Knowledge equals power

December 24, 1999

The revisiting of classical texts in 15th-century Europe made a humanist education essential for the elite. But in the 17th century, as technology became crucial to individual and national prosperity, the humanists saw their intellectual monopoly slip away, writes Lisa Jardine.

It is probably the 19th-century scholar Jacob Burckhardt's fault that we imagine that the revival of classical learning in the second half of the 15th century marked the triumph of civilisation over barbarism. Steeped in admiration for classical antiquity, Burckhardt set out, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), to show how European culture evolved by linear descent from Greek and Roman roots. His heavily moralised narrative argued that an antique tradition, retrieved by scholars of humane learning in Italy in the 15th century, gave rise to an idealised and aesthetically pure fine art, and an intellectually abstract framework for thought. These, he claimed, were enduringly the cultural triumphs of the West.

In fact, the "new learning" that emerged during the years leading up to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 was engaged and pragmatic and much more of a piece with the late medieval world view that had come before than Burckhardt was willing to recognise. As a result of increased contact with the Greek-speaking Christian Byzantines, driven west by the expansion of the Islamic empire, Europe participated in a rapid development of modern skills - from finance to ballistics and ship-building - based upon ancient texts that had been almost continuously studied since antiquity in the Near East.

When the Greek scholar Bessarion settled in Rome in the 1460s, he brought his collection of more than 600 priceless ancient Greek manuscripts with him. Among them were copies of the "lost" mathematical works of Archimedes, Apollonius and Ptolemy. Recognising the importance of these works, Bessarion found a brilliant young German mathematician, Regiomontanus, to make them accessible for applied use in European astronomical and technological development.

In the early decades of the 15th century, meanwhile, Italian scholars in the ancient classical languages began to scour their own territories for exemplars of Greek and Latin classical texts in literature, politics, history and economics (or what we would call management), which they copied, commented on and distributed. A growing interest in classical texts on the part of newly wealthy merchant-bankers, as part of a general vogue for ostentatious expenditure on rare and exotic items of all sorts, helped with the rapid increase in available scholarly texts. The humanist scholar and papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, for example, made a number of foraging expeditions to monastic libraries across Europe in search of rare classical works and unmutilated copies of texts previously known only in corrupt form. Funding for these trips was provided by the merchant-banker Cosimo de' Medici.

In the late 1450s, Cosimo's son Piero commissioned personalised, illuminated copies of the works of the Roman historian Livy and the Greek chronicler Plutarch (in Latin translation), and an exquisitely illuminated copy of Pliny's Natural History - a compilation of remedies, botanical and biological facts, myths and folklore - for his private collection of manuscript books.

For the Medici family, the establishing of an international reputation for the uniqueness of works in their personal libraries was an intrinsic part of the public relations exercise that elevated the status of their family from bankers to Florentine princes. That reputation rested upon a foundation of rare and erudite texts and an accompanying "humane" education to prepare the Medici heirs for leadership. Thus in 1473 when the middle-class Politian (Angelo Poliziano) entered Lorenzo de' Medici's household, the post he occupied was personal secretary to Lorenzo, household librarian and tutor to Lorenzo's two sons (until their mother sacked him, purportedly for displaying too much intimacy with her boys). Politian, remembered as a fine classical scholar and poet, held the post of librarian of the Medici library until his death in 1494.

The rapid commercial development of the printed book in the second half of the 15th century importantly helped to disseminate hitherto little-known works by classical authors. Printed books begin to appear among the hand-written manuscripts in the collections of wealthy patrons in the 1470s. With the arrival of print, the spread of learning became increasingly profit-driven, with book-selling behaving just like any other new retailing venture (such as the shipping of oranges to northern Europe from the Mediterranean). The opportunity to produce, in printed form, a text for which a demand had been identified, was treated from the outset by the new printer-entrepreneurs as a business opportunity and the organisation of the printing trade developed accordingly as part of an increasingly sophisticated commercial world.

Interest in the classical languages and their literature propelled arts professors in the Italian universities, previously regarded as inferior to the philosophers, lawyers and theologians, into highly paid positions, with increasing influence in shaping the university curriculum. This emerging, highly employable group of skilled teachers of Greek and Latin were dubbed humanisti by their envious colleagues in less fashionable subjects, and have been known as "humanists" ever since. By the end of the 15th century, the training they offered focused on eloquence, and the study of literature was considered an appropriate grounding for the teams of secretaries and advisers who surrounded powerful clergy and secular princes alike. By 1500 this training was also being imparted by humanist tutors employed privately in the households of the aristocracy to the sons and daughters of the ruling classes.

Thus the Renaissance or revival of learning was, in part at least, a response to the European ruling elite's growing demand for civic functionaries and household servants trained in classical eloquence. Those who threw themselves into the editing and dissemination of important classical writing did so out of a genuine enthusiasm for the learning of antiquity. But they could also expect to obtain lucrative positions in the service of the wealthy, on the back of the fashion for books and the erudition needed to read them.

