Guillaume de Machaut (c1300 – 1377) and Nicole Oresme (c. 1320–1325 to 1382) were contemporaries, a fact that somehow escaped me. These are two very interesting characters, and are, in my limited knowledge, the only two great creative geniuses who flourished during the 14 century in Europe, with the exception of Dante, who died in 1321.

Nick at work

Why this is interesting to me: the High Middle Ages, in the sense of a healthy, European-spanning civilization, ended in 1315 with the Great Famine at the end of the Medieval Warm Period. Efforts to reestablish the social order destroyed by the famine were crushed by the Black Death starting in 1347, leaving only an empty shell of what was before. After half or more of the population of Europe died, the social disruption was irreparable. The famine disrupted the land-based wealth of the aristocracy, the foundation of the the various feudal structures: a vassal theoretically held land in exchange for military service, such that a knight needed enough surplus off his land to maintain his small military retinue – armor, horses, weapons, squires, maybe a smith, and supplies for all of the above. And so on, up the line: the kings counted on their lords, the greater lords counted on their knights, and it all came down to counting on a peasantry that could consistently produce more food than they needed to survive.

Now starve out those peasants for 3 solid years, wash away their farmland, starve their animals to death or force the peasants to eat them – and, once things got back to ‘normal’ in 1322, that surplus is out the door. And the weather has turned colder and less benign. Knights aren’t able to maintain their arms; the wealth of the lords was stretched beyond breaking, and kings, both weakened and seeing weakness all around them, start in on the never-ending wars that characterize the 14th century, most famously the 100 Years War 1337-1453.

Italy was spared the worst effects of the Famine, which mostly struck Northern Europe. Italy was also the least ‘feudal’ place in Europe, with communes and city-states dominating the social structure, not liege lords and vassals. The Plague hit Italy bad.

Dante dies in 1321. He represents, perhaps, the apex of medieval thought. He was both a rigorous Thomist/Aristotelian and on fire with Franciscan spirituality. I’ve read (but have no way of verifying, as I don’t read Italian or Latin) that for most of the next century in Italy, poetry, as well as other arts such as painting and sculpting, aped the styles dominant in 1321 – Dante and the sweet new style in poetry and Giotto in painting. Can’t verify, but this stagnation would fit. The energy evident in the previous century, where a southern Italian – Aquinas – studied in Paris under a German – Albert the Great – and taught Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards, Czechs, and so on, who brought their learning throughout Europe – seems to be gone.

Except not quite. During the 13th century, the first surviving evidence of polyphonic music is created. The names of the first two composers of whom we have any records are recorded – Leonin and Perotin – or Little Leo and Little Pete, as I like to call them. They were masters of organum, adding a vocal line or lines to a modified chant melody. The few shreds of written evidence suggest organum was already an old practice when Leo and Pete got to it. The practice was continued and presumably developed over the 13th century by their unknown successors

A century later, Willy Machaut almost comes out of nowhere, with his Ars Nova, or new art (‘new style’ is probably a better way of understanding it). Willy is the first composer for which we both have a large body of work and about whom we know a lot. He was well know all across Europe as a composer, poet, diplomat, and soldier. The uniquely Western development of polyphony spread, until, over the next two centuries, we reach an apex in Josquin and Palestrina.

Nick Oresme was a French professor, scientist, cannon, and bishop. He is the last great scientist of the Middle Ages. Here’s something about him I quoted about a year ago:

The next (and, as it proved, final), steps taken in this direction (physics of motion – ed)  were the accomplishments of the last and greatest of the medieval scientists, Nicole Oresme (1325 – 1382). …devoted much of his effort to science and mathematics. He invented graphs, one of the few mathematical discoveries since antiquity which are familiar to every reader of the newspapers. He was the first to perform calculations involving probability. He had a good grasp of the relativity of motion, and argued correctly that there was no way to distinguish by observation between the theory then held that the heavens revolve around the earth once a day, and the theory that the heavens are at rest and the earth spins once a day. 

Then everything came to a stop. Given the scientific and mathematical works of Descartes and Galileo, but no chronological information, one might suppose the authors were students of Oresme. Galileo’s work on moving bodies is the next step after Oresme’s physics; Cartesian geometry follows immediately on Oresme’s work on graphs. But we know that the actual chronological gap was 250 years, during which nothing whatever happened in these fields. Nor did any thing of importance occur in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus.

 James Franklin, Honorary Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of New South Wales

Both these guys somehow survived the Black Death. They might be called the exceptions that prove the rule, the rule being that the high intellectual energy of the Middle Ages came grinding to a halt in the mid-13th century.

That’s my amateur take, anyway.

Chesterton, Dante, and the Disciplines of Lent

Here is a talk I gave yesterday, February 13, 2023. I opened with the lame excuse that my library is still in boxes in storage, and thus I had to write this mostly from the top of my head. Also, as is necessary with a talk of this sort, my historical comments are broad generalization. For the most part, I’m taking these gross generalizations from Chesterton. That understood:


The work that most defines Chesterton high schools, that most guides and inspires us, is G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Chesterton wrote it in response to H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, which is Wells’ attempt to deemphasize, denigrate, if not out and out remove, Christianity and especially Catholicism, from mainstream history. 

Unfortunately, Wells was very successful. Only Catholics, and only some of us, seem to be willing to say much of anything positive about the Church’s role in history. The Everlasting Man is a detailed argument for why Wells and his myriad followers are wrong from the get go – they misunderstand and misrepresent man in fundamental ways, misunderstand and misrepresent man’s religious impulses, are confused about what a church is, and in general, seem baffled and confused by the common experiences of common people.  

And that’s before we even get to Jesus! If you have any interest at all in understanding  our schools and the task we have had set for us, please read The Everlasting Man. It’s not an easy book, but the payoff is high. 

I’ll circle back to Chesterton throughout this talk. For now, we take up the same challenge Chesterton did in his response to Wells: describing truly that oddest and most surprising of creatures – us. I think he would agree that the best place to look for understanding of human beings would be the poets, and that the best poets are Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante. 

An aside: some people may want to shoehorn Milton, Virgil, maybe Goethe, in there. Some people broaden the definition of poetry to include the opening of the Gospel of John, which to me is in its own class, not to be lumped in with mere human invention. But when it comes to human genius, especially as applied to understanding human  beings, I’ll stick with my Big Three. 


I chose to talk about Dante, specifically his glorious Purgatorio, because in a week we will be entering Lent. That great poem is about Lent. All of Dante, no matter how appalling or uplifting, is about people here and now, in the real world. The Purgatorio is the most beautiful account ever written about the struggles of people in the Church Militant, even though its matter is the Church Suffering. We who want to be holy, who want to be saved, who want to be able to endure seeing God face to face – the Purgatorio is our story. 

The poem takes the form of a medieval allegory. On the surface, this should be a little terrifying – allegory is usually a pretty unwieldy and blunt tool, so a long allegory about the afterlife should not be expected to be a particularly gripping tale. Another medieval example of religious allegory, written 60 years after Dante, is Piers Plowman. If you read that first, you might lack the stomach for even trying another one! Piers Plowman has all the grace of getting hit over the head with a 2 X 4, and all the art of a battering ram. 

The saving grace of the Purgatorio is Dante’s genius. In his hands, allegory is like a paintbrush or even a scalpel. He illustrates and lays bare. Not that he doesn’t whack the reader over the head once in a while, but, in general, he is more subtle and always more beautiful. 


The world out of which Dante crafted the Divine Comedy, the high Middle Ages, requires a little clarification for us modern readers. In his beautiful biography of St. Francis, Chesterton identifies the beginning of the truly high Middle Ages with the activities of the great Italian beggar. The suffering of the late Roman Empire, the darkness of what modern historians call Late Antiquity, was, in Chesterton’s view, a required purging of the evils of the late stages of Paganism. In Everlasting Man, Chesterton speaks at length about the more simple, more mythological forms of paganism, which are not in themselves particularly evil. But as time goes on, the tendency for a more practical paganism, one directed towards Getting Things Done, ends up with actual demon worship, with Carthage and the rites of Moloch. The world, particularly the civilizations built on the shores of the Sea in the Middle of the Earth – the Mediterranean – had been steeped in such horrors for millennia. Both the prophets of Israel and the sturdy peasants of Rome hated and despised this demon worship. Tyre and Sidon, lands where Jesus himself tread, were home to rites of making infants “pass through fire” – while drums were beaten to drown out the screams. Carthage, hated and ultimately destroyed by the Romans, was their independent colony, Not independent enough to abandon the demon worship of its mother cities, sadly. 

While the Empire, at peace under Augustus, had put an end to these practices, it had no way to exorcise the demons. Such evil can only be driven out with prayer and fasting. (Mk 29; Mt 21). The Church, in its penitents and saints and monks and hermits, struggled and suffered with what looks at times like a grim asceticism, from around 400 AD to St. Francis’s time in the eleven hundreds. The exorcism, according to Chesterton, was finally achieved in the Middle Ages. A new spirit of joy was bodied forth in the Little Friar of Assisi. 

Stating that St. Francis was not grim is like saying the sun is not dark. With the little beggar, the Church was dragged into a new age, the age of growingly flamboyant and playful Gothic buildings and art, of love songs and organum growing into polyphony, of study growing into recognizable sciences, of applied technology much greater than anything known to the ancients. And of a new thing under the sun – the medieval university. 


More context. The Medieval Warm period lasted from about 900 to about 1300. This is significant, because almost everything we call the Middle Ages was born and first flowered in this timeframe. With more predictable and warmer weather and longer growing seasons, and the introduction of improved technology, the population of Europe is estimated to have quadrupled over those 4 centuries. The heavy wheeled iron plows, iron tired wagon wheels, much more efficient horse harnesses, the practice of growing oats to feed to your horses so that you could work them harder and longer, and a myriad related developments – meant that the work of peasants was much more productive. Life was not as tenuous as it had always been everywhere before, where, as one English historian put it, population was “harvest sensitive” – one bad harvest, and the weak died off, and the population fell. Populations in the Middle Ages were not quite so harvest sensitive. 

More and more land was put into production – those strong, well-fed horses could pull those heavy wheeled plows through dense muddy soil, and grow more and more food and feed more and more people. Other horses could pull heavy wagons loaded with foodstuffs and rolling on iron tires, into the towns and villages. More people living more secure lives allowed for the development of commerce and social orders more human and stable. The whole great and highly varied set of systems known as feudalism flourished. 

Francis died in 1226; his slightly older contemporary, friend, and fellow mendicant Dominic Guzman died in 1221. Each founded religious orders. While Francis had little interest in and even less talent for organization, the Spaniard was an organizational genius. Thus, the various offshoots of St. Francis’s orders quickly strayed from his humble vision and fierce orthodoxy, requiring papal intervention and reorganization, and even condemnation of certain of Francis’s followers as heretics, St. Dominic’s orders still to this day largely follow his original rule. 

Both Franciscans and Dominicans figure strongly in Dante’s story, by the way. I will bring this digression back around to the point in a minute. By the time St. Dominic died, his first great intellectual disciple was somewhere between 16 and 27  years old. Brother Albert, known in his own time as the Universal Master and in our time as St. Albert the Great, took Dominic’s passion for learning in the service of God and wed it to his native intelligence, to become the most formidable intellectual of his day. Until he was overshadowed by his star pupil. 

St. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225. After his harrowing escape from his family and their well-intentioned desire to keep their well-born son away from these new, rather gauche mendicant orders – see Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox for details – he fell in with Albert in Paris. By 1250, young Thomas was already a famous teacher who soon eclipsed his own master. 

Now that the demons had been exorcised by centuries of prayer and fasting, a scholar could safely dive into pagan literature without too much fear for his soul. Thomas famously baptized Aristotle, following here the lead of his teacher Albert. For centuries afterwards, every educated man and woman (and the universities trained hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of women) would have to know his Aristotle to participate in any learned discussion. The properly educated student could make rigorous arguments, spot the logical flaws in his own and others’ arguments, and weigh the degree of certainty any proposition warranted. 

