Myth in education and Christianity. Some historical notes*

* Lecture, presented at the conference at Edinburgh, 9-12 September, 2004, organised by the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, and the Vrije University, Amsterdam: Reasons of the Heart: Myth, Meaning and Education.

Today I would like to discuss some aspects of criticism on literary education throughout European history. Over the past four years some tips of the veil on the subject where lifted by research that I did under the supervision of professor emeritus Jan Dirk Imelman and doctor Wilna Meijer, theoretical and historical educationists in Utrecht and Groningen, The Netherlands. We intended to study the history of the practice of literary education in order to understand why the application of classical stories as a means of Bildung in school education largely disappeared. Since few sources appeared to be available on that subject, we chose to study the commentaries of educational philosophers on it instead. We found almost fifty historically relevant educational commentaries on classical literature, a list of which will be made available to you after this talk.

A comparison of these commentaries led us to rather interesting conclusions. The most striking of these is that commentaries on literary education, often remain unmentioned in secondary literature, even though their impact on subsequent educational opinion is supposedly considerable. Thus the overlap on this subject in monumental works like Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, Erasmus’ The Antibarbarians, Comenius’ Great Didactic and Rousseau’s Émile has not yet received any relevant scientific attention. One can make a rewarding use of the interrelated references that are apparent in these works, however, to my knowledge, no scholars have put them together in a longitudinal comparison.

We propose that one reason for this omission is that research on a negative Christian attitude, which is to be found in many of our sources, could be accused of a negative attitude in reverse. Research on hostility might, mutates mutandis, be interpreted as an exposure of hostility itself. Speaking for myself though, I can only say that the research on Christian criticism has little to do with my personal religious attitude. As a former teacher at a Waldorf School for many years I have been telling Bible stories by heart and from the heart, and I don’t regret a single moment of that. So let’s try to be critical where necessary in this discourse and remain faithful at the same time.

Christianity has played a leading role in criticising myth and literature throughout European, educational history. A single overview on the respective commentaries we analysed shows us that this is undeniably the case. In order to catechise pagan people and new generations to be baptised, church officials, since the dawn of Christianity, have taken as one of their main tasks the purifying of pagan storytelling customs. Pagan classics and profane literature met with severe resistance both from Church Fathers in the remotest parts of the Roman empire; bishops, popes and clerics in the Middle Ages; and Christian purifiers of different tendencies in the modern era. Although in the last centuries the role of theology per se is far from clear, the issue remains that classics lost their central place in educational practice.

Institutional education became devoid of classical myths and historical narrative. The tendency of modernity to promote economic progress and empirics in education, at the expense of literature and the humanities is apparent.Homer, Vergil and Ovid, originally used in teaching Greek and Latin language and as a device of custom and folk history, have disappeared from European curricula, along with their adaptations and even Bible stories. Although various factors have played a role in this development, the one consistent factor is theological. Even today we encounter clerical purifiers, censoring literature at schools. For example fundamentalist ministers protesting against the expansion of witchcraft hero Harry Potter in United States classrooms. They can be seen as the heirs of a long tradition of criticism upon literary education. (You can find many books on this subject on the internet.)

Let me first address the charges against the humanities, the area where myth, poetry and history come together. Some of the most common criticisms levelled against works of literature in these areas are that they are useless or simply untrue. An example of this is coffee merchant Droogstoppel, a famous figure in Dutch literature. Droogstoppel, which translates to ‘Drystubble’, dominates the first scenes in Multatuli’s anti-colonial masterpiece, the Max Havelaar. This cynical, utterly down-to-earth and altogether humourless caricature of a person sneers about the use of history and poetry in schools in the following way: “it’s nothing but madness and lies”. To this firm statement Droogstoppel adds: “I say: truth and common sense, and I stick to that. For the Scripture of course I make an exception.”

Although Droogstoppel might be seen as a typical Dutch Calvinist phenomenon, his opinions about literary education where not very typically Dutch. Similar judgements were to be found all over modernising, nineteenth century Europe. Representing the bourgeois, Dutch majority of his days, Droogstoppel’s view on literary education was far from unique, let alone original. In the progressive Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1824 for instance James Mill wrote in his lemma about education: “An institution for education [like literature] which is hostile to progression, is, therefore, the most preposterous, and vicious thing, which the mind of man can conceive”.
1[2] Even in our own days in educational politics, it is an unspoken rule that poets don’t matter in any significant way.

