Michael Psellus on learning

(As I have time, I shall move to this medium some notes I once wrote on Facebook. I wrote the following on October 11, 2010.)

The value of learning was in question, even a thousand years ago in what was to become Istanbul. Short attention spans were noted too. Here is a passage from an engaging book, Fourteen Byzantine Emperors, by Michael Psellus (London: Penguin, 1966). Michael was born in 1018; the emperor Basil II died in 1025.

Michael Psellos

Michael Psellos (left) with his student, Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas (from Wikipedia)

In his dealings with his subjects, Basil behaved with extraordinary circumspection. It is perfectly true that the greatest reputation he built up as a ruler was founded rather on terror than on loyalty, for as he grew older and became more experienced he relied less on the judgement of men wiser than himself. He alone introduced new measures, he alone disposed his military forces. As for the civil administration, he governed, not in accordance with the written laws, but following the unwritten dictates of his own intuition, which was most excellently equipped by nature for the purpose. Consequently he paid no attention to men of learning; on the contrary, he affected utter scorn—towards the learned folk, I mean. It seems to me a wonderful thing, therefore, that while the emperor so despised literary culture, no small crop of orators and philosophers sprang up in those times. One solution of the paradox, I fancy, is this: the men of those days did not devote themselves to the study of letters for any ulterior purpose—they cultivated literature for its own sake and as an end in itself, whereas the majority nowadays do not approach the subject of education in this spirit, but consider personal profit to be the first reason for study. Perhaps I should add that though gain is the object of their zeal for literature, if they do not immediately achieve this goal, then they desist from their studies at once. Shame on them!

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 29, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on 7artesliberales.

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