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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

LOOKING at Athens as the preacher and missionary of Letters, and as enlisting the whole Greek race in her work, who is not struck with admiration at the range and multiplicity of her operations? At first, the Ionian and Æolian cities are the principal scene of her activity; but, if we look on a century or two, we shall find that she forms the intellect of the colonies of Sicily and Magna Græcia, has penetrated Italy, and is shedding the light of philosophy and awakening thought in the cities of Gaul by means of Marseilles, and along the coast of Africa by means of Cyrene. She has sailed up both sides of the Euxine, and deposited her literary wares where she stopped, as traders nowadays leave samples of foreign merchandize, or as war steamers land muskets and ammunition, or as agents for religious societies drop their tracts or scatter their versions. The whole of Asia Minor and Syria resounds with her teaching; the barbarians of Parthia are quoting fragments of her tragedians; Greek manners are introduced and perpetuated on the Hydaspes and Acesines; Greek coins, lately come to light, are struck in the capital of Bactriana; and so charged is the moral atmosphere of the East with Greek civilization, that, down to this day, those tribes are said to show to most advantage, which can claim relation of place or kin with Greek colonies established there above two thousand years ago. But there is one city, which, though Greece and Athens have no longer any memorial in it, has in this point of view a claim, beyond the rest, upon our attention; and that, not only from its Greek origin, and the memorable name which it bears, but because it introduces us to a new state of things, and is the record of an advance in the history of the education of the intellect;—I mean, Alexandria.

Alexander, if we must call him a Greek, which the Greeks themselves would not permit, did that which no Greek had done before; or rather, because he was no thorough Greek, though so nearly a Greek by descent and birthplace and by tastes, he was able, without sacrificing what Greece was, to show himself to be what Greece was not. The creator of a wide empire, he had talents for organization and administration, which were foreign to the Athenian mind, and which were absolutely necessary if its mission was to be carried out. The picture, which history presents of Alexander, is as beautiful as it is romantic. It is not only the history of a youth of twenty, pursuing conquests so vast, that at the end of a few years he had to weep that there was no second world to subjugate, but it is that of a beneficent prince, civilizing, as he went along, both by his political institutions and by his patronage of science. It is this union of an energetic devotion to letters with a genius for sovereignty, which places him in contrast both to Greek and Roman. Cæsar, with all his cultivation of mind, did not conquer in order to civilize, any more than Hannibal; he must add Augustus to himself, before he can be an Alexander. The royal pupil of Aristotle and Callisthenes started, where aspiring statesmen or generals end; he professed to be more ambitious of a name for knowledge than for power, and he paid a graceful homage to the city of intellect by confessing, when he was in India, that he was doing his great acts to gain the immortal praise of the Athenians. The classic poets and philosophers were his recreation; he preferred the contest of song to the palæstra; of medicine he had more than a theoretical knowledge; and his ear for music was so fine, that Dryden’s celebrated Ode, legendary as may be its subject, only does justice to its sensitiveness. He was either expert in fostering, or quick in detecting, the literary tastes of those around him; and two of his generals have left behind them a literary fame. Eumenes and Ptolemy, after his death, engaged in the honourable rivalry, the one in Asia Minor, the other in Egypt, of investing the dynasties which they respectively founded, with the patronage of learning and of its professors.

