The thesis of Carl J. Richard's provocative new book, Why We’re All Romans, wouldn’t have been a surprise to those educated in colonial colleges. The liberal arts curriculum of our founding fathers was dominated by Roman literature and letters. Fluent knowledge of Latin was an admission requirement and necessary to understand the lectures—which were all in Latin. A study of the founder’s education gives us a glimpse into a worldview that is almost foreign to the modern reader.
Caroline Winterer, in The Culture of Classicism, describes the importance of classical languages and culture in early American college education. The emphasis on Latin literature was part of colonial higher education from the founding of our first college, Harvard, in 1636. In addition to Latin, students were expected to translate “the New Testament (which they referred to as the ‘Greek Testament’”. “A century later the language curriculum had hardly changed, an example of the intellectual constancy that characterized American college education ...” By 1776 there were nine colleges “remarkably uniform in their classical curriculum.”
Colonial colleges were founded by different religious denominations and at first completely staffed by the ministry to prepare students for the ministry. By 1750 40% of the graduates still went into the ministry. What is remarkable is the degree that Latin-based classical humanism was found to be in concord with the religious purpose of the institution. The hostility today that we often see between secular Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions was virtually absent in our colonial period.
We tend to think of Greece first when we think of the glory of classical civilization but the colonials looked to Rome—Republican Rome. The change came in the beginning of the 19th century when European trends (and Hegel’s influence) downplayed Rome in favor of Greece. Carl J. Richard is right about Rome’s influence … when we talk about our founding fathers.
Of all the Roman writers, Cicero was the most respected and revered. “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight” wrote John Adams (1778). A young Thomas Jefferson studied Latin under Rev. James Maury. “In terms of classical authors, Maury saved his highest praise for Cicero, whom he called ‘Reason’s great Highpriest and Interpreter.’ Jefferson would share this opinion” [p38] Maury had Jefferson read De Officiis. [p34] Years later Jefferson would recommend Cicero’s ethical works to his nephew, Peter Carr.
We think of Cicero first and foremost as an orator and statesman but his treatises on ethical philosophy were virtually textbooks on the subjects in the Latin-based classical education. First and foremost of these was Cicero’s De Officiis, often translated as On Duty or On Moral Obligation. It was universally read through out Western Christendom. In Konigsberg, before one steps into Orthodox Russia, a young Immanuel Kant studied Cicero’s De Officiis in his sixth year of grammar school about the same time Samuel Adams was learning to read his copy.
This humanistic liberal arts education originated in the 14th century. Petrarch championed the study of Cicero as an alternative to Scholastic learning. He saw Cicero as applicable to civic affairs while scientific Scholastic studies appeared to be “merely academic.” As a devout Christian and loyal church member he could say “You would fancy sometimes … it is not a Pagan philosopher but a Christian apostle who is speaking.” Indeed, St. Ambrose’s De Officiis is modeled after Cicero’s. Of surviving hand-copied books, Cicero’s De Officiis is the second most numerous of Latin texts. It was also the second Latin text to be published with the advent of the printing press.
Cicero has disappeared from the college curriculum. His works are rarely studied in philosophy and only appear as a footnote on Roman history. His ideas are alien to the modern mind. We still read John Locke and the Bible, but I maintain the ethnical and political thoughts of a Latin-based liberal arts tradition that spanned five centuries is also crucial for understanding the mindset of colonial America. The importance of this book on the classical humanist education and its near complete omission from 20th century cannon shows a radical shift in ethical thought.
I hope I’ve conveyed the importance if Cicero’s ethical writings on 18th century thought. But I’m afraid the task isn’t that easy. There still the nagging question: what exactly did the Founding Fathers learn from reading Cicero? What can Cicero’s works tell us about the Founding generation?