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From A Literary Source-book of the German Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 12-23.



Rudolf Agricola, or Rudolf Husmann as he was called before the adoption of his scholarly name, was born in 1443 near Groningen in Friesland. His parents were in modest circumstances. Agricola received his elementary education in Groningen; at Erfurt he attained to his baccalaureate degree and went thence to Löwen in Brabant for mathematics and philosophy. Agricola’s disposition is shown by the fact that during his residence in Brabant he avoided, so far as possible, the rough and roystering life of his countrymen, and sought the more refined and elegant society of the French. At the age of sixteen he received the master’s degree at Löwen, and continued his theological studies at Cologne. At the age of 23 he went to Paris, and there took up the study of law, in accordance with the wish of his family and friends. His interest in the law was feeble, however, and as time advanced he gave himself up to the study of classical literature. In Pavia he became acquainted with Johann von Dalberg, who afterwards became bishop of Worms, and remained on terms of intimacy with this influential man during the remainder of his life. In order to pursue to better advantage the study of Greek, Agricola went to Ferrara, where he remained six or seven years at the court of Hercules of Este. His presence here was the more appreciated on account of his musical skill and his contribution to the services of the ducal chapel.

Upon Agricola’s return from Italy he spent three years in his native country, residing mostly in Groningen. In 1484, at the urgent request of his friend, von Dalberg, who in 1482 had been chosen bishop of Worms, he made his residence at Heidelberg. Here he took up the study of Hebrew, with the intention of revising the Latin version of the Old Testament. In 1485 von Dalberg and Agricola made the journey to Rome together. On the homeward journey he fell sick and reached Heidelberg only to die in the arms of his friend and patron, at the age of 46.

In his habits and talk Agricola more nearly resembled the Italians than the Germans of his time. His interests were in music and painting, rather than in the coarser pleasures of his countrymen. One of the earliest German humanists, his inclinations and extensive Italian experience made him the most polished of the group.

Agricola’s chief work was De inventione dialectica, begun in Ferrara and finished in 1479 in Germany. He left also many letters, several translations and lesser works, including a biography of Petrarch (written at Pavia in 1477), whose personality he much admired.


In the arrangement of your studies two considerations, it seems to me, come prominently forward. In the first place, it is necessary to determine what department of knowledge shall be 13 chosen. Then you must consider by what method it is possible to achieve the greatest success in the department already chosen. I wish to make myself clear on both these points. For some persons the compelling force of circumstances, having its origin either in external conditions or in natural capacity, determines the choice of a profession. Others, on the contrary, turn with a freedom of selection to that which they hold to be the best. If, for example, one has limited resources, he turns to that occupation in which he may hope to secure for himself, in the briefest possible space of time, the means for satisfying the needs of his existence. If, furthermore, one is by nature less energetic and possesses a weak intelligence, then for fear of wasting his effort he may not select that department which in fact most appeals to him, but will be obliged to select that in which he may achieve the greatest success. In the same way would he err, to whom abundant means and fortunate spiritual gifts have been confided, if with all his strength he did not pursue the highest aims, or if, able to reach the highest place, he should content himself with the second or the third. Therefore one chooses the civil, another the canon law, and still a third medicine. Very many devote themselves to those wordy utterances resounding with empty verbal contests, which are so often mistaken for knowledge. They pass their days in labored and interminable disputations, or, to use an expression much to the point, with riddles, which in the courses of many centuries have found no Oedipus to solve them, nor ever will find him. With these things they torture the ears of unfortunate youth. Such nourishment they provide for their pupils, with force, so to speak. In this manner they kill the most promising talents, and destroy the fruit while yet in the blossom. Nevertheless, I commend all these intellectual exercises, and would commend them still more, if they were undertaken in a proper and orderly manner. For I am not so foolish as alone to condemn what so many praise. Why should I too not approve it, when I see that many thereby have attained to wealth, position, esteem, fame and distinction? Indeed I know and willingly acknowledge that many of the sciences, as Cicero says, are more easily converted into gain than others, of which it is said that they are unfruitful and resultless, since they enrich the spirit rather than the pocket. If then you have gain in mind, you must choose one of the much celebrated professions, by the practice of 14 which you may become rich. At the same time, you must always remember that the fame which you secure in this manner, you always have in common with every clever man of business. But if you cherish the juster view, that that which is noble should be pursued for its own sake, and if you are persuaded that your resources are sufficient for your modest demands — for when your demands are excessive even the slender means of others seem to us too great, and our own, on the contrary, were they ever so great, too small — then I advise you to turn your attention to philosophy; by which I mean to say, give yourself the trouble to acquire a competent knowledge of things in general, and the ability to express adequately what you know. This knowledge, like the essence of the things that form its subject, is twofold, one branch relating to our acts and customs. Upon it reposes the whole theory of a proper and well regulated manner of living. This sphere of philosophical activity furnishes the science of ethics. It is of the first importance, and deserves our special attention. It is to be sought for, not only among the philosophers, who treat it as a branch of literature, as for example, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca and others, who have written in Latin, or who at least have been translated into Latin, so that it is worth while to read them; but also among the historians, poets and orators. They teach morality, not systematically, it is true, but they indicate it — and this is indeed the most effective — in their praise of the good and their blame of the evil, and by their use of examples of virtue and its antithesis by way of illustration. By reading them, you arrive at the contemplation of the Scriptures; because you must arrange your life in accordance with their injunctions; to the Bible you must trust, as to a certain guide in matters of the soul’s salvation. All that which is furnished from others sources is more or less mixed with error; for they did not succeed in constructing an ideal of life that was absolutely correct and irreproachable in every respect. Either they did not recognize the object and purpose of life, or they had only indistinct perceptions, and looked, so to speak, through a veil of cloud. Therefore, although they talked much about these matters, it was not because they were thoroughly permeated with their doctrine. It is otherwise with Holy Writ. That is as far removed from all error as God, who has given it to us; it alone leads us on the sure and certain way. It removes all obscurity, 15 and permits us not to be deceived, to lose ourselves, or go astray.

