Monday, October 18, 2010

What Did the Founding Fathers Learn From Cicero?

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?


King of Ireland said...

This really fantastic. Tom hit on this a while back and it is something we need to explore more. Well done.

I think are only hope today is a return to the type of education you speak of here.

Daniel said...

The 18th century was an era of significant flux in higher education. It surprises me that there would be uniformity in this aspect of the curriculum. To some extent, the classical curriculum had been weakened by the influence of Descartes and the Enlightenment. And the Awakeners were not great fans of the classical pagans. Although the classical curriculum was assumed and was not under direct assault from either direction, I don't know of any strong force within the academy that strongly supported it. Am I missing something or was it simply the underpinning that many saw as necessary?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Just as we quote Shakespeare [or the Bible] today without even knowing that we're doing it, so too Cicero in particular was taken up and absorbed by Western Civilization.

Cicero is the pre-Christian source of choice for "natural law," and Roman law was studied in the original Latin by not only Aquinas but the Calvinists like Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Excellent debut, Jason, and welcome to the blog!

"Several of the founders, including Adams, attended Harvard. The sole academic requirements for admission to Harvard University in the 1640s were as follows: “When any scholar is able to read Tully [Cicero] or such like classical Latin author ex tempore and make and speak true Latin in verse and prose suo (ut aiunt) Marte [by his own power, as they say], and decline perfectly the paradigms of nouns and verbs in the Greek tongue, then may he be admitted into the college, nor shall any claim admission before such qualification.”

Not to mention many medieval texts like Aquinas' and also more "modern" ones like Richard Hooker's and a ton of others I don't feel like looking up right now.

Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion was first published in Latin [1536].

Luther's 95 Theses!

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks King and Tom. I agree that Cicero’s ideas (among others) have become embedded in our culture and spread via other historical writers. I was excited to find that the founders read Cicero directly.

I didn’t mention how the founding fathers were selective in their appreciation of Roman history but I believe everyone knows they admired Republican figures and not the Emperors. The French Revolution ended on a very different note—with an emperor.

Daniel, you’re right that there were other influences but they hadn’t changed the educational institutions of the 18th century. Also, I’d argue that the British-Scottish-American Enlightenment was different than the French-German Enlightenment. The English-speaking Enlightenment was empirical. It wasn’t Descartes methods of sweeping away tradition and history to start anew by deducing it all out of thin air. The empirical approach, in human affairs, led to an intense study of history. I’d argue that the founders built on the past rather than discarded it wholesale. Wouldn’t you?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

There is so much to learn! Thanks for continuing to enlarge and expand my understanding.

Brad Hart said...

FANTASTIC debut post, Jason. Very well done. I can see that I am going to look forward to all of your posts here at AC.

TVD writes:

"Just as we quote Shakespeare [or the Bible] today without even knowing that we're doing it, so too Cicero in particular was taken up and absorbed by Western Civilization."

So very true. I once had a professor who told me that to understand the founding of America one needed to become an expert in Cicero. I actually emailed him the link to this post, and he responded with, "Perhaps America isn't a Christian nation but a CICEROEAN nation." Of course this doesn't take into account the numerous other influences but I think he has a point.

Daniel said...

Jason: "Daniel, you’re right that there were other influences but they hadn’t changed the educational institutions of the 18th century."

I think this overstates the point. Descartes had found his way into the curriculum. The founding of a number of early colleges can be attributed to the corruption of the curriculum by Enlightenment influences.

I wholeheartedly agree that our revolution was very conservative and rooted in history. I am resistant to the notion that there were two Enlightenments. Scottish, American, English, German, French, all read each other and were in a complicated conversation. Voltaire did say that we look to Scotland for our ideas of civilization.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Great stuff. Keep it up.

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, Brad, Daniel, & Jonathan. I liked hearing about that e-mail, Brad.