In one of Plutarch’s “parallel lives” of Greek and Roman leaders I came across what I think is the earliest reference to liberal education. It suggests that the concept emerged in the culture wars of fifth century B.C. Athens and presented one kind of education as especially suited to a democratic political culture. I don’t believe that the origin of a concept necessarily defines its significance in other circumstances, but the story of the origin of the idea of “liberal” learning is still worth contemplating. In his biography of Cimon, a successful Athenian general and not so successful political rival of Pericles, Plutarch cites a Greek biographer of the fifth century, Stesimbrotus. Stesimbrotus was from the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean, but he wrote, not always in very complimentary ways, about Athenian politicians of the fifth century before our era. His dates cannot be precisely determined but nothing suggests that he was writing after about 430. Cimon, Stesimbrotus said, had:
"… been instructed neither in literature (mousike) nor in any other learning that is liberal (ta mathemata ton eleutherion) and distinctively Greek. He was totally devoid of cleverness (dexiotes) and Attic twittering (stomulia), and in his manner was a great deal of good breeding and truthfulness."
Plutarch goes on to say, perhaps still following Stesimbrotus, that Cimon’s manner was rather “Peloponnesian”, that is “devoid of pretence and boasting.”
As an anecdote in another fifth century author from whom Plutarch drew, Ion of Chios, shows, this is the way Cimon wanted to be seen. At a symposium Cimon was asked to sing and did so quite creditably. When the guests praised him as “cleverer (dexioteron) than Themistocles”, he said he had never been taught how to sing or play the lyre, but he knew how to make a city great and wealthy. Cimon clearly wanted to contrast himself to the great Themistocles, whose strategy helped drive off the Persian invaders but left the city of Athens in shambles. “Cleverness” was Themistocles’ sobriquet, as Herodotus reminds us in the description of the honors he received after the Greek victory at Salamis:
"..the Lacedaemonians received him handsomely, and paid him great respect. The prize of valor indeed, which was a crown of olive, they gave to Eurybiades: but Themistocles was given a crown of olive too, as the prize of wisdom (sophies) and dexterity (dexiotetos). He was likewise presented with the most beautiful chariot that could be found in Sparta; and after receiving abundant praises, was upon his departure, escorted as far as the borders of Tegea, by the 300 picked Spartiates who are called the Knights. Never was it known, either before or since, that the Spartans escorted a man out of the city."
Cimon would have none of this adulation of Themistoclean “cleverness”: What really counted, he implied, was the ability to make a city rich and powerful.
So, two fifth century writers, Stesimbrotus and Ion, agree about Cimon. He was no Themistocles and didn’t cultivate “cleverness”. But they could not deny that he helped make his city wealthy and powerful. Their discussion of Cimon was, I believe, not just biography; it was also part of an ongoing debate about education. What education did a political leader really need? The example of Cimon could be used to show that an education grounded in mousike, the arts and letters, or any other discipline designed to develop “cleverness”, was not really necessary. So much for “liberal education”!
Themistocles could also be used in the same debate. Once again Stesimbrotus figures prominently in the discussion. He contended that “Themistocles heard (diakousai) Anaxagoras and studied with Melissus, two philosophers known for their theorizing about natural phenomena.
Themistocles was born far too early to study with these philosophers. Stesimbrotus’ statement is probably more theorizing than historical fact or perhaps ammunition for culture warriors who wanted to talk about the effects of this kind of education. Other writers, alluded to in Plutarch Themistocles 2.4, claimed that Themistocles had studied with one Mnesiphilus, an advocate of the practical political philosophy of the sort practiced by Solon. This, Plutarch says, was called “wisdom” (sophia) but was in fact “political cleverness” (deinoteta politiken) and pragmatic intelligence. Whatever the historicity of Themistocles’ ties to Mnesiphilus, the claim has at least chronological plausibility, for Mnesiphilus is attested as a figure of the early fifth century by both Herodotus (8. 57) and by ostraca cast against him in the voting of 487/6.
A further stage in the debate can be seen in Thucydides who says, he had great cleverness but no systematic training. In his “obituary” of Themistocles he drives home the point that his cleverness came not from education but from his natural talent. That is clearest in Thucydides summary comments on him:
“For Themistocles kept revealing in the most decisive way the importance of natural talent … for by his native intelligence, without either advance training or follow up training, he was the most powerful assessor, with only brief consideration, of what was at hand, and of things about to happen the best predictor. … To sum up, by the power of his talent and the brevity of his training this man became the most capable to improvise, ex tempore, what was needed.”
