Tacitus is the next selection in our slow plod through The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. He was a first-century Roman and historian, who desperately wanted Rome to return to “the good old days.” Make Rome great again would have been his cry, but he was informed and eloquent. He was not one of the ones who would have had to give up power or position in order to return to the golden days of the Republic – those with the imperial power Tacitus decried were rarely willing to give it up.
So Tacitus tells us what made the good old days so good. Even if his ideal never really existed, it still teaches us what the goals were and what were the methods of those who were successful.
Education is not tricks or training, but a liberal – generous & general – knowledge.
First I must say a word or two about the rigorous system which our forefathers followed in the matter of the upbringing and training of their children.
The treatise excerpted is, like Quintilian, about the best ways to train an orator, a statesman, a persuader of people.
Tacitus – like Quintilian, Cicero, and Plato – says it all starts with childhood upbringing. He urges the decadent Romans not to leave the rearing of their children to slaves (or servants or nannies or day cares), but to value the bringing up of children as an honorable task, one that only a wise mother is fit for:
in the presence of such a one no base word could be uttered without grave offense, and no wrong deed done.
The mother cares about her children, but the servant does not. Let the child be in the care of someone who cares, at home and when he is ready for school.
The object of this rigorous system was that the natural disposition of every child, while still sound at the core and untainted, not warped as yet by any vicious tendencies, might at once lay hold with heart and soul on virtuous accomplishments.
This is the laying down the rails of habit. Will his early life lay rails that make virtue appealing and possible, or will his habits have turned vicious so early that it is hard to change course later.
He deplores the fact that most small talk in the home as well as among children is about trashy entertainment – gladiator games and circus tricks. It is not hard to draw the modern equivalent today.
Of the cultural prevalence of demeaning entertainment, Tacitus notes:
and when the mind is engrossed in such occupations, what room is left over for higher pursuits? How few are to be found whose home-talk runs to any other subjects than these?
If we want higher pursuits for our children, our conversation must be fitting to our aim. What does our dinner time conversation reinforce about what’s truly important or truly interesting to us?
In school, facts might be memorized and rote mimic skills might be gained, but Tacitus mourns:
it is in the reading of authors, and in gaining a knowledge of the past, and in making acquaintance with things and persons and occasions that too little solid work is done.
General and wide knowledge is the foundation of the educated mind, the roots that nourish it and cause it to grow.
It is only from a wealth of learning, and a multitude of accomplishments, and a knowledge that is universal that his marvelous eloquence wells forth like a mighty stream.
Multum non multa is classical, but not the minimalistic interpretation it often gets. Multum non multa as a summary of the ancient perspective is anti-specialization, not anti-broadness or anti-generosity. Listen to the recent Scholé Sisters episode for more, but this is yet another author proving that Charlotte Mason’s conception of a wide and generous education is well-grounded in ancient philosophy and practice.
Moreover, learning to be a statesman, a public speaker, a persuader of man should not be learning some tricks and techniques, but rather
the one thing needful was to stock the mind with those accomplishments which deal with good and evil, virtue and vice, justice and injustice.
Let us stock our children’s minds well!
My Book Bag
- The Great Tradition by Richard M. Gamble
- The Things of Earth: Treasuing God by Enjoying His Gifts by Joe Rigney – reading with a friend and in preparation for a future Scholé Sisters episode
- The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer (on audio)