Dante was born into this world in 1265, and thoroughly educated in it. St. Thomas died in 1274 when Dante was 9; St. Albert in 1280 when Dante was 15. The shadows, or more properly, the daylight,  of these two giants most definitely fell across Dante’s life. The Purgatorio and indeed the whole Divine Comedy is imbued and enlightened by Dante’s Dominican education. His constant references to the stars and geography and geometry, which might seem pedantic to us moderns, gave verisimilitude to his contemporary audience, who likewise had fallen under the grace or spell of the great Dominicans. 

But much more important and telling, Dante chooses Reason in the person of Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory to the threshold of Heaven – very Thomistic choice. Virgil’s explanations and expansions on their journey are little examples or extracts of the Questions Method used by the Dominicans, where a question is stated, all the arguments against laid out, and au contraire issued, and then the counter arguments presented, The master would then wrap it up with a concluding statement. Virgil teaches Dante and us using what might be called the Questions Method Lite, but the bones of the full Method still show through.  

Yet while Dante is fully a product of Dominican education, in his religious life, one might even say in his emotional life, he is expressly a Franciscan. Dante joined the Franciscan  third order. There is even a curious scene in the lower levels of Hell, where, in order to summon the monstrous embodiment of Fraud and use it to catch a ride to the bottom of the Pit, Virgil instructs Dante to undo the rope around his waist – the belt symbolic of his membership in the Franciscans – and cast it in. No commentator I’ve read makes a convincing argument about what this is supposed to mean. The drama is real enough – Dante meant something by it – but exactly what is unclear. 

One can truly say that both the great founders of the two great mendicant orders are present on every page of the Divine Comedy. Virgil, as Reason itself, speaks mostly for the Dominicans; but Dante’s soul is formed and honed by the joyful yet stern asceticism of Francis. His empathy or horror, disgust or sorrow, at the fates of the souls he meets in the Purgatorio and especially the Inferno seem to me to more strongly reflect the Heart of the little beggar. Two stories from the life of Francis will have to do as illustrations, where Francis and Dante would perhaps most agree on an emotional level. Peaceful, loving Francis spared no disgust at priests who would let their altar linens get dirty – the very idea that one would call down Our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist without having done everything in his power to prepare a proper reception infuriated him. And the better known story about Francis returning from a trip to find his brothers had built a very nice building for themselves, much nicer than he thought appropriate. So the saint climbed up on the roof, and began in a fury tearing off roofing tiles with his bare hands. 

I think Dante would be in solid agreement with these actions. 


Dante was a minor, relatively impoverished Florentine noble. He nonetheless took a very active role in Florentine political life. When his faction fell out of power in 1301, he was exiled. He spent the rest of his life living on the generosity of others, and writing his Divine Comedy. After the first book, the Inferno, came out, many in Florence were eager to welcome the now-famous poet back home. But the leaders of his beloved city put conditions on his return that Dante, proud son of Florence that he was, simply could not comply with. He never again returned to his home. 

Dante died in 1321, shortly after completing his Paradiso, the final book in the Divine Comedy. A few years earlier, In 1315, the Medieval Warm Period came to a dramatic end. Europe north of Italy and Spain suffered one of the worst famines in recorded history. For almost 2 years, it rained in what is now Germany, France, and England. It was three years before any crops were grown, Anything like normal productivity did not resume until 1322. While millions starved to death, the more disheartening damage was an almost universally weakened population – even the survivors were likely near death. Farms were washed away; work animals were eaten or starved to death themselves. A weakened, impoverished population was forced to rebuild. 

Northern Europe never quite recovered. A mere 25 years later, in 1347, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing from 50 to 60% of everybody, perhaps as many as 200 million dead. 

The rich commercial and political culture built over the previous 400 years did not survive. Local population numbers often did not recover to pre-plague levels for many centuries. In place of complex local loyalties and duties, war and unrest spread. New, less human and humane structures took their place. Heroic efforts were made to restore the old order, and the Middle Ages did, according to some accounts, limp forward for another century and a half. 

But the world of Dante had died. 


On that depressing note, we return, finally, to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante was the first writer, prose or poet, to give a thorough and coherent account of Purgatory. Christians from the beginning, and even Jews back at least to the Maccabees, had believed in the importance of prayers for the dead. Once you accept that the dead can benefit from our prayers, the question arises: where are the souls of the dead? Over the centuries, a concept of a purgatory developed: the souls of the dead who escaped damnation yet are still trapped by the effects of their sins undergo sufferings to purge them of those sins. Our prayers can help them, just as our admonitions and prayer could help them here on earth. 

But there it sat for centuries. If forced to describe Purgatory, a typical response from before Dante wrote would have been something like ‘just like Hell, except the souls eventually get out.’

Such a description was completely unacceptable to Dante. Comparing the state of saved but not perfected souls to the fate of the damned offended both his Dominican and Franciscan sensibilities. One can almost imagine his fist slamming down on the table at the very thought, like St. Thomas Aquinas in intellectual battle with the Manichees. As a man educated by Dominicans, the irrationality of imagining Purgatory as a kind of Hell offended him. As a third order Franciscan, the lack of Divine Love in such an understanding of Purgatory was unacceptable. No, the souls in Purgatory are saved! The must – MUST – be filled with a joy beyond anything any of us who is not a great saint can imagine. 

Souls in Purgatory are saved! Therefore, they joyfully accept the Will of God, and embrace their sufferings, that they might see Him face to face. In Purgatory there will be none of the wailing and despair of Hell; none of the hatred of one damned soul for another. Instead, the saved but impure souls love and support one another, and sing the praises of God! 

In addition to Catholic traditions, Dante had before him a couple pagan descriptions of the afterlife, most centrally Virgil’s account of Aneas’s visit to the underworld in the Aeneid, book VI.  Virgil becomes the obvious choice to lead Dante through Hell and even Purgatory, as he’s theoretically been there, as the author of Aneas’s journey. 

The afterlife crafted by Virgil, the virtuous pagan, bears little similarity with Dante’s Christian understanding, except perhaps in the idea of Justice. In Virgil’s underworld, the punishment more or less fits the crime; those pagans who are virtuous after their fashion, are reincarnated. The suicide Dido, for example, suffers nothing like what the suicides in Dante suffer, as killing oneself is not the horror to pagan Romans as it is to Catholics.

Reincarnation is right out for Dante. But Virgil’s image of the souls waiting for reincarnation has some slight echo in the souls in Dante’s ante-Purgatory, waiting for their true cleansing to begin. 

In building his Purgatory, Dante begins with the story from Revelation 12,  where Satan and his angels are swept from the sky. Dante imagines Satan flung with such force that he is embedded in the earth at its exact center, leaving a conical crater above him. The circles of Hell are along the inside of this cone. Dante’s journey through Hell takes him down to the center of the earth from one circle to the next.

This cosmic impact of Satan is imagined to have taken place where Jerusalem sits now; thus Jerusalem sits above Hell, buried deep in the earth. On the direct opposite side of the earth, in the vast ocean Dante imagines covering the Southern Hemisphere, the material displaced by Satan and the cone of Hell raised up a mountain. This mountain is Purgatory. The Pit is for the damned, but God brings good even from the fall of Satan by creating from that fall the mountain by which repentant sinners can climb to Heaven. 

The symbolism is clear: the damned descend into the pit until the worst sinners are near the Father of Lies and farthest from the Heavens; on the diametrically opposite side of earth, a mountain is raised by which repentant souls might climb toward Heaven. The central part of Medieval cosmology that is often confused here: the earth is imagined as the center of the Universe, yes, but much more importantly, earth is imagined as the farthest point from Heaven. The center of the earth, the very center of the universe, is occupied by Satan! Climbing a mountain takes one both closer to God and further from Satan. It is not pride that imagines the earth as the center of the Universe, at least to Catholics. 

The mountain of Purgatory is surrounded by hilly plains and ocean shores. The repentant are delivered to Purgatory on a boat driven by an angel, just as the damned were carried into the heart of Hell on a boat driven by Charon, conceived by Dante as a demon. The repentant must ascend to a gate guarded by another angel in order to enter Purgatory proper. Above the gate are seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. On top of the mountain, nearest to Heaven, is the Earthly Paradise. 

While the top and the bottom of the mountain are very interesting, here we will focus on the active repentance taking place on the terraces of the Seven Deadly sins. 

Dante describes rules for the repenting souls: 

  • Only in the light of day can the souls move up the mountain. 
  • Once through the gate, looking back will land you back outside, and you must start the whole process over. 
  • The penitents decide when they are cleansed, and then move on to the next terrace. Nothing other than their own knowledge of their sins keeps them on any particular terrace. 

Dante hammers home the first point above by falling asleep as night falls on the slopes outside the gate to the terraces. He dreams an eagle lifts him to the fiery realms of heaven, only to set him back down on earth. He awakes to find himself at the gate. Virgil explains that, as the morning started to break, St. Lucy – her name means Light – came down from heaven and carried him to the gate. For we can make no progress in our repentance without the light of Grace, but must wait out the inevitable periods of darkness. 

The second point above recalls Lot’s wife. Under the new dispensation, those who look back are not turned to pillars of salt, but merely need to start over. 

The final point emphasizes that repentance is an act of our wills – stirred and aided, of course, by divine grace. The Divine Wisdom is not punishing penitents in Purgatory, but helping them reach the point where they could endure the full glory of heaven! 

The angel guarding the gate holds from Peter the two keys, one of gold, the other of silver. He has been instructed to err rather in opening than in keeping shut. This angel uses the point of his sword to mark the forehead of Dante with 7 wounds in the shape of the letter ‘P’ – for pecatta, or sins. He is told that he must do penance until he has healed the wounds symbolized by the letters cut into him. 

In a scene as close to humor as Dante usually allows himself to get, the angel uses the keys of Peter to unlock the gate to Purgatory proper, which groans and screeches on its hinges. As the Esolen translation puts it: 

And as the sacred portal’s pins and bolts,

Forged of strong metal, of a booming tone,

Were twisting in the hinges no such groan

And stubborn grinding came when Caesar forced

The good Metellus to give up the vault 

On the Tarpeian Rock…

So seldom do we fallen humans commit ourselves to repentance that the gates to Purgatory are practically rusted shut. Here Dante uses, as is his habit, stories from history or mythology to illustrate his point. Caesar was on campaign and out of cash, and raided an old temple treasury, whose gate had not been opened in many years. Then, following the practice of Virgil, he asserts that what’s happening in his story is *greater* than what happened in history and legend – the groans of those rusty temple treasury gates are as nothing compared to the screeching of the neglected gates of Purgatory.  

Of course, there’s a deeper layer. There always is with Dante. Just as Caesar raided a temple to get treasure for his war, each repentant sinner who enters the gates of Purgatory has discovered the treasure needed to win his war against sin.  

Once through, Dante hears – barely – unseen voices singing the Te Deum – the ancient prayer sung at Matins, the liturgical office prayed in the morning before sunrise. The hymn begins: 

O God, we praise you; O Lord, we acclaim you.

Eternal Father, all the earth reveres you.

All the angels, the heavens and the Pow’rs of heaven,

Cherubim and Seraphim cry out to you in endless praise:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts,

heaven and earth are filled with the majesty of your glory.

For a Catholic, repentance is fundamentally liturgical – the work of the people of God. The souls in Dante’s Hell hate and curse each other. Part of their punishment is being stuck with other people they don’t like. But souls in Purgatory, repentant souls seeking mercy and healing, rejoice in the company of their companions. Prayer is a constant in their lives; praying together, especially praying the Church’s formal liturgical prayers, is not just natural, but makes up the solid core of their repentance. 

The Te Deum is a hymn of God’s glory sung just as the sun begins to bring light to the sky. It is only in the light of God’s grace that the penitent can hope to make any progress. The souls beginning their purification join with the whole Church in thanking and praising God, and walk in his light. 

