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An Education for Crisis: Wisdom and Eloquence in the Renaissance

by Tom McMahon

The year was AD 1402, and things were touch and go in the city of Florence. For much of the

year, the city had been under siege by the army of Milan and its fearsome duke, Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Visconti, who had been uniting Italy through war and political intrigue for the past 15 years, dreamt of rebuilding a glorious new Roman Empire. But one of the last obstacles in his way was Florence, a free city that had not surrendered to his iron will. The curtain was about to close on the city, though. As losses mounted and foodstuffs in the city became scarce, Florence’s defeat became all but inevitable.

The Siege of Florence- Renaissance Education
The Siege of Florence by Giorgio Vasari, 1558

It was in the midst of this hopelessness that the hand of God moved. Plague struck the siege

camps, killing many of the Milanese soldiers and, most importantly, Duke Visconti. At the news of his death, the army disintegrated into the Italian countryside and Florence was saved. But it had been a near-run thing. Florence had been brought to the edge of destruction, and its people stood in awe of how close they had come to losing their independence to tyranny. Quickly, the leading men of the city met to discuss plans for rebuilding, and the main topic of discussion was how to prevent something like this from ever happening again. That is, Florence wanted to know how best to prepare for the next warlord.

In the past, I’ve tried to put my students in the shoes of the Florentine council at this momentous occasion and ask them how they would avoid such disasters in the future. Their answers match what I think most generals and political leaders would suggest: increase the defense budget, make logistical improvements to the city for future sieges, or use diplomacy to create a coalition of cities against Milan. While all of these options might have worked, what the Florentines did was much different. Coluccio Salutati, the Chancellor of Florence, and a man of great foresight, realized that Florence’s problem went much deeper than military or logistical concerns. Florence’s people, in his estimation, were unable to deal with crisis. If it was to survive the next warlord or disaster that came along, Florence needed a different kind of citizen within its walls. The great reform that followed the siege of 1402, then, was not of the military, infrastructure, or government, but of education.

Coluccio Salutati, Renaissance in Florence
Coluccio Salutati

In the new system, Florentine learning was oriented around two concepts: sapientia and eloquentia, or wisdom and eloquence. Wisdom, or correctly-applied knowledge, as we define it in my Bible classes, was taught so that the future citizens of Florence would not succumb to panic, instead keeping cool heads and making rational decisions in matters of state and war. Moreover, Sapientia was taught by returning to the classics of Greek and Latin, which had become increasingly absent in the era’s curriculum. Students would be encouraged to look to the past for examples of virtue and courage in the face of danger, giving them models to inspire them and pattern their own actions after. In doing this, students see that when they choose virtue over vice, they honor and take part in the long heritage of pursuing the good.

Eloquence, on the other hand, was how to convince opponents to your way of thinking.We

might call this rhetoric today, which can have the connotation of manipulation. The way the

Florentines saw it, though, was that having great wisdom was useless if you were unable to

share it with others; if you were unable to persuade your community towards the good. Wisdom and eloquence, therefore, go hand in hand. Both are necessary if we want to strengthen the community around us.

This educational reform revolutionized not only 15th century Florence, but the entire Western

world. Salutati and his fellow reformers were early movers in what would become the

Renaissance, an intellectual period that saw great developments in thinking and learning. And in many ways, we continue their work here at Anthem Classical Academy today. We believe that children who are brought up to know sapientia and eloquentia will be sturdy–in their intellect, emotions, and faith–and that this sturdiness will help them defeat whatever warlords come their way. After all, crisis came again to Florence later, but the city still stands today. Our prayer for students at Anthem is that when crisis comes, they will have the training to deal with it, and do so gracefully.

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