Petrus Paulus Vergerius
On Noble Manners and Liberal Studies
c. 1404

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Hanover Historical Texts Project.

Petrus Paulus Vergerius (1370-1444) was a wandering scholar and teacher who traveled widely in Italy and Northern Europe. In the early fifteenth century, he authored the first Renaissance treatise systematically outlining a humanist education program. The treatise, On Noble Manners and Liberal Studies, was actually a letter Vergerius wrote to Ubertinus, son of Francesa Carrara, the lord of Padua, to guide him in his education. In the letter, Vergerius recommends to the young lord virtually all of the disciplines in the medieval liberal arts curriculum--the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)--and acknowledges his respect for the advanced professional disciplines of medicine, law, and theology. But his emphasis is on rhetoric (or eloquence) and on the ancient disciplines of history and moral philosophy, humanities disciplines that were thought to be highly practical. Treatises on education proliferated during the Renaissance, but Vergerius' treatise remained a highly popular one for about one hundred and fifty years. Today, historians see the humanists educational program, studia humanitatis or the study of humanity, as a defining characteristic of the humanist movement. Humanists believed that the right education can genuinely ennoble individuals and encourage virtue and wisdom, objectives that the arid, abstruse, logic-chopping scholastic program of the Middle Ages failed to achieve. Humanists took widely different positions on philosopical, social, and political issues, but they agreed in their support of the kind of educational program outlined by Vergerius.

1. According to Vergerius, what are the objectives of the liberal arts?
2. What does he mean by "free men"?
3. What assumptions does he make about the role of nature and nurture in an education?
4. Why are history, moral philosophy, and eloquence (the object of rhetoric) so highly esteemed by Vergerius?
5. Of the other disciplines, on which does he seem to place most emphasis and why? Which ones does he seem to think less important and why?

[1] We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practise virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only. For to a vulgar temper gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence, to a lofty nature, moral worth and fame. It is, then, of the highest importance that even from infancy this aim, this effort, should constantly be kept alive in growing minds. For I may affirm with fullest conviction that we shall not have attained wisdom in our later years unless in our earliest we have sincerely entered on its search. Nor may we for a moment admit, with the unthinking crowd, that those who give early promise fail in subsequent fulfillment. This may, partly from physical causes, happen in exceptional cases. But there is no doubt that nature has endowed some children with so keen, so ready an intelligence, that without serious effort they attain to a notable power of reasoning and conversing upon grave and lofty subjects, and by aid of right guidance and sound learning reach in manhood the highest distinction. On the other hand, children of modest powers demand even more attention, that their natural defects may be supplied by art. But all alike must in those early years,

'Dum faciles animi iuvenum, dum mobilis aetas,'

whilst the mind is supple, be inured to the toil and effort of learning. Not that education, in the broad sense, is exclusively the concern of youth. Did not Cato think it honourable to learn Greek in later life? Did not Socrates, greatest of philosophers, compel his aged fingers to the lute?

[2] 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 grave studies. The Master must judge how far he can rely upon emulation, rewards, encouragement; how far he must have recourse to sterner measures. Too much leniency is objectionable; so also is too great severity, for we must avoid all that terrifies a boy. In certain temperaments--those in which a dark complexion denotes a quiet but strong personality--restraint must be cautiously applied. Boys of this type are mostly highly gifted and can bear a gentle hand. Not seldom it happens that a finely tempered nature is thwarted by circumstances, such as poverty at home, which compels a promising youth to forsake learning for trade; though, on the other hand, poverty is less dangerous to lofty instincts than great wealth. Or again, parents encourage their sons to follow a career traditional in their family, which may divert them from liberal studies; and the customary pursuits of the city in which we dwell exercise a decided influence on our choice. . . .

[3] In your own case, Ubertinus, you had before you the choice of training in Arms or in Letters. Either holds a place of distinction amongst the pursuits which appeal to men of noble spirit; either leads to fame and honour in the world. It would have been natural that you, the scion of a House ennobled by its prowess in arms, should have been content to accept your father's permission to devote yourself wholly to that discipline. But to your great credit you elected to become proficient in both alike: to add to the career of arms traditional in your family, an equal success in that other great discipline of mind and character, the study of Literature. . . .

