Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
What We May Learn from Athens
By Roger Ascham (1515–1568)
From the Schoolmaster

ATHENS, by this discipline and good ordering of youth, did breed up, within the circuit of that one city, within the compass of one hundred year, within the memory of one man’s life, so many notable captains in war, for worthiness, wisdom, and learning, as be scarce matchable, no, not in the state of Rome, in the compass of those seven hundred years, when it flourished most.
  And because I will not only say it, but also prove it, the names of them be these: Miltiades, Themistocles, Xanthippus, Pericles, Cimon, Alcibiades, Thrasybulus, Conon, Iphicrates, Xenophon, Timotheus, Theopompus, Demetrius, and divers other more; of which every one may justly be spoken that worthy praise which was given to Scipio Africanus, who Cicero doubteth, “whether he were more noble captain in war, or more eloquent and wise counsellor in peace.” And if ye believe not me, read diligently Æmilius Probus in Latin, and Plutarch in Greek; which two had no cause either to flatter or lie upon any of those which I have recited.  2
  And beside nobility in war, for excellent and matchless masters in all manner of learning, in that one city, in memory of one age, were more learned men, and that in a manner altogether, than all time doth remember, than all place doth afford, than all other tongues do contain. And I do not mean of those authors, which by injury of time, by negligence of men, by cruelty of fire and sword, be lost; but even of those, which by God’s grace are left yet unto us; of which, I thank God, even my poor study lacketh not one. As, in philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Euclid, and Theophrast; in eloquence and civil law, Demosthenes, Æschines, Lycurgus, Dinarchus, Demades, Isocrates, Isæus, Lysias, Antisthenes, Andocides; in histories, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and, which we lack to our great loss, Theopompus and Ephorus; in poetry, Æschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and somewhat of Menander, Demosthenes’ sister’s son.  3
  Now let Italian, and Latin itself, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English, bring forth their learning, and recite their authorities; Cicero only excepted, and one or two more in Latin, they be all patched clouts and rags, in comparison of fair woven broad-cloths; and truly, if there be any good in them, it is either learned, borrowed, or stolen from some of those worthy wits of Athens.  4
  The remembrance of such a commonwealth, using such discipline and order for youth, and thereby bringing forth to their praise, and leaving to us for our example, such captains for war, such counsellors for peace, and matchless masters for all kind of learning, is pleasant for me to recite, and not irksome, I trust, for other to hear, except it be such as make neither account of virtue nor learning.  5
  And whether there be any such or no, I cannot well tell: yet I hear say, some young gentlemen of ours count it their shame to be counted learned: and perchance they count it their shame to be counted honest also: for I hear say, they meddle as little with the one as with the other. A marvellous case, that gentlemen should so be ashamed of good learning, and never a whit ashamed of ill manners! Such do say for them, that the gentlemen of France do so; which is a lie, as God will have it: Langæus and Bellæus, that be dead, and the noble Vidam of Chartres, that is alive, and infinite more in France, which I hear tell of, prove this to be most false. And though some in France, which will needs be gentlemen, whether men will or no, and have more gentleness in their hat than in their head, be at deadly feud with both learning and honesty; yet I believe, if that noble prince, King Francis the First, were alive, they should have neither place in his court, nor pension in his wars, if he had knowledge of them. This opinion is not French, but plain Turkish, from whence some French fetch more faults than this; which I pray God keep out of England, and send also those of ours better minds, which bend themselves against virtue and learning, to the contempt of God, dishonour of their country, to the hurt of many others, and at length to the greatest harm and utter destruction of themselves.  6
  Some other, having better nature but less wit (for ill commonly have over much wit), do not utterly dispraise learning, but they say, that without learning, common experience, knowledge of all fashions, and haunting all companies, shall work in youth both wisdom and ability to execute any weighty affair. Surely long experience doth profit much, but most, and almost only to him (if we mean honest affairs) that is diligently before instructed with precepts of well doing. For good precepts of learning be the eyes of the mind, to look wisely before a man, which way to go right, and which not.  7
  Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty; and learning teacheth safely, when experience maketh more miserable, than wise. He hazardeth sore that waxeth wise by experience. An unhappy master he is that is made cunning by many shipwrecks; a miserable merchant, that is neither rich nor wise but after some bankrouts. It is costly wisdom that is bought by experience. We know by experience itself, that it is a marvellous pain to find out but a short way by long wandering. And surely, he that would prove wise by experience, he may be witty indeed, but even like a swift runner, that runneth fast out of his way, and upon the night, he knoweth not whither. And verily they be fewest in number that be happy or wise by unlearned experience. And look well upon the former life of those few, whether your example be old or young, who without learning have gathered by long experience a little wisdom and some happiness; and when you do consider what mischief they have committed, what dangers they have escaped, (and yet twenty for one do perish in the adventure,) then think well with yourself, whether you would that your own son should come to wisdom and happiness by the way of such experience or no.  8

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