Now Dante and Virgil are properly on their way. Each terrace, or step of repentance,that they encounter shares these characteristics: 

  • Upon first reaching the terrace, a scene from the life of Mary illustrates the virtue that lies opposite the sin being purged.  
  • Then follows a scene from secular history or mythology also illustrating the virtue
  • A liturgical prayer is being sung by the penitents or unseen voices
  • The purifying act is introduced – the penitents are shown to be repenting
  • Examples of the sin and its destructive power are witnessed as Dante and Virgil make their way counterclockwise around the terraces. 
  • Finally, an angel guarding the climb up to the next level uses the tip of his wing to gently erase one of the letters P from the penitent’s brow. Penance for that sin has been completed; the symbol of the damage done by that sin is removed, and the penitent is ready to attempt the next terrace. 

The terraces are arranged such that sins are tackled in a logical order. The first and last terraces, for purging the sins of Pride and Lust, respectively, mirror the arrangement in Hell, where Satan’s pride is punished at the very bottom of Hell, and the lust of Paolo and Francesca is punished at the very first and highest circle of Hell proper. Pride separates one from God and neighbor in a profound way, making one’s self a god, and so must be beaten down first before any other sin can be overcome. The ever popular sin of Lust, on the other hand, is at its roots near to Love – a perversion of a good thing, and therefore a lesser sin and easier – not easy, by any stretch, but easier! – to correct. It can wait, in other words, while Pride has to be dealt with before any progress can be made. 

Here’s the full batting order: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice and Prodigality, Gluttony, and Lust. 

While I  had originally planned to touch upon each sin and its cleansing, that is probably too much detail for a talk like this, and – would you look at the time! Instead, I will focus on three sins, and encourage you to read the Divine Comedy over Lent. 100 Cantos of between 130 and 160 lines each. Read 2 to 3 Cantos a day, 15 to 20 minutes of reading, and you’d get through the whole thing in 40 days. Or just focus on the Purgatorio, get a translation with good notes – I like Sinclair’s excellent notes – and spend some time learning who all these Italians were, what all the classical references refer to, and what the battles of Dante’s day were all about. Less than 1 canto a day! 

Although I haven’t done so for the last few years, for many years I reread the Divine Comedy as my Lenten reading. I won’t kid you – it’s not an easy book, especially at first. It is full of obscure – to us – historical and mythical figures, and features Thomistic digression about once every other Canto. It assumes a familiarity with medieval Italian politics few possess. So you will need an edition with good notes, and a willingness to spend the time reading them. Beach reading it is not. But I think it’s worth it. 

Moving on – 


After Dante and Virgil pass through the gate, they must climb up a steep and treacherous path in order to simply get to the starting line. Virgil in his role as Dante’s reason, must cajole and encourage Dante to keep moving. The path is compared to a needle’s eye, an uncertain zig-zag, no straight shot. Thus the path looks to those suffering from pride.

Finally, exhausted, Dante reaches the first terrace. It is as lonely as a desert path, so little do men repent of their pride. He sees carved into the path, with art so great the images appear to Dante to move and speak, the Annunciation, the ultimate act of humility and surrender to the Will of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Repentance from Pride begins with the great drama of Mary’s fiat. 

Stories of pride and humility from the Old Testament follow, and then a legend about the Emperor Trajan, who humbly gave in to the pleadings of an old woman for justice. The Old and New Scriptures, as well as secular history, are brought to bear. 

Dante is delighted at the images, and needs Virgil to interrupt him to point out the penitents themselves. They are reciting the Our Father, praying that God’s will, not theirs, be done. Not for themselves do they pray – that blessing was lost when they died – but for us, the living!

The penitents of this terrace each carry a huge rock on their backs that cause them to be bent double. Instead of standing proud and tall, their sin makes them bow nearly to the ground. Dante, who was a very proud man, also bends until he can talk face to face with the penitents. This is the first example of Dante revealing his own sense of his sinfulness – in this canto, he clearly identifies with, and assumes the posture of, the penitents. 

The exhausted penitents, weighed down by their sin, plod along, forced to see as they walk the images carved into the floor – the Annunciation, Trajan’s humility, and many illustrations of the wages of the sin of pride. One penitent notes that he must carry this weight here because he would not carry it in his earthly life. 


After talking with a couple of his proud fellow Florentines, Dante and Virgil are directed to the next stairs to the next terrace. Dante cannot bear to look directly at the angel guarding this passage – the reflected glory of God in this member of the heavenly household is too great for his sinful eyes. Virgil assures him that the strength of his vision will grow as he repents. 

The touch of the angel’s wing wipes the first P from Dante’s forehead. The climb to the next terrace is much easier, now that he’s been healed from his pride. 

As they reach the next terrace, hidden voices fly by and cry out: “They have no wine!” and “But I am Orestes!” Mary, always selfless, feels for the poor host of the wedding at Canna suffering the embarrassment of running out of wine. According to the myth, Orestes was about to be condemned to death for the revenge murder of his mother and her lover, when his friend Pylades stepped forward and declared he was the real Orestes. The two friends fought for the honor of dying for the other. Selfless love is the opposite and antidote to envy. 

The sin of envy is close, in some ways, to the sin of pride, and thus comes second. The twisted inability of the envious to take any pleasure in the blessings bestowed on others is a poison that soon spreads. The sinner grows more and more isolated and bitter. 

The penitents on this terrace are weak and immoble, sitting leaning against the cliff wall and each other. They cannot even so much as sit up without the help of other people. Their eyes have been sewn shut with iron wire, a practice used by falconers when taming their birds. They envied what the saw in life, and so have lost that power until the sin is purged. Their livid clothing blends in with the stone of the terrace and cliff. All are one. They are forced into companionship and away from any individual show. 

Blind, unmoving, weak, but now part of a community precisely as they could not be in this life because of their envy, the penitents recite an endless Litany of the angels and saints! Everything on the terrace of the envious moves them to recognize and praise and be thankful for others! 

Here Dante merely mourns for the suffering of the sinners, but does not share in it much. He remarks that he will be little detained on this terrace, but he’s seriously worried about that last one! Not too envious, but very proud. 

Another angel heals another P, and the climb to the next terrace is easier still. 

Dante and Virgil move on through Wrath, where the penitent must live in a blinding smoke, Sloth, where they never stop moving, Avarice and its twin Prodigality, where the sinners lie face down on the pavement, admiring the dust that so occupied them in life, and gluttony, where the souls fast while being tempted by delicious fruit. None of these sins hits Dante very hard personally – then we come to Lust.


“All around this ring,” Virgil warns Dante, “You’d better keep a tight rein on the eyes. One small misstep, and you’ll have gone astray.”  Right. On this circle, the repentant sinners walk in a fire that hugs the cliff face, leaving only a narrow path along the precipice. Dante must either plunge into the fire, or walk a narrow and dangerous path. 

As they quickly move through the fire, the sinners sing Summæ Deus clementiæ, God of Greatest Clemency, a hymn sung at Saturday matins – again, like the Te Deum in the circle of Pride, sung just as the sun begins to light the sky. The most relevant section: 

Do Thou in love accept our lays

Of mingled penitence and praise;

And set our hearts from error free,

More fully to rejoice in Thee.

Our reins and hearts in pity heal,

And with Thy chastening fires anneal;

Gird Thou our loins, each passion quell,

And every harmful lust expel.

When the souls reach the end of this hymn, they all cry out “But I have not known man,” acknowledging Mary’s holy virginity and the proper ordering of sexual desires to the divine Will. Then, 

Returning to their singing, 

they would cry of wives and husbands who were chaste and lived 

as virtue’s laws and marriage both demand.

Dante was after all a married man and father. The next moment, a group of people come from the opposite direction from which the first group came. When the two groups of souls meet, they greet each other with a holy kiss, and then get on their way – the souls must practice proper physical contact in order to defeat their desire for sinful physical contact! The souls then shout Sodom! Gomorrah! before continuing their way.  

Dante puts those who repent from *any* kind of lust on the same level – all are sinners who need to reorder their desires in accord with God’s Will. This is in keeping with the Church’s ancient understanding – we all need to repent. No one is beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

An angel appears, singing “How blest are they, the pure of heart!” He advises Dante and Virgil: 

Holy souls, you pass no further on, 

Unless you are bitten by the fire. Come, enter, 

And turn no deaf ear to the hymns beyond.

Virgil pleads at length with Dante – the fire may be painful, but it won’t hurt you. It is for your own good! Do it! Finally, Virgil plays his trump card: you want to see Beatrice again? Then you must endure the flames. 

Dante finally plunges in. 

The blazes there inside did so surpass

All measure, that to feel the cool again,

I’d have flung myself into boiling glass

The angel eventually wipes the last letter P off his forehead. Dante is now free from sin and ready for Heaven. 

Concluding remarks

The formula Dante lays out for repentance and purification in the Purgatorio, although expressed with great art, is not much different than what one should expect from a solid confessor: turn to Mother Mary, practice the opposite virtue, pray with the Church in her Liturgy (the sacraments are implied here, but, since they are no longer available to the Church Suffering, Dante doesn’t expressly mention them). Do penance! Be constantly aware of the evil of your sins so as to avoid temptation! Dante gives this wise guidance a beautiful poetic and theological foundation. 

The Purgatorio is not just a masterpiece of poetic imagination. It is also a great theological achievement. As Chesterton describes it in a number of places, particularly in Orthodoxy and his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, penance had taken on a rather grim aspect in the last days of Rome. In the lingering shadow of the more demonic late stages of paganism after the decline and fall of Rome, the Church’s saints and other leaders tended to emphasize the evils of the world and seriousness of repentance. It took centuries, but the demons were exorcised from a natural world that had grown unnatural. Starting in the 12th century, a great blossoming of the Church and human culture spread across Europe. The greatest example and engine of this flowering was St. Francis. After he had called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister, after he had tamed the wolves and preached to the birds, Christians were brought back to the joy that God intended for us. To be sure, the little barefoot beggar prayed hard and always, and subjected himself to disciplines that would make most hermits blanch. But – here’s the thing – he embraced his mortifications with endless, irrepressible joy. 

At the same time, the followers of another great saint helped reestablish the Church’s ancient intellectual traditions. Dominic’s great followers – Alburtus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas – looked at the same freshly scrubbed world as Francis, and saw that it was good. They found the Joy of God lurking in every detail and argument. 

Finally, Dante Alighieri, son of minor Florentine nobility and a proud and ambitious poet, the intellectual son of Dominic but a Franciscan at heart, set out to write that new world. Of course, evil had not miraculously vanished, but, as Chesterton might put it, the mirth of God had finally managed to peek through. So Dante first describes the evil in the world – his Inferno, which is much more about this world than the next. But that is only one third of the Divine Comedy. Fully 2/3rd is about salvation and glory. In particular, the Purgatorio lays out for us what true repentance looks like. True repentance is a source of great joy! We lean on and sing with our brothers and sisters, we support each other with prayer, we rejoice in the light of God. We see the world, for the first time, as it is. 

Musings on Losing Money

                I happened to see your consolidated 
                statement yesterday, Charles.  
                Could I not suggest to you that it 
                is unwise for you to continue this 
                philanthropic enterprise -
                this Enquirer - that is costing 
                you one million dollars a year?

                You're right.  We did lose a million 
                dollars last year.

  Thatcher thinks maybe the point has registered.

                We expect to lost a million next
                year, too.  You know, Mr. Thatcher -
                       (starts tapping 
                at the rate of a million a year -
                we'll have to close this place in 
                sixty years.

Citizen Kane, discussing the financial losses in his media empire.

In 537, under the Emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia was completed after 5 years of work. Notre Dame du Paris was completed in 1260, after 97 years under construction. Two gigantic churches, each pushing the envelope of the construction techniques of their times. One took 5 years to build, the other almost a century. While I’m sure other factors were at play, the most obvious reason for this difference in construction time is that Hagia Sophia was built with the resources of an Empire under the direction of one man, while Notre Dame was not. Further, if Justinian had wanted another Hagia Sophia or 10, he had merely to say so, and within a few years, he would have had them. The 6th century Byzantine empire had the resources to do it. Unfortunately, we get to see what happens when Notre Dame gets destroyed, but had it been destroyed in 1261, at best it would have taken a couple of decades to rebuild, based on the construction timelines typical of Gothic cathedrals. And funding would have been a real issue.

