THE ART OF PHILOSOPHY
By Susanna Berger
reviewed by Alan Dent
reviewed by Alan Dent
From the early seventeenth century to the beginning of the
eighteenth elaborate and usually high-crafted images were employed
as a means of illustrating philosophical ideas for students. Many of
the works included in this study were produced in
As an object, the book is a delight. Printed on high quality paper it contains a cornucopia of images drawn from books, broadsides (the large prints used as teaching aids) alba amicorum (friendship albums) and student notebooks. The latter are quite amazing in their skilled draughtsmanship and dedication – a reminder, perhaps, of how seriously learning was taken as a good in itself during the period. Berger writes in a clear, uncluttered style avoids theoretical flights of fancy, organizes the material so it is accessible to the non-specialist and in her commentary is insightful and thought-provoking.
It is helpful to have some basic knowledge of Latin, especially for the appendices, but Berger sensibly provides translations throughout the text (there is perhaps one quibble – she translates Cuntae res difficiles non potest homo eas sermone explicare as All things are hard: men cannot explain them by word; perhaps All difficult things can’t be explained by men’s words might be closer.)
Probably the most important names in the book are Meurisse,
Chéron and Gaultier, producers of internationally influential thesis
prints. Meurisse was born in Picardie in 1584, grew in poverty,
joined the Franciscans in his home town and moved to
Berger’s comparative discussion of the Typus and the Descriptio is instructive and interpretive. There is a mass of detail: for example, in the Typus King Solomon sits top left and the inscriptions show he is being asked Vnde venit sapientia ? (Where does wisdom come from ?) and Quis est locus intelligentiae? ( Where is the place of understanding?) A further inscription declares: Causa inveniendae philosophiae fuit ignorantia. (The instigator of philosophy was ignorance). This was its primary cause, followed by wonder, appetite and experience.
Interestingly, the inscription (Sapientia) non invenitur in terra