Books & Memory

“For although written records are very valuable indeed for other purposes, they are especially valuable for preserving the memory of the past, as they contain the deeds of mankind, the unhoped-for turns of fortune, the unusual works of nature, and (more important than all these things) the guiding principles of historical periods.  For human memory and objects passed from hand to hand gradually decay and scarcely survive the lifetime of one person, but what has been skillfully entrusted to books endures forever.” [Italics & Bold print added] Piero Paolo Vergerio, “Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth,” in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 317.

Piero Paolo Vergerio (1370-1444) taught logic and rhetoric at various schools in the late 14th and early 15th centuries in northern Italy.  He wrote the quote above around 1400 as part of a larger work for his pupil, Ubertino da Carrara (a prince at Padua).  Therein, Vergerio set forth the pedagogical theories of Renaissance humanists.  The liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy) formed the basis of sound learning in Latin.  As Vergerio indicated, they are called liberal, because they befit a free [liber] man.  However, he asserted that the liberal arts laid the foundation for the related subjects of literature, history, moral philosophy, and poetics.

In this section Vergerio praises the well-crafted book as a repository of human memory.  These books form the basis of historical inquiry and integrate literary studies, history, and moral philosophy.  He understood these subjects to be so connected that one may not study them separately.  Literature, by its very nature, forms our understanding of history and history gives us moral examples.

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