The assignment closing out the first unit of my honors first year seminar was straight forward: imagine a conversation between Augustine, Petrarch and Machiavelli. Have them talk about the issues that dominated their lives, react to each other, and bring up others we read or talked about (Aquinas, Dante, Giotto and Boccaccio). The results were spectacular.
I gave students freedom to tackle the assignment however they wanted. One took the voice of Machiavelli, describing the conversations and his internal thoughts — polite to Augustine in conversation while ridiculing him in his head. Another had them all in purgatory, some had them in heaven, one had them in a rather rowdy bar (Augustine sipping fruit juice), while one had them in the equivalent of zoo, having been snatched from earth and brought somewhere outside space/time. One put herself in the role as translator of the conversation, giving her reflections on what they said, which worked really well.
Augustine (354-430) developed the spiritual philosophy and theology that would define the medieval world view – this world is an illusion, designed to tempt and test, but exists only as symbols of a deeper reality. Do not pursue worldly delights or ambitions, those only lead you away from Christ. With that view dominating, it’s not surprising that the Europeans spent nearly a thousand years with little progress!
Petrarch is often called the “father of humanism.” Humanism means taking the human experience seriously. Petrarch, along with others such as Giotto, Boccaccio and Dante, were rediscovering the classics from Rome and Greece, and thereby opening the door to a past that Europe had long forgotten. They were enthralled by the classics, a world where human emotion and practical knowledge mattered — where life wasn’t only about preparation for the after life.
Art became more realistic, human emotion invaded literature and poetry, and the material world started to matter again. This led to the renaissance and an expansion of knowledge and wealth. It also meant growing corruption in the Church as the spiritual became secondary to the practical. Niccolo Machiavelli (1649 – 1527) took that humanism to its pragmatic ends justify the means conclusion with his book The Prince.
What’s most impressive is that the students captured the essence of what these three people symbolize. Augustine is the other-worldly mystic who warns about the corruption of the flesh and power of a love for God. Petrarch has his feet in both the Augustinian world and the new world of humanism. He writes stirring emotional poetry to a woman, but one he loves from afar. One student has the two of them reflecting on their similar experiences. Augustine’s most powerful moment was when opened the Bible at random and was touched by something written by Paul. Petrarch had done the same with Augustine’s Confessions atop Mt. Ventoux.
Machiavelli is the anti-Augustine. He is a humanist and a realist. Of course the Church and God is important, but one has to live in this world with humans who are, as all three agree, base in their nature. Humans are wicked, sinful and unclean.
Augustine’s solution is to go to the mountains and live separate from the depravity and ruin, in monasteries where life is devoted solely to the spiritual. Petrarch admired Augustine but fantasized about living in classical times. He would carry on conversations with Cicero and others from the past, wishing he could be in a world where knowledge and culture were advanced and developed. Machiavelli compartmentalized the spiritual in order to focus on the practical.
What impressed me is how the students got into the mindset of the era, be it the dilemmas of humanism, the impact of Aquinas and Aristotle, or the inherent tension in the methods of the Scholastics. They managed to mentally put themselves into that time frame just before the reformation.
That’s important. It is so easy to think “oh, they didn’t have science yet, they were backward…the Church is controlling everything, that’s wrong.” That’s a view of someone in the present imagining those structures of thought imposed on the here and now.
If we judge history through a modern lens we fail to understand the fundamental questions and dilemmas that the people at the time grappled with. We wouldn’t appreciate how their dilemmas were similar to issues we face now; these were intelligent people whose thinking was not so unlike our own. Moreover, once we endeavor to understand the past in context, it’s easier to see the imperfections of our own reality.
When we get to the end of the course students have an assignment to write about the present the way an Honors class 400 years from now might see it. What do we do that will be seen later as barbaric and ignorant? War? Chemicals in food? Eating meat?
How will religion and science change? Is the history of western civilization — and all other cultures — starting to merge into a global discourse? Might the intellectual history of the West be bracketed — ending at some year when cultural merging makes such cultural distinctions impossible to maintain?
The goal of the course is for students to see their academic journey and their place in the world as part of an unfolding story. How we think is shaped by our cultural past. Even an atheist has views and understandings that can be traced back to thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther. Instead of being in the present looking at a past whose sole purpose was to create this moment, we are part of an exciting unfolding of history, connected to the past and part of a future yet undiscovered.
And if one sees life that way, learning is not a chore, it’s fun. Learning does not end when college ends, but one is motivated to continue exploring and understanding the exciting and riveting history unfolding. Traveling to a city like Rome is not just visiting another place, but traveling through time as we connect with history. We are not in a world of stress, distractions and emptiness, but are part of the most exciting story ever told — being told by voices across time and space, each voice as loud and important as our own.
That sense of wonder has shaped how I look at life and my place in it. It provides a sense of wonder and awe that transcends daily routines. As a teacher, my goal is to provide opportunities for students to make that same discovery. These papers show evidence that these honors students are doing just that.