Aeneas Silvius: Nothing can help you in guiding your life more than the study of literature. . . . Yet it is my understanding that you have thrown off your studies like some yoke which obliges me...

Aeneas Silvius: Nothing can help you in guiding your life more than the study of literature. . . . Yet it is my understanding that you have thrown off your studies like some yoke which obliges me to try to induce you to take them up again. . . . We ought to study literature because it offers us models of behavior after which we can pattern out lives; knowing these will be helpful. And one must know literature deeply, not superficially, if real progress is to be made. Contemporary rulers are happy with a smattering of knowledge and leave detailed study to philosophers and jurisconsultants, just as if it were less important for them to know the principles of a good life. I entreat you not to fall into this pattern of thinking which will block your developing into a good man and a famous ruler.

Why does Aeneas Silvius recommend studying literature?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The words of Aeneas Silvius represent an embrace of Renaissance Humanism. In his capacity as Pope Pius II, he was committed to the idea that human consciousness can be elevated through study of literature:

The studia humanitatis excluded logic, but they added to the traditional grammar and rhetoric not only history, Greek, and moral philosophy, but also made poetry, once a sequel of grammar and rhetoric, the most important member of the whole group.

The words of Pope Pius embraced education as a way to elevate the souls of humanity:  

Here, one felt no weight of the supernatural pressing on the human mind, demanding homage and allegiance. Humanity—with all its distinct capabilities, talents, worries, problems, possibilities—was the center of interest. It has been said that medieval thinkers philosophized on their knees, but, bolstered by the new studies, they dared to stand up and to rise to full stature. 

In works like The Education of Boys, Silvius speaks to the power of humanist learning.  He advocates the study of literature as critical to the transformation of human beings from what is into what can be.  His belief that "the pursuit of learning offers the greatest assistance in acquiring virtue" reflects the humanist tendency that underscores his thought.

This philosophy is seen in the featured quote.  The need to transform human beings into what can be is why Aeneas Silvius suggests studing literature.  The quote's opening idea of how life can be guided through literature reflects the Humanist belief that individuals can be more than what they are with guidance from established literature and letters.  Gearing individual study towards these ends can transform the individual's being in the world. Silvius suggests that human tendency might be to discard such an idealistic condition. However, the focus of education is to remind students of this elevated standard to which they must aspire.  

Recalling the Humanist belief in literature and education, Silvius reminds us that there is a struggle within the human being between capitulating to baser instincts and striving to a more elevated condition of being.  The study of literature is the vehicle towards this higher standard.  If the individual wishes to achieve the heights intrinsic to the human condition, Silvius suggests placing energy into studying literature.  Human beings must study worthwhile literature in a worthwhile manner.  It should not be a superficial and inauthentic pursuit.  Rather, this pursuit must nestle itself in the soul so that the human being is sincerely transformed as a result of interacting with it. Silvius reflects the Humanist tendency to remind us of the Classical pursuit of the good in his approach.  In his articulation of the importance in studying literature, Silvius echoes the calls of Aristotle regarding why drama is so effective in the emotional change triggered in the audience.  In order to be successful as both professional and human being, Silvius advocates the study of literature must be undertaken in a relevant and appropriate manner.

Silvius once wrote that "Unless boys are steeped from the beginning in the best books, their minds will be ruined and they will not be able to acquire good judgment."  It is here in which Silvius clearly suggests that there is an intrinsic and extrinsic good evident in studying literature. The need to acquire good judgment in both professional and personal realms becomes one of his pressing reasons to study literature.

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