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From A Literary Source-book of the Italian Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 55-62.



Born at Corsignano, near Siena, 1405. Studied at the universities of Siena and Florence. Attended the council of Basel as secretary to the bishop of Fermo. visited England and Scotland on papal missions. Attached himself to the court of the Emperor Frederick, at Vienna. Effected the compromise of 1447 between Emperor and Pope. Made bishop of Trieste by Nicholas V. Elected to the papacy, 1458. Died at Ancona, 1464, while endeavoring to set in motion a crusade against the Turks. His principal writings are the Commentaries, 56 the Epistles, various treatises on the history of Germany and on the geography of Europe.

EXTRACT FROM THE De Liberorum Educatione.*

§ 2.  As regards a boy’s physical training, we must bear in mind that we aim at implanting habits which will prove beneficial during life. So let him cultivate a certain hardness which rejects excess of sleep and idleness in all its forms. Habits of indulgence — such as the luxury of soft beds, or the wearing of silk instead of linen next the skin, tend to enervate both body and mind. Too much importance can hardly be attached to right bearing and gesture. Childish habits of playing with the lips and features should be early controlled. A boy should be taught to hold his head erect, to look straight and fearlessly before him, and to bear himself with dignity, whether walking, standing, or sitting. In ancient Greece we find that both philosophers and men of affairs — Socrates, for instance, and Chrysippus, or Philip of Macedon — deemed this matter worthy of their concern, and therefore it may well be thought deserving of ours. Games and exercises which develop the muscular activities and the general carriage of the person should be encouraged by every teacher. For such physical training not only cultivates grace of attitude, but secures the healthy play of our bodily organs and establishes the constitution.

Every youth destined to exalted position should further be trained in military exercises. It will be your destiny to defend Christendom against the Turk. It will thus be an essential part of your education that you be early taught the use of the bow, of the sling, and of the spear; that you drive, ride, leap and swim. These are honorable accomplishments in every one, and therefore not unworthy of the educator’s care. Ponder the picture which Virgil gives of the youth of the Itali, skilled in all the warlike exercises of their time. 57 Games, too, should be encouraged for young children — the ball, the hoop — but these must not be rough and coarse, but have in them an element of skill. Such relaxations should form an integral part of each day’s occupation, if learning is not to be an object of disgust. Just as nature and the life of man present us with alternations of effort and repose — toil and sleep, winter and summer — so we may hold, with Plato, that it is a law of our being that rest from work is a needful condition of further work. To observe this truth is a chief duty of the master.

In respect of eating and drinking, the rule of moderation consists in rejecting anything which needlessly taxes digestion and so impairs mental activity. At the same time fastidiousness much not be humored. A boy, for instance, whose lot it may be to face life in the camp, or in the forest, should so discipline his appetite that he may eat even beef. The aim of eating is to strengthen the frame; so let vigorous health reject cakes or sweets, elaborate dishes of small birds or eels, which are for the delicate and the weakly. Your own countrymen, like all northern peoples, are, I know, sore offenders in this matter of eating and drinking. But I count upon your innate self-respect to preserve you from such bad example, and to enable you to despise the sneers and complaints of those around you. What but disease and decay can result from appetite habitually over-indulged? Such concession to the flesh stands condemned by all of the great spirits of the past. In Augustus Caesar, in Socrates, we have instances of entire indifference in choice of food. Caligula, Nero and Vitellius serve as sufficient examples of grossly sensual tastes. To the Greeks of the best age eating and drinking were only means to living, not the chief end and aim of it. For they recognized with Aristotle, that in this capacity for bodily pleasures we are on the same level with lower creatures.

As regards the use of wine, remember that we drink to quench thirst, and that the limit of moderation is reached when the edge of the intellect is dulled. A boy should be brought up to avoid wine, for he possesses a store of natural 58 moisture in the blood and so rarely experiences thirst. Hence highly diluted wine alone can be allowed to children, whilst women are, perhaps, better without it altogether, as was the custom in Rome. The abuse of wine is more common amongst northern peoples than in Italy. Plato allowed its moderate enjoyment as tending to mental relaxation, and, indeed, temperance in the true sense, is hardly consistent with the absolute prohibition of all that might seduce us from our virtuous resolutions. So that a young man’s best security against excess may be found to lie in a cautious use of wine, safeguarded by innate strength of will and a watchful temper. There is no reason why social feastings should not be dignified by serious conversation and yet be bright and gay withal. But the body, after all, is but a framework for the activities of the mind; and so we hold fast to the dictum of Pythagoras, that he that pampers the body is devising a prison for himself. Even if we had not the support of the Ancients, it is evident to the serious mind that food and clothing are worthy of regard only so far as they are indispensable to the vigorous activity of body and spirit; all beyond that is trivialty or effeminacy. But this is not to exclude that care for the outward person which is, indeed, demanded from everyone by self-respect, but is peculiarly needful in a prince.