[4] We come now to the consideration of the various subjects which may rightly be included under the name of 'Liberal Studies.' Amongst these I accord the first place to History, on grounds both of its attractiveness and of its utility, qualities which appeal equally to the scholar and to the statesman. Next in importance ranks Moral Philosophy, which indeed is, in a peculiar sense, a 'Liberal Art,' in that its purpose is to teach men the secret of true freedom. History, then, gives us the concrete examples of the precepts inculcated by philosophy. The one shows what men should do, the other what men have said and done in the past, and what practical lessons we may draw therefrom for the present day. I would indicate as the third main branch of study, Eloquence, which indeed holds a place of distinction amongst the refined Arts. By philosophy we learn the essential truth of things, which by eloquence we so exhibit in orderly adornment as to bring conviction to differing minds. And history provides the light of experience-- a cumulative wisdom fit to supplement the force of reason and the persuasion of eloquence. For we allow that soundness of judgment, wisdom of speech, integrity of conduct are the marks of a truly liberal temper.

[5] We are told that the Greeks devised for their sons a course of training in four subjects: letters, gymnastic, music and drawing. Now, of these drawing has no place amongst our liberal studies; except in so far as it is identical with writing (which is in reality one side of the art of Drawing), it belongs to the Painter's profession; the Greeks, as an art-loving people, attached to it an exceptional value.

[6] The Art of Letters, however, rests upon a different footing. It is a study adapted to all times and to all circumstances, to the investigation of fresh knowledge or to the re-casting and application of old. Hence the importance of grammar and of the rules of composition must be recognised at the outset, as the foundation on which the whole study of Literature must rest; and closely associated with these rudiments, the art of Disputation or Logical argument. The function of this is to enable us to discern fallacy from truth in discussion. Logic, indeed, as setting forth the true method of learning, is the guide to the acquisition of knowledge in whatever subject. Rhetoric comes next, and is strictly speaking the formal study by which we attain the art of eloquence; which, as we have just stated, takes the third place amongst the studies specially important in public life. It is now, indeed, fallen from its old renown and is well night a lost art. In the Law Court, in the Council, in the popular Assembly, in exposition, in persuasion, in debate, eloquence finds no place nowadays: speed, brevity, homeliness are the only qualities desired. Oratory, in which our forefathers gained so great glory for themselves and for their language, is despised; but our youth, if they would earn the repute of true education, must emulate their ancestors in this accomplishment.

[7] After Eloquence, we place Poetry and the Poetic Art, which though not without value in daily life and as an aid to oratory, have nevertheless their main concern for the leisure side of existence.

[8] As to Music, the Greeks refused the title of 'Educated' to anyone who could not sing or play. Socrates set an example to the Athenian youth, by himself learning to play in his old age; urging the pursuit of music not as a sensuous indulgence, but as an aid to the inner harmony of the soul. In so far as it is taught as a healthy recreation for the moral and spiritual nature, music is a truly liberal art, and, both as regards its theory and practice, should find a place in education.

[9] Arithmetic, which treats of the properties of numbers, Geometry, which treats of the properties of dimensions, lines, surfaces, and solid bodies, are weighty studies because they possess a peculiar element of certainty. The science of the Stars, their motions, magnitudes and distances, lifts us into the clear calm of the upper air. There we may contemplate the fixed stars, or the conjunctions of the planets, and predict the eclipses of the sun and the moon. The knowledge of Nature--animate and inanimate--, the laws and the properties of things in heaven and in earth, their causes, mutations and effects, especially the explanation of their wonders (as they are popularly supposed) by the unravelling of their causes--this is a most delightful, and at the same time most profitable, study for youth. With these may be joined investigations concerning the weights of bodies, and those relative to the subject which mathematicians call 'Perspective.'

[10] I may here glance for a moment at the three great professional Disciplines: Medicine, Law, Theology. Medicine, which is applied science, has undoubtedly much that makes it attractive to a student. But it cannot be described as a Liberal study. Law, which is based upon moral philosophy, is undoubtedly held in high respect. Regarding Law as a subject of study, such respect is entirely deserved; but Law as practised becomes a mere trade. Theology, on the other hand, treats of themes removed from our senses, and attainable only by pure intelligence.

[11] The principal 'Disciplines' have now been reviewed. It must not be supposed that a liberal education requires acquaintance with them all: for a thorough mastery of even one of them might fairly be the achievement of a lifetime. Most of us, too, must learn to be content with modest capacity as with modest fortune. Perhaps we do wisely to pursue that study which we find most suited to our intelligence and our tastes, though it is true that we cannot rightly understand one subject unless we can perceive its relation to the rest. The choice of studies will depend to some extent upon the character of individual minds. . . .

From Petrus Paulus Vergerius, De ingenues moribus et liberalibus studiis, trans. by W. H. Woodward, Vittorino da Feltre and other Humanist Educators, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), 102-104, 106-109

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