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Rhetoric as Divine Art: A Reformed Notion

September 27, 2009

Johann SturmThe lexicon is a deceptive source of information. It is incredibly useful but tends to commit one to bondage. For those who have attempted to learn one of the classical languages, the ultimate freedom comes in achieving the goal of breaking free of the lexicons and syntax books and reading the text with one’s own mind. In essence, the goal in learning a language is to create a habit of speaking/thinking in that tongue by transforming the mind into a sort of living and breathing lexicon-grammar-syntax.

For this and other reasons, Renaissance humanists held the commentaries produced by the scholastics of the Medieval Universities in high disdain. Activities such as producing commentaries on Peter Lombard’s Sentences preoccupied the mind with the opinions of other men rather than directing the student ad fontes, to the source of truth itself. Rather, students should be trained in linguistics and logic so that they may read the Fathers in the original tongue and do research without the limitation of a lexicon or the slippery opinions of some other man’s commentary. This ad fontes approach to education and scholarship is exemplified in the Reformers who while seeking to remove the barrier of clergymen that kept the “blood of Christ” from the mouths of the faithful were also seeking to remove the barrier of textual glosses and scholastic commentaries that separated the student and scholar from the original source.

Not only are there barriers in the realm of reading dead languages but barriers also exist for the spoken word, the art of Rhetoric. As moderns we often think of an artist as someone who is born with a gift. Beethoven was a childhood genius born with an incredible capacity for music, composing his first piece at the tender age of three years. Yet, the classic definition of “art” is an inward characteristic that comes through experience and training. Aristotle used the example of a harp-player. The good harp-player is the one who has a perfect knowledge of the correct strings to play at the correct time and has developed a disposition allowing him to bring that knowledge to actuality in the playing of a beautiful song. In a similar manner, the good rhetorician must have a knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax coupled with the learned disposition that enables him to speak “off the cuff”, free from the aid of lexicons and speech aids. In other words the good rhetor must combine knowledge with skill.

Another innovation of Renaissance thought was the renewed emphasis and centrality of the art of rhetoric for the purpose of education and the pursuit of the common good. During this period the speculative sciences (particularly Metaphysics) were abandoned for the more practical sciences, such as Ethics. Figures such as Lorenzo Valla and Rudolph Agricola sought to combine Ethics and Logic with the art of Rhetoric. The goal of Ethics – the pursuit of the common good – was de-Platonized and applied to the civic sphere. With Dante Alighieri as a living example of the turmoil between Emperor and Pope at this time, the Renaissance humanists considered the education of young men to civic office to be of utmost importance for the survival of the state. Therefore, even Logic transformed to fit the agenda of the rhetor who must not only have the ability to rouse the emotions of the masses but most importantly, he must be able to persuade the mind while enflaming the heart as well.

The art of Rhetoric was considered the savior of Christendom. This may seem like an odd opinion to us moderns but, as Barbara Sher Tinsley argues, the art of eloquent speech was necessary in a society in which letters took days to reach their destinations and the persuasive power of mass media was hundreds of years in the distance.

[E]loquence was appropriate enough for an age in which, though books were relatively plentiful, the exigencies of policy making – often during periods of extended warfare – were such that the policy makers had little time for reading. Furthermore, the most difficult problems were not those which depended on knowledge so much as on opinion; for policy hinged on ethical and religious points of view more often than on technical circumstance. In late twentieth-century policy making, mass media serves the function of rhetorical eloquence with this difference: the media are less concerned with apt or elegant rhetoric. Instead, they emphasize speedy delivery, quantification, and visual impact. In the Renaissance, such opinion-molding factors were not readily available. (Tinsley, “Johann Sturm’s Method for Humanistic Pedagogy”, Sixteenth Century Journal XX, 1, 1989, p. 32.)

Rhetoric was considered a necessity for the well ordered society, particularly because the good rhetor held a tremendous power in his ability to sway public policy. This is also why Ethics was considered crucial for the eloquent speaker. Humanists of this period were not interested in merely producing flowery speeches with no substance, but sought to combine knowledge of the truth (Logic) and true practical wisdom (Ethics) with the art of eloquent speech (Rhetoric).

Many modern writers have claimed that the downfall of this humanistic pursuit came at the hands of the Protestant Reformers. Yet, the legacy of Johann Sturm (pictured above), rector of the Strasbourg Gymnasium and friend of Martin Bucer and John Calvin, fights against this notion. As Tinsley points out, Sturm’s program for the reform of education in Strasbourg was thoroughly humanistic. Sturm’s goal was to educate the youth in the liberal arts so that they might be able “to move freely about in all writers without an interpreter.” (De literarum ludis, 185) These authors included only classical authors: Vergil, Horace, Terrence, Plautus, Caesar, Sallust, and most importantly, Cicero. There was to be one class on catechetical instruction but the remainder of the student’s education would be from the classics. The impetus for this primarily pagan education was due to Sturm’s belief that he shared with other Reformers and Renaissance thinkers, the belief that the classical artists were divinely inspired. Tinsley notes:

[T]he approach to “godly things” and to religion was to be gained primarily by studying literature and language; to a lesser degree by studying Scripture and the apostles. Dogma as such (except for catechism) was largely ignored. how this learned piety affected pedagogy is difficult to determine, since the pedagogical writings offer little explanation. They do suggest that the emphasis was on classical authors, not Christian ones. Sturm held the traditional humanist attitude towards classical writers, which was that they were divinely inspired, hence, not opposed to Christian teaching. Indeed, they were necessary to understand God and his religion properly. (Tinsley, p. 29.)