There are, however, other things, a knowledge of which serves rather to adorn the spirit, and the exploration of which must be regarded rather as a noble pleasure than as a necessary condition of existence. Here belong the investigations into the essence of things. Multiform and manifold is this domain, and upon its various sides it has been treated by talented men, gifted with the power of expression. If this sort of activity is not absolutely necessary for the development of a moral man, at least it contributes not a little thereto; for when a true interest in scientific investigation has once seized upon a man, there is no more room in his soul for low and common-place effort. That man learns to despise and belittle things which the common herd gazes upon with admiration. He pities those who are held to be fortunate on account of the possession of such things, because he recognizes how vain and transitory are these possessions in their nature, and because he recognizes that no greater misfortune could fall upon the universe than that all its parts, even the most subordinate, should be transformed into such things as gold and jewels, to which the blindness of humanity has attributed so high a value. With the aid of this knowledge we recognize also the frailty and transitory nature of our bodies, exposed to the mutability of events. Thereby we see that we must give our whole attention to the soul, that to its care we must devote our time, since in its care no pains are thrown anyway, no success is perishable. I pass over much in my discussion, for everything that could be said in this connection would fill a book and not merely a single letter. It is sufficient, moreover, to have merely indicated what is already known to you, that this branch of knowledge is worthy the highest efforts of an able man.

I am not willing, however, that you should assimilate merely the rudiments of this science as at present — we are conscious of it daily — it is presented in the schools; for that you have already done with zeal and willingness, in a manner worthy of recognition. It is rather my meaning that you must come nearer to the things themselves, and investigate the situation and the natural qualities of countries, mountains and rivers, the customs of peoples, their boundaries and their conditions, the territorial possessions which they have inherited or extended, the virtues of trees 16 and plants, which Theophrastus has recounted, and the history of living creatures, which Aristotle has treated from the literary point of view. Why should I further mention the literary treatment of agriculture and of medicine? These authors have written in many fields, one on the art of war, another on architecture, a third on painting and sculpture. These arts, it is true, do not belong exactly to that part of knowledge which explores the essence of things, but they are related to it, nevertheless, and spring, so to speak, from the same source. Therefore, I have no reason to be apprehensive, if I seem forced to present them in the same connection.