By accusing poets of being liars, Droogstoppel expresses one of the oldest charges against myth and poetry. We find it in Plato’s Republic as well
2.[3] One of the common sayings in Hellenist Antiquity was “many are the lies the poets tell”. Lying by poets has, at the same time, been judged by many critics as being useful in the description of uncertainties. Aristotle – overruling his friend and master Plato in this matter – made the widely accepted statement that poetry can be seen as superior to history by its power to describe the probability, rather than the factuality of events. Droogstoppel’s other accusation of “madness”, to be interpreted as uselessness, redundancy, is also not unique. It is originally found in the writings of Saint Augustine (which I will discuss later). However, I have not yet mentioned the severest of the educational charges against the poets.

The main objection is theological: seduction to imitation and idolatry. Although we find this objection in the centre of Platonic criticism, it is promoted and reinforced more rigorously by Christian criticism. Let me say a few words about this distinction between Platonic and Christian criticism. Literary critics suggest that Platonic criticism is the dominant factor in the educational history of criticising poets. According to our analysis this is not the case. Critical texts as well as historical arguments indicate that Plato did not have a leading role in this matter. Modern Hellenists suggest that Plato, by sending away Homer from his republic, was seriously attacking the poetical as an unsteady and unreliable way of looking at the world. So, as Plato puts it, “anointed with myrrh and set a garland of wool upon his head”, he kicks Homer out of his city. However, by doing this, Plato was making an academic challenge. According to Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, in Plato’s time, poets dominated public opinion and political decision making. They were a source of confusion for philosophers. The passages about the poets in Plato’s Republic, however, are often ironically stated, and are likely to have been meant as a provocation, to be corrected and discussed by students and followers.

This proposition of Plato’s provocative intention is confirmed by Aristotle’s positively stated Poetics. According to modern scholars this was written in reply to Plato’s Republic. In addition we found positively stated critiques in subsequent centuries which were highly influenced by Platonic ideas. Famous students of Plato’s Academy, like Plutarch, Basil the Great and Julian the Apostate, dedicated themselves in a very positive way to literary education. The final historical argument against Plato’s leading role in the condemnation of poetic education is the absence of an observable effect on Greek and Roman educational theory and practice during the age of Hellenism. Homer and other poets were admired as educationists in Hellenist Antiquity even more than they were before. This we can find in Henri Marrou’s great study Histoire de l’éducation dans l’Antiquité.

To Plato, being tempted by the poet to imitate all kinds of shaky and immoral characters, was, as we said before, reason to send him away. This statement was gratefully taken over by Christian apologists, however, attached to another agenda. Plato wanted categorically to preserve the whole of traditional and ritual customary which was to be found behind Homer and the other poets, and which he described as “the greatest and noblest and chiefest things of all”.
4[5] Christian apologists disparaged all of that. And that really was new.

More than five centuries after Plato a new approach towards literary education was initiated in a school for catechesis in the town of Alexandria. This town, founded soon after Plato’s time, had won its reputation as a literary paradise by not only producing the Old Testament in Greek but promoting all sorts of literary activities. A staff of judges controlling the literary standards for Hellenist schools was one of them. The headmaster of the Alexandrian school for catechesis was the very learned Christian convert Clement. Together with his pupil Origenes, Clement became one of the most prominent of the early Church Fathers. The students of his school were Alexandrian Christians who were instructed in a Christian way of life in the context of a pagan culture. Then they could be baptised in a massive and solemn ritual every year at Easter. For that reason Clement, like the apologists of his time, wrote a treatise, Protreptikos pros Ellenas, adjustment to the Greeks. Herein he uses a figure of speech, a metaphor, that would be of little importance if it had not played such a leading role in one of the most fundamental and influential texts in the history of literary education, Book I, 16 of Augustine’s Confessions. Enough reason, I think, to take a closer look at it.

In Clement’s introduction, he opposes Christian to pagan storytelling. For apologists this was a common approach. Clement asks his audience:

How in the world is it that you have given credence to worthless legends, imagining brute beasts to be enchanted by music, while the bright face of truth seems alone to strike you as deceptive, and is regarded with unbelieving eyes? […] This is the new song, the song of Moses. […] [F]ar different is my minstrel, for He has come to bring to a speedy end the bitter slavery of the deamons that lord it over us.

