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Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the European Renaissance was the profound harmony it achieved between the classical and Christian elements in Western history. That harmony remained characteristic of Western schools down to recent times. It is worth reflecting on how it came about.

By the mid-fourteenth century, when Petrarch invented the studia humanitatis or humanities, the clamor of the ancient battle between pagan classical culture and Christianity, whose greatest monument was St. Augustine’s City of God, had been largely stilled. A new Christian civilization had grown up since the twelfth century that fed with gusto on the rich fare of Roman grammar, rhetoric, and law as well as Greek philosophy and medicine. Canon lawyers, above all Gratian—compiler of medieval Europe’s most influential canon law textbook—agreed that formed Christians in universities could read pagan books without damage to their faith. Medieval universities were in essence corporate bodies created and loosely supervised by religious and secular authorities. For the most part they were highly effective in preventing heresy and political subversion. Most university students intended to make careers in the Church or in lay government, and could be counted upon to do and say nothing that might blight their prospects of advancement. 

Petrarch and the Christian humanists of the Renaissance were proposing something different. They wanted to train the children of the elite in classical Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, with the goal of spreading virtue and eloquence among the future leaders of society. The graduates of their schools would be faithful Christians who combined great personal distinction with devotion to family and country. Christendom would be strengthened, it was thought, if its leaders could draw upon the neglected reservoirs of Roman virtue and Greek wisdom.

Not all Christian authorities agreed that this was a good idea. The most common worry was about grammar-school teachers reading pagan poetry in unsupervised settings with very young men and women of the middle and upper classes. (Some upper-class women, though barred from university education, were able to attend humanist schools.) It seems absurd to us, who have to protect the young from far more depraved attacks on decency, but in that time some severe churchmen claimed that classical literature could tempt the young into sin. A common assertion was that reading the highly reticent account of Dido and Aeneas’s lovemaking, as described in the Aeneid, would put wrong ideas in young heads. In a famous episode, the pious military hero Carlo Malatesta, “aggrieved by the fame of the Roman poet,” had an ancient statue of the poet Vergil destroyed. There was, predictably, an great outcry among humanist scholars, and Carlo was eventually brought to recognize his error. His daughter Battista became one of the first great women scholars of the Renaissance. 

In this context, St. Basil’s letter-treatise on education, entitled To Young Men, How They Might Derive Benefit from Greek Literature, had an enormous influence on Renaissance culture when it was first translated into Latin around 1397-99. The translator was the great humanist scholar-official Leonardo Bruni. Bruni was a protégé of Coluccio Salutati, a pious Christian humanist who at the time was involved in an epistolatory controversy with another of his protégés, one Giovanni da San Miniato. Giovanni, whom Salutati had personally urged to take up the monastic life years before, had now aligned himself with the more severe critics of humane studies and had questioned the utility of teaching pagan literature to the young. Bruni’s translation was the perfect response. The little work became by far the most influential patristic text of the Renaissance. 

St. Basil (A.D. 330-379), apart from being a saint, had credibility with Christian ascetics, being a monk of a particularly austere disposition. His mother and great-grandfather had died in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. He was also a bishop and had two brothers who were bishops. Basil had had a fine classical education in the pagan university town of Athens, but could never be accused of being a literary dilettante with no serious commitment to the faith. 

In his letter-treatise, St. Basil argued that humanistic studies would not only help students in the secular duties of life, but would also prepare their souls for Christian teachings. He urged young men finishing their first training in grammar to go on to classical literature. They should not be discouraged by the philistine attitude of some fellow Christians, but should recognize the extraordinary value of pagan literature. Not that everything in those authors could be approved: Students should take only what was useful to them as Christian members of society. They should avoid acquiring a pagan spirit and should not “surrender the rudder of their minds” to the pagan authors. They should be discriminating, like bees who take only what they need from the best flowers. The present life is nearly worthless compared to the life to come, but at their age they were unable to appreciate the full wisdom of Christ. Just as men who wanted to be soldiers must start with physical exercises that might seem to have nothing to do with fighting, so young scholars should be exercised in “the poets and historians and orators” and other writers who could improve their minds. Like fullers preparing cloth to receive its eventual color, the classical authors prepare us with tou kalou doxa, a correct opinion of the Good, before the heavenly Dyer fixes in us the true colors of faith. Moses acquired the learning of the pagan Egyptians before becoming leader of the Israelites, and Daniel, counselor to the kings of Babylon, learned the lore of the Chaldaeans while remaining true to the God of Israel. 

Crucially, Basil was far more positive about the merits of studying pagan literature than either St. Augustine or Martianus Capella, hitherto the two most influential authorities available in Latin on the use of the classics in Christian education. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine wrote that pagan learning should only be acquired insofar as it furthered the goal of salvation, in particular in preaching and the interpretation of the Bible. Martianus Capella—Augustine’s contemporary and a fellow African—also narrowed the range of disciplines Christians should accept from pagan Rome. He reconfigured them into seven liberal arts that emphasized linguistic skills (the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and skills involving numbers (the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and musical harmony). Both authors, in other words, focused on useful knowledge. Neither mentioned the possibility of learning virtue or wisdom from non-Christian authors. 

St. Basil, by contrast, urged his young men to take lessons about virtue from pagan poets, orators, and philosophers. “All the poetry of Homer is praise of virtue.” The right pagan philosophers, above all the moral philosophers, can teach us how to escape from the prison of the body’s passions. To be worthy of the prize of eternal life we must do our allotted tasks in this life well, and the study of pagan classical authors will help the young Christian keep his soul in tune while performing his earthly duties and awaiting the fuller light that will come as he approaches his heavenly reward.

In short, St. Basil gave Christian humanists a new set of principles to use in their “cultural appropriations” from the non-Christian world. In so doing he effectively gave a charter to the Christian classical schools of the Renaissance, as well as to those of our own time.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

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