All that, however, which, as I have said, has a bearing upon our customs and upon the nature of things, you must obtain from those authors who have presented these things in the clearest light. Then you will acquire at once a knowledge of the things themselves, and that which I regard as most important in a secondary degree — the gift of suitable presentation. You are aware, moreover, that upon this point the greatest men afford much guidance. But it is necessary that you should lay aside the teaching which has been given us as boys at school. Gather up all that you have learned in this field, together with the prejudices that accompany it, condemn it, and make up your mind to give it up, unless you are again put in possession of it through the recommendation of better vouchers, as though by official decree. Therefore it will be very useful for you to translate everything that you read in the works of classical authors into your mother tongue, using words as apt and significant as possible; for by this exercise you will bring it about that when you are obliged to speak or write, the Latin expressions will evolve themselves from your mind in immediate connection with their originals in the vernacular. If, moreover, you wish to commit something to writing, it is recommended that you first arrange the material as completely and correctly as possible in the vernacular, then proceed to express it appropriately and forcibly in pure Latin. In this manner the presentation will be clear and exhaustive; for it is easier to detect an error in the vernacular. In the same way every one will notice most readily, in the language most familiar to him, whether a point has been expressed too obscurely, too briefly, in too labored a manner, or in a manner not in keeping with the subject. In order to avoid these 17 mishaps, seek to express everything that you write in the purest, that is, the most accurate Latin possible. The adornment of the discourse is a matter of secondary importance. This can only be arrived at when the presentation is sound and faultless. It is with discourse as with the human body; if all parts are not in suitable condition; if, for example, they do not possess the right form and size, it is in vain that you embellish them with objects of adornment. The ornament stands in sharp contrast to the body itself, and the foreign embellishment makes the distortion all the more noticeable by comparison. But enough of the studies which you must pursue in this direction.

It remains for me to indicate the method by means of which, in my opinion, you may reach the best result. Many, no doubt, would differ with me, but my view of the matter is as follows: Whoever, in the acquisition of a science will obtain a result proportionate with his effort, must observe three things in particular: He must grasp clearly and correctly that which he learns; he must retain accurately that which he has grasped; and he must put himself in a position to produce something independently, as a result of that which he has learned. The first requisite, therefore, is careful reading; the second, a trustworthy memory; the third, continuous exercise. In reading, the effort must be, to thoroughly penetrate and comprehend in its full meaning that which is read. It is not sufficient to understand what is treated of; with classical writers it is furthermore necessary to give your attention to the meaning of expressions, to the peculiarities of arrangement, to the correctness and fitness of the diction, to the balance of the sentences, and to the ability of the writer to clarify a subject, to clothe the weightiest and most obscure things in words and bring them forth into the light of publicity. It must not be said, however, that when by chance we come across a passage in itself obscure, or at least unintelligible to us, we shall stop and go no further. Many throw their book at once aside, give up their studies entirely, or bewail their limited intelligence. On the contrary, we persevere in our efforts, and are not necessarily vexed. If you find something, the meaning of which you cannot at once determine, it is best to pass over it for the moment, and reserve it for another opportunity, until you find a man or a book that will afford an explanation. Oftentimes repeated reading is sufficient to clear the matter up; for one day teaches the next, 18 as I am fond of saying. If Quintilian reckoned it among the virtues of a grammarian to be ignorant of many things, how much more, I will not say necessary, but indeed pardonable it is in our case, if we now and then are ignorant of something. I wish above all things, however, not to give the impression that in this discussion I am making a plea for superficiality. On the contrary! I believe that there is no way in which I can more effectually put a spur to zeal than by making it clear, how by reading itself one opens the way to comprehension; and that all difficulties which arise in reading are by reading itself set aside.