There are costs, and then there are costs. For a subsistence farmer, having wasted effort over a day or two is likely to have real costs, measured in terms of reduced food supply for him and his family. For middle class 21st century Americans, having to replace a $40K car carelessly destroyed is generally an annoyance – chagrin, insurance, shopping, such a pain! To a billionaire, its a shame if one of his pet companies loses millions. To Justinian, a billion-dollar construction project is just one among several, and all in a day’s work.

John D. Rockefeller is said to have become the modern world’s first billionaire in 1916. Excluding heads of state, Forbes says that there are about 2,700 billionaires in the world. Forbes’ list is generated from public sources and reasonable guesses. Maybe there are 3,000 billionaire-level fortunes, once you add in the heads of state/royal family types? Your guess is as good as mine.

Now add in the wiley old coots with ‘only’ 500 million or so – are they materially less rich and influential than some punk tech billionaire? Now you’re up to – WAG, of course – 10,000 super-rich people? 100,000? Who knows? Why not use $100M as the floor? It’s all guesswork at this point.

These thoughts were generated by viewing Jon Del Arroz’s latest little video. Netflix has been hemorrhaging cash for a while now, and just recently announced that it laid off a bunch of people. While I agree with Del Arroz that these are good things, I doubt it means even as much as the million dollars a year loss did to William Randolph Hearst Charles Foster Kane. What Kane fails to mention: if he’s making as little as 2% a year on the remainder of his money, he can keep on losing a million a year forever. (Really, if he’s making anything at all, say 1%, his loses will be sustainable for centuries.)

One other consideration: while the man on the back of a horse has only a small fraction of the strength of the horse, as long as he keeps reins in hand, he’s effectively as strong as the horse and himself combined. There are some limitations that need skill to work around, but a skilled horseman and his horse act as one – and that one is the horseman. In the same way, a billionaire who has large interests in companies may control them without having their assets show up on his Forbes wealth calculations. A skillful billionaire can even manipulate things such that others agree to lose money – as long as the cost of the losses doesn’t exceed the financial and personal costs of crossing the billionaire.

In this context, keep in mind that the hands at the reins of almost all giant corporations are not playing with their own money. The CEO or Chairman is likely a millionaire or even a billionaire, but his fortune is likely worth a tiny fraction of the corporate money he manages, and only partially tied to the fortunes of the company. Let’s say a billionaire with 10% ownership of the company wants something to happen – say, he’s in favor of the diversity programming over at Netflix. Now you, as a member of the board or CEO, have got to ask yourself: how long will I have a job if I defy the billionaire? It’s not my money, after all. Sure, theoretically, I’m beholden to the shareholders – but that billionaire is the largest shareholder! Far better to do what he wants (and quietly divest myself of my shares in the company, as much as possible).

Then, if worst comes to worst and the company folds or is bought by somebody who wants to make money, the billionaire and I will share a nice Just So story about how evil white supremacists in their evilness ruined our efforts to enlighten the masses and Move Forward on the Right Side of History ™.

And he’ll give me another job.

And that’s just one layer of the onion. Wealthy people either play by the rules of the Athenians in Melos, or they stop being wealthy people. There’s a lot of jockeying going on, pecking orders and loyalties to establish, and backs to stab. I don’t imagine the tech billionaire’s fortunes will long outlive them – these callow youths from hippy boomer households are not winning long-term against modern Medicis and Rothchilds.

Henry Ford is estimated to have been worth about $35B in his heyday. Less than a century later, and the entire Ford family is said to worth about a $1B. Give it another couple generations, and a Ford is as likely to be washing your car as selling you one. Very few fortunes in America last more than a generation or two; very few children of billionaires have whatever gifts it took to make that first billion. Money to them is like water to a fish – it is just the medium they live in, hardly ever noticed. Most children of the rich start right off burning through the family fortune and leave dregs to the grandkids.

There are exceptions, of course. The Medici fortune reached its peak within the first century of the Medici bank in the 13th century, but persisted for about 500 years before finally vanishing. (Another wildcard that some real historian should enlighten us all on: when the fortunes of others depend on or at least benefit from your fortune, you may be propped up indefinitely. The Medici married into many prominent and noble families – how much did this contribute to their riding out some incompetent and occasionally literally insane heirs? Were the family to fail, however, political turmoil would result. How often over those 5 centuries did other players decide they would rather that didn’t happen? But in the end, it did, but only through lack of male heirs.)

But in the meantime, they ape Kane. They all can throw around a billion here, a billion there, without feeling any pain; they can have the companies they control burn billions on idiot programs and policies and propaganda, and hardly notice except to blame others.

So rejoice when the mighty are brough low. But right now, these superficial loses are not hurting the real money. They can afford to keep up the idiocy indefinitely, if the want.

The End of the Middle Ages

Prepping for the last lecture class before we start reviews and head into finals. Looking at the stuff I prepared last year, I can barely remember doing it. Probably something to do with the physical and emotional exhaustion from moving, and the continued attention demanded by the endless steps needed to get our house finally on the market. (target date: 5/26.)

Here’s a brief snippet.

Edward Peters, Britannica online

This, from Britannica, a source I use cautiously if at all. Here, the writer, describes the triumphal revisionism of the Renaissance writers, who so badly wanted to tout themselves as the best and the brightest that they ignored reality when needed. I’ve long wondered how scholars writing sometimes literally in the shadows of the great medieval churches, could not see how preposterous their claims of *obvious* superiority were. Example:

A nice church. I’d take it, Buuuut….
Clearly better than this? I think not. And I’m not even going with the High Gothic stuff here, which is the greatest architecture the world has ever seen.

Reports of the death of the Middle Ages have been somewhat exaggerated. What’s really been overblown are the achievements of the Renaissance:

The next (and, as it proved, final), steps taken in this direction (physics of motion – ed)  were the accomplishments of the last and greatest of the medieval scientists, Nicole Oresme (1325 – 1382). …devoted much of his effort to science and mathematics. He invented graphs, one of the few mathematical discoveries since antiquity which are familiar to every reader of the newspapers. He was the first to perform calculations involving probability. He had a good grasp of the relativity of motion, and argued correctly that there was no way to distinguish by observation between the theory then held that the heavens revolve around the earth once a day, and the theory that the heavens are at rest and the earth spins once a day. 

Then everything came to a stop. Given the scientific and mathematical works of Descartes and Galileo, but no chronological information, one might suppose the authors were students of Oresme. Galileo’s work on moving bodies is the next step after Oresme’s physics; Cartesian geometry follows immediately on Oresme’s work on graphs. But we know that the actual chronological gap was 250 years, during which nothing whatever happened in these fields. Nor did any thing of importance occur in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus. 

James Franklin, Honorary Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of New South Wales

Then, yea, there’s that.

There’s a bunch more, but now I’ve gotta go do class. Yes, I inflict this stuff on 15 year olds. Toughens them up.

Lafferty Quotation

No reason…

The first King who played the game of King, of chess, was the Persian Pad-Shah Shapur II, who was taught it by his wazir who had invented it. The wazir was the better player, but the King was always the winner of the game.

The King obtained victory by the ingenious device of overturning the chessboard at a crucial point of the game and declaring himself winner. This showed an imagination of the sort the wazir did not have; and it is for this reason that Shapur was the King, and the wazir would never be anything but wazir.

The larger view, the seeing that a problem need not be confined to one narrow framework, is useful in many fields. It comes into the solution of certain puzzles and riddles where a narrow framework, implied but not stated, limits the ordinary mind and prevents solution by such. But the breaking out of the framework gives the answer to a mind with more scope.

Lafferty, The Fall of Rome, CH XI

I’m reminded of Musk’s rule: the best part is no part. The common mind, faced with an engineering problem, easily falls into perfecting whatever solution his predecessors came up with. Such an engineer, if he is skillful, ends with a wonderfully optimized widget. Musk’s point is to question the need for the widget before investing time perfecting it. And it seems to work well for him.

For us little people, we need to remember that we needn’t play the game by the rules defined by those who hate us.

Three Quotations and a Link and an UPDATE

Off in a bit to begin the ceremonies – rehearsal, rehearsal dinner today, then wedding and reception tomorrow – demarking the handing off of Younger Daughter to her husband.

UPDATE: Logistics are a bit – interesting for this wedding. The church is a little over an hour away, near where Younger Daughter lives; the hall where the reception will be is about 20 minutes from there. BUT: the team doing the catering is my middle son (bride’s older brother) and his lovely wife of all of 6 months. They both have years of experience in food service, so it’s not as crazy as it seems. Issue: our nice kitchen has been volunteered for all the food prep – an hour and a half away from the hall. The hall also has a nice kitchen. The proprietors of the hall generously allowed us access starting at 3:00 today for a reception that start around noon tomorrow. But (almost) everybody involved is in the wedding itself, so we need to do as much set up between 3:00 and 4:40 (5:00 start of the rehearsal, a 20 minute drive away). Then, morning of, do the final cooking of the hot stuff so that it comes out warm around noon.

Future son-in-law knows a big Catholic family, the patriarch of which also knows my middle son and his wife – two of his daughters worked with them in the kitchens at Thomas Aquinas College. So, as we’re prepping here like mad, son gets a call from the matriarch of the above large family asking: how many of my kids do you want me to send over to help? So three daughters, two of whom have worked with and for my son, will be meeting the posse at the reception hall at 3:00 to help with set up and prep. Pretty darn cool. One friend of a friend also volunteered to get the cooking started morning of the wedding.

So, it’s working out. I rented a house for tonight in the neighborhood of the church, so we all can crash after the rehearsal, rehearsal dinner, and the finishing touches on the reception hall, and mom can support the bride without a 1:30 (at least – there’s snow on the mountains, skiers will be jamming the road Saturday morning) drive. Again, we are grateful and blessed.

So, quotations – first up: Eddie Burke, because why not?

Where trade and manufactures are wanting to a people, an the spirit of nobility and religion remains, sentiment supplies, and not always ill supplies their place; but if commerce and the arts should be lost in an experiment to try how well a state may stand without these old fundamental principles, what sort of a thing must be a nation of gross, stupid, ferocious, and at the same time, poor and sordid barbarians, destitute of religion, honor, or manly pride, possessing nothing at present, and hoping for nothing hereafter? I wish you may not be going fast, and by the shortest cut, to that horrible and disgustful situation. Already there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the assembly and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.

Reflections on the Revolution in France


All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous; in the most ridiculous modes; and apparently, by the most contemptible instruments. Every thing seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.
In viewing this tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.

Ready, Eddy?

The consistently incisive and depressingly accurate analysis of Clarissa, who grew up under the Soviet Union and teaches at Woke State someplace, commenting on the thought processes of the Supreme Court considered as a bunch of aging Boomers:

Sotomayor has already asked how “a human spewing virus is different from a machine spewing sparks.” As one’s brain ossifies with age, one begins to perceive the world through analogy. Everything gets referred back to one’s past experience. Everything is “just like.” Accepting that anything can be genuinely new means facing that one is outdated, possibly even mortal. And no, not every old person is like that. There are rare but important exceptions. For the most part, though, this is exactly how it works. If you don’t subject your brain to rigorous daily training in processing new information from new sources, you will become that sad old fart who “justlikes” every conversation into the ground.

And her further thoughts. Sigh. I’m so sick of her being right.

Finally, a slightly more amusing quotation:

“Let no one wear a mask, otherwise he will do ill; and if he has one, let him burn it.”

St. Philip Neri

Probably check in again next week. Until then, party hardy.