In this passage Thucydides takes the technical terminology of rhetoric (autoschediazein ta deonta) and transfers it to public policy. Themistocles was the great extemporizer and didn’t need to associate with the learned professionals to see what needed to be done.
Reading between these lines we begin to see the nature of the educational debate in which the earliest discussions of “liberal learning” are embedded. As in ancient treatments of Athenian democracy, our texts preserve the critics, not the advocates. But close reading, or should we say dexiotes, can come to the rescue. A good starting point is with another of the terms in Stesimbrotus’ comments on Cimon, stomulia,
The word stomulia is often translated “fluency”, or “wordiness” but since it can also be applied to birds (Aristophanes Frogs 1310), “twittering” comes closer to its tone in Greek. The word and its cognates were favorites of Aristophanes, especially in the Frogs where once again we find ourselves amid the ongoing educational debate. Aristophanes uses the terminology to characterize the educational effects of Euripides’ poetry. Into a debate scene he brings Aeschylus, stereotyped as a cultural conservative, to speak from the underworld in criticism of the radical Euripides:
“You taught [young men] the habit of chattering and twittering (stomulia), which emptied out the wrestling schools and debauched the rear ends of those twittering lads." (1070 ff)
In Aristophanes’ hands the word is a weapon that can be used against newfangled poetic and educational practices. It serves the same purpose in the Clouds, in the famous debate between the Just and the Unjust Arguments. The Just Argument assures the young Strepsiades that under his tutelage “You will spend your time in the gymnasium, glistening from the rub down, and smelling like a rose, not twittering (stomullon) in the Agora, prattling on about abstractions as they do these days.”
Just Argument aims his shafts at his stage opponent Unjust Argument, but, of course, Socrates and other of an allegedly theoretical bent are the real life targets. Such types could be seen in the Agora, wasting their time in idle speculation. Aristophanes uses the same brush to tar Socrates, the Sophists and philosophers speculating about natural phenomena. To coin a word as Aristophanes might, it’s Protasocratanagoras, a composite of all the usual suspects. All, he implies, are the enemies of traditional values. But Aristophanes’ main point is that they can all be grouped together as one form of logos, argument, and opposed to another way of arguing, one that was based in an older educational system and aimed at justice.
In this major respect at least, Aristophanes is right. The great educational debate in fifth century Athens was about differing ways of arguing, in the courts, in the assembly and other civic occasions. The structure of Athenian civic life demanded skill in speaking at every turn. Earlier forms of education, not least the gentlemanly skills of memorizing poetic texts and performing them in drinking parties (symposia) and other private occasions were transformed into ways of training speakers who could think on their feet, speak fluently and stylishly and argue cleverly. Poetry (mousike) still figured prominently in this new education, but as a way of developing alertness to language and ingenuity in interpretation. The new, “liberal” education was, as Aristophanes saw, fundamentally about differing ways of speaking and arguing. And the culture wars of this period were, at their heart, a debate about forms of civic discourse.
It is not surprising then that the vocabulary in this debate was rich in characterizations of speech. Stomulia, twittering, was a convenient way to disparage verbal fluency. From its first usages in this debate it seems to have had pejorative connotations. Dexiotes by contrast may at first have had positive ones, but changed over time. Etymologically it is “right handedness”, “dexterity”, and only secondarily is it “cleverness”. The Spartans in 480 had no hesitation in honoring Themistocles for this quality. But over time it too became a term of opprobrium, or a way of mocking the pretensions of intellectuals, at least among cultural conservatives. Cognates of the word figure in Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates. When the young Strepsiades, eager to join Socrates’ thinking factory, the phrontisterion, approaches a disciple of the great man, he is told how cleverly Socrates measured the jumping ability of a flea. “He’s the cleverest (dexiotatos)”, the disciple exclaims (148) and Strepsiades picks up on the adjective and uses it to reassure his father about his course of studies, praising “clever men and those who have brains”. (834)
Aristophanes’ use of these terms may be mostly light hearted mockery, though it may well have contributed to the condemnation of Socrates some years later. A darker side of “cleverness” emerges, however, in the discourse surrounding social revolution and civil war. For Thucydides the archetype of these all too prevalent disturbances was the strife in Corcyra. In analyzing it he notes the importance of changes in the valence of words: “Ordinary people are more inclined to call criminals ‘clever’ (dexioi) than to call uneducated people ‘good’ – at the one label they are embarrassed; of the other they boast.”