By the beginning of the 16th century, humanists had succeeded in convincing their wealthy would-be employers that an intensive education in Greek and Latin literature and thought could be relied on to produce docile, pliant, upright individuals, suitable for employment in positions of responsibility. Such was the assumption on which the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam based his classic, and much reprinted, pedagogic work, The Education of a Christian Prince (1516). The book is presented as a series of precepts or aphorisms (compact, memorable summaries of the key items of instruction) addressed to the enlightened ruler. Its "Christianity" is less a question of doctrine than a highly moral attitude to leadership and the rule of law. In the body of the text the precedents on which Erasmus bases his arguments are drawn even-handedly from pagan and Christian sources. The tone is magisterial - the youthful prince is to be encouraged by his humanist teacher's example to immerse himself in the writings of the past (pagan and scriptural), to develop an outlook and habits of thought that will mould him into the virtuous leader of an obedient and grateful people.

The idealistic tone of Erasmus's treatise, however, is part of a strategy for "marketing" a carefully graded programme in Latin and Greek eloquence as particularly appropriate for the sons of the ruling classes. The routine of classroom practice, retrievable from Erasmus's many other educational works, is packaged as "moral instruction", or at least as a grooming unlikely to produce dangerous traits such as political dissidence or unorthodox behaviour. In other words, behind the apparently generalised and liberal educational programme offered by Erasmus, stands a consistent humanistic insistence that an entirely literary training provides a grounding in a raft of skills useful to the benevolent ruler of any scale of organisation, from head of household to head of state.

In fact, Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince was written as a direct bid that Erasmus be employed as an adviser by the future Habsburg emperor Charles V, on the occasion of Charles's ascending to the combined Spanish thrones of Aragon and Castile. A year later, in 1517, when it became clear that the post of counsellor to which Erasmus was indeed appointed by Charles was merely honorific and carried no stipend, the author rededicated a presentation copy of his work to the English king, Henry VIII, in an equally unsuccessful attempt to gain the post of private secretary in London.

In 1605 it was as part of a similar bid for employment that the natural philosopher Francis Bacon addressed his own general treatise on education, The Advancement of Learning to the new English king, James I. Once again the overt claim of the book is that a structured educational programme based on classical languages and literature fashions the civic skills a gentleman needs, allowing him to become "fashioner of his own fortune", or, as Bacon prefers to put it, "fashioner of his own practical skills (ingenium)". But as the title of the work suggests, behind the generalised remarks lies the hope that Bacon's own pedagogic programme will be "advanced" as a result of the attention attracted to it by its publication.

The almost complete absence of reference to technical and mathematical training in The Advancement of Learning is strikingly at odds with Bacon's own practice in his scientific work, in which experiment, observation and accurate measurement are given pride of place. Despite its reputation as a single-mindedly theoretical work of scientific epistemology, over half of Bacon's most developed work of natural philosophy (what we would call scientific method), his Novum Organum, is taken up with examples from applied science that can be traced to contemporary experimental work in a broad range of emerging fields. Here the originality of Bacon's approach to learning lies in his strenuously linking "knowledge" with the power to operate on nature - knowledge, in other words, is always applied knowledge, directed at constructively altering the natural world. As he puts it in the opening aphorisms of his Novum Organum: "Man is Nature's agent and interpreter. Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice."

What distinguishes this new Baconian view of science from that of Bacon's pedagogic predecessors is his clear commitment to the role of observation and experiment as a prerequisite for the construction of scientific theory itself.

Earlier scientists (and scientific near-contemporaries elsewhere in Europe) had thought of observation and experiment as demonstrating a conclusion anticipated in advance by systematic deductive reasoning, or to determine a detail or fill in a gap as required to extend an existing theory. Thus, for instance, the amateur experimenter Robert Boyle (a keen follower of Bacon) was quick to point out that Blaise Pascal's "experiments" in hydrostatics, adduced in support of his theoretical principles, are clearly impossible-to-perform "thought experiments", whose proposed outcomes are calculated to confirm an already decided theory.

Bacon, by contrast, regarded observation and experiment - particularly experiments designed to test how nature would behave under previously unobserved circumstances - as the very foundation of science and its generalised methodology. He expected that the process itself, of organising the mass of data collected into natural and experimental histories, would lead to an entirely new and largely unforeseen scientific theory.

It is tempting to link the move away from a generalised grooming for public service of the kind represented by The Advancement of Learning, to an engaged, goal-oriented scientific programme for the alteration of nature of the kind proposed in the Novum Organum, with the change in mentality associated with the Lutheran Reformation. Intellectual curiosity and challenge to authority are the hallmarks of Baconian scientific method, as they are of the religious movements that broke away from the Roman Catholic church in the early decades of the 16th century. The docility, compliance and social respectability that humanists advertised as the desirable outcome of their training in Latin and Greek eloquence, on the other hand, particularly appealed to authoritarian regimes (including the Catholic church), that needed skilled civic officers, but preferred them not to think too much for themselves.

