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How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today

Peter Jones at Classics for All

Photo by Constantinos Kollias / Unsplash

Eric Adler, professor and chair of the Department Classics at the University of Maryland, traces the roots of his proposed ‘battle’ back to the Romans of the 1st century BC and (with a nod to the Greeks on the way) to Cicero in particular, whose evocation of studia humanitatis in the Pro Archia effectively invented our notion of the humanities, which Cicero also associated with the liberal arts (bonae artes). A. argues that this amounted to ‘a broad educational regimen that would inculcate particular intellectual moral virtues in its devotees’.

But Roman education had a practical purpose—training its youthful, mainly aristocratic, male pupils in the art of public persuasion, to prepare them for a successful life in law and politics. Intensive work on the correct enunciation and usage of the Greek and Latin languages and on rhetorical argument, derived from handbooks and classical literature, introduced them to a wide range of ‘authorities’ whom they could scavenge for exempla that would help them to win cases. This was training for business, not humanism.

The point is that in pro Archia Cicero was not proclaiming any sort of educational programme. He was simply describing in glowing terms the debt he personally owed to the Greek poet Archias for his emphasis on the importance of literature, with its incentives for noble action and helping people in their hour of need, in order to persuade the jury of the poet’s merits. Archias’ chosen career as poet took him down that path. Other Romans learned other skills necessary for their careers after they had left school. Vitruvius, rather obviously, demanded that all architects master e.g. mathematics, draftsmanship, law and much else.

More important was the ‘battle’ in the Renaissance, whose influential thinkers such as Petrarch and Bruni placed the highest priority on the humane value of classical literature in the original languages—history, philosophy, poetry, grammar and rhetoric which they called studia humanitatis and haec nostra studia. Again, they did not turn it into a formal educational programme, but the result was that Ciceronian Latin was reinforced as the language of European education. But since they did not see similar value in the sciences and mathematics, as A. points out, a split between science and a classical education developed.

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