Reading in Education History So You Don’t Have To: 2 Books – an 1870 Report & a Bio of Barnard

Just received this book:

Very preliminary thoughts, I’ve just started reading this. ULAN Press prints public domain books as reasonably nice paperbacks, including, as here, things of so little general interest I doubt they sold 1,000 copies. This book cover goes all “…” right before naming the year of this report – but then below shows 1890. OK – 1890, the 3rd year of the long reign of William Torrey Harris as US Commissioner of Education, smack in the middle of the peak turmoil among Catholics, who wanted a) very, very much to be accepted as Americans, and b) not to have their kids indoctrinated in anti-Catholic beliefs in the public schools. Thousands of parish schools were built during this period, anathemas were (unofficially) leveled against those Catholics who could send their kids to parish schools and didn’t – while Bishop Ireland was giving speeches before the National Education Association on how Catholics needed to go to public schools, expressing, I imagine, the views of sophisticated Catholic Americans, who found their more vehement coreligionists more than a little embarrassing…

So I ponied up to get this 579 page Report, thinking it would provide invaluable background materials for that crucial period, then eagerly crack it open to discover:

Um… That’s not what I wanted. Typo? Just what happens when people are printing small runs of low-margin, nearly unsellable books? I was disappointed.

Upon reflection, I decided to keep and read it. Education history from right after the Civil War up to about 1880 I don’t know much about, yet. The first wave of passion for state funded compulsory schools hit America in the 1820s and 30s, when American young men returned from Prussia after seeing Fichte’s ideas as realized by von Humboldt in the public schools there.

(One thing I need to investigate: how much time, if any, did these slumming scions of ambitious Americans spend in actual Prussian schoolrooms, versus how much time they spent hearing about how wonderful they were at Prussian universities? The contemporary French politician Victor Cousins begins his glowing and haranguing report of the Prussian schools by saying that he meant to spend some months investigating these institutions but ended up only having a couple weeks to look into them – yet he promptly writes hundreds of influential pages on the experience, which are promptly translated into English in America, where they are again very influential. Allowing for early 19th century travel times, how much time, really, could Cousins have spent in real classrooms? Any? Upon such slender fantasies are our educational edifices built.)

The influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 50s as a result of the Great Famine flamed the Know-Nothings and helped make the idea of forcing kids into public schools more popular. Pre-war tensions and the War Between the States absorbed attention for the next decade and a half, and, in its aftermath, Northern educationists flooded the South and set up schools. Any local opposition could be ignored.

Where the trees have fallen, the weeds grow. What had been some fairly strong opposition to the notion of state-controlled mandatory schooling in the first half of the 1800s seems to have disappeared in the enthusiasms and chaos of the post war years – again, I don’t really know yet, but it seems to be true. Except in Catholic circles, where the obvious Protestant and anti-Catholic biases in the public schools and among their supporters inspired Catholics to found their own schools.

So let’s dig in to some background to this report:

Founded in March 2, 1867, the US Department of Education was first headed up by Henry Barnard, a man who spent exactly 3 unhappy months as a teacher at the age of 20 – and yet, after Mann, is the most influential ‘educationist’ of the period. I’m not expecting much from Wikipedia, but note the rather vague assumption of a life spent improving things in Barnard’s bio, without any concrete examples. A lot of “reorganized and reformed,” and “founded” stuff, not a lot of anything that clearly made life better for anyone:

Henry Barnard was born in Hartford, Connecticut on January 24, 1811. He attended Wilbraham & Monson Academy and graduated from Yale University in 1830. In 1835, he was admitted to the Connecticut bar. In 1837–1839, he was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, effecting in 1838 the passage of a bill, drafted and introduced by himself, which provided for “the better supervision of the common schools”, and established a board of “commissioners of common schools” in the state. He was the secretary of the board from 1838 until its abolition in 1842, and during this time worked indefatigably to reorganize and reform the common school system of the state, thus earning a national reputation as an educational reformer.

In 1843, he was appointed by the governor of Rhode Island agent to examine the public schools of the state, and recommended improvements; and his work resulted in the reorganization of the school system two years later. From 1845 to 1849, he was the first commissioner of public schools in the state, and his administration was marked by a decided step in educational progress. In 1845, Barnard established the first “Rhode Island Teachers Institute” at Smithville Seminary.

Returning to Connecticut, from 1851 to 1855, he was “superintendent of common schools”, and principal of the Connecticut State Normal School at New Britain, Connecticut.

In 1852, Barnard was offered the newly created position of President of the University of Michigan, but he declined. From 1859 to 1860, he was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and agent of the board of regents of the normal school fund; in 1866 he was president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland; and from 1867 to 1870 he was the first United States Commissioner of Education, and in this position he laid the foundation for the subsequent work of the Bureau of Education.

Barnard’s chief service to the cause of education, however, was rendered as the editor, from 1855 to 1881, of the American Journal of Education, the thirty-one volumes of which are a veritable encyclopedia of education, one of the most valuable compendiums of information on the subject ever brought together through the agency of any one man. He also edited from 1838 to 1842, and again from 1851 to 1854, the Connecticut Common School Journal, and from 1846 to 1849 the Journal of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction.

Servant of the Mouth of Sauron. Yes, for one year, he was President of my alma mater. Imagine.

Compare and contrast: his Italian contemporary John Bosco (1815 -1888) founded schools where thousands upon thousands of orphaned and abandoned boys were taken in, fed, clothed, and housed, given a first-rate education, and help finding apprenticeships and jobs. Hundreds of testimonials survive from the men who were taken in by Don Bosco. Then, inspired by the great saint, hundreds of other such homes/schools were founded around the world. Thousands of men and women dedicated themselves to his cause. Hundreds of Bosco schools are still around (even if the modern versions are but faint shadows of their founder’s passion – a high bar, it must be granted).

So – where are the testimonials for Barnard? Maybe in here?

Dude had a righteous beard. One fun thing to do: look for writings by former students praising their primary schooling. You can find some for Bosco and indeed for many one room schools. Paeans to PS 145 or Woodrow Wilson High School are – unknown. Be true to your school, just like you would to your girl!

Reading the Wikipedia bio caused me to grab off my shelf this more detailed bio. I think I also picked up a shorter one, too, but I didn’t see it in the 30 seconds I devoted to looking. So, let’s see, skimming this biography:

  • Son of a sea captain in Hartford
  • Graduated from Yale at 20
  • Described as “Fastidious and slightly snobbish.”
  • Taught school – for 3 months. That’s it for classroom experience for his entire life. He didn’t like it and wasn’t good at it.
  • Spun his wheels for a couple years, dabbling in politics, law, and intellectual pursuits
  • Toured D.C. and the nearby South
  • Admitted to the Connecticut bar at the age of 23
  • Went to Europe. Unlike his contemporaries, merely as a tourist on daddy’s dime. (Barnard comments in passing that it would be good if the immigration of the ‘bellicose” Irish to America could be stopped.)
  • Had enough money that he never really needed to work.
  • Elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1837, age 26

As a legislator:

He secured passage of a bill creating a board of commissioners to supervise the state’s faltering common schools, was appointed to the board, and in 1838 became its executive secretary.

Barnard, who found the schools poorly maintained and attended, wanted public education “good enough for the best and cheap enough for the poorest.” He believed that thorough moral training in the common schools was the surest safeguard of the community’s happiness. An intensive campaign featuring public meetings and teachers’ institutes, the creation of the Connecticut Common School Journal, which he edited, and a series of annual reports describing school conditions and suggesting remedies yielded legislation reorganizing the schools. But in 1842 a hostile assembly disbanded the board as “a useless expense.”

Your Dictionary Biography


  • “Moral training” – What are we to think of a Yale man who answers the eternal question “can virtue be taught” with a quick “yes” and presents himself as just the man to do it? We all need to get over the idea that public schooling was created to educate in any merely intellectual sense. The movement has always had at its core the idea that the state should empower “good” people to intervene to make sure everybody turns out correctly moral. The idea that such a thing as moral education cannot except accidentally happen through schooling seems never to have occurred to these folks.
  • “A useless expense” – An example of the antebellum opposition to state education initiatives. Of course, these hard-headed Yankees are the bad guys in this story, frustrating the pure and holy goals of the educationists. It’s way past time to ask if they were not, in fact, on to something. Barnard, so far in my light skim of this biography, comes off as a prissy elitist who was afraid to make enemies and retreated to writing whenever the going got tough – he lasted 3 months as a teacher, 9 months as President of St. John’s College, less than three years as US Commissioner of Education, throwing out ideas and giving speeches – but decades as editor and publisher of the American Journal of Education.

Barnard was succeeded as US Commissioner of Education by John Eaton (1829-1906), who held the office from 1870 to 1886. He was the man responsible for the Report with which this essay began. Another fascinating character, who later went on to become prominent in the

Eaton was educated at the Thetford Academy, which claims 7 prominent educators among its early graduates. The Academy was founded to fulfill a clause of the Vermont Constitution calling for the establishment of free secondary schools – 26 years after that constitution became law. Again, note the educational enthusiasm of the leadership seems to exceed the interests of the people.

The regulations require the students to regard all the proprieties of a sober, industrious and enlightened religious community. The teachers aim not to teach a sectarian creed, but to inculcate the great principles of morality and religion.”

Thetford Academy Website

I quote the above to illustrate something striking about early 18th century America that may be hard to grasp for us moderns: it was so close to possible to pretend that all the serious early American religious groups – Puritans/Presbyterians and their traditional enemies, the Episcopalians, as well as the spin offs such as Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Unitarians – agreed on morality that people generally did pretend it. Lewis’s concept of ‘Mere Christianity’ is the final expression of this fantasy.

This idea of essential agreement on a biblically-based morality, so close to true at least early on, was part of the foundation of the education of our future educationists. Once reality kicks in, and one sees that real people often disagree vehemently on what constitutes good morals, the options are to start another war on the heretics, or to jettison all areas of moral disagreement from the set of essential morals upon which we all agree.

America has embraced the power of ‘and’. The Civil War, Prohibition, and the current woke attempts to exterminate the unwashed are the wars; we’ve ‘compromised’ on morality to the point where buggering children is a lifestyle choice.

Barnard, when he toured Europe, commendably developed a taste for good wine. Would Eaton approve? Barnard’s father plied the New England-Caribbean trade routes, where American goods were typically paid for in rum produced by slaves on sugar plantations. The rum was then sold to Americans.. Well? Everybody cool with that? Our immunity to cognitive dissonance is nothing new, it’s just reached a new apex.

Eaton was an ordained Presbyterian minister and educationist, who entered the war as a Union chaplain and rose to brevet brigadier general for his work among the black freemen, work he continued until discharged from the army. He was a big part of the educational carpet bagging after the war, where New Englanders descended upon the South to found schools. In addition to his decade and a half as the US Commissioner of Education, he acted as President of several colleges including one in Alaska, and inspector of schools in Puerto Rico. He seems to have been very effective building up the education bureaucracy in DC and writing reports.

Busy man. Later in life, Eaton also was President of the American Society of Religious Education. A bit of digging around on the web reveals little about this society at the time Eaton would have been involved in it, except that the goal was to have biblical morality taught in the schools. Perhaps the passionate push for state controlled compulsory schooling would be best seen as yet another sect sprung from the 2nd Great Awakening.

The Second Great Awakening led to a period of antebellum social reform and an emphasis on salvation by institutions.

New religious movements emerged during the Second Great Awakening, such as AdventismDispensationalism, and the Latter Day Saint movement.

Wikipedia, of all things

I mean, check it out, just using Wikipedia’s three examples of new religious movements above: Adventism is the belief that the Christ is coming very soon; Dispensationalism believes the next (or perhaps current) dispensation is the 1,000 year reign of Christ, and that “each age of God’s plan is thus administered in a certain way, and humanity is held responsible as a steward during that time.” Later-Day Saints believe God may grant new, Scripture-level revelations at any time – that His plan can be spelled out anew in, for example, the previously unknown Book of Mormon. The fervor of the 19th century public school advocates is not only based on an understanding of Divine Will, but also the assumption that, with the right people as stewards, a perfect world can be brought into being right now. That God requires compulsory state-run schools is simply a new revelation. (1)

It would be hard to overemphasize the 19th century’s infatuation with progress and perfectibility. In such a state of mind, evils, even or especially the intractable evils that were historically classed under ‘man’s fallen nature’ were intolerable, and must be fixed at once. Many Americans were convinced that every wrong was not only within their power to right, but that the righting of all wrongs was a sacred duty. Like the woke today, and Prohibitionists of a century ago, arguing that human beings just aren’t like that merely infuriates them. The Abolitionists really were willing to burn the entire world down, if that’s what it took to end slavery. Arguments advanced by the more moderate factions, that slavery could be brought to an end over time without the horror of total war on the South and all the death and destruction that would entail, were the arguments of heretics. Those people down south were sinning, and we needed to fix it now. Mine eyes have seen the glory….

