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John Milton. (1608–1674). Tractate on Education.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

MR. SAMUEL HARTLIB, to whom the following letter was addressed, was the son of a Polish merchant of German descent and an English mother. He lived in London during a large part of his life, and was actively interested in a vast number of educational and philanthropic schemes. It appears from the “Tractate” itself that he had requested Milton to put into writing some of the ideas on the education of a gentleman which they had from time to time touched on in conversation; and the present treatise is the result.

Beginning with the definition of a “complete and generous education” as one “which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both public and private, of peace and war,” Milton proceeds to lay down a program which is likely to startle the modern reader. The stress on Latin and Greek at the beginning is easily accounted for by the fact that in Milton’s day these tongues were the only keys to the storehouse of learning; but the casual way in which Chaldean and Syrian are added to Hebrew seems to indicate that the author tended to overestimate the ease with which the ordinary youth acquires languages. But the mark of the system here expounded is that language is to be merely a means, not an end; that things and not words constitute the elements of education. Thus the Greek and Latin authors prescribed are chosen for the value of their subject matter, and provision is made for a comprehensive knowledge of the science of the time, as well as for training in religion and morals. The suggestions made for exercise have the same practical and utilitarian tendency, fencing, wrestling, and horsemanship being prescribed with a view to soldiership. Nor are the arts neglected, for poetry and music are given their place both as recreation and as influences on character.

This is indeed, as Milton confesses, “not a bow for every man to shoot in”; but as an ideal it is rich in both stimulus and practical suggestion.