So hoi polloi, if we believe Thucydides, in revolutionary situations latched on to the terminology of cleverness and used it as an excuse for criminality. That may or may not have been the case, but it is surely the case that Thucydides was distrustful of claims of cleverness and by extension perhaps of an education that claimed to produce it. If asked for an example he might well have pointed to Alcibiades, bold strategist, eloquent speaker, too clever for his own good and that of the city – and a pupil of Socrates.
Stesimbrotus, Aristophanes and Thucydides all seem to be in the same camp when it came to cultural politics. What were they so worried about? Socrates and his associates were clearly the lightning rod for some of their thunderbolts, but in Stesimbrotus’ comments on Cimon push the matter back to a period well before Socrates’ prominence. The issue, as he phrases it, is not an individual who corrupts the youth, but a type of education, eleutheria mathemata. What, then, are these “liberal studies”?
Etymology helps. The lexicon says “speaking or acting like a free man, free spirited” . The opposite, it says, is douloprepes, “slavish”. That reminds us of Athens’ dirty secret – it was a society in which much of the work was done by slaves. That’s the dirty little secret about classical Athens. It was a slave society. If you talked about freedom, you meant first of all not being a slave. So “liberal education” had, from the beginning connotations of social class, and of the pursuits, literary, rhetorical and philosophical, in which relatively affluent Athenians could indulge.
But to leave the matter there would be to miss an even more important connotation of “liberal”. In fifth century Athens the freeman was the citizen, and as a citizen, expected to participate fully in the life of the city. That meant military service, certain religious obligations and participation in decisions about life and death maters. Five hundred randomly chosen citizens, a group that changed each year, set the agenda for the citizen assembly and handled day to day business. Fifteen hundred citizen jurors voted whether to put Socrates to death; a few thousand more on the Pnyx voted on embassies, alliances, peace treaties and whether to go to war.
“Liberal learning,” then, was the knowledge necessary to be effective in these situations -- mass meetings in almost every case. Athenian demokratia, more than any form of government that preceded it, depended on a citizenry that could think through an argument, analyze a proposition, assess the merits of a case, and articulate its views. These are not skills that emerge spontaneously or that can be taken for granted. A Cimon or a Themistocles might have so much natural talent that little training was needed, but the ordinary citizen needed instruction, above all in the give and take of political and judicial decision making. Some might disparage such talk as “twittering” or mere “cleverness.” Others might feel nostalgia for the good old days, or admiration for Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies where such skills were less important. But a wise Athenian father would see to it that his son mastered the skills of the public speaker, the rhetor. “Rhetoric”, the rhetorike techne, stood at the center of the educational system of democratic Athens. Students were trained, by itinerant Sophists and others, to be highly verbal, skilled at analyzing and then taking apart an opponents’ case, dexterous with language, clever in argument.
All this could easily be represented as twittering, sophistry, making the worse appear the better cause. But in some of the critiques of this “liberal learning” there may have been another agenda: Get rid of this education and you could more readily get rid of democracy.
The Fallacy of Origins: This is only the beginning of a long and complex story, one that has often been told and is still worth hearing. My purpose, however, is much more modest. It is simply to call attention to what may be an early salvo in an ancient culture war, the presentation of Cimon as a man with no “liberal learning” but great skill in making his city rich and powerful. This aspect of the cultural and educational debates of classical Athens reminds us that “liberal” education from the outset has been controversial, not least because it intersects so strongly with democratic political culture. In its origin “liberal learning” was one contested form of civic discourse, one that claimed to provide the knowledge that a citizen needed to be effective in an emerging democracy.
The origin of a concept does not, of course, define its significance. We would commit the fallacy of origins if we tried to argue that the civic nature of “liberal learning” in its earliest days tells us, today, how to teach and how to study. But while the history of classical Athens never tells us what we must do, it often challenges us to examine the assumptions behind what we are doing.
Many people today assume that “liberal education” means the unencumbered study of whatever interests the student or the teacher, the indulgence of free choice among course offerings or the pursuit of essentially private goals. Amid such assumptions the civic dimension, liberal education as public good rather than private gain, can easily be forgotten. The origin of the concept reminds us, begs us, to stop and think again. The idea of liberal learning grew up in response to the emergence of a vigorous if incomplete democratic system. The idea was controversial from the beginning but at the heart of the controversies was the question of what form of public discourse and what type of education contributed most to the public good. That is still the central question for liberal education today.