Similarly, the many were not sufficiently moral, as defined by, first of all, New England Puritans like Eaton and Barnard, and later by ministers of the other mainline and new Protestant sects. Therefore, it becomes ‘our’ duty to fix it, STAT! Never mind that the intractable ignorance, weakness of will, and inclination toward evil of us people is more a feature than a bug. Never mind that there was and remains precious little evidence that morality is something that can be imparted via compulsory graded classroom schooling. Never mind that the early 19th century was almost as heavily infested with drawing room revolutionaries challenging traditional morality as any time up to the 1950s. Nope, there is an undefined (but definitely not Catholic!) morality that needs to be beat into little heads! And we’re just the people to do it!

So now I’m several thousand words into this post, and haven’t even gotten to the book it is putatively about. More later….

  1. Wed or transfer this religious fervor to Hegelianism, and – oh, boy.

Public Schooling Sucks: Some Thoughts on History

I’ve seen a couple of those viral videos of parents standing up to their local school boards and making a stink over the latest outrage – critical race theory, gender theory, the order not to watch what the school is teaching their kids, masks, vaccines, the whole load.

One wants to cheer them on, but, unfortunately, those brave, well-meaning parents just don’t get it. From Day 1, however you want to count Day 1, parents and families are the problem compulsory public schooling was invented to solve. By standing up and opposing the ‘educators’ on the school board, all these parents are doing is acting out the role those educators have already assigned them: the backward, ignorant, bigoted hicks from whom it is the school’s calling to ‘rescue’ their kids. Those educators are not trembling in fear, or trying to see how they can work with those parents. They are merely seeing confirmation of everything they already believe about those parents.

So, those educators might try to silence the parents, but, more probably, they’ll let them say whatever they want, then simply lie by omission and commission so that they can keep doing what they do. Go ahead and rant – behind the scenes, those ‘educators’ are working with their allies to simply criminalize your behaviors. Private schools? Home schooling? Those are merely trivial speed bumps, to be disposed of as the one room schools and classic liberal arts schools were disposed of, by the patient application of endless pressure until they conform or can be eliminated.

Boy, isn’t this picture all sorts of ironic and symbolic and all that!

Three moments: one, in which ‘the system’ formally collapses but the behaviors persist; one where the primacy of compliance over sanity is illustrated; and finally one where schooling stops but never ends.

  1. From Clarissa’s blog: the USSR has collapsed, but decades of training persist in both the bureaocrats and the students:

In 1996 I was a college student in Ukraine. One day, we were sitting in class, the professor was speaking, the students were taking notes. Suddenly, an irate secretary from the Dean’s Office burst in. Interrupting the professor in mid-sentence she screeched,

“Everybody, get up and go out. You will be sweeping the alley outside. Now! You, too!” pointing at the professor.

The professor, a youngish guy we thought was very cool because he had traveled the world and spoke an almost fluent English blushed and started stuffing papers into his bag. Everybody got up. Except me.

“What’s going to happen if we don’t?” I asked. “This isn’t the USSR any longer. You can’t make us.”

“Get up and go sweep now!” the secretary bellowed. “Do what you are told!”

“No,” I said. “I’m a student, not a street cleaner. I’m not going to sweep. What can you do to me?”

The secretary looked apoplectic. The other students started shooshing me down.

“It’s OK, we’ll go, we are going right now!” they piped up in mousy little voices.

“You will go because you want to volunteer,” the secretary said. “It’s the right thing to do. The alley needs sweeping. You will go now.”

College students! The professor! All trying to silence Clarissa and get her to comply with the demands of a toothless tiger. Their training is complete.

2. A 16 year old girl who refused to wear a mask was handcuffed and taken out of school by police. Note: the police aren’t masked up; the students take off their masks to eat lunch. The issues is not some farcical sense of safety, but rather that a *student* dared to defy *school officials*. This young woman and her family and lawyer had decided not to put up with the bullying, and the school officials did the only thing they could do: call the cops and have a child handcuffed and hauled away. The option would have been to ignore her – and that would show weakness in front of the kids and their parents.

3. Finally, a personal story: two retired public school teachers ran an annual trip to Mexico so that high school age students could help build houses for the poor. There were usually as nearly as many adults as kids. Many of the adults made the trip year after year, even when they no longer had any kids involved. For 5 or 6 years, when our kids were the right ages, I went along.

The two teachers simply expected to lay down rules and for people to obey them – kids, parents, didn’t matter. Teacher says it, it’s rule, you do it. As you might imagine, almost everyone, kids and adults alike, went along with this without a peep. Except one year, the teachers decided that stopping in Tijuana on our way out for lunch and a little sightseeing was too dangerous, and so was not to be done. Well, one older gentleman, a guy who had run businesses and been mayor of his little town out in the sticks, who had gone on and helped organize the trip for many years, who, not surprisingly, was one of the most capable builders, he wasn’t buying it. Since my kids were catching a ride back with him, and he wanted to stop in Tijuana, he asked ME if I minded, AND asked my kids if they minded, and I of course said I don’t mind, do what you want. I can’t imagine a more competent guy for my kids to hang out with, I trust my kids, and the ‘risks’ of Tijuana were overblown, to say the least.

Well, when this got back to the teachers, I had to deal with a weeping woman asking my how I could have been complicit in such an outrage. She had told people what the rules were! The very idea that one adult simply does not have to do what another adult tells them to do was simply inconceivable to her – she was in charge! She was the teacher.

Note that nobody had any issues with any of the rules about safety while we were encamped in Mexico. We get it. We’re a bunch of kids and adults in a foreign country, so we want to behave well and be safe. But for years, a fun part of the trip was a stop in Tijuana on our way out to grab a bite and maybe buy some trinkets for folks back home. But this year, without any discussion, it was simply decided that it was now ‘unsafe’ to do what we’d done every year before. So it wasn’t a matter of the situation being any different – it was a matter of unsupported feelings that things weren’t as safe as they used to be. So, being a teacher, she just changed the rules. The very idea that other adults might want to have a say and would not instantly go along with whatever she decided brought her to tears.

Teachers are the first victims of schooling. They must be brought to heel, or filtered out.

Getting way long here. Wanted to start a discussion on the beginnings of all this, the mindsets of the people involved. Will limit it to two very early examples, and add more later as time permits. I think both these examples were in the minds of the later champions of state control of education – Fichte, Barnard, Mann, von Humboldt, Harris, certainly Dewey.

Sparta: At least the Spartans made no bones about their intentions: the family had to go so that the ‘free’ men could best defend and serve the state. Spartan children, if they passed inspection, were allowed to be raised by their mothers until age 7, at which point the state took over. Mothers and fathers did not live together, but were more or less temporary breeding couples to produce more Spartans.

Spartan boys were assigned a cohort at age 7, trained to be soldiers until age 18, typically spent a year or two spying on and terrorizing the Helots. They then became full soldiers at 20. At 60, they got to retire. Women were basically breeders, who trained the girls to grow up into the next batch of breeders.

A boy’s whole loyalty and sense of belonging was to his military band. Training was in loyalty and conformity. A boy had essentially no opportunity to develop any independent personality – and that’s the way Sparta liked it.

Despite that whole 300 mythology, the first duty of a Spartan was not war – it was to keep to Helots down. Sparta had conquered and enslaved the surrounding territories. Since you need a minimum of 8 or 9 people producing food for each Spartan soldier and mother not producing food, your slaves are going to outnumber your Spartan citizens something like 10 to 1. The fully-trained young men were sent among the Helots to make sure they knew who was in charge. This reign of terror over their slaves is what enabled the Spartans to sustain the standing army, famous for its bravery and discipline.

I find it difficult to accept how admired Sparta was by many in ancient world, and many people throughout the subsequent ages – but there it is. Sparta remained intact for centuries, but at what cost? Outside their reputation for military prowess and unbending discipline, they left nothing of much worth. Is that enough?

We live in a Sparta-haunted world. The image of Lycurgus reforming Sparta by top-down fiat seems to be a dream of our betters (if a nightmare for us little people!) By, effectively, removing the family from its natural position as the building block of society, modern would-be Lycurguses believe they, in their wisdom, could bring about a utopia of some sort – for our own good, of course.

Martin Luther’s Germany: Not passing judgement on Luther’s theology here aside from his stand on schooling and his relationship with the state in general. I discussed here Luther’s very un-Pauline habit of addressing his epistles largely to secular powers, who he never fails to attempt to recruit for his purposes, explaining what their new freedom requires of them.

Viewed from a strictly practical perspective, to make the Reformation stick, Luther had to overcome opposition from two main camps: first, from those German Catholics not buying his teachings, and second and more serious, from those who accepted his teachings too literally. The first group simply rejected the very idea of the five Solas; the second accepted them too much, so that they thought they, themselves, were as fit as Luther to interpret Scripture as they, themselves, were moved by the Spirit.

That sort of individual freedom of conscience, which later came to be associated with Luther somehow, was not at all what he meant: everyone was free to interpret Scripture the same exact way Luther did. To Luther, his was the only reading that was possible in accord with the primitive Church and under the guidance of the Spirit. If you thought Scripture meant something else, you were wrong. Contradict Luther much, and you were dead – at least, if Luther got his way.

Catholics were, for the most part, merely benighted. They could be and often were converted to believe as Luther did, and a good bit of Luther’s writing and preaching was directed toward that end. Other Protestants who accepted the principles that Scripture could be read and understood by any man under the guidance of the Spirit and acted upon those principles, yet failed to agree with Luther, were a more existential threat. From the very first, Catholics had been pointing out that, without Tradition and the authority of the Church, Scripture can be read in an almost infinite variety of contradictory ways. The existence of Sola-professing Protestants who did not agree with Luther on every point was a problem – for Luther.

From the beginning, Luther saw the hand of God in the support he received from German princes. For their part, German princes had chaffed under the meddling and arrogance of the distant, non-German Pope since at least the 10th century. Throwing off the spiritual yoke of Rome also meant getting out from under the political yoke.

Practically, any church independent of the state and making any spiritual claims at all upon the princes of that state is going to run afoul of those princes sooner rather than later, realpolitik being a thing. The solution since the beginning of history: states control religion. While they have been a spectacular failure through most of history, the Catholic Church’s attempts to stay free of state control is still one of the biggest outliers in history. The Great Schism – speaking simply historically here – lead to the creation of state-controlled Orthodox churches: Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, etc., all of which were firmly under the control of the local king or emperor, at least to the extent that the local patriarch was not likely to attempt to use his spiritual authority to dispose them- something Popes were known to try.

Luther ignored all this, and sided with the German princes, who happily supported him back.* Luther saw the support of the state as the hand of God, and so wrote to the princes and civic leaders under them to exhort them to continue to do God’s work.

Luther soon concluded that God’s work included compulsory state run schooling. He wanted every child to learn to read so that they could study Scripture; he wanted every child to learn to read in a state-controlled school so that they would reach the same conclusions from Scripture that Luther reached. The ‘risks’ of letting everyone read Scripture themselves and reach their own (Spirit-guided) conclusions were almost instantly apparent, once the Reformation got going.

Except for the few destined to be scholars, Luther and Melanchthon, who drafted up the original compulsory public school plan used by Luther, had little use for any schooling beyond the basics. Kids should learn to read, learn a little Latin, and then get on with making a living – all under the management and compulsion of the state. Clearly – and Luther talks about this – if you left such instruction to the discretion of parents, they would do it wrong!