The next requisite is an accurate memory. Memory depends immediately upon natural qualities; but even here art may be helpful. This art has been presented in various ways by different teachers. Nevertheless the essentials are the same. This art seems to me especially adapted for two sorts of uses. It often happens that you are compelled to speak or to bring forward a great number of things without special preparation. The danger is that you will fail in respect of consecutiveness or in respect of completeness. If, for example, you have to present certain claims before a prince or before a senate, or you are obliged to reply to the arguments of an opponent, then you will most appropriately seek help in this art. If it is desirable to exercise the memory, however, it can best be done in the following manner: That this method for the strengthening of the memory is in the highest degree beneficial Quintilian assures us, and experience teaches us as well, if we but make the trial; for the memory, quite as much as any other gift, is capable of being strengthened by frequent exercise, or of being weakened by a lack of interest or by neglect. If it is wished that certain things should be firmly lodged in our mind, it is necessary first of all to grasp them as intensively as possible, then to reproduce them as frequently as possible, and thereby establish the highest degree of certainty conceivable. Finally, we must take up this exercise when our spirit is otherwise unoccupied, and free from the burden of present thoughts. For, let us do what we will, it still remains an established fact that we cannot do two things properly at the same time. True it is, as Sallust says, that the mind is strongest when a strain is put upon it; but it cannot possibly be effective when it is directed into several channels at the same time. The third and last point that I have to raise treats of the art and 19 manner in which we may derive an individual benefit from what we have learned, and bring our knowledge to light; for the products of our effort ought not to remain idle and unfruitful in the depths of our minds, but like seed corn, which has been entrusted to the earth, they should bring forth abundant increase. This subject is very comprehensive and productive. It deserves an extensive treatment, which I have in mind for some further opportunity; for upon this question depends the principal reward for a long-continued effort and for much trouble expended in pursuit of knowledge. That is to say, if we can leave nothing to posterity, can transmit nothing to our contemporaries beyond that which we ourselves have appropriated, what difference is there then between us and a book? Hardly more than this, that a book preserves with accuracy for all future time that which it has once taken to itself, while we must frequently repeat and impress that which we have appropriated, in order that we may retain it permanently. In this connection two requisites make themselves apparent. Each is in and for itself something great and fine, but the union of the two in an intellectual career unquestionably deserves especial recognition. The first requisite is this: All that we have learned we must have in constant readiness or immediate use. For you frequently find people who have acquired much and who remember many things, but they are unable to recollect just the things of which they have especial need. These people indeed know many things, but they have no exact knowledge of anything. The second requisite is the ability to discover and produce something outside the area of our acquisition, something that we may ascribe to ourselves and put forward as our own spiritual property. In this direction two things afford us great aid. In the first place, we must establish certain rubrics, for example, virtue and vice, life and death, wisdom and ignorance, benevolence and hate, etc. They are suitable for all occasions. We must recall them frequently, and, so far as possible, arrange under them everything that we have learned, or at least everything we are learning. Then by each repetition of the rubrics, everything that we have arranged under them will be recalled; and finally, it will come about that everything we have learned will be always present, before our eyes, so to speak. It will often happen, however, that an example or a sentence may be brought under various rubrics. Thus, for example, you 20 may place the account of the violation of Lucretia under the head of Chastity, because it teaches us how highly this should be valued, when Lucretia believed she must repurchase it at the price of her life. It goes equally well under the head of Beauty, for it shows how great sorrow this may cause, and how greatly it endangers chastity. It may be included also under the rubric Death; for death is no evil, since Lucretia preferred it to a life of shame. The account comes also in the chapter of Lust, for it shows how this moral weakness has caused misfortune and war. It also justifies the aphorism that great evil often produces great good, for the whole circumstance brought to the Roman people their free constitution. In a similar manner the saying, est virtus placitis abstinisse bonis may be classified in various ways. It may be placed under the head of Virtue, for it is reckoned a virtue to abstain from the benefits that fall to us. The rubric Benefits may also come in requisition, since not all benefits are worthy of effort. The idea of Continence may also be considered.

In the second place, in everything that we learn we must carefully consider, compare and thoroughly elucidate the individual expressions. Let us take, for example, a sentence from Virgil: Optima quaeque dies miseris mortalibus aevi prima fugit. First of all, the poet says optima; how must we value benefits, when those which we consider best of all not only vanish, but hasten away and torture us with fear in the face of a hopeless future, which seems the more depressing when we contrast it with conditions that have gone before? Then follow the words dies aevi, the day of life; how slight must that be reckoned, if it is so fleeting, and the best it contains is destroyed at its beginning, in its bloom, so to speak! What joy can there be in life, when those who rejoice in it are called, not only mortals, but also miserable? Why should they not be so called? Are not their goods and their very lives as fleeting as the day itself! They are indeed made subject to the law of death. Finally come the words prima fugit. We have not come to know the day sufficiently well through use of it. Therefore, all that follows, no matter how good in itself, seems cruel in remembrance of that which is lost. The day vanishes, is not released or sent away. How deceptive and how 21 uncertain is fortune! How little is it in our power! How little does it depend upon our approbation !