In the first chapters of his book Clement disdains the gods and rituals of the Greeks. In the next chapters he continues by comparing the Greek poets, used in daily practice at the schools of his days, with the ‘Sirens of legend’, the legendary singing seductresses and devourers of sailors. When Odysseus and his men sailed back home from Troy they had to pass in between these ladies on their rock and the whirlpool Charybdis. Odysseus ordered everyone aboard to stop up their ears with wax. He himself was tied to the mast, so he could hear the Sirens and resist them at the same time. For Clement, this was a model for the good Christian. Clement warns his audience, with this image, against the danger of being captured by pagan poets. Identifying himself with Odysseus as if the latter were Christ, he cries out towards his catechumens:

Let us flee, comrades, let us flee from this wave. It belches forth fire […].Pass by pleasure; she beguiles. […] Sail past the song; it works death. […] [B]ound to the wood of the cross thou shalt live freed from all corruption.

This comparison of the poets with the Sirens and their audience with Odysseus and his crew is originally found in the first chapter of Plutarch’s didactic treatise De audiendis poetis.

Clement extends this comparison equating the mast with a cross. Hugo Rahner dedicates a large part of his massive study about the meaning of Odyssean symbols to this Christian comparison with the ‘Odyssean’ cross.
8[9] What is especially important in Rahner’s study is that the Sirens, together with their seductive powers, represented the powers of wisdom and poetical insight as well. According to the Homeric allegorist of the first century Heraclitus, “the Sirens were the raconteurs of events from all time”
9.[10] In Antiquity great scholars and poets got the designation of ‘siren’. When Clement warns his audience against ‘the Sirens of legend’, he warns them against poetical wisdom. To him the Sirens represented the whole of pagan, ritual custom that poets sing about, and which Christians should attack most urgently. Ever keeping up his fine rhetorical and poetical style, Clement urges his attack in the following manner:

Let us then shun custom; let us shun it as some dangerous headland, or threatening Charybdis, or the Sirens of legend. Custom strangles man; it turns him away from truth; it leads him away from life; it is a snare, an abyss, a pit, a devouring evil.

Hugo Rahner finds no explanation for Clement’s use of the term ‘custom’, this ‘klementinisches Begriff synètheia’. In its Latin translation of mos or mores, however, the term, used in attacking the pagan poets, is given an almost eternal impact. Augustine, the greatest Church Father of all, used the term in this very way in his Confessions I, 16. Before he wrote his Confessions Augustine had already stressed the danger of imitation of literary role models several times. When he had just ended his career as a professor of rhetoric and before he was ordained as a priest, he stressed this point in his dialogues, written in 386 at Cassisiacum. Once ordained as a bishop in Hippo ten years later, he devoted his efforts to the struggle against the poets even more. Specialist scholars like Henri Marrou and Harald Hagendahl cannot contain their astonishment about this radical change of attitude. Confessing the sins of his youth in remorseful self castigation, Augustine scolds the poets, Homer and Virgil, once so dear to him in his school time, at the peak of a rhetorical crescendo. His metaphor is similar to Clement’s:

But woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom! Who shall stand against thee? How long shalt thou not be dried up? How long roll the sons of Eve into that huge and hideous ocean, which even they scarcely overpass who climb the cross?

As a schoolchild and “a son of Eve”, Augustine maintains, he had been swallowed up by the poets as in a whirlpool or an ocean. The cross was to be his only saviour from this destruction. His yell against the poets, “Sed vae tibi flumen moris humani!”, but woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom, has a considerable impact in the context of this chapter. Smarter than Clement in not using a pagan figure of speech for Christian aims, Augustine leaves Odysseus and the Sirens out. He mentions Eve instead as the cause of the Fall of Eden. He follows Clement’s identification of the poet with custom and hellish torrent, from which the only liberation is the cross. Both seduction and emulation are the true evils of traditional poetry. Augustine continues by accusing Homer to attribute a divine nature to wicked men. Through Homer’s fictions, even a person who commits crimes “might seem to imitate not abandoned men, but the celestial gods.” And yet, he says, Christian parents keep paying rich rewards for teachers that use Homer as their educationist.

And yet, thou hellish torrent, into thee are cast the sons of men with rich rewards, for compassing such learning; […] and thou lashest thy rocks and roarest: ‘Hence words are learnt; hence eloquence; most necessary to gain your ends, or maintain opinions.’

Surprisingly, scholars almost never mention this passage, let alone analyse its impact. Several scholars, though, did analyse the distinction that Augustine made here, but more prominently in his De doctrina christiana, between useless and useful symbolic language.
13[14] Here, in a previous passage, Augustine confesses his regret about having wept more over the story of Aeneas leaving Dido, than over his own leaving God and about his preference for storytelling over more useful stuff:

I should ask which might be forgotten with least detriment to the concerns of life, reading and writing or these poetic fictions? […] I sinned, then, when as a boy I preferred those empty to those more profitable studies, or rather loved the one and hated the other.