When Fichte modernized Melanchthon’s and Luther’s plan 300 years later, he did away with anything recognizably Lutheran, and simply put the realization of the destiny of the state as the sole goal. To him, the distinction between the spiritual goals of individuals and the spiritual destiny of the (German) state was a misunderstanding, a lack of enlightenment. The value of the individual was the value that individual had to the state; the fulfillment of the state’s destiny was the personal fulfillment of the individual, insofar as personal fulfillment had any meaning.

And, of course, something this important could not be left up to parents. In fact, Fichte agrees with Luther that, left to parents, all the higher goals of education would get frustrated. Parents are the problem schooling is designed to solve. Fichte wanted to simply remove children from all family contact until their state schooling was complete. But more on that later.

* Today, the Lutheran and Catholic churches in Germany are tax-supported – the German Catholic hierarchy is the most likely to act independently from Rome on matters of morals and dogma. The German state has neutered religion – Catholic and Lutheran – in the public sphere, and has a choke collar on it financially.

Education History Book Review: F. V. N. Painter’s Luther on Education (1889) pt 2

The “Saxony School Plan,” originally prepared by Melancthon and revised by Luther in 1538, was extensively adopted. The current abuses of the schools in studies and discipline were pointed out. “In order that the young may be properly taught,” says the Plan, ” we have established this form :

“i. The teachers shall see to it that the children are taught only Latin, not German or Hebrew as some have hitherto done, who have burdened their pupils with too many studies, which are not only useless but hurtful. . . .

” 2. They shall not burden the children with many books, but in every way avoid a distracting multiplicity of studies.

” 3. It is necessary that the children be divided into grades.”


My Google-fu failed to turn up the complete Saxony School Plan. This is a common feature of reading Luther: he is quoted, he is referenced, but his actual works are not as readily available as one would think they ought to be for someone so influential. In general, I suspect that his tendency toward scatology and verbal excesses might have discouraged Lutheran translators – better he be known via his hagiography rather than his own, less flattering, words. But a Saxony School Plan should be tame enough. Maybe I’ll stumble across it.

Reading *about* the plan on online sources from academics to libertarians indicates it was very influential. In it, one (allegedly) would find all the hallmarks of moderns state compulsory education, including graded classrooms, limited subjects, truancy enforcement, control, and record-keeping (how are you going to know who belongs in what grade?) .

The ‘history’ provided by Painter leaves out a number of awkward points. Just as with the Recusant English, there were plenty of Germans not buying what Luther was selling. By establishing compulsory schools backed by the state’s monopoly on violence, he could root out the ‘heretics’. This use of the state to achieve ‘religious’ ends explains something that at first seemed odd to me: Luther addresses his letters to people with political power, not the rank and file believers. While he uses Paul’s salutations –

To the Honorable Lazarus Spengler, Counselor of the City of Nuremberg,

My dear Sir and Friend: Grace and peace in Christ, our dear Lord and faithful Saviour, Amen.

– he, in this case, sends a sermon to a civic power, not the people to whom the sermon is to be addressed. And perusing the titles of the better known letters of Luther, this seems more the rule than the exception. While Paul and the writers of the Catholic Epistles direct their letters to the faithful or friends as politically powerless as Paul himself, Luther writes to princes and other worldly powers.

He has something he wants them to hear, and it isn’t the Gospels: Luther teaches that the state is as divine in its origins and rights as the Church. It is the duty of the faithful to obey the (Lutheran) state completely. Given the German history of the preceding few centuries, this was music to German princes’s ears.

A deal is being cut: in exchange for princely support for Luther’s Reformation, the princes get religion’s support for their power. To sweeten the pot, Luther encouraged the state to sack German monasteries and convents, similarly to what was done in England, enriching the secular government and removing what could have been a hotbed of resistance to Luther’s plans.

5 centuries earlier, in 1056, Henry III, the German Holy Roman Emperor, died when his heir, the future Henry IV, was only 5 years old. The elder Henry had used his control of Italy to determine who got to be Pope, deposing Pope Gregory VI when he got too uppity, and elevating puppets. His widow, fighting to keep control of the Empire until her son reached majority, was unable to exert similar control; when Henry did take the throne, he was too busy keeping the German princes in line to focus on who got to be Pope. During the funeral proceedings for Pope Alexander II, the people started shouting for Hildebrand of Sovana, a well known reformer, to be declared Pope. He, like good men tend to do, hid out in a monastery rather than become pope. But he was found, and the Cardinals made formal what the people had wanted, and Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII.

The biggest issue facing Gregory was the Emperor’s meddling in Church affairs to the extent of deposing and installing popes. Seeing young Henry weak, he played hardball: Henry was going to acknowledge Gregory’s election and freedom and authority, or Gregory was going to release the German nobility from any obligations to Henry – something a good number already wanted. Also, he threatened the bishops and abbots under the Empire, who had largely gotten their positions through investiture – appointment by secular powers – that they would lose their jobs if they supported Henry.

Henry was just weak enough that this worked, sort of. Henry was pressured by his bishops and friendly nobles, and made to grovel in the snow before Gregory would restore him to power. Henry did not take it lying down, installing an antipope here, waging a little war there, but, all in all, a degree of independence was temporarily restored to Rome.

It didn’t last. Instead, we got centuries where political powers fought over who got to be Pope, and then used the Pope’s authority to enrich themselves, get revenge, and otherwise extend their political power. Ugly situation. From 1309 to 1376, popes were held by the (German) Holy Roman Emperor in Avignon in what is now France – the Avignon, or Babylonian, Captivity. (Story goes that the papal ‘palace’ in Avignon stood at the foot of a hill, upon the brow of which sat a massive castle and military complex, in case the Pope ever wondered how things stood.)

At this time, Dante, writing his Divine Comedy in exile, favored, at least in the Inferno, a united Holy Roman Empire that would manage secular affairs without interference in or from the Papacy, and a papacy that would stick to spiritual affairs. (And a Holy Roman Empire that would exterminator the Black Guelfs in Florence who had exiled him. Hey, he’s Italian.) The idea of separation of Church and State, broadly understood, was nothing new when Luther seemed to support it.

Up in Germany, the common perception in all this seems to have been that loathsome Italians were bullying and haughtily snubbing the locals. It was true that Popes, on their own initiative and working with their backers, acted very poorly, to say the least. Germans, who historically seem to have chips on their shoulders in every age, embraced Luther partly because he gave them a way to get out from under Roman rules. His Rome is the Whore of Babylon schtick was popular among many – especially the nobility.

Luther’s push for state-funded and controlled compulsory schools, in which every German boy and girl would learn to read the Bible and obey the state, was appealing. This must be seen in the context of Luther’s zeal against ‘heretics’. The idea that Luther wanted everyone to read and interpret Scriptures as the Spirit moved them is laughable: he famously favored burning ‘heretics’ at the stake, with particular focus on other Protestants. People were free to discover in Scripture that they agreed with Luther, in other words. He’s no different in this respect from Calvin and his followers, who ran Geneva as a theocracy, where disputing Calvin was a capital crime.

(One thing seems odd: Luther, while calling the Pope the Whore of Babylon, was less harsh on Catholics than on Protestant ‘heretics’. I suppose a Catholic was merely someone unenlightened who might still be saved, but a Protestant who used exactly Luther’s highly individual approach to understanding Scripture yet dared to reach conclusion other than Luther’s was an existential threat. I need to read more on this topic.)

That was a huge digression even by my standards. Back to the text. After many pages of polemic laced with a little history here and there, Painter finally gets around to his translations of two of Luther’s letters regarding education. Here’s Painter’s summary of Luther’s contributions, his lead in to the letters:

We leave it to the two treatises presented in the following chapters to supply what is lacking in this survey of Luther’s pedagogy. Looking back over the ground traversed, we realize that the great Reformer accomplished scarcely less for education than for religion. Through his influence, which was fundamental, wide-reaching, and beneficent, there began for the one as for the other a new era of advancement. Let us note a few particulars:

  1. In his writings, as in the principles of Protestantism, he laid the foundation of an educational system, which begins with the popular school and ends with the university.
  2. He set up as the noble ideal of education a Christian man, fitted through instruction and discipline to discharge the duties of every relation of life.
  3. He exhibited the necessity of schools both for the Church and the State, and emphasized the dignity and worth of the teacher’s vocation.
  4. With resistless energy he impressed upon parents, ministers, and civil officers their obligation to educate the young.
  5. He brought about a re-organization of schools, introducing graded instruction, an improved course of study, and rational methods.
  6. In his appreciation of nature and of child-life, he laid the foundation for educational science.
  7. He made great improvements in method; he sought to adapt instruction to the capacity of children, to make learning pleasant, to awaken mind through skillful questioning, to study things as well as words, and to temper discipline with love.
  8. With a wise understanding of the relation of virtue and intelligence to the general good, he advocated compulsory education on the part of the State.

In view of these facts, Luther deserves henceforth to be recognized as the greatest, not only of religious, but of educational reformers.



Right after greeting the mayors and aldermen of Germany, Luther identifies the villains in this story:

And because selfish parents see that they can no longer place their children upon the bounty of monasteries and cathedrals, they refuse to educate them. “Why should we educate our children,” they say, ” if they are not to become priests, monks, and nuns, and thus earn a support?”

The hollow piety and selfish aims of such persons are sufficiently evident from their own confession. For if they sought anything more than the temporal welfare of their children in monasteries and the priesthood, if they were deeply in earnest to secure the salvation and blessedness of their children, they would not lose interest in education and say, ” if the priestly office is abolished, we will not send our children to school.” But they would speak after this manner; ” if it is true, as the Gospel teaches, that such a calling is dangerous to our children, teach us another way in which they may be pleasing to God and become truly blessed; for we wish to provide not alone for the bodies of our children, but also for their souls.” Such would be the language of faithful Christian parents.

This letter is a two-pronged attack on the lack of schooling: first, the state and wealthy individuals must fund schools, so schooling is available to everyone; second, the state must use its power to compel all children to attend school.

Luther starts with a subset of the second issue: parents who could afford to educate their children but won’t send their child to school. Luther, in his usual gentle, reserved style, labels such parents faithless non-Christians and impious worshippers of mammon.

Monasteries and cathedral schools, the places where promising boys had traditionally been sent to be educated, are condemned as the work of the devil. Only newly-founded state schools fulfill the needs of enlightened parents and the state. Fortunately, Luther has freed up some cash:

There is one consideration that should move every citizen, with devout gratitude to God, to contribute a part of his means to the support of schools — the consideration that if divine grace had not released him from exactions and robbery, he would still have to give large sums of money for indulgences, masses, vigils, endowments, anniversaries, mendicant friars, brotherhoods, and other similar impositions. And let him be sure that where turmoil and strife exist, there the devil is present, who did not writhe and struggle so long as men blindly contributed to convents and masses. For Satan feels that his cause is suffering injury. Let this, then, be the first consideration to move you, — that in this work we are fighting against the devil, the most artful and dangerous enemy of men.

Luther them cites Scripture, equating ‘you must instruct your children’ with ‘you must send your children to school to be instructed by somebody else’ – unless you want to be damned, of course. The state must step up and educate children because

…the great majority of parents are unqualified for it [educating their own children], and do not understand how children should be brought up and taught. For they have learned nothing but to provide for their bodily wants; and in order to teach and train children thoroughly, a separate class is needed.

From the very beginning: parents are the problem compulsory state schooling is intended to solve. Parents don’t understand how children should be brought up, but Luther, who fathered his first child at the age of 42, does.

…even if parents were qualified and willing to do it themselves, yet on account of other employments and household duties they have no time for it, so that necessity requires us to have teachers for public schools, unless each parent employ a private instructor. But that would be too expensive for persons of ordinary means, and many a bright boy, on account of poverty, would be neglected.

Second Letter:



To the Honorable Lazarus Spengler, Counselor of the City of Nuremberg

This letter consists of 3 parts: an introduction to Herr Spengler, and a sermon divided into two parts. The first half exhorts parents to send their kids to school to save their (parent’s and children’s) souls, and a second part exhorting parents to send their children to school for the benefit of the state, and explaining how the state has the right to compel school attendance. Bottom line: if you don’t send your kids to school, you’re going to hell.

