Rhetoric as Divine Art: A Reformed Notion

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.


Zanchi on the Glory of Strasbourg the “Silver City”

Argentoratum 1493

Tamesti ego ex Italia, Optimi Argentoratenses, uosque;

Relinqui ornatissimi Auditores, in hanc amplissimam atque;

Ornatissimam, & cum bonarum literarum, virtutumque;

Omnium, tum praesertim Christianae religionis, & parentem & altricem & custodem conservatricemque;

Fidelissima urbem:

(Aristotelis De Naturali Auscultatione, sue de principiis cum Praefatione Doctoris Zanchi)

Although I am from Italy, I am from the Great Argentoratum [Strasbourg] also;

Of the remaining most ornate students in her most ample;

And the most ornate, both with excellent literature and virtue;

Of all, especially of the Christian religion, both parent and step-mother, both guardian and preserving lady;

Most faithful city.

This passage is taken from Zanchi’s commentary on Aristotle’s De Principiis, on which he lectured while at the Strasbourg Gymnasium in 1553. Zanchi delivered his lectures at the same time as Vermigli’s lectures upon Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. With it’s non-violent transition from Roman dominance to the doctrines of the Protestant Reformers, and with a history of powerful Reformers like Bucer, Sturm, and Vermigli gracing her walls, it is no wonder that an ex-Roman Catholic, Italian refugee like Girolamo Zanchi would have such high praises for the city of Argentoratum, which we moderns call Strasbourg.

Johann Sturm: Calvinist, Humanist, and Educator

Johann SturmWe should all know more about Johann Sturm, and I hope to devote another post to his legacy. For now it will be sufficient to give a very brief account of who this man was. He was responsible for the Classical curriculum at the Stasbourg  Gymnasium (academy) founded by Martin Bucer, and through his lifelong service to that school and his reputation as a man of superior intellect and piety he became the father of the German public school system. Sturm was a tutor to the famous logician Peter Ramus and friends with the tutor of Queen Elizabeth I of England Roger Ascham, even working for Elizabeth for a time as a diplomat. Within the first decade of Sturm’s rectorship of the Strasbourg Academy he employed such professors as John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and the founder of the school, Martin Bucer. All of these men had the utmost respect for Sturm, to the extent that they trusted him with the education of Strasbourg’s future civil and ecclesiastical leaders.

So, what was a Reformed education like in the 16th century? Speaking of Sturm’s treatise The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters, Lewis Spitz notes:

If this treatise were merely a discussion of books, classroom procedures and teaching techniques, it would still be fascinating; for its description of Sturm’s expectations for boys astonishes modern readers who find it hard to believe that seven-year-olds, often brought to their first year teacher without knowledge of the alphabet, were by the end of that year expected to be reading Cicero’s shorter letters! In their third year they were reading Vergil’s Aeneid, and in their fifth, the one in which they began Greek, Aesop. Then, during “their last year of boyhood” (at twelve) they were studying Aristotle’s logic. At fourteen, the year they would have acquired “ornate speech,” they began to study Hebrew. In their final year of the Gymnasium, they were to perfect “apt speech,” which Sturm expressed as “instructed, liberal, and accommodated to things” and to have begun (!) “the science of numbers,” and astrology. (Spitz, Johann Sturm on Education, p. 48)

You might have noticed that there is no mention of Latin amidst this discussion of curricula. That ommission is due to the fact that Latin was the language of discussion for teachers and students within the classroom, at play time, and on the walk home. Sturm writes to an instructor in the Lauingen School:

We want youth – all of them, including those harbored in the lowest grades – to have Latin conversations. We do not want teachers speaking to them in the native tongue, nor will it be necessary. . . When boys enter school, when they play, when they walk together, when they are coming on the way to school, their speech should be Latin or Greek. Let no one come here if he is going impudently to stray in this matter. (Sturm, For the Lauingen School, in Spitz, p. 246)

I will discuss the motives behind Sturm’s academic rigor in a separate post, but suffice it say that he was a true humanist who considered the eloquence of speech achieved by Cicero and others of antiquity to be the quintessential element of a proper education. Sturm viewed rhetoric with the utmost importance, since a true rhetor must be gifted with the knowledge of subject matter and the prudence required to choose the appropriate words and their arrangement, the combination of which will not merely stir the heart of the listener but will convince the mind as well. As a humanist educator and promoter of Classical education, Johann Sturm is one scholar that all Reformed educators – all Christians for that matter – should know about.

A Brief Bio of Jerome Zanchi: Italian Reformer

Jerome ZanchiThe following is a brief biography of Jerome Zanchi by Samuel Clarke, a late 17th century English Presbyterian. The accuracy of the data should be taken with caution due to the nature of the writing and the polemical agenda of the writer. However, the facts seem to be correct and do not present anything that appears blatantly dubious. If I were to write this bio I would make greater mention of Zanchi’s humanism, particularly his lectures on Aristotle’s Physics that he delivered in Strasbourg while Peter Martyr was lecturing on the Nicomachean Ethics in the same school. I’d also include the fact that Zanchi, like Martyr, was a trained Thomist and even planned to organize his works into a Summa theologiae. Yet, the following is a good intro to the life and times of such a monumental Reformed divine who has been unjustly neglected in our day. 

