advocating the self-fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles.’ This more human-oriented faith is largely a product of the Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism” (Ibid.). What becomes muddled in modern dialog is what Edwords calls “Modern Humanism” which “is defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as ‘a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion’” (Ibid.).  This brand of humanism has come to us through the works of the Enlightenment thinkers who considered themselves to be secular humanists.

               So where does that leave the Renaissance humanist in the twenty-first century?  The AHA lists what it claims to be “the basic ideas held in common by both Religious and Secular Humanists” (Ibid.).  Some are irrefutable. For instance, man is capable of thinking for himself. In addition Edwords says that humanism is based on human compassion and realistic in its attempt to correct pressing needs in the human condition. Another important tenet is number ten in Edwords’ list:

Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment. (Ibid.).


This is significant because it reflects the responsibility associated with humanism and is reminiscent of Pico as quoted above.  The humanist must stand up in the face of adversity in order to come closer to truth.

               Despite the admirable descriptions of what a humanist should be, some of the criteria fall short of the humanism that we have investigated in this study.  Edwords claims that “Humanism is in tune with the science of today” which is still consistent with our discussion but continues to conclude illogically that “Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable ‘soul’” (Edwords 1989).  This is a clear break from the humanists of the Italian Renaissance who were indoctrinated with Neo-Platonism.  In fact, one of the arguments that Girolamo Savonarola had with the Florentine humanists was that their belief in the immortality of the soul separate form the body was heretical because it denied the necessity of bodily resurrection.  As a further break from the roots Edwords says that “Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge” (Ibid.).  The Enlightenment said this; the Renaissance Humanists did not.

               The humanist of the twenty-first century, who considers himself to be part of the legacy of the Italian Renaissance, is in a precarious position. In many ways, he is not welcome in humanist circles.  Yet feeling at odds with those who have staked a claim on his namesake is part of his legacy as a humanist.  One of the things that is not mentioned in the AHA website is a key factor in this discussion and it comes from one of the major players in the Italian humanist movement.  Raffaele’s School of Athens is a depiction of balance.  In the painting, Raffaele paints many of his Renaissance contemporaries, yet each one represents a voice from the past. This is of the utmost importance for our present dialog. This is our humanist circle, the one that humanist educators in the Renaissance tradition belong to.  We are participants in the eternal dialog, members of the School of Athens.

               Our voices represent those that have come before ours and our mission is to restore balance.  While Plato, pointing to the sky holding his Timæus, discusses the origin of the universe with his student Aristotle, who points to the ground and holds his Ethics, others look on and contribute to the grand dialog.  Among the onlookers are Averroës, Euclid, Socrates, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, Epicurus, Zeno, Zenophon, Parmenides, Diogenes, Heraclitus, and many others.  This image represents the humanist’s responsibility to represent the best that the world has had to offer. 

The College of Arts and Sciences of George Mason University’s webpage claims that “it would be impossible to give in a website a full and accurate description of the College of Arts and Sciences or of the notion of the liberal arts” so they decided instead “to use a tradition dear to the liberal arts and replace a description with a metaphor” (GMU’s College of Arts and Sciences Home Page)[100].  They chose Raffaele’s painting because it represents a legacy:

Knowledge is a dialog …. When we learn, when we study, when we produce new knowledge, we are engaging in a dialogue which transcends time and space. This dialogue is not just with our contemporaries, but with our precursors as well as with the scholars of centuries to come (Ibid.).


They cite a reason very similar to the one presented here for the appropriateness of the painting: “We, too, are students in the School of Athens” (Ibid.).   More importantly, they chose the painting because it is the symbol of balance: “The second message in the painting is the unity of knowledge. At the School of Athens, many different disciplines are taught, but it is their simultaneous teaching that constitutes the strength and uniqueness of the liberal arts” (Ibid.)

As members then of this eternal order of scholars, it may be helpful to lay out an official statement of tenets for the order.  The call to education is a high vocation, and members of the humanist school must treat it as such.  Next to the concept of teaching as a vocation stands the commitment to balance, a commitment that requires us to bring to the discussion table the best that the world has to offer – classic, medieval, modern and contemporary – and welcome open dialog.  Members of this school must believe in the dignity of the human person, in mind, body, and spirit, and have faith in the moral improvement of man.  Believing in such one must have confidence in the studia humanitatis and the artes liberales as valid means of encouraging free thinking that will liberate man from the social constructs that bind him.  This confidence must also foster a sense of commitment to social justice and a willingness to stand up for what one believes.  The pinnacle of the humanist agenda is to create the Greek idea of areté – excellence and nobility in thought and action. 

To accomplish this task several modifications must be made in our approach to education.  Our study has shown that the arts have played a vital role in humanist pedagogical movements of the past.  The arts encourage imagination, cultivate intuition, and help bring an individual closer to the transcendent forms.  In addition to the arts, math and science are to be treated in a practical, yet open-minded approach which does not stifle creativity and qualitative discourse.  The hinge pin that holds this curriculum together and helps balance the equation is the liberal arts program of studies.  For the humanists, literature and history cannot be taught independently of each other.  Humanists argue that history has been taught in the past as a means of justifying a political agenda and that it is often tainted with individual biases.  This is certainly nothing new in pedagogical discussions.  The key then is to put history lessons in direct dialog with the other disciplines, especially those in the liberal arts.  History needs to bring the learner a little closer to understanding who he is and where his society has come from.  While literature is the perfect complement to history in accomplishing this because it provides real snap shots of particular Zeitgeists that have motivated historical movements, other disciplines help bring the whole picture into sharper focus. 

