Quite as romantic was the life, and more violent the death, of Petrus Ramus—Pierre de la Ramée—who undertook to overthrow the tyranny of Aristotle. Here was a one-man rule that had lasted three centuries and more, over not one nation only but many, and over not the body but the mind, almost over the soul, for had not the pagan thinker been made an official philosopher of the Church? The humanists of the Renaissance had thought to displace him with Plato, but the Reformation—or fear of it—was strangling humanism, and in Protestant Germany as well as Catholic France Aristotelian Scholasticism was still in the saddle when Luther, who had cursed it, died (1546). To depose the Stagyrite from his throne seemed to intellectual youth the most legitimate form of tyrannicide. Applying for the master’s degree at the University of Paris in 1536, Ramus, aged twenty-one, took as his thesis—to be defended through a whole day against faculty and all challengers—the unequivocal proposition, Quaecumque ab Aristotele dicta essent commentitia esse—“Whatever was said by Aristotle is false.”
Ramus’s career was an ode to education. Born near Calvin’s Noyon in Picardy, he twice tried to walk to Paris, hungry for its colleges; twice he failed, and returned defeated to his village. In 1528, aged twelve, he succeeded by attaching himself as servant to a rich student matriculating in the Collège de Navarre—the same that Villon had robbed. Serving by day, studying by night, Pierre made his way, for eight years, through the heavy curriculum in the faculty of “arts.” He almost lost his eyesight in the process, but he found Plato.
When I came to Paris, I fell among the subtleties of the sophists, and they taught me the liberal arts through questions and disputings, without showing me any other advantage or use. When I had graduated... I decided that these disputes had brought me nothing but loss of time. Dismayed by this thought, led by some good angel, I chanced on Xenophon and then on Plato, and learned to know the Socratic philosophy.102
How many of us have made that same exhilarating discovery in youth, happy to meet in Plato a philosopher who had wine and poetry in his blood, who heard philosophy in the very air of Athens, caught it on the wing, and sent it down the centuries still bearing the breath of life, all those voices of Socrates and his pupils still ringing with the lust and ecstasy of debate about the most exciting subjects in the world! What a relief after the prosy pages of Aristotle, after reams of middle-of-the-road, and not-so-golden mean! Of course we—and Ramus—were unfair to Aristotle, comparing his compact lecture notes with the popular dialogues of his master; only white hairs can appreciate the Stagyrite. The Aristotle that Ramus knew was chiefly the logician of the Organon, the Aristotle of the schools, barely surviving the ordeal of translation into Scholastic Latin, of transmogrification into a good Christian orthodox Thomist. Three years, said Ramus, he had spent studying Aristotle’s logic, without ever being shown a single use or application of it in science or in life.103
It is to the credit of the Paris faculty, as well as to the learning and skill and courage of Ramus, that he was given his master’s degree; perhaps the professors too were weary of logic and moderation. But some of them were scandalized, and felt that their stock-in-trade had been damaged by that day’s debate. Enmities began that pursued Ramus to his death.
His degree entitled him to teach, and he began at once, at the university, a course of lectures in which he mingled philosophy with Greek and Latin literature. His classes grew, his earnings mounted, and he was able to reimburse his widowed mother for the savings that she had sacrificed to pay for his graduation fee. After seven years of preparation he issued in 1543 (the annus mirabilis of Copernicus and Vesalius) two works that continued his campaign to overthrow the Aristotelian logic. One—Aristotelicae animadversiones—was a frontal assault, sometimes phrased in impetuous invective; the other—Dialecticae partitiones (Divisions of Logic)—offered a new system to replace the old. It redefined logic as ars disserendi, the art of discourse, and brought logic, literature, and oratory together in a technique of persuasion. The university authorities forgivably saw some dangers in this approach. Moreover they viewed with suspicion certain propositions in Ramus that smelled of heresy, such as, “Unbelief is the beginning of knowledge”104—Cartesian doubt before Descartes; or his plea to replace the tomes of the Scholastics with more study of the Scriptures—this had a Protestant ring; or his definition of theology as doctrina bene vivendi—which threatened to reduce religion to morality. And there were Ramus’s irritating ways, his pride and pugnacity, his violent controversial tone, his dogmatic superiority to dogma.
Soon after publication of these books the rector of the university cited Ramus before the provost of Paris as an enemy of the faith, a disturber of the public peace, a corrupter of youth with dangerous novelties. The trial was held before a royal commission of five men—two appointed by Ramus, two by his accusers, one by Francis I. Dissatisfied with the procedure of the trial, Ramus withdrew his appointees. The remaining three decided against him (1544), and a royal mandate forbade him to lecture, or to publish, or toattack Aristotle further. The condemnation notice was placarded throughout the city, and was sent to other universities. Students staged burlesques ridiculing Ramus, and Rabelais made heavenly fun of the fracas.