Ptolemy, upon whom, on Alexander’s death, devolved the kingdom of Egypt, supplies us with the first great instance of what may be called the establishment of Letters. He and Eumenes may be considered the first founders of public libraries. Some authors indeed allude to the Egyptian king, Osymanduas, and others point to Pisistratus, as having created a precedent for their imitation. It is difficult to say what these pretensions are exactly worth: or how far those personages are entitled to more than the merit of a conception, which obviously would occur to various minds before it was actually accomplished. There is more reason for referring it to Aristotle, who, from his relation to Alexander, may be considered as the head of the Macedonian literary movement, and whose books, together with those of his wealthy disciple, Theophrastus, ultimately came into the possession of the Ptolemies; but Aristotle’s idea, to whatever extent he realized it, was carried out by the two Macedonian dynasties with a magnificence of execution, which kings alone could project, and a succession of ages secure. For the first time, a great system was set on foot for collecting together in one, and handing down to posterity, the oracles of the world’s wisdom In the reign of the second Ptolemy the number of volumes rescued from destruction, and housed in the Alexandrian Library, amounted to 100,000, as volumes were then formed; in course of time it grew to 400,000; and a second collection was commenced, which at length rose to 300,000, making, with the former, a sum total of 700,000 volumes. During Cæsar’s military defence of Alexandria, the former of these collections was unfortunately burned; but, in compensation, the library received the 200,000 volumes of the rival collection of the kings of Pergamus, the gift of Antony to Cleopatra. After lasting nearly a thousand years, this noblest of dynastic monuments was deliberately burned, as all the world knows, by the Saracens, on their becoming masters of Alexandria.

A library, however, was only one of two great conceptions brought into execution by the first Ptolemy; and as the first was the embalming of dead genius, so the second was the endowment of living. Here again the Egyptian priests may be said in a certain sense to have preceded him; moreover, in Athens itself there had grown up a custom of maintaining in the Prytaneum at the public cost, or of pensioning, those who had deserved well of the state, nay, their children also. This had been the privilege, for instance, conferred on the family of the physician Hippocrates, for his medical services at the time of the plague; yet I suppose the provision of a home or residence was never contemplated in its idea. But as regards literature itself, to receive money for teaching, was considered to degrade it to an illiberal purpose, as had been felt in the instance of the Sophists; even the Pythian prize for verse, though at first gold or silver, became nothing more than a crown of leaves, as soon as a sufficient competition was secured. Kings, indeed, might lavish precious gifts upon the philosophers or poets whom they kept about them; but such practices did not proceed on rule or by engagement, nor imply any salary settled on the objects of their bounty. Ptolemy, however, prompted, or at least encouraged, by the celebrated Demetrius of Phalerus, put into execution a plan for the formal endowment of literature and science. The fact indeed of the possession of an immense library seemed sufficient to render Alexandria a University; for what could be a greater attraction to the students of all lands, than the opportunity afforded them of intellectual converse, not only with the living, but with the dead, with all who had any where at any time thrown light upon any subject of inquiry? But Ptolemy determined that his teachers of knowledge should be as stationary and as permanent as his books; so, resolving to make Alexandria the seat of a Studium Generale, he founded a College for its domicile, and endowed that College with ample revenues.

Here, I consider, he did more than has been commonly done, till modern times. It requires considerable knowledge of medieval Universities to be entitled to give an opinion; as regards Germany, for instance, or Poland, or Spain; but, as far as I have a right to speak, such an endowment has been rare down to the sixteenth century, as well as before Ptolemy. The University of Toulouse, I think, was founded in a College; so was Orleans; so has been the Protestant University of Dublin; other Universities have yearly salaries from the Government; but even the University of Oxford to this day, viewed as a University, is a poor body. Its Professors have for the most part a scanty endowment and no house of residence; and it subsists mainly on fees received from year to year from its members. Such too, I believe, is the case with the University of Cambridge. The University founded in Dublin in John the Twenty-second’s time, fell for lack of funds. The University of Paris could not be very wealthy, even in the ninth century of its existence, or it would not have found it necessary to sell its beautiful Park or Pratum. As for ourselves at present, it is commonly understood, that we are starting with ample means already, while large contributions are still expected; a sum equal perhaps to a third of what has already been collected is to be added to it from the United States; as to Ireland herself, the overflowing, almost miraculous liberality of her poorest classes makes no anticipation of their prospective contributions extravagant. Well, any how, if money made a University, we might expect ours to last as long as the Ptolemies’; and, I suppose, any one of us would be content that an institution, which he helped to found, should live through a thousand years.

