Michael Psellus on learning

The value of learning was in question, a thousand years ago, during and after the reign of Emperor Basil II, in what was to become Istanbul. When learning has no purpose, it may flourish; when it has, it may be abandoned when the purpose is not achieved soon enough. Michael Psellus suggests this in Fourteen Byzantine Emperors (London: Penguin, 1966).

Michael Psellos
Michael Psellos (left) with his student, Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas (from Wikipedia)

Basil died in 1025. Michael was born in 1018; here is what he says.

In his dealings with his subjects, Basil behaved with extraordinary circumspection. It is perfectly true that the greatest reputation he built up as a ruler was founded rather on terror than on loyalty, for as he grew older and became more experienced he relied less on the judgement of men wiser than himself. He alone introduced new measures, he alone disposed his military forces. As for the civil administration, he governed, not in accordance with the written laws, but following the unwritten dictates of his own intuition, which was most excellently equipped by nature for the purpose. Consequently he paid no attention to men of learning; on the contrary, he affected utter scorn—towards the learned folk, I mean. It seems to me a wonderful thing, therefore, that while the emperor so despised literary culture, no small crop of orators and philosophers sprang up in those times. One solution of the paradox, I fancy, is this: the men of those days did not devote themselves to the study of letters for any ulterior purpose—they cultivated literature for its own sake and as an end in itself, whereas the majority nowadays do not approach the subject of education in this spirit, but consider personal profit to be the first reason for study. Perhaps I should add that though gain is the object of their zeal for literature, if they do not immediately achieve this goal, then they desist from their studies at once. Shame on them!

Note added December 12, 2018: I moved to Istanbul from Ankara in August, 2011. Before then, on October 11, 2010, I posted a version of the foregoing article on Facebook. In those early days of this blog, it was my intention to bring here all of the notes that I had written on Facebook, for such reasons as I have discussed in other posts here. This is still my intention, though less urgently felt than others. When I carried over the present note, I had apparently forgotten quoting it in an earlier article here, “Basil II.”

One Comment

  1. Posted December 29, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on 7artesliberales.

One Trackback

  1. By Fishes (Iliad Book XXI) « Polytropy on April 19, 2023 at 6:52 pm

    […] Byzantium Blogger says Michael Psellus described the 1063 earthquake too, but I have not been able to confirm this. The earthquake […]

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