§ 2.  We must now hasten on to the larger and more important division of our subject, that which treats of the most precious of all human endowments, the mind. Birth, wealth, fame, health, vigor and beauty are, indeed, highly prized by mankind, but they are one and all of the nature of accidents, they come and they go. But the riches of the mind are a stable possession, unassailable by fortune, calumny, or time. Our material wealth lies at the mercy of the successful foe, but, as Stilpho said, ‘War can exact no requisition from personal worth.’ So, too, you will remember the reply of Socrates to Gorgias, applying it to your own case: ‘How can I adjudge the Great King happy, until I know to what he can truly lay claim in character and in wisdom?’ Lay to heart the truth here conveyed: our one sure possession is character; the 59 place and fortune of men change, it may be suddenly, profoundly; nor may we, by taking thought, cunningly hedge ourselves round against all the chances of life. As Solon long ago declared, no sane man dare barter excellence for money. Nay, rather, it is a function of true wisdom, as the Tyrants found by their experience, to enable us to bear variations of fortune. Philosophy, or, in other words, the inquiry into the nature of virtue, is indeed a study specially meet for princes. For they are in a sense the arbitrary embodiment of law; a responsibility which may well weigh heavily upon them. Truly has it been said that no one has greater need of a well-stored mind than he whose will counts for the happiness or misery of thousands. Like Solomon, he will rightly pray for wisdom in the guidance of the state.

Need I, then, impress upon you the importance of the study of philosophy, and of letters, without which indeed philosophy itself is barely intelligible? By this twofold wisdom a prince is trained to understand the laws of God and of man; by it we are, one and all, enlightened to see the realities of the world around us. Literature is our guide to the true meaning of the past, to a right estimate of the present, to a sound forecast of the future. Where letters cease, darkness covers the land; and a prince who cannot read the lessons of history is a helpless prey of flattery and intrigue.

Next we ask, at what age should a boy begin the study of letters? Theodosius and Eratosthenes regarded the seventh year as the earliest reasonable period. But Aristophanes, followed by Chrysippus and Quintilian, would have children from the very cradle begin their training under nurses of skilled intelligence. In this matter of nurses the greatest care is necessary, so subtle are the influences which affect the growing mind. But above all other safeguards stands the unconscious guidance of the mother, who, like Cornelia of old, must instil by example a refined habit of speech and bearing.

In religion, I may assume from your Christian nurture that you have learnt the Lord’s Prayer, the Salutation of the 60 Blessed Virgin, the Creed, the Gospel of St. John, and certain Collects. You have been taught in what consist the chief Commandments of God, the gifts of the Spirit, the deadly sins; the way of salvation and the doctrine of the life of the world to come. This latter truth was, indeed, taught by Socrates, as we know from Cicero. Nor can any earthly interest have so urgent a claim upon us. We shall not value this human existence which has been bestowed upon us except in so far as it prepares us for the future state. The fuller truth concerning this great doctrine is beyond your years; but you may, as time goes on, refer to what has been laid down by the great doctors of the church; and not only by them, for as Basil allows, the poets and other authors of antiquity are saturated with the same faith, and for this reason deserve our study. Literature, indeed, is ever holding forth to us the lesson, ‘God before all else.’ As a prince, moreover, your whole life and character should be marked by gratitude for favors showered upon you for no merit of your own, and by reverence, which, in all that concerns the services, the faith, and the authority of the Church, will lead you to emulate the filial obedience of Constantine and Theodosius. For although the priesthood is committed to the protection of kings, it is not under their authority.