After holding his peace for a while, Ramus opened a course of lectures at the Collège Ave Maria, but he confined himself to rhetoric and mathematics, and the government winked at his disobedience. In 1545 he became assistant rector of the Collège de Presles, and his lecture room was soon crowded. When Henry II succeeded Francis I he repealed the sentence against Ramus, left him “free in both tongue and pen,” and, a year later, appointed him to a chair in the Collège Royale, where he would be exempt from university control.
Having reached his pinnacle as now the most famous teacher in Paris, Ramus devoted much time and effort to reforming pedagogical methods. If he stressed “rhetoric”—which then meant literature—it was not only to revivify philosophy with poetry, but also to infuse a vibrant humanism into courses grown dry and hard with abstractions and scholastic rules. In five treatises on grammar he applied logic to language; he begged French spelling to become phonetic, but it went its reeling way; however, he succeeded in introducing into the French alphabet the letters j and v to replace consonantal i and u. Remembering his own penniless striving for an education, he encouraged the establishment of scholarships for poor students, and condemned the heavy fees required for graduation. At the same time he labored to raise the remuneration of teachers.
In 1555 he published Dialectique, the first work on logic in French. He argued now not merely about reasoning but for reason. He was by temperament a foe to traditionalism and mere authority; reason seemed to him the only authority; and he believed, with Renaissance ardor, that if reason were left free it would bring all the sciences close to perfection within a century.105 “It was my constant study,” he wrote, “to remove from the path of the liberal arts... all intellectual obstacles and retardations, and to make even and straight the way, in order to arrive more easily not only at intelligence but at the practice and use of the liberal arts.”106
His character and philosophy inclined him to sympathize with the Protestant revolt. When, for a time, the Huguenots won toleration from the government, even participation in it, Ramus announced his adherence to the Reformed faith (1561). Early in 1562 some of his students tore down the religious images in the chapel of the Collège de Presles. The government continued to pay his salary, but his position was increasingly precarious. When civil war broke out (1562) he left Paris, with a safe-conduct from Catherine de Médicis; he returned a year later on the signing of peace. He politely refused an invitation to a chair in the University of Bologna, saying that he was too indebted to France to leave it.
The quarrel that led to his death came into the open when his chief enemy, Jacques Charpentier, frankly confessing his ignorance of mathematics, bought his way107 into a professorship of mathematics at the Collège Royale (1565). Ramus denounced the appointment; Charpentier threatened him; Ramus appealed to the courts for protection; Charpentier was jailed, but was soon released. Two attempts were made on Ramus’s life, and when the civil war between Catholics and Protestants was resumed (1567) he left Paris again. The government now ruled that only a Catholic might teach in the university or the Collège Royale. Ramus, returning, retired to private life, but Catherine continued and doubled his salary, and he was free to devote himself to study and writing.
In July 1572, Montluc, Bishop of Valence, invited him to join an embassy to Poland; perhaps the Bishop foresaw the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and thought to protect the aging philosopher. Ramus refused, having no stomach for the enterprise of setting Prince Henry of Anjou on the Polish throne. Montluc left on August 17; on the twenty-fourth the Massacre began. On the twenty-sixth two armed men invaded the Collège de Presles, and mounted to the fifth floor, where Ramus had his study. They found him in prayer. One shot him in the head, the other stabbed him; together they hurled him through the window. Students or ragamuffins dragged the still living body to the Seine and threw it in; others recovered it and hacked it to pieces.108 We do not know who hired the assassins; apparently not the government, for both Charles IX and Catherine seem to have continued their favor to Ramus till the end.109 Charpentier rejoiced over the Massacre and the murder: “This brilliant sun, which, during the month of August, has brightened France.... . The stuff and nonsense have disappeared with its author. All good men are full of joy.”110 Two years later Charpentier himself died, some say of remorse; but perhaps this does him too much credit.
Ramus seemed defeated in life and influence. His enemies triumphed; and though some “Ramists” were heard in the next generation in France, Holland, and Germany, the Scholasticism that he had fought regained its ascendancy, and French philosophy hung its head until Descartes. But if philosophy had gained little in this period, the advances of science had been epochal; modern science began with Copernicus and Vesalius. The known earth had been doubled; the world view had been changed as never before in recorded history. Knowledge was growing rapidly in scope and spread; the use of the vernacular in science and philosophy—as by Paré and Paracelsus in medicine, by Ramus in philosophy—was extending to the middle classes instruction and ideas formerly confined to tonsured scholars and priests. The “cake of custom,” the mold of belief, the hold of authority, had been broken. Faith was loosed from its moorings, and flowed with new freedom into a hundred forms.
Everything was in flux except the Church. Amid the revolution she stood for a time bewildered, at first hardly realizing the gravity of the events. Then she faced resolutely the vital question that confronted her: Should she adjust her doctrine to the new climate and fluidity of ideas, or stand unmoved amid all changes, and wait for the pendulum of thought and feeling to bring men back, in humility and hunger, to her consolations and her authority? Her answer decided her modern history.