FROM the habitual reticence of the ancient writers respecting the period of their boyhood, it is not easy to form a very vivid conception of the kind of education given to a Roman boy of good family up to the age of fifteen, when he laid aside the golden amulet and embroidered toga to assume a more independent mode of life.
A few facts, however, we can gather from the scattered allusions of the poets Horace, Juvenal, Martial, and Persius. From these we learn that the schoolmasters were for the most part underpaid and despised, while at the same time an erudition alike minute and useless was rigidly demanded of them.
The things taught were chiefly arithmetic, grammar —both Greek and Latin — reading, and repetition of the chief Latin poets. There was also a good deal of recitation and of theme-writing on all kinds of trite historical subjects. The arithmetic seems to have been mainly of a very simple and severely practical kind, especially the computation of interest and compound interest; and the philology generally, both grammar and criticism, was singularly narrow, uninteresting, and useless. Despicable minutice of no conceivable advantage to any human being to know, every schoolmaster was expected to have at his fingers' ends, and every boy-scholar to learn at the point of the ferule—trash which was only fit to be unlearned the moment it was known.
For this kind of verbal criticism and fantastic archaeology, Seneca, who had probably gone through it all, expresses a profound and very rational contempt. Is this true education ? or rather, should not our great aim ever be to translate noble precepts into daily action? "Teach me to despise pleasure and glory; afterwards you shall teach me to disentangle difficulties, to distinguish ambiguities, to see through obscurities; now teach me what is necessary." Considering the condition of much which in modern times passes under the name of " education," we may possibly find that the hints of Seneca are not yet wholly obsolete.
What kind of schoolmaster taught the little Seneca when, under the care of the slave who was called pceda-gogus, or " boy-leader " (whence our word pedagogue), he daily went with his brothers to school through the streets of Rome, we do not know. Seneca has not alluded to any one who taught him during his early days. The only schoolfellow whom he mentions by name in his voluminous writings is a certain Claranus, a deformed boy, whom, after leaving school, Seneca never met again until they were both old men, but of whom he speaks with great admiration. In spite of his hump-back, Claranus appeared even beautiful in the eyes of those who knew him well, because his virtue and good sense left a stronger impression than his deformity, and " his body was adorned by the beauty of his soul".
It was not until mere school-lessons were finished that a boy began seriously to enter upon the studies of eloquence and philosophy, which therefore furnish some analogy to what we should call " a university education." Gallio and Mela, Seneca's elder and younger brothers, devoted themselves heart and soul to the theory and practice of eloquence ; Seneca made the rarer and the wiser choice in giving his entire enthusiasm to the study of philosophy.
I say the wiser choice, because eloquence is not a thing for which one can give a receipt as one might give a receipt for making eau-de-Cologne. Eloquence is the noble, the harmonious, the passionate expression of truths profoundly realised, or of emotions intensely felt. It is a flame which cannot be kindled by artificial means. Rhetoric may be taught if any one thinks it worth learning, but eloquerice is a gift as innate as the genius from which it springs. " Cujus vita fulgur, ejus verba tonitrua"— "if a man's life be lightning, his words will be thunders." But the kind of oratory to be obtained by a constant practice of declamation such as that which occupied the schools of the Rhetors will be a very artificial lightning and a very imitated thunder—not the artillery of heaven, but the Chinese fire and rolled bladders of the stage. Nothing could be more false, more hollow, more pernicious than the perpetual attempt to drill numerous classes of youths into a reproduction of the mere manner of the ancient orators. An age of unlimited declamation, an age of incessant talk, is a hotbed in which real depth and nobility of feeling runs miserably to seed. Style is never worse than it is in ages which employ themselves in teaching little else. How could eloquence survive when the magnanimity and freedom which inspired it were dead, and when the men and books which professed to teach it were filled with despicable directions about the exact position in which the orator was to use his hands, and as to whether it was a good thing or not for him to slap his forehead and disarrange his hair ?
The philosophic teaching which even from boyhood exercised a powerful fascination on the eager soul of Seneca was at least something better than this; and more than one of his philosophic teachers succeeded in winning his warm affection, and in moulding the principles and habits of his life. Two of them he mentions with special regard, namely, Sotion the Pythagorean, and Attalus the Stoic.
Another Pythagorean philosopher whom he admired and whom he quotes was Sextius, from whom he learnt the admirable practice of daily self - examination: — " When the day was over, and he betook himself to his nightly rest, he used to ask himself, What evil have you cured to-day ? What vice have you resisted ? In what particular have you improved?" "I too adopt this custom," says Seneca, in his book on Anger, "and I daily plead my cause before myself, when the light has been taken away, and my wife, who is now aware of my habit, has become silent; I carefully consider in my heart the entire day, and take a deliberate estimate of my deeds and words".
It was however the Stoic Attalus who seems to have had the main share in the instruction of Seneca. He tells us how he used to haunt the school of the eloquent philosopher, being the first to enter and the last to leave it. "When I heard him declaiming," he says, "against vice, and error, and the ills of life, I often felt compassion for the human race, and believed my teacher to be exalted above the ordinary stature of mankind. In Stoic fashion he used to call himself a king; but to me his sovereignty seemed more than royal, seeing that it was in his power to pass his judgments on kings themselves. When he began to set forth the praises of poverty, and to show how heavy and superfluous was the burden of all that exceeded the ordinary wants of life, I often longed to leave school a poor man. When he began to reprehend our pleasures, to praise a chaste body, a moderate table, and a mind pure not from all unlawful but even from all superfluous pleasures, it was my delight to set strict limits to all voracity and gluttony. And these precepts have left some permanent results; for I embraced them with impetuous eagerness, and afterwards, when I entered upon a political career, I retained a few of my good beginnings. In consequence of them, I have all my life long renounced eating oysters and mushrooms, which do not satisfy hunger but only sharpen appetite: for this reason I habitually abstain from perfumes, because the sweetest perfume for the body is none at all: for this reason I do without wines and baths. Other habits which I once abandoned have come back to me, but in such a way that I merely substitute moderation for abstinence, which perhaps is a still more difficult task; since there are some things which it is easier for the mind to cut away altogether than to enjoy in moderation. Attalus used to recommend a hard couch in which the body could not sink; and, even in my old age, I use one of such a kind that it leaves no impress of the sleeper. I have told you these anecdotes to prove to you what eager impulses our little scholars would have to all that is good, if any one were to exhort them and urge them on. But the harm springs partly from the fault of preceptors, who teach us how to argue, not how to live; and partly from the fault of pupils, who bring to their teachers a purpose of training their intellect and not their souls. Thus it is that philosophy has been degraded into mere philology".