For Sturm, a perfected Christendom will not be realized without the aid of the classics in directing Christians in the proper method of thought and speech. God has provided a helpful handmaiden for his church, a handmaiden who possess the divine secrets of a well-ordered society. According to Sturm, the loss of ornate speaking in a society signifies an ethical problem, laziness and self-indulgence. He follows other humanists in seeing the commentaries of the scholastics as we may see “cliff-notes” the bane of the English professor who wants to remove all temptations toward academic laziness (though he encouraged the reading of commentaries outside of school). There is a reason why a rhetor should steer away from Barbarisms. The Barbarians were an unethical and uncivilized people. For a man like Sturm, prudence and rhetoric walk hand-in-hand.

However, Sturm did not consider the education of his day as a “rebirth” of classical learning. He believed there to be much potential in Europe, yet he was not without his criticisms. He asks, “What if Socrates were living today?” and responds, “He could find nobody in letters and in that philosophy now whom he could compare with those [his contemporaries].” (On the Lost Art of Speaking, in Johann Sturm on Education, p. 123.)

To speak briefly, the minds of our people have been corrupted and the philosophy of living vitiated. For though many are gifted with ready understanding during adolescence, how few remain who are not softened by self indulgence, or if able to avoid that, remain in letters and do not turn to profitable arts before they have acquired even an elementary education? . . . Nothing is so inimical to study as self-indulgence and softness of the spirit, even though the former furnishes too weak a defense of our morals and the latter is believed to be the very reward of virtue and is for the most part desired. But not only … have vices and haste led us away from the good, but also inasmuch as Latin is not so highly regarded in the city-states as formerly, and is used only by a few and that faultily, that approach is not so feasible for elementary instruction as once was. And if it were, we have sill lost it: it is now more rude and less pleasing. This being the case, speech has also been changed and conversation once pure and Roman, ornate and learned, is now impure and foreign, rude and unlearned. (ibid., 125, 126)

Sturm may sound like an elitist in this diatribe against the lack of education in letters in his day, and especially for the castigation of Medieval Latin. Yet, we must remember that Sturm has a biblical view of human behavior. The external acts reflect that which is in the heart. A society that looks scornfully at or simply ignores the art of speaking a pure Latin tongue is a society that sees perfection as an easy pursuit and has satisfied itself with mediocrity. Sturm continues with an omen of things to come if the way of self-indulgence is pursued:

For since the use of eloquence is great in all the arts, especially in theology and political science, as long as we do not possess, properly practice or cultivate rhetoric, so long too shall we not see our people produce anything that is polished in speech, elaborated by industry, or ornamented by abundance and variety. (ibid.)

In other words, as long as we are satisfied with mediocre Latin and a mediocre language we will only be able to achieve a mediocre society, which, especially during Sturm’s day, is a society headed for destruction. Thus, Sturm made it his goal to reverse this poor situation and work on the reunification of Christendom through the education of the youth in pure Latin and rhetoric. He followed Crassus in implementing nine areas in which the faculty of speaking consists.

1) the nature of the mind and its capacity for learning 2) the education and teaching of youth 3) keener observation 4) the knowledge of letters 5) the habit of daily conversation 6) the reading of good authors 7) experience 8 ) memory and 9) continual study. (ibid., 123)

Sturm notes that these nine elements have become corrupted in his day and offers  the means of their restoration:

The first thing to do is to protect the mind from the corruption of desire and vice. Good teaching and the imparting of wisdom do not sort well with self-indulgence and depravity. If the last are avoided and the first promoted, excellent talent can be cultivated. The goodness of nature must be stirred up by the zeal and ardor of love in order to progress toward those ends for which good natures were born. All this must be done naturally so that the desire added is for diligence. For though nature cannot be given by friends, but is conferred together with life, youth is nevertheless encouraged by those whom it considers dear. This task pertains not only to parents, teachers and others involved either by necessity or connection, but indeed to those who care for the state as well. (ibid., 130, 131.)