Augustine reiterates the aforementioned charge of uselessness against the poets. His massive and emotive complaint about both didactic uselessness and moral deficiencies, however, is not yet finished. By picking an obscene passage out of Terence’s comedy Eunuchus Augustine continues to set an example against using literature in teaching language. He uses this example in at least three places in his oeuvre, and hence it became paradigmatic in the history of literary education. When ‘Terence’ appears in an attack on poetry, in the Renaissance or later, there is almost always a reference made to Confessions I.

In subsequent ages, however, ‘Terence’ is not the only passage that is referred to in connection with Confessions I, 16. In our modern era, the outcry “But woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom!” is used as a device in warnings against classical literature in at least three French authoritative textbooks for teachers. In the nineteenth century in a vehement writing called Le ver rongeur des sociétés modernes, the woodworms of modern society, Father Jean-Joseph Gaume, many times honoured as a Catholic professor, writes:

But woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom! […] And you, teachers, professors, regents, […] who do not fear to take as a model Horace, Terence, even more dangerous than Virgil; […] listen how Saint Augustine judges your behaviour. […] Let us not forget that the history of Augustine is more or less the history of all people; the history of his heart is the history of the heart of humanity.

Although I am convinced that Father Gaume’s warnings are not to be taken as historically relevant statements, even for his own time, I do agree with him that the history of Augustine, in a more or less secularised way, continues to be in the heart of European history, even in our days. Therefore, considering the sad state of myth and poetry in contemporary education, these emotional attacks against it, found on bookshelves all over Europe, require more scientific attention.

Clement of Alexandria (1960, 211) The exhortation to the Greeks. (Transl. G.W. Butterworth). London: William Heinemann Ltd, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
Crane, R.S. (1967). The idea of the humanities and other essays: Critical and historical. Vol. 1. Chicago/London: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Gaume, J.-J. (1851). Le ver rongeur des sociétés modernes, ou le paganisme dans l’éducation. Bruxelles: Librairie Catholique de L. de Wageneer.
Hughes, K.L. (2000). The “arts reputed liberal”: Augustine on the perils of liberal education. In K. Paffenroth & K.L. Hughes (eds.): Augustine and liberal education. Aldershot/ Burlington USA/ Singapore/ Sydney: Ashgate. pp. 95-107.
MacDonald, D.R. (1994). Christianizing Homer: The Odyssey, Plato, and The acts of Andrew. New York/ Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Plutarch (1972). De audiendis poetis. (Transl., introd, comm. by L.J.R. Heirman.) Diss. ‘s-Gravenhage: Roeland-foto-offset.
Rahner, H. (1964). Symbole der Kirche: Die Ekklesiologie der Väter. Salzbug: Otto Müller Verlag.

Chronology of representative commentaries on the use of literature in education
(In superscript: references to preceding authors; in italics: pos/neg = predominance of a positive or negative approach towards literature in school education; Bib = promotion of the Bible in education.)

Antiquity (Pagan)
Plato (about 365 B. C.) Politeia. neg,
Aristotle (about 354 B. C.). Poetica. pos
Quintilian, M.F. (about 90 A.D.). Institutiones oratoriae. pos
Plutarch (about 100 A.D.). De audiendis poetis.pos

Antiquity (Christian)
Paul (Apostle) (61). 1, 2 Timótheüs. neg, Bib
Minucius Felix, M. (about 200). Octavius.Pla, neg, Bib
Clement of Alexandrië (211). Protreptikos pros Ellenos.Pla, Pau, neg, Bib
Tertullian (212). De idololatria.Pla, neg, Bib
Anonymus (3d century). Didascalia Apostolorum. neg, Bib
Basilius of Caesarea (about 367). Ad adolescentes.Pla, Pau, pos, Bib
Chrysostom, J. (about 400). An address on vainglory and the right way for parents to bring up their children. neg, Bib
Hiëronymus. (384). Letter to Eustochium.Pau, neg, Bib
Hiëronymus. (397). Letter to Magnus. pos
Augustine, A. (397). Confessiones. neg, Bib
Augustine, A. (400). De catechizandis rudibus.Bib
Augustine, A. (426). De doctrina christiana.Pla, Pau, neg, Bib

Middle Ages
Capella, M. (420-436). De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. pos
Théodulf (mid 9th century). Egloga Theoduli.neg, Bib
Bernardus Silvestris (12th century). Commentum super sex libros Eneidos Virgilii. pos, Bib
Thomasin von Zerklaere (1216). Der Wälsche Gast. pos

