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The Journey to Wisdom: Self-Education in Patristic and Medieval Literature.

Paul A. Olson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. xx + 297 pp. $40. ISBN: 0-8032-3562-3.

This study presents a visionary argument about "the journey to wisdom" that commences with Plato and ends with Kepler: it is learned, wide-ranging, lucid, and inspirational, and it is the kind of big book intellectually (though its text amounts only to some 215 pages), that experts can fault perhaps for its handling of specific authors but that forces us to think about what we are teaching and why and about the history of that what and why. Olson is an accomplished medievalist, but from the period of the 1960s through the 1980s he was also the head of several federally funded projects in curriculum reform and multicultural education, and, again for much of his career, he has been an advocate of and played an active part in sustainable agriculture and community-control movements (including those in Native American communities). Predictably therefore, scholarly, pedagogical and ecological passions inform this remarkable study, whose principal ambition is to defend the ancient and medieval past from three different, tendentious modernist attacks.

First is the increasingly common but untenable characterization of the medieval period, beginning with Lynn White's troubling misreading of the Genesis injunction in 1:28 to "replenish the earth, and subdue it," as being responsible for the notion that people have a divine brief to subjugate and despoil nature rather than act in due humility as stewards over it. Second is the bizarre notion, though brilliantly articulated by Philippe Aries, that the medieval school curriculum had "little sense of sequence or of the difficulty of this or that text," and was without structure and thus without ideology; this notion is based on the still more bizarre notion that medieval people did not respond to or even recognize the stages of growth in a child's intellectual development. Third is the current scholarly game that "constructs endless, linguistic and moral ambiguities" inside older texts without situating their language in the particular context - what Wittgenstein called the "forms of life" - that gave rise to it, and without acknowledging that our own awareness of language's polysemy has to be corrected against the counter belief that language has the capacity also to create "structures of authoritative statement." Olson's focus is thus on the "shape" of medieval education and what he calls "its sense of humankind's capacity for self-direction." This leads him, interestingly, to emphasize the role and the intellectual history of the autodidact.

The book traces its grand theme through a series of works, each of which includes a student, "an apprehending mind," journeying to Wisdom. Beginning with the clash in ancient Greece between the Sophists' concern with institutional and political education and the philosophers' contrasting search for ways to understand an objective order, it then proceeds, via a consideration of Origen and his biographer Gregory Thaumaturgos and the development of the notion of wisdom and Wisdom (Sophia) in later antiquity, to an arresting account of Augustine's repudiation of rhetoric and his search for a philosophy of nature. Olson next analyzes the late antique allegorists' transformation of the epics of Homer and Vergil into educational journeys towards enlightenment, focusing particularly on Vergil's commentators Servius and Fulgentius, before dealing with the lesser of his two great heroes, Boethius. "More than any other figure," Boethius repulses the three modernist attacks in advance by postulating first a "creation structured by love," derived in part at least from Plato's Timaeus; and second the necessity of studying the quadrivium disciplines if a seeker ever hopes to comprehend the harmonies or "numbers" informing that structure. Chapter seven treats of Dante, the book's acknowledged hero and the subject of its incipit. The great poet's journey elevates ethics and the psychology of redirected desire over the old mathematical disciplines even as it "proposes a structure for education that leads ... to an understanding of language as referential," an understanding that is essentially self-initiated. The Commedia in effect becomes "a vernacular university for readers who do not have full access to Latin learned institutions," a book about the Book of Nature. Of particular interest for readers of this journal is the final chapter that deals briefly with the Florentine Neoplatonists but more fully with Copernicus and Galileo and above all with Kepler's search for the geometrical and musical proportions governing the new heliocentric solar system, the squares of the planetary periods and the cubes of their mean distances from the sun.

The patristic and medieval wisdom thinkers had as a goal, not the establishment of a canon of texts, our William Bennett's books of virtue, but rather the creation of "a heuristic - a set of assumptions to guide investigation - that will lead to certainty," even as it will require of its students a "self-emptying," an autodidactic humility in wonder. This is to link, in effect, their goal with that of pure science and mathematics in our own time. Certainly, Olson's position here runs directly counter to the Foucauldian argument, recently restated by Jeffrey Nealon among others - though originating with the Sophists - that people create competing interpretations of the world to justify the competing institutional aims and structures that give power to their own group. It is exhilarating to watch Olson defending past thinkers against such controversialists, and against those bent on packaging both history and science for their own ideological purposes, more particularly since his weapon is not slashing refutation, but a dexterous and imaginative explication of a range of texts by medieval teachers who were concerned above all that we learn how to teach ourselves.

MICHAEL J.B. ALLEN University of California, Los Angeles
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Author:Allen, Michael J.B.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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