But to return to the Alexandrian College. It was called the Museum,—a name since appropriated to another institution connected with the seats of science. Its situation affords an additional instance in corroboration of remarks I have already made upon the sites of Universities. There was a quarter of the city so distinct from the rest in Alexandria, that it is sometimes spoken of as a suburb. It was pleasantly situated on the water’s edge, and had been set aside for ornamental buildings, and was traversed by groves of trees. Here stood the royal palace, here the theatre and amphitheatre; here the gymnasia and stadium; here the famous Serapeum. And here it was, close upon the Port, that Ptolemy placed his Library and College. As might be supposed, the building was worthy of its purpose; a noble portico stretched along its front, for exercise or conversation, and opened upon the public rooms devoted to disputations and lectures. A certain number of Professors were lodged within the precincts, and a handsome hall, or refectory, was provided for the common meal. The Prefect of the house was a priest, whose appointment lay with the government. Over the Library a dignified person presided, who, if his jurisdiction extended to the Museum also, might somewhat answer to a medieval or modern Chancellor; the first of these functionaries being the celebrated Athenian who had so much to do with the original design. As to the Professors, so liberal was their maintenance, that a philosopher of the very age of the first foundation called the place a “bread basket,” or a “bird coop;” yet, in spite of accidental exceptions, so careful on the whole was their selection, that even six hundred years afterwards, Ammianus describes the Museum under the title of “the lasting abode of distinguished men.” Philostratus, too, about a century before, calls it “a table gathering together celebrated men:” a phrase which merits attention, as testifying both to the high character of the Professors, and to the means by which they were secured. In some cases, at least, they were chosen by concursus or competition, in which the native Egyptians are said sometimes to have surpassed the Greeks. We read too of literary games or contests, apparently of the same nature. As time went on, new Colleges were added to the original Museum; of which one was a foundation of the Emperor Claudius, and called after his name.

It cannot be thought that the high reputation of these foundations would have been maintained, unless Ptolemy had looked beyond Egypt for occupants of his chairs; and indeed he got together the best men, wherever he could find them. On these he heaped wealth and privileges; and so complete was their naturalization in their adopted country, that they lost their usual surnames, drawn from their place of birth, and, instead of being called, for instance, Apion of Oasis, or Aristarchus of Samothracia, or Dionysius of Thrace, received each simply the title of “the Alexandrian.” Thus Clement of Alexandria, the learned father of the Church, was a native of Athens.

A diversity of teachers secured an abundance of students. “Hither,” says Cave, “as to a public emporium of polite literature, congregated, from every part of the world, youthful students, and attended the lectures in Grammar, Rhetoric, Poetry, Philosophy, Astronomy, Music, Medicine, and other arts and sciences;” and hence proceeded, as it would appear, the great Christian writers and doctors, Clement, whom I have just been mentioning, Origen, Anatolius, and Athanasius. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, in the third century, may be added; he came across Asia Minor and Syria from Pontus, as to a place, says his namesake of Nyssa, “to which young men from all parts gathered together, who were applying themselves to philosophy.”

As to the subjects taught in the Museum, Cave has already enumerated the principal; but he has not done justice to the peculiar character of the Alexandrian school. From the time that science got out of the hands of the pure Greeks, into those of a power which had a talent for administration, it became less theoretical, and bore more distinctly upon definite and tangible objects. The very conception of an endowment is a specimen of this change. Without yielding the palm of subtle speculation to the Greeks, philosophy assumed a more masculine and vigorous character. Dreamy theorists, indeed, they could also show in still higher perfection than Athens, where there was the guarantee of genius that abstract investigation would never become ridiculous. The Alexandrian Neo-platonists certainly have incurred the risk of this imputation; yet, Potamo, Ammonias, Plotinus, and Hierocles, who are to be numbered among them, with the addition perhaps of Proclus, in spite of the frivolousness and feebleness of their system, have a weight of character, taken together, which would do honour to any school. And the very circumstance that they originated a new philosophy is no ordinary distinction in the intellectual world: and that it was directly intended to be a rival and refutation of Christianity, while no great recommendation to it certainly in a religious judgment, marks the practical character of the Museum even amid its subtleties. So much for their philosophers: among their poets was Apollonius of Rhodes, whose poem on the Argonauts carries with it, in the very fact of its being still extant, the testimony of succeeding ages either to its merit, or to its antiquarian importance. Egyptian Antiquities were investigated, at least by the disciples of the Egyptian Manetho, fragments of whose history are considered to remain; while Carthaginian and Etruscan had a place in the studies of the Claudian College. The Museum was celebrated, moreover, for its grammarians; the work of Hephæstion de Metris still affords matter of thought to a living Professor of Oxford; and Aristarchus, like the Athenian Priscian, has almost become the nick-name for a critic.