Religion and philosophy must accompany studies in the arts and sciences and in a sense drive the curriculum.  Such infusion balances education; it also connects students to a world larger than themselves and gives them the confidence to effect change in their world.  The humanist education seeks to avoid prejudice, attain a sense of moral obligation, provide a thirst for rights and justice, and encourage human development in the Greek sense of excellence.  In addition the humanist curriculum, and its inherent sense of teaching as a vocation, extends two very important responsibilities: one is the duty of the scholar to connect man to the higher planes of thought, and second to stand up in the face of adversity for the sake of righteousness. 

All of this must be driven by the journey toward the higher mind alone, with less concern for corporate sponsorship, workforce preparation, or any other non-academic consideration.  The School of Athens is a monument to the human mind and to education; the cultivation of the mind transcends any otherworldly considerations.  Real job training should happen on the job, after certain academic requirements have been met.  Investing in the human mind is investing in something worth far more than the local economy; it is investing in the future of the human condition. 

Final Thoughts

Early on in my project I sought to answer several important questions regarding the history of ideas.  My first question related to a quote from Mark Gilderhus, in his History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction. He asks:

Why bother with the study of history? What possible connections exist between an increasingly remote past and our own predicaments in the present? Can stories about other peoples in other places and other times have any meaning in an age of vaulting technology and traumatizing change? Is it reasonable to think that anyone can benefit from the experiences of others in presumably unprecedented and perilous times? (Gilderhus 1992, 1)


In collecting my concluding thoughts it appears to me that the possible connection that Gilderhus is questioning is made by the ideas themselves.  In the case studies that I have investigated, I have come to find that the discussion has retained a certain continuity through three historical periods, though because of the expanding technology and the advancement of scientific thought, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain balance in the discussion. In addition, as Jonathan Glover has pointed out in Humanity, the stakes have grown significantly higher.  I have also seen that this discussion is much older than the modern age and it seems that the early sixteenth century Italian painter, Raffaele Sanzio, was pointing it out to us in his School of Athens.  I have come to realize that this fresco depicts the eternal dialog that dates back at least as far as the beginning of the Western intellectual tradition.   The resulting conclusion, based on these insights, is that it is now more important than ever, to take heed from the lessons of the past.

               I also discovered the work of Renaissance historian Eugene Rice.  He said that for humanists like Erasmus “all of what is best and vitally important to mankind can be found in the texts of classical antiquity,” but in this world he would have few followers (Foreword by Eugene Rice in Woodward 1963, xvi).  In the most literal sense, Renaissance humanists based their curriculum on the reading of classical literature in their original Greek and Latin. Their goal was to go back to the basics, free from the filters and interpretation of medieval culture and cultivate the skill of the liberal arts.  Rice asks another intriguing question: since humanist education was based in the classics, and denial of this would seem to undermine the tradition completely, is there hope for the “new learning” in modern times? In tracing the threads of humanism through the three case studies, I must conclude that the tradition continues to have a vital lifeline and recent movements in the direction of the humanist approach show tremendous hope.   He then asked if humanism’s “traditional principles and ambitions … be given new meanings appropriate to our own society and to our own sense of what a civilized man should be” (Ibid. xvii)? I believe that this question has already been answered by the key players in the case studies we have already reviewed but perhaps the most definitive answer to this question can be answered in the works of Christopher Dawson who did exactly what Rice is asking.      

The Italian humanists sought a balanced, purposeful, and holistic educational methodology.  The educational crisis in the twenty-first century seems again to be a serious imbalance in academics.  Our society (political rhetoric, economists, state boards of education, etc.) seem to be fixated on expanding math, science, and technology at the expense of the liberal arts.  The idea of the educated person has shifted from its classical sense of l'uomo universale to a simple equation based on the person's value in the workforce.  This tendency is worsened by the movement toward compartmentalization of academic disciplines that has been occurring for the past century. 

The humanities have several tasks to accomplish in order to help rectify this disorder.  First it has to provide students with a firm liberal arts curriculum that serves to "liberate" their minds from social, cultural, and intellectual paradigms that have been placed upon them. Second, it should establish tangible relationships between the disciplines so that the student gains a holistic perspective of attained knowledge.  Third, it must carry those relationships outside of humanistic disciplines and establish relevance with disciplines in the sciences and technology. When these three levels are established, the educated person becomes the person who understands the connectedness of human knowledge and can tie this knowledge - whether the training had been classical, vocational, or scientific - back to the core values that are inherent in the human condition.   

Ultimately, this study has shown that it is the responsibility of the twenty-first century humanists to do what their predecessors have done in discussions of crisis in past societies.  It is their duty to reintroduce the world to the eternal dialog.  It is their task to take measures to ensure that each classroom becomes a school of Athens.