Daily Reading for May 20 • Alcuin, Deacon, and Abbot of Tours, 804
It is, however, when we turn to his educational treatises that we are most struck with the sound philosophy and almost modern psychology of his teaching. Alcuin is never the mere crammer, but always the true teacher. “We need,” he makes his pupils say, in the introduction to his Treatise on Grammar, “to be instructed slowly, with many a pause and hesitation, and like the weak and feeble, to be led by slow steps until our strength shall grow. The flint naturally contains in itself the fire that will come forth when the flint is struck. Even so there is in the human mind the light of knowledge, that will remain hidden like the spark in the flint unless it be brought forth by the repeated efforts of a teacher.”
He goes on to state his philosophy of education, showing that since eternal happiness is the real aim of every rational being, he is concerned with the things that are proper and peculiar to the soul that is to live for ever rather than with those that are alien to it. “That which is sought from without is alien to the soul, for example, the gathering together of riches; but that which is proper to the soul is what is within, that is to say, the graces of wisdom. Therefore, O man, if thou art master of thyself, thou shalt have what thou shalt never have to grieve at losing, and what no calamity shall be able to take away.”
“Wisdom is the chief adornment of the soul, and therefore I urge you to seek this above all things. It is an inseparable property of the soul and therefore immortal.” . . .
“Master,” his pupils cry, “raise us from earth by your hand, and set our foot upon the steps of wisdom.” To which he replies, “Wisdom is built upon the seven pillars of the liberal arts, and it can in no wise afford us access to any perfect knowledge unless it be set upon these seven pillars or ascents,” a reference to the Book of Proverbs, which says, “Wisdom hath builded her house; she hath hewn out her seven columns.” Asked to name them, he replies, “Grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. On these the philosophers bestowed their leisure and their study; and by reason of these philosophers the Catholic teachers and defenders of our faith have proved themselves superior to all the chief heretics in public controversy. Therefore let your youthful steps, my dearest sons, run daily along these paths until a riper age and a stronger mind shall bring you to the heights of Holy Scripture.” . . .
Before many months had passed Alcuin knew his end was near. Eight years earlier, on the eve of his going to Tours, he had written wistfully to his old friends at York: “My fathers and brethren, dearer than all else in the world, pray do not forget me, for alike in life or death I shall ever be yours. And peradventure God, in His mercy, may grant that you, who nursed my infancy, may bury me in old age. But if some other place shall be appointed for my body, yet I believe that my soul may be granted repose among you through your holy intercession in prayer.”
The touching words suggest whither the weary old abbot was turning his eyes in those last days; yet it was but fitting that his mortal part should rest in the land to which he had given the best of his life. He had always hoped that he might die upon his favourite feast, the Feast of Pentecost; and on that day, the 19th of May, 804, just as dawn broke and the chant of Prime was heard in the Cathedral hard by, he passed away.
The epitaph, composed by himself, that commemorates his resting-place at Tours, breathes the humility of this “Lover of Wisdom” as well as his sense of the transitory nature of earthly fame.
“O thou who passest by, halt here a while, I pray, and write my words upon thy heart, that thou mayst learn thy fate from knowing mine. What thou art, once I was, a wayfarer not unknown in this world; what I am now, thou soon shalt be. Once was I wont to pluck earthly joys with eager hand; and now I am dust and ashes, the food of worms. Be mindful then to cherish thy soul rather than thy body, since the one is immortal, the other perishes. . . . Alcuin, ever a lover of Wisdom, was my name; pray for my soul, all ye who read these words.”
From Alcuin by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton, in the Catholic Thought and Thinkers Series (New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1922). Found at http://www.archive.org/stream/alcuinwi00wilmuoft/alcuinwi00wilmuoft_djvu.txt