If, then, you will pursue such a subject through all the points of dialectic — that is to say, of course, so far as it responds to your spiritual disposition — you will find yourself in possession of abundant material for presentation, and also for your inventive faculties to work upon. The methods, however, I cannot perfectly present in the narrow compass of a letter. I have treated this question more at length in the three books De inventione dialectica.

Whoever carries out these instructions properly and carefully, especially when the theoretical development of dialect is added thereto, will obtain in a high degree the ability, which will be always at his command, of discoursing over almost any theme that may be presented. It must be assumed, of course, that the theme concerns that department of knowledge with which he is acquainted. It is in this manner, it seems to me, that the old masters, whom the Greeks called Sophists, that is, wise men, have developed their powers, and attained to so great readiness and ability in discourse, that they, as is seen in the case of Plato and of Aristotle, caused any theme whatsoever to be advanced, and then discoursed upon it as extensively as was desired.

Thus Gorgias of Leontini, the originator of so bold an undertaking, thus Prodicus of Ceos, thus Protagoras of Abdera and Hippias of Elis have first educated themselves and then taught others. Moreover, that which I have treated of in the second instance will afford great capacity for judgment in the appropriation of knowledge, and lead to new demonstrations, to new conclusions, or at least to a new arrangement of those already on hand. When to this a suitable style is added, eloquence is attained and the way is opened to the attainment of oratorical distinction. But enough of this! Demetrius of Phalerus, in his 쥫?쪫ՠ뵬?빬?롫?뵫?,§ says that a too extensive letter is really no letter, but a book with a formula of salutation at its beginning. Whatever may be thought of this disturbs me not; for I have set myself the task of furthering in every possible way your studies, and in the event of my failure, to show at least that I have made the effort. The will may indeed be of little account, if measured by the result; but in the domain of friendship, where the will stands for the deed, it has so great a value that nothing greater can be asked or given.


And now to add a word concerning my personal affairs, let me tell you that on the second of May I came to Heidelberg. My lord, the bishop, received me kindly, and has shown me nothing but amiability and benevolence. Let me tell you of my folly, or, to speak more accurately, of my stupidity. I have resolved to learn Hebrew, as though I had not spent enough time and pains on the little Greek that I have acquired. I found a teacher, who a few years before accepted our faith. The Jews themselves gave him credit for extensive acquaintance with their learning, and were accustomed to oppose him to our theologians, when they were challenged to disputations on the subject of religion. Out of kindness to me the bishop undertook to care for him at the court. I shall do the best I can and hope to accomplish something. Perhaps I shall arrive at this result, because I am confident of doing so. Joseph Rink has informed me of your misfortune. It came to you from a source, as I well know, whence it was most difficult to endure. I am not certain whether I most lament your misfortune or such perfidiousness. At any rate I have sympathized deeply with you in your sorrow, and should have given my sympathy expression in an elegy — this form of verse being especially adapted for such complaint — had I been so quiet and collected that I might have brought myself to poetical composition. I beg of you, send me something in the way of vocal music of your composition; but something finished that will earn you praise. We have singers here to whom I have often spoken of you. Their leader composes for nine and twelve voices. Of his compositions for three or four voices I have heard nothing that especially pleased me. But my impression is in no sense a proper judgment; very likely his compositions are too good for my limited comprehension. Farewell, and be assured of my friendship; give my regards to the distinguished and learned magister, Ambrosius Dinter, our Nicolas Haga, the elegantly cultured magister, Jacob Crabbe, your neighbor, and especially to Joseph Rink, an amiable young man, who is very devoted to you.

The verses which I sent you I have carefully read through a second time. I found three or four errors in the poem to Mother Anna; the printer had transposed the letters. Therefore I send you this manuscript, in order that you may correct your copy by it. See to it, I beg of you, that this, together with the letter, is delivered to the regular canon of St. Martin’s, Adam Jordan in 23 Löwen. Again farewell! Heidelberg, June 7, 1484. Send me exact information concerning your affairs through this messenger.


*  Sammlung der bedeutendsten pädagogischen Schriften aul alter und neuer Zeit. 15. Band. Paderborn, 1893.

  It is a virtue to renounce the things that please us.

  The happiest day of life most quickly escapes unhappy mortals.

§  Exposition.

[For the appreciation of Reuchlin by the next generation of humanists, see what Paolo Giovio has to say about him on this site, by clicking HERE. — Elf.Ed.]

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