Hoary-Headed Children

The Renaissance humanists are generally known for opposing what they thought of as the fruitless speculations of natural philosophers (proto-scientists), metaphysicians, and professional theologians. Here Petrarch, “the father of humanism,” explains that it is not logic or the traditional liberal arts per se that he is against, but rather people who childishly stay on the lowest level of study and refuse to progress higher, to the more humane things.

On hearing such things as these, those of whom we are speaking grow furious;–indeed the chatter of the disputatious man usually verges closely on anger. ” So you set yourself up to condemn logic,” they cry. Far from it; I know well in what esteem it was held by that sturdy and virile sect of philosophers, the Stoics, whom our Cicero frequently mentions, especially in his work De Finibus. I know that it is one of the liberal studies, a ladder for those who are striving upwards, and by no means a useless protection to those who are forcing their way through the thorny thickets of philosophy. It stimulates the intellect, points out the way of truth, shows us how to avoid fallacies, and finally, if it accomplishes nothing else, makes us ready and quick-witted.

All this I readily admit, but because a road is proper for us to traverse, it does not immediately follow that we should linger on it forever. No traveller, unless he be mad, will forget his destination on account of the pleasures of the way; his characteristic virtue lies, on the contrary, in reaching his goal as soon as possible, never halting on the road. And who of us is not a traveller? We all have our long and arduous journey to accomplish in a brief and untoward time,–on a short, tempestuous, wintry day as it were. Dialectics may form a portion of our road, but certainly not its end: it belongs to the morning of life, not to its evening. We may have done once with perfect propriety what it would be shameful to continue. If as mature men we cannot leave the schools of logic because we have found pleasure in them as boys, why should we blush to play odd and even, or prance upon a shaky reed, or be rocked again in the cradle of our childhood ? Nature, with cunning artifice, escapes from dull monotony by her wondrous change of seasons, with their varying aspects. Shall we look for these alternations in the circuit of the year, and not in the course of a long life? The spring brings flowers and the new leaves of the trees, the summer is rich in its harvest, autumn in fruit, and then comes winter with its snows. In this order the changes are not only tolerable but agreeable; but if the order were to be altered, against the laws of nature, they would become distasteful. No one would suffer with equanimity the cold of winter in summer time, or a raging sun during the months where it does not belong.

Who would not scorn and deride an old man who sported with children, or marvel at a grizzled and gouty stripling ? What is more necessary to our training than our first acquaintance with the alphabet itself, which serves as the foundation of all later studies; but, on the other hand, what could be more absurd than a grandfather still busy over his letters?

Use my arguments with the disciples of your ancient logician. Do not deter them from the study of logic; urge them rather to hasten through it to better things. Tell the old fellow himself that it is not the liberal arts which I condemn, but only hoary-headed children. Even as nothing is more disgraceful, as Seneca says, than an old man just beginning his alphabet, so there is no spectacle more unseemly than a person of mature years devoting himself to dialectics. But if your friend begins to vomit forth syllogisms, I advise you to take flight, bidding him argue with Enceladus. Farewell. [Source]

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