Luther sends his sermon to Spengler and asks him to distribute it among the pastors and preachers in his jurisdiction. Key points:

The state is divinely ordained to a purpose less than the divine purposes of ministerial offices, but none the less essential:

But it [secular government] is still a beautiful and divine ordinance, an excellent gift of God, who ordained it, and who wishes to have it maintained as indispensable to human welfare ; without it men could not live together in society, but would devour one another like the irrational animals. Therefore, as it is the function and honor of the ministerial office to make saints out of sinners, to restore the dead to life, to confer blessedness upon the lost, to change the servants of the devil into children of God : so it is the function and honor of civil government to make men out of wild animals, and to restrain them from degenerating into brutes. It protects every one in body, so that he may not be injured; it protects every one in family, so that the members may not be wronged; it protects every one in house, lands, cattle, property, so that they may not be attacked, injured, or stolen.

The state has the right and duty to compel parents and guardians to send all kids to school:

But I maintain that the civil authorities are under obligation to compel the people to send their children to school, especially such as are promising, as has elsewhere been said. For our rulers are certainly bound to maintain the spiritual and secular offices and callings, so that there may always be preachers, jurists, pastors, scribes, physicians, school-masters, and the like; for these can not be dispensed with. If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other martial duties in time of war; how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school because in this case we are warring with the devil, whose object it is secretly to exhaust our cities and principalities of their strong men, to destroy the kernel and leave a shell of ignorant and helpless people, whom he can sport and juggle with at pleasure. That is starving out a city or country, destroying it without a struggle, and without its knowledge. The Turk does differently, and takes every third child in his empire to educate for whatever he pleases. How much more should our rulers require children to be sent to school, who, however, are not taken from their parents, but are educated for their own and the general good, in an office where they
have an adequate support.

Fichte, when he updated Luther’s schooling ideas in 1809, damns Luther with faint praise and dismisses his theology. He also dismisses the idea that compulsory public schools are not to simply confiscate children Luther says kids who are not destined to become scholars might spend as little as an hour or two a day in school; Fichte want kids to be completely separated from family for the duration of their schooling. This is a quibble over details, once you accept the principle that the state, not the parents, has the ultimate right to educate kids. Under that rule, the state can demand as much or as little separation from the family as it sees fit, teach them whatever the state wants, and all other details of their schooling. Parents simply have no standing to complain.

The state needs your child:

You must indeed be an insensible and ungrateful creature, fit to be ranked among the brutes, if you see that your son may become a man to help the emperor maintain his dominions, sword, and crown — to help the prince govern his land, to counsel cities and states, to help protect for every man his body, wife, child, property, and honor — and yet will not do so much as to send him to school and prepare him for this work!

There is a lot more to these letters. The key points are as Painter summed them up: the state must provide schooling for ‘free’ to everyone, and compel attendance. Further, opposing compulsory schooling is treason and damns one to hell. Education is not the sort of things parents understand, and so cannot be left up to them. Graded classrooms are essential, as is the record keeping needed to make sure each child is in the right grade.

Education History Book Review: F. V. N. Painter’s Luther on Education (1889) pt 1

Painter, a vehement proponent of Protestantism and Whore of Babylon style anti-Catholic, has translated 2 of Luther’s letters on education, to make better known the great Reformer’s seminal contributions to compulsory state-funded graded classroom schooling. All that stuff which we associate with modern schooling is proposed and defended by Luther, starting in 1520.

This work is really 2 short books, the first of which is Painter’s take on the Reformation, the second his translations of two of Luther’s letters. Therefore, I’ll do this in two parts. The first is Painter’s “historical introduction”:

The fact that no great character can be fully understood without an acquaintance with the age in which he lived and the movements with which he was identified, led to the preparation of the first four chapters as a historical introduction.


These first four chapters make up about 60% of the work, and are not exactly what anyone not as on fire with Protestant zeal as Painter would call ‘balanced’. No one, Catholic or Protestant, would dispute the general claim of profound hellish corruption of the Church’s hierarchy in the 16th century. But no one who understands the effects of investiture can honestly point to the Church herself as the primary cause. When every bishop and abbot is a partisan, and often a relative, of the local prince or king, appointed at their pleasure based on loyalty or politics, and the Pope appointed by Emperors with no regard to the candidate’s spiritual suitability, then perhaps the secular government might seem a more likely locus to place blame. The issue is not simply that the Church was deeply involved in politics, but that the leaders of the Church had gotten their positions because of politics.

Yet, to Painter, Gregory VII’s attempt to pry control of the Church out of secular hands is seen as yet another foul Popish plot. That Gregory frustrated the attempts of the German Emperor Henry IV to appoint a pope to his liking is not the occasion for any introspection on the role of German emperors in corrupting the Church, but seen as overwhelming evidence of Papal perfidy.

Painter’s opening chapters contain a little history, true, but like the writings of Luther himself, quickly segue to polemic no matter what the topic putatively under discussion. The Catholic Church is irredeemably evil, the chosen tool of Satan, and an enemy of Protestant America. The enemy of my enemy is my friend: Painter goes so far as to defend the Albigensians, whose insane and destructive Gnosticism is pretty far from even Painter’s idea of Christianity, because the Church crushed them. He didn’t get around to defending the Aztecs, but one imagines he would, given his premises and zeal.

All good things that have happened in the West, and, indeed, the world, since 1517 are the result of Protestantism. America is a Protestant enterprise (no argument there from me) in which is no place for Catholics. American Catholics are (to the surprise of actual Catholics) awaiting orders from the Pope to whom all spiritual and temporal allegiance is sworn. Protestant Americans want to educate everyone; the Church wants to keep people stupid. One quotation will have to suffice:

Yet the Papacy is not favorable to the education of the masses. It seeks above all things absolute obedience on the part of its adherents. Intelligence among the laity is recognized as a dangerous possession; for it ministers to their independence in thinking, and makes them more critical of the teaching imposed upon them by priestly authority. Any activity displayed by the Papacy in popular education is forced by the existence of Protestant schools. The establishment of parish schools giving an education worth the name, is a measure of self-defense. The Jesuits, with all their lauded activity in education, never had the intellectual elevation of the masses at heart. With them education was a means of combating Protestantism, and of begetting a bigoted attachment to the Roman Church. Wherever the Papacy has had full control of education, the masses have been brought up in ignorance. It is a Jesuit maxim that ” A few should be well educated ; the people should be led. Reading and writing are enough for them.” When Victor Emmanuel took possession of the Papal States in 1870, only five per cent, of the population could read and write. In thrift and intelligence Catholic countries do not compare favorably with Protestant countries. Macaulay’s judgment on this point is as just as it is positive. ” During the last three centuries, to stunt the growth of the human mind has been the chief object of the Church of Rome. Throughout Christendom, whatever advance has been made in knowledge, in freedom, in wealth, and in the arts of life, has been made in spite of her, and has everywhere been in inverse proportion to her power. The loveliest and most fertile provinces of Europe have, under her rule, been sunk in poverty, in political servitude, and in intellectual torpor, while Protestant countries, once proverbial for sterility and barbarism, have been turned by skill and industry into gardens, and can boast of a long list of heroes and statesmen, philosophers and poets.”

Yet, somehow, scholars are not lacking among the canonized saints of the Church, which Church invented the university, and so on. Gregor Mendel and Georges Lemaître, among many thousands of other Catholic scientists and inventors, might find Painter’s analysis amusing.

Painter believes compulsory state education is an unmitigagted good, and that Catholic opposition to it is proof of the nefarious goals of the Papacy:

From the preceding discussion we may easily deduce the line of action that is necessary to protect our institutions, particularly our public school system, against papal aggression.

1. We should carefully observe the insidious movements of the Papacy.

2. Recognizing the separation of Church and State wisely made by the Constitution, we should nowhere tolerate sectarian legislation.

3. Maintaining the right of the State to educate its citizens, we should forbid the appropriation of any public funds to sectarian schools.

4. All public school offices should be filled with recognized friends of popular education.

5. The rights of conscience should be maintained and defended by the State.

In order to present the appearance of a united Protestant front against Catholics, Painter is here resorting to something like what Lewis called ‘mere Christianity,’ this fantasy under which some undefined subset of Protestants are really all basically primitive evangelical Christians despite disputes over dogma that had fractured them into dozens of flavors even by Painter’s time. Are Mormons Christians? How about Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists? Unitarians? Why not? When reading the contemporary writings of the early 19th century, it’s not unusual to come across a Presbyterian, say, who is sure his Methodist neighbor is going straight to Hell. The earlier Protestants were hardly afraid of dogma, and believed it a life or death matter. Painter certainly does, although what exactly those dogmas are and who, exactly, he considers his co-religionists, is unclear. What is clear from history: the one thing that united 19th century Protestants was hatred of the Catholic Church.

Painter’s freedom of conscience is, when fully played out, what we have today: it is unpardonable bigotry to say anyone isn’t whatever they say they are, or to condemn anything they want to do. Painter himself is a huge fan of the vigorously judgmental Luther – just read anything Luther wrote about anything for examples. The judgement of Catholics that the Church holds the full truth of Christianity is a claim any proper Lutheran or Calvinist or Methodist would have once sternly made for their own beliefs as well. And – this is critical – if you believe that your church holds the fullness of the Faith, it would be incumbent upon you to convert as many people as possible to this Truth, AND to do whatever you could to have this truth embodied in society, in culture, and in law – for everybody’s objective good. When we say that America is a Protestant nation, is this not what we mean? That the laws, culture, and society are the expression of the Protestant beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the culture that produced them? And that, finally, the dissolution of America that we are experiencing right now is also an expression of that culture, which never was as homogenous as myth would have it? The New England Calvinists despised the Virginia Episcopalians, and visa versa, for one example among many. These inherited animosities and the manifest drive toward fragmentation are as much a part of the Protestant roots of America as the reverence for individual conscience and faith in the perfectibility of man.

Wow, I fell into exactly what Painter did: using a format – him, an introduction; me, a book review – to expound our personal beliefs. Oops. To yank this back on topic: for my purposes, Painter’s introductory chapters merely reiterate that the beliefs that drove the Know-Nothings back in the first half of the 19th century were still going strong in the second half. Separating out, as much as we can, the mere anti-Catholic bigotry, we can ask: Did the Know Nothings have a legitimate grievance? Largely, yes – Catholic immigrants were being used by Tammany Hall and other thuggish governments as a way to get and hold power. Fresh off the boat, Catholic immigrants got housing, food, a job funded by graft and corruption, and a meeting with a judge on the take who granted them citizenship in defiance of the law. These newly-minted Americans were then told how to vote, and woe to any who dared question it! Thus, Democratic party machines got and held power in major American cities, power they continue to hold, for the most part. It was an immigration problem foreshadowing the one we have now. The Know Nothings had a legitimate case for wanting tighter immigration and naturalization laws.

But, alas! Those corrupt political machines were never really cleaned up. Rather, their practices became normalized and invisible. Thus, instead of having a Fred Roti run Chicago, you merely have an understanding that no one who actively opposes the machine is every getting anywhere. So, you shut up and go along, or move out. The Roti family may not be around to off troublemakers like in the good old days, but that’s only because challenges to the system are simply cut off much more elegantly now.

And many Catholic are complicit in this. One can hardly blame them for accepting with gratitude the help of Tammany Hall or the job as a policeman in Chicago, back in the day, but at some point, the lightbulb will go on – unless one actively works to keep it off.

So, at the same time, the last few decades of the 19th century, we have Painter saying that the efforts of Catholics to keep their kids out of pubic schools amounts to treason; Catholic bishops saying that it is the duty of every parish to build a Catholic school, so that every Catholic child in America can be educated outside the virulently anti-Catholic public schools; and Archbishop Ireland telling the NEA that, eventually, all Catholic children will attend public schools.

It’s messy and confusing. Painter ends up ‘winning’ this battle, in that Catholic schools now produce graduates who have no allegiance to anything the Church teaches, in the unlikely event they even learn what those teachings are. But his victory is Pyrrhic: the pure and noble Protestantism he loved is, if anything, even deader.