Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter IX

How, Although We Preferred the Works of the Ancients, We have Not Condemned the Studies of the Moderns

Although the novelties of the moderns were never disagreeable to our desires, who have always cherished with grateful affection those who devote themselves to study and who add anything either ingenious or useful to the opinions of our forefathers, yet we have always desired with more undoubting avidity to investigate the well-tested labours of the ancients. For whether they had by nature a greater vigour of mental sagacity, or whether they perhaps indulged in closer application to study, or whether they were assisted in their progress by both these things, one thing we are perfectly clear about, that their successors are barely capable of discussing the discoveries of their forerunners, and of acquiring those things as pupils which the ancients dug out by difficult efforts of discovery. For as we read that the men of old were of a more excellent degree of bodily development than modern times are found to produce, it is by no means absurd to suppose that most of the ancients were distinguished by brighter faculties, seeing that in the labours they accomplished of both kinds they are inimitable by posterity. And so Phocas writes in the prologue to his Grammar:

Since all things have been said by men of sense
The only novelty is — to condense.

But in truth, if we speak of fervour of learning and diligence in study, they gave up all their lives to philosophy; while nowadays our contemporaries carelessly spend a few years of hot youth, alternating with the excesses of vice, and when the passions have been calmed, and they have attained the capacity of discerning truth so difficult to discover, they soon become involved in worldly affairs and retire, bidding farewell to the schools of philosophy. They offer the fuming must of their youthful intellect to the difficulties of philosophy, and bestow the clearer wine upon the money-making business of life. Further, as Ovid in the first book of the De Vetula justly complains:

The hearts of all men after gold aspire;
Few study to be wise, more to acquire:
Thus, Science! all thy virgin charms are sold,
Whose chaste embraces should disdain their gold,
Who seek not thee thyself, but pelf through thee,
Longing for riches, not philosophy.

And further on:

Thus Philosophy is seen
Exiled, and Philopecuny is queen,

which is known to be the most violent poison of learning.

How the ancients indeed regarded life as the only limit of study, is shown by Valerius, in his book addressed to Tiberius, by many examples. Carneades, he says, was a laborious and lifelong soldier of wisdom: after he had lived ninety years, the same day put an end to his life and his philosophizing. Isocrates in his ninety-fourth year wrote a most noble work. Sophocles did the same when nearly a hundred years old. Simonides wrote poems in his eightieth year. Aulus Gellius did not desire to live longer than he should be able to write, as he says himself in the prologue to the Noctes Atticae.

The fervour of study which possessed Euclid the Socratic, Taurus the philosopher used to relate to incite young men to study, as Gellius tells in the book we have mentioned. For the Athenians, hating the people of Megara, decreed that if any of the Megarensians entered Athens, he should be put to death. Then Euclid, who was a Megarensian, and had attended the lectures of Socrates before this decree, disguising himself in a woman’s dress, used to go from Megara to Athens by night to hear Socrates, a distance of twenty miles and back. Imprudent and excessive was the fervour of Archimedes, a lover of geometry, who would not declare his name, nor lift his head from the diagram he had drawn, by which he might have prolonged his life, but thinking more of study than of life dyed with his life-blood the figure he was studying.

There are very many such examples of our proposition, but the brevity we aim at does not allow us to recall them. But, painful to relate, the clerks who are famous in these days pursue a very different course. Afflicted with ambition in their tender years, and slightly fastening to their untried arms the Icarian wings of presumption, they prematurely snatch the master’s cap; and mere boys become unworthy professors of the several faculties, through which they do not make their way step by step, but like goats ascend by leaps and bounds; and, having slightly tasted of the mighty stream, they think that they have drunk it dry, though their throats are hardly moistened. And because they are not grounded in the first rudiments at the fitting time, they build a tottering edifice on an unstable foundation, and now that they have grown up, they are ashamed to learn what they ought to have learned while young, and thus they are compelled to suffer for ever for too hastily jumping at dignities they have not deserved. For these and the like reasons the tyros in the schools do not attain to the solid learning of the ancients in a few short hours of study, although they may enjoy distinctions, may be accorded titles, be authorized by official robes, and solemnly installed in the chairs of the elders. Just snatched from the cradle and hastily weaned, they mouth the rules of Priscian and Donatus; while still beardless boys they gabble with childish stammering the Categorics and Peri Hermeneias, in the writing of which the great Aristotle is said to have dipped his pen in his heart’s blood. Passing through these faculties with baneful haste and a harmful diploma, they lay violent hands upon Moses, and sprinkling about their faces dark waters and thick clouds of the skies, they offer their heads, unhonoured by the snows of age, for the mitre of the pontificate. This pest is greatly encouraged, and they are helped to attain this fantastic clericate with such nimble steps, by Papal provisions obtained by insidious prayers, and also by the prayers, which may not be rejected, of cardinals and great men, by the cupidity of friends and relatives, who, building up Sion in blood, secure ecclesiastical dignities for their nephews and pupils, before they are seasoned by the course of nature or ripeness of learning.

Alas! by the same disease which we are deploring, we see that the Palladium of Paris has been carried off in these sad times of ours, wherein the zeal of that noble university, whose rays once shed light into every corner of the world, has grown lukewarm, nay, is all but frozen. There the pen of every scribe is now at rest, generations of books no longer succeed each other, and there is none who begins to take place as a new author. They wrap up their doctrines in unskilled discourse, and are losing all propriety of logic, except that our English subtleties, which they denounce in public, are the subject of their furtive vigils.

Admirable Minerva seems to bend her course to all the nations of the earth, and reacheth from end to end mightily, that she may reveal herself to all mankind. We see that she has already visited the Indians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and Greeks, the Arabs and the Romans. Now she has passed by Paris, and now has happily come to Britain, the most noble of islands, nay, rather a microcosm in itself, that she may show herself a debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians. At which wondrous sight it is conceived by most men, that as philosophy is now lukewarm in France, so her soldiery are unmanned and languishing.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31