Erasmus, D. (1511). De ratione studii.pos, Bib
Erasmus, D. (1520). Antibarbarorum liber.Pla, Hie, Aug, pos
Erasmus, D. (1529). Declamatio de pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis. pos
Vives, J.L. (1522). De institutione feminae Christianea.Pla, neg
Vives, J.L. (1531). De tradendis disciplinis.Pla, Ari, Plu, Hie, Bas, neg
Luther, M. (1524). An die Ratherren aller Städte deutsches Lands.pos
Luther, M. (1526). Deutsche Messe und Ordnung Gottesdienst.Bib
Luther, M. (1538). Vorrede zu Historia Galeatti Capellae. pos

Comenius, J. A. (1639). Prodromus pansophiae. neg
Comenius, J. A. (1657). Didaktika magna. Pau, Hie, Era, neg, Bib
Lamy, B. (1678). Nouvelles réflexions sur l’art poétique.Pla, Ari, Ter, Aug, neg
Thomassin, L. (1681). La méthode d’enseigner chrétiennement & solidement les lettres humaines.Pla, Plu, Aug, pos, Bib
Rollin, Ch. (1731). Traité des études: De la manière d’enseigner et d’étudier les belles-lettres.Aug, Tho, neg

Modern era
Rousseau, J.-J. (1763). Émile ou de l’éducation. Pla, Qui, Rol, neg
Herder, J.G. (1769). Journal meiner Reise.Lut, Rou, pos, Bib
Herder, J.G. (1778). Über die Würkung der Dichtkunst auf die Sitten der Völker in alten und neuen Zeiten. pos, Bib
Herder, J.G. (1787). Ueber Bild, Dichtung und Fabel.Ari, pos
Herbart, J.F. (1806). Allgemeine Pädagogik. pos
Gaume, J.-J. (1851). Le ver rongeur des sociétés modernes, ou le paganisme dans l’éducation.Hie, Aug, neg, Bib
Arnold, M. (1885). Literature and science. pos
Frye, N. (1963). The developing imagination. pos, Bib
Bruner, J.S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. pos
Bruner, J.S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Ari, pos
Bloom, H. (1994). The western canon: The books and school of the ages. Pla, Ari, Aug, pos, Bib

  1. R.S. Crane (1967, I: 124-126 ) offers many other quotes on the subject in nineteenth century England.
  2. Politeia 382D, 389B-D. In his treatment about literary education, De audiendis poetis, Plutarch (100 A.D., 1972), after Plato, uses the term pseudos, appropriately translated by Leo Heirman with ‘forgery’, indicating both poetising and sham.
  3. As a most recent source that confirms Plato’s provocative intentions, Ramona Naddaff’s Exiling the poets: The production of censorship in Plato’s Republic, 2002, should be mentioned.
  4. Politeia 427B-C (Transl. B. Jowett).
  5. Clement 1960: 9, Exhortation I. 2-4.
  6. Clement 1960: 251-253, Exhortation XII. 91.
  7. “Should we then stop up the ears of our young readers with hard and impervious wax, as those of Odysseus’ crew were stopped up, and then compel them to hoist the Epicurean topsail to pick up speed, run away from poetry, and bypass it? Or should we rather give our young readers the support of the upstanding mast of straight reasoning, and bind them fast to it, straightening and guarding their power of judgement, so that it is not carried away from its course by pleasure and instead is diverted in the direction of harm?” (Plutarch 1972: 46).
  8. See ‘Antenna crucis’ in Rahner 1964: 239-472.
  9. MacDonald 1994: 23.
  10. Clement 1960: 251, Exhortation XII. 91.
  11. Confessions 1, XVI, 25 (Transl. E.B. Pusey).
  12. Confessions 1, XVI, 26.
  13. De doctrina christiana. For the diverse points of view see Hughes 2000: 98. II, xxv, 38.
  14. Confessions I, XIII, 22.
  15. Malheur à toi, torrent de la coutume! Et vous, maîtres, professeurs, régents, […] qui ne craignez pas d’en proposer comme modèles Horace, Catulle, Terence, bien plus dangereux que Virgile; […] écoutez comment saint Augustin juge votre conduite. […] Ne l’oublions pas, l’histoire d’Augustin est plus ou moins l’histoire de tous les jeunes gens; l’histoire de son cœur est l’histoire du cœur humain” (Gaume 1851: 94-98 ; transl. G.E.).