Yet, eminent as is the Alexandrian school in these departments of science, its fame rests still more securely upon its proficiency in medicine and mathematics. Among its physicians is the celebrated Galen, who was attracted thither from Pergamus; and we are told by a writer of the fourth century, that in his time the very fact of a physician having studied at Alexandria, was an evidence of his science which superseded further testimonial. As to mathematics, it is sufficient to say, that, of four great ancient names, on whom the modern science is founded, three came from Alexandria. Archimedes indeed was a Syracusan; but the Museum may boast of Apollonius of Perga, Diophantus, a native Alexandrian, and Euclid, whose country is unknown. Of these three, Euclid’s services to Geometry are known, if not appreciated, by every school-boy; Apollonius is the first writer on Conic Sections; and Diophantus the first writer on Algebra. To these illustrious names, may be added, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, to whom astronomy has obligations so considerable; Pappus; Theon; and Ptolemy, said to be of Pelusium, whose celebrated system, called after him the Ptolemaic, reigned in the schools till the time of Copernicus, and whose Geography, dealing with facts, not theories, is in repute still.

Such was the celebrated Studium or University of Alexandria; for a while, in the course of the third and fourth centuries, it was subject to reverses, principally from war. The whole of the Bruchion, the quarter of the city in which it was situated, was given to the flames; and, when Hilarion came to Alexandria, the holy hermit, whose rule of life did not suffer him to lodge in cities, took up his lodgment with a few solitaries among the ruins of its edifices. The schools, however, and the library continued; the library was reserved for the Caliph Omar’s famous judgment; as to the schools, even as late as the twelfth century, the Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, gives us a surprising report of what he found in Alexandria. “Outside the city,” he says, a mode of speaking which agrees with what has been above said about the locality of the Museum, “is the Academy of Aristotle, Alexander’s preceptor; a handsome pile of buildings, which has twenty Colleges, whither students betake themselves from all parts of the world to learn his philosophy. The marble columns divide one College from another.”

Though the Roman schools have more direct bearing on the subsequent rise of the medieval Universities, they are not so exact an anticipation of its type, as the Alexandrian Museum. They differ from the Museum, as being for the most part, as it would appear, devoted to the education of the very young, without any reference to the advancement of science. No list of writers or of discoveries, no local or historical authorities, can be adduced, from the date of Augustus to that of Justinian, to rival the fame of Alexandria; we hear on the contrary much of the elements of knowledge, the Trivium and Quadrivium; and the Law of the Empire provided, and the Theodosian Code has recorded, the discipline necessary for the students. Teaching and learning was a department of government; and schools were set up and professors endowed, just as soldiers were stationed or courts opened, in every great city of the East and West. In Rome itself the seat of education was placed in the Capital; ten chairs were appointed for Latin Grammar, ten for Greek; three for Latin Rhetoric, five for Greek; one, some say three, for Philosophy; two or four for Roman Law. Professorships of Medicine were afterwards added. Under Grammar (if St. Gregory’s account of Athens in Roman times may be applied to the Roman schools generally), were included knowledge of language and metre, criticism, and history. Rome, as might be expected, and Carthage, were celebrated for their Latin teaching; Roman Law is said to have been taught in three cities only, Rome itself, Constantinople, and Berytus; but this probably was the restriction of a later age.