Here Sturm reassures the reader that the most important aspect involved in the renewal of rhetoric is the curbing of the heart’s malicious desires and tendency toward self-indulgence. He also notes that education must be accompanied by the guidance of good friends, parents, and those who care for the state. By these means Sturm hoped to “create in adolescents the burning desire to excel in letters and the opportunity thus to earn rewards and praise.” (ibid.) Mainly through the imitation of the classical authors, children should be schooled in the correct use of the Latin tongue, in Ethics and Natural Philosophy, and most importantly, in the art of eloquent oration. Only by means of a classical education centered around the art of rhetoric, an art which frees the soul from textbooks and endows the student with the virtue of avoiding self-indulgence in thought and speech, only by this means will the commonwealth prosper. The feet of those who bring good news will tread upon Roman roads.

Sturm’s method was a tremendous success, influencing the creation of a number of similar schools across the continent and even influencing the tutor of Queen Elizabeth. It was only at the hands of the Lutherans and their antipathy toward all things Calvinistic that Sturm later lost his position as rector of the Strasbourg Gymnasium. Yet, by this time he had already guided the school for decades, training many in the ways of classical literature and learning. Sturm is an untapped resource for all of those interested in Christian and classical education in our day. Though not without errors, Sturm is an important thinker and protential influence for modern Christian and non-Christian educators, and he is an important figure for our understanding of the reform of educational practices among the Reformers of the 17th century.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim Enloe permalink
    September 28, 2009 1:12 pm

    One interesting line of thought that arises from the early part of this approach is the likely relationship between semper reformanda and ad fontes. If the goal of the latter is to sweep away the encrustations of learned commentaries so as to allow the student to directly engage the original text, what happens when the student who has so engaged the text writes his own thoughts down? In no time at all, there is another encrustation – at least, potentially – which then requires someone else to come along, and sweep it away in the name of ad fontes.

    But does or should this process ever end? Does it lead to a disrespect for tradition in toto and a subsequent reinventing of the wheel every generation?

  2. Tim Enloe permalink
    September 28, 2009 1:13 pm

    First sentence above should be “line of thought that arises from the early part of this article“. Sorry!

  3. September 29, 2009 6:54 am

    Tim,

    I think we can use Paul’s metaphor of the Law as a “schoolmaster” over Israel to better understand what the Reformed humanist thought about the scholastic commentaries. They did not hate them, as I briefly noted, Sturm encouraged the students to read them outside of school. Paul believed that the Law is “holy, righteous, and good” but he also believed that it was inferior to Christ because it only condemns sinful man and it was handed down by intermediaries – and most of all, it was intended to lead us to Christ, not replace him.

    So, as the Law is good when set in its place below Christ our mediator, in a similar manner the commentaries of the scholastics are good when set in their place below the knowledge and skill of the wise man. Calvin was influenced by Lombard as Vermigli and Zanchi were influenced by Aquinas. The problem comes when students and institutions begin to use the mediating documents (commentaries) as if they are the esse. These commentaries took the place of honest study and skill of the original languages and the knowledge of the Fathers’ writings.

    To your question, “what happens when the student who has so engaged the text writes his own thoughts down?” I think they Reformed humanists at least (I can’t speak for all humanists) would and did encourage commentaries on the text of the ancient authors and also wrote Medieval-like texts systematizing theology, as you know. For example, Vermigli’s commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics was not repudiated. But, it was not used as a replacement for what we would call philology.

    Linguistic and grammatical analysis is essentially what distinguishes the commentaries of the Renaissance period from those of the Medieval period. Sure, you find some textual stuff in Aquinas’s commentaries (like his definition of “ethos”) but you don’t find authors learning the original Greek and commenting on the difference between ho anthropos and anthropon tina, as you find in the humanist works.

    No, I don’t think this method leads to a disrespect for tradition. As I have said, Sturm encouraged the reading of commentaries outside of school and the reading of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes in the catechism class. He was a moderate for sure, but he was still interested in maintaining the unity of the corpus Christi. And, commentaries did continue in this period but with a different emphasis. The shift is mainly seen in education, where students learned classical Latin and imitated the style of Cicero and the orations of the same. So, you may say, they would actually have more respect for tradition. These guys still thought in slightly Platonic terms about education. An education that more thoroughly trains students in the pursuit of truth will produce students who resemble Truth and are less likely to steer away from it. These students would read the Fathers’ original meaning, not the meaning placed upon them by Scotus or Ockham, or the Magisterium.

    Eric

  4. Tim Enloe permalink
    September 29, 2009 8:57 am

    Eric, that makes sense. Perhaps the key, then, to avoid turning ad fontes (and subsequently semper reformanda) into an outright disdain for tradition is to keep liberal arts education front and center for all those who would be in leadership positions. This way, as you say, they can engage the original texts directly, without merely having to rely on accumulated commentary, but at the same time retain a respect for the commentaries as witnesses of past labors to understand the text. I like that solution. Let’s implement it in our own day! 🙂

  5. September 30, 2009 1:26 pm

    The only way to dump all commentary tradition would be to toss all the older art and music in the Church. Oh, wait, don’t some people already try to do that?

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