By the mid-16th century, however, it is no longer appropriate to think of humanistic education as narrowly classical and linguistic. By the 1580s, humanism had stimulated writing and thought in the developing European vernacular languages to produce "literature" as we now understand it. In the 90 years that separate Erasmus's and Bacon's treatises on education, both neo-Latin and vernacular literatures - poetry and prose - flourished as "spin-offs" from the more centrally pragmatic training offered by humanists. The fictional and poetic works of gentlemen such as Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh belong to this flowering of recreational writing associated with a broadly humanistic, liberal arts education, as does the popular culture that culminated in the plays of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.

Among such "light" reading are to be found increasing numbers of compendious works modelled on classical works of history, geography and natural history, collecting together material both from other texts and from immediate contemporary experience. Travel literature of the sort collected in Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1598-1600) is part of this growing market in accounts of newly discovered lands and their exotica.

Works like these provided the expanding book trade with a broad range of publications, factual and fictional, to fulfil the increasing demand for leisure-reading on the part of the literate "middling sort" throughout Europe. This kind of material enabled those who had mastered the humanistic skills to enlarge their horizons with modern reading matter.

Nevertheless, one can identify shared characteristics in pedagogy and its practical applications as they developed in the largely Protestant territories of northern Europe after 1600. The idea that the purpose of learning was to operate effectively on natural phenomena - a view that encouraged vigorous development of technology and practical inventiveness - rapidly took hold in England in the politically volatile years following Bacon's death in 1626. During the Commonwealth period, a number of English gentlemen occupied their time with "Baconian" scientific activities. Robert Boyle set up a laboratory in Oxford, and was joined there by other scientific "adepts". By 1660, when the English monarchy was restored, an interest in knowledge of a Baconian kind was associated with the future prosperity of the nation. Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York (later James II) were enthusiastic participants in the "new science", conducting scientific trials of prototypes of innovations such as Robert Hooke's balance-spring watch.

Elsewhere in northern Europe science and mathematics also became the fashionable focus for genteel education (rather than a skill-base for artisans). In the 1640s the senior diplomat in the Dutch Republic, Constantijn Huygens, whose own talents lay in the field of fine art, gave his son Christiaan a robustly technical education and encouraged him to take up a career as a mathematician and scientist. Christiaan later became a founder member of the French Academie des Sciences, and an overseas member of the London Royal Society.

By the end of the 17th century, the liberal arts and applied sciences had begun to emerge as separate educational spheres. At the same time, education started to diversify, and to become more directly "vocational" (although there remained an enduring commitment to a classical, or at least a liberal arts education as an appropriate, "improving" general preparation for life). What is striking, however, is that prominent figures in the intellectual history of Europe resolutely refuse categorisation as either "artists" or "scientists".

In England, the philosopher John Locke was a practising medical man, a keen amateur botanist and a dabbler in herbal remedies. In Germany, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz showed early ability in mathematics and became a keen astronomer, but also had interests in languages, literature, law and philosophy. In 1700, Leibniz (who today is remembered for his pure mathematics, particularly his invention of the calculus) became the first president of the Berlin Academy of Science, and in 1711 presided over the dispute that excluded the talented astronomer Maria Winkelmann from assuming her husband's position as astronomer to the academy (Leibniz vigorously supported Maria Winkelmann).

Learning diversified across Europe as educationists responded to the local needs and interests of their communities. The humanists' hold on the educational establishment weakened and lost its relevance, as more "modern" and particularly technological mathematical skills became seen as important as a grounding for an active contemporary life. Galileo's musician father ensured his son received a training appropriate to work in the ship-building and instrument-making environment of the Venice Arsenal.

From the austerely classical pedagogic foundation of the 15th-century humanists to the diversified education in arts and sciences, medicine and mechanics, at the end of the 17th century, Bacon's dictum seems to sum up educational aspiration where learning is concerned: "Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing." It may not have been Burckhardt's educational ideal, but it laid the foundations for the western intellectual tradition as it has come down to us today.

Between 1450 and 1700, Europe's horizons - both geographical and intellectual - expanded, broadening the solid foundation of shared knowledge with astonishing rapidity. It is upon this broad educational base that the period's remarkable progress towards modernity rests. Bacon maintained that three technological breakthroughs, printing, gunpowder and the magnet, had made possible this new age of art and learning, and there is much to be said in favour of his view. Navigation (the reach of which was permanently enlarged by the compass), expansionist warfare and the printed book together put pressure on old world-views and accelerated developments into entirely new disciplines. At the end of the period, mathematics, natural philosophy and burgeoning technology had all but displaced theological niceties and linguistic elegance as the marks of what an individual who considered himself "informed" was required to know.

By 1700, the sheer bulk of available information, gathered on a global scale, had permanently altered the shape of education. The humanists' broad liberal base had given way to a proliferation of disciplines, each developing its appropriate methodologies and curricula. Educated Europeans now knew vastly more than their parents, both in range of material and in depth of understanding, as the age passed seamlessly from rebirth to Enlightenment.l Lisa Jardine is professor of renaissance studies, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and author of Hostage to Fortune: the Troubled Life of Francis Bacon (1998).

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