The study of grammar and geography was commenced at the age of twelve, and apparently at the private school, and was continued till the age of fourteen. Then the youths were sent to the public academy for oratory, philosophy, mathematics, and law. The course lasted five years; and, on entering on their twentieth year, their education was considered complete, and they were sent home. If they studied the law, they were allowed to stay, (for instance, in Berytus,) till their twenty-fifth year; a permission, indeed, which was extended in that city to the students in polite literature, or, as we should now say, in Arts.

The number of youths, who went up to Rome for the study of the Law, was considerable; chiefly from Africa and Gaul. Originally the Government had discouraged foreigners in repairing to the metropolis, from the dangers it naturally presented to youth; when their residence there became a necessary evil, it contented itself with imposing strict rules of discipline upon them. No youth could obtain admission into the Roman schools, without a certificate signed by the magistracy of his province. Next, he presented himself before the Magister Censûs, an official who was in the department of the Præfectus Urbis, and who, besides his ordinary duties, acted as Rector of the Academy. Next, his name, city, age, and qualifications were entered in a public register; and a specification, moreover, of the studies he proposed to pursue, and of the lodging-house where he proposed to reside. He was amenable for his conduct to the Censuales, as if they had been Proctors; and he was reminded that the eyes of the world were upon him, that he had a character to maintain, and that it was his duty to avoid clubs, of which the Government was jealous, riotous parties, and the public shows, which were of daily occurrence and of most corrupting nature. If he was refractory and disgraced himself, he was to be publicly flogged, and shipped off at once to his country. Those who acquitted themselves well, were reported to the Government, and received public appointments. The Professors were under the same jurisdiction as the students, and were sometimes made to feel it.

Of the schools planted through the Empire, the most considerable were the Gallic and the African, of which the latter had no good reputation, while the Gallic name stood especially high. Marseilles, one of the oldest of the Greek colonies, was the most celebrated of the schools of Gaul for learning and discipline. For this reason, and from its position, it drew off numbers, under the Empire, who otherwise would have repaired to Athens. It was here that Agricola received his education; “a school,” says his biographer, “in which Greek politeness was happily blended and tempered with provincial strictness.” The schools of Bourdeaux and Autun also had a high name; and Rheims received the title of a new Athens. This appellation was also bestowed upon the school of Milan. Besides these countries, respectful mention is made of the schools of Britain. As to Spain, the colonies there established are even called, by one commentator on the Theodosian code, “literary colonies;” a singular title when Rome is concerned; and, in fact, a considerable number of writers of reputation came from Spain. Lucan, the Senecas, Martial, perhaps Quintilian, Mela, Columella, and Hyginus, are its contribution in the course of a century.

It will be seen that the Roman schools, as little as Athens itself, answer to the precise idea of a modern University. The Roman schools were for boys, or, at least, adolescentuli: Agricola came to Marseilles when a child, “parvulus.” On the other hand, a residence at Athens corresponded rather to seeing the world, as in touring and travelling, and was often delayed till the season of education was over. Cicero went thither, after his public career had begun, with a view to his health, as well as to his oratory. St. Basil had already studied at the schools of Cæsarea and Cappadocia. Sometimes young men on campaign, when quartered near Athens, took the opportunity of attending her schools. However, the case was the same with Rome so far as regards the departments of jurisprudence and general cultivation. We read both of Rusticus, the correspondent of St. Jerome, and of St. Germanus of Auxerre, coming to Rome, after attending the Gallic schools;—the latter expressly in order to study the law; the former, for the same general purpose as might take a student to Athens, to polish and perfect his style of conversation and writing.

All this suggests to us, what of course must ever be borne in mind, that, while the necessities of human society and the nature of the case are guarantees to us that such Schools of general education will ever be in requisition, still they will be modified in detail by the circumstances, and marked by the peculiarities, of the age to which they severally belong.

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