In the choice of companions be careful to seek the society of those only whose example is worthy of your imitation. This is indeed a matter which closely concerns your future welfare. We are all, in youth especially, in danger of yielding to the influence of evil example. Above all, I trust that your tutors will keep you clear of that insidious form of flattery which consists in agreeing with everything we may affirm or propose. Extend your intimacy only to those of your own years who are frank and truthful, pure in word and act, modest in manner, temperate and peaceful. Seize every opportunity of learning to converse in the vulgar tongues spoken in your realm. It is unworthy of a prince to be unable without an interpreter to hold intercourse with his people. Mithridates could speak with his subjects of 61 whatever province in their own language; whilst neglect of this plain duty lost to the Empire and its German sovereigns its fair province of Italy. The ties that bind monarch and people should be woven of mutual affection, and how is this possible where free and intelligible communication cannot exist? As Homer says, silence is becoming in a woman; but in a man, and that man a King, standing before his people, it is rather a shame and a disgrace.

§ 2.  But further: we must learn to express ourselves with distinction, with style and manner worthy of our subject. In a word, eloquence is a prime accomplishment in one immersed in affairs. Ulysses, though a poor warrior, was adjudged worthy of the arms of Achilles by virtue of his persuasive speech. Cicero, too, admonishes us to the same effect: “Let arms to the toga yield.” But speech should ever follow upon reflection; without that let a boy, nay, a man also, be assured that silence is his wiser part. Such orators as Pericles or Demosthenes refused to address the Assembly without opportunity for careful preparation. A facile orator speaks from his lips, not from his heart or understanding; and forgets that loquacity is not the same as eloquence. How often have men cause to regret the gift of too ready speech, and ‘the irrevocable word’ of which Horace warns us. Still there is a middle course; a moderation in speech, which avoids alike a Pythagorean silence and the chatter of a Thersites; and at this we should aim. For without reasonable practice the faculty of public speech may be found altogether wanting when the need arises. The actual delivery of our utterances calls for methodical training. The shrill, tremulous tones of a girl must be rigidly forbidden, as on the other hand must any tendency to shout. The entire word must in every case be uttered, proper value given to each syllable and each letter, with especial attention to the final sound. Words must not, as it were, linger in the throat, but be clearly emitted, both tongue and lips taking duly their respective parts. Your master will arrange as exercises words in which the form or connexion of syllables demands peculiar care in their enunciation. 62 You remember the device by which Demosthenes trained his voice to reach a crowded assembly.

To express yourself, then, with grace and distinction is a proper object of your ambition; and without ambition excellence, in this or other studies, is rarely attained. But if speech be, as Democritus said, the shadow of which thought and conduct are the reality, you will be warned by corrupt conversation to avoid the corrupt nature from which it proceeds. We know that Ulysses cunningly guarded his comrades from the song of the Sirens; and that St. Paul quotes Menander upon the mischief wrought by ‘evil communications.’ But this by no means implies that we must be always at the extreme of seriousness in social intercourse. In conversation kindness and courtesy are always attractive: pertinacity or pretentiousness are odious; a turgid, affected style arouses contempt. Insincerity or malice are, of course, not mere defects in form but positive sins. So let your address be frank, outspoken, self-respecting, manly.

Nature and circumstances thus provide us with the general material of speech, its topics, and the broader conditions of their treatment. When, however, speech is considered as an art, we find that it is the function of Grammar to order its expression; of Dialectic to give it point; of Rhetoric to illustrate it; of Philosophy to perfect it. But before entering upon this in detail we must first insist upon the overwhelming importance of Memory, which is in truth the first condition of capacity for letters. A boy should learn without effort, retain with accuracy, and reproduce easily. Rightly is memory called ‘the nursing mother of learning.’ It needs cultivation, however, whether a boy be gifted with retentiveness or not. Therefore, let some passage from poet or moralist be committed to memory every day.


*  From Woodward: Vittorino da Feltre and other Humanist Educators. Cambridge, 1897. Æneas is here addressing Ladislas, the young king of Bohemia and Hungary, who has sought his advice in the matter of education.

[Aeneas Sylvius was the Latin name for Eneo Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II. For a fellow humanist’s use of an excerpt of Sylvius’ description of Germany on this site, see The Autobiography of Johannes Butzbach, A Wandering Scholar of the Fifteenth Century, translated by Seybolt and Monroe. See an excerpt from the biography of him written by Platina, Renaissance papal librarian, NEXT in Whitcomb’s text. — Elf.Ed.]

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