Early Years and Conversion:

Hierom Zanchius was born at Atzanum in Italy, Anno 1516. His Father was a Lawyer, who brought him up at School; and when Zanchy was but twelve years old his Father died of the Plague Anno Christi 1528; at which time Zanchy was at School, where he was instructed in the Liberall Sciences: When he came to the age of fifteen years, being now deprived of both his parents, observing that divers of his kindred were of the order of Canons Regular, amongst whom that there were divers learned men, being exceeding desirous of Learning, he entered into that Order, where he lived about twenty ears, and studied Arts and School-Divinity, together with the Tongues. He was very familiar with Celsus Martiningus, joyning studies with him, was a diligent hearer of Peter Martyr’s publick Lectures at Luca upon the Epistle to the Romans, and of his private Lectures upon the Psalmes, which he read to his Canons. This drew his mind to an earnest study of the Scriptures. He read also the Fathers, especially St. Augustine, with the most learned Interpreters of the Word of God: And thereupon he preached the Gospel for some years in the purest manner that the time and place would suffer. And when Peter Martyr left Italy, so that his godly Disciples could no longer live in safety there, much lesse have liberty of Preaching, about twenty of them in the space of one year left their station, and followed their Master into Germany, amongst whom Zanchy was one. Being thus (as he used to say) delivered out of the Babylonish captivity, anno Christi 1550. He went, first into Rhetia, where he staied about eight months, and from thence to Geneva, and after nine months stay there, he was sent for by Peter Martyr into England, but when he came to Strasborough, he staid there to supply Hedio’s room newly dead, who read Divinity in the Schooles, which was in the year 1553. (The Marrow of Ecclesiastical History, 804-807)

Professor of Divinity in Strasbourg:

He lived, and taught Divinity in that City about 11 years; sometimes also reading Aristotle in the Schools; yet not without opposition, old James Sturmius, the Father of that University being dead: Yea his adversaries proceeded so far as to tell Zanchy, that if he would continue to read there, he must subscribe the Augustane Confession, to which he yeelded for peace-sake, with this proviso, modo Orthodoxe intelligatur; declaring his judgment also about Christ’s presence in the Sacrament, wherwith they were satisfied. And thus he continued to the year 1563, being very acceptable to the good, and a shunner of strife, and a lover of concord. At the end whereof the Divines and Professors there, accused him for differing from them in some points about the Lord’s Supper, the Ubiquity of Christ’s Body, the use of Images in the Churches, Predestination, and the Perseverance of the Saints: About these things they raised contentions, which were partly occasioned by the book of Heshusius, printed at this time at Strasborough, About the Lord’s Supper; and it came to this pase, that they put Zanchy to his choice either to depart of himself, or else they would remove him from his place. And though many waies were tried for the composing of this difference, yet could it not be effected. (ibid.)

Pastor of an Italian Congregation:

But it pleased God that about this time there came a Messenger to signifie to him that the Pastor of the churhch of Clavenna, in the borders of Italy, being dead, he was chosen Pastor in his room; wherefore obtaining a dismission from the Senate of Strasborough, he went thither, and after he had preached about two months, the Pestilence brake forth in that Town so violently, that in seven months space there dyed twelve hundred men; yet he continued there so long as he had any Auditors; but when most of the Citizens had removed their families into a high mountain not farre off, he went thither also, and spent above three months in Preaching, Meditation, and Prayer, and when the plague was stayed, hee returned into the City again. And thus he continued in that plae almost four years to the great profit of many, but not without afflictions to himself. (ibid.)

Professor of Divinity in Heidelberg and Christian Apologist:

Anno Christi 1568 hee was sent for by Frederick the third, Elector Palitino, to Heidelberg to be Professor, and was entertained with all love and respect, where he succeeded Urfin, and at his entrance made an excellent Oracion about the preserving, and adhering to the inner world of God alone. The same year he was made Doctor of Divinity. About which tie that excellent Prince Frederick, who was a zealous promoter of the Doctrine of the Prophets and Apostles, required him to explain the Doctrine of the one God, and three Persons, to confirm it, and to confute the Doctrine of those which at the time denyed the Deity of Christ and the Holy Ghost in Poland and Transilvania, and to answer their arguments whence upon he wrote those learned Tractates, De Dei natura, De tribus Elohim, etc. In which book the whole Orthodox about that great Mystery so unfolded and confirmed, that all adversaries may forever be ashamed which goe about to contradict the same…. (ibid.)

Move to Neostade and Death:

He taught in that University ten years till the death of Prince Frederick. Then by Prince John Cassimire he was removed to his new University at Neostade, where he spent above seven years in reading Divinity. Though in the year 1578 he had been earnestly solicited to come to the University of Leiden, then newly begunne; as also the year after the Citizens of Antwerp called him to be their Pastor, yet the Prince would by no means part with him, knowing that he could not be missed in his University. The Prince Elector Palatine, Ledwick, being dead, and Prince Cassimire being for the time made Administrator of his estate, the University was returned from Neostade to Heidelberg, and Zanchy being now grown old, had a liberal stipend setled upon him by Prince Cassimire; whereupon going to Heidelberg to visit his friends, he fell sick, and quietly departed in the Lord Anno Christi 1590, and of his age seventie five. He was excellently versed in the writings of the ancient Fathers and Philosophers, he was of singular modesty, and very studious to promote the peace of the Church. (ibid.)