Heroes of Learning 1 Cassiodorus

The first in a series celebrating those who have advanced learning and knowledge.

Imagine that you lived in a world where all civilisation, order and trade were collapsing. Where statues and other works of art were torn down. Roads, bridges and aqueducts crumbled. Where schools and Universities were closed , and blind faith replaced reason and evidence as the basis of human life. Would you give up in despair, concluding that barbarism and ignorance had triumphed over law and learning? Conclude that darkness had triumphed forever? Or try to save something from the wreck, and pass it on to future generations?

Such was the situation facing Marcus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c 485-585 AD). In his lifetime the Barbarians achieved the final destruction of the western Roman Empire. Cities and trade routes slumped into decline. The Emperor Justinian, urged by his religious advisors, closed the Universities of Athens.* The same Emperor invaded Italy, and the subsequent wars with the Goths wrecked Italian economy and society, initiating the real start of the Dark Ages. We could continue with massive volcanic eruptions and plagues, but we think you get our drift.

Cassiodorus was a realist. He came from a distinguished family, raised in the tradition of Classical culture. But he was the first to face the fact that the old world was gone. The Goths were there to stay. The Imperial power was decadent. So the only reasonable course was to adapt to this new world, to try to save something from the old, for future generations. He was the first to tackle the new realities of his time, with his History of The Goths. It was completely outside the old curriculum. In all his life in public office, he was always trying to reconcile Romans and Goths, realising that they would achieve far more together than they would by squabbling and fighting.

When this failed, rather late in his life, he still refused to despair. He moved to Squillace in Italy and founded a monastery called the Vivarium. This was to be far more than just a place to pray. He had realised that the one place where works of learning could be effectively preserved was in the shelter of monasteries. And so he set his monks to work, copying and preserving as many works as they could. It is thanks to him that so much work survived the collapse of ancient civilisation. And that one day this learning, more precious than gold, would be revived.. To this end, he instituted a set curriculum, including such subjects as vocabulary, etymology, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

Of course he has his critics. He deliberately cultivated an obscure and pompous writing style, to make him seem more learned. But that is quite familiar to those who have suffered the teachings of the humanities departments of certain modern universities, with all their Structural criticism and post modernism. An uncritical adoration of books led him to believe that elephants had no knees; that they saluted only just and not unjust rulers; and that their breath was a cure for headache.*

For all his faults, Cassiodorus had realised the vital truth. That learning and knowledge must be prized for their own sakes. And that to learn anything worthwhile requires a formal disciplined training. We live in a world where learning ahs to show a cash profit. Where exchange of ideas becomes almost impossible, as people retreat into screaming silos of mutual hatred. Where the adolescent mind has triumphed over the adult, in fact.

The ultimate victory of the educated will be by passing on what we have learned, ensuring that the current triumphs of the barbarians are remembered with contempt. If remembered at all.

RH Davis A History of Medieval Europe Longman 1987


Edward Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chap 40

#cassiodorus #fakenews #postmodernism #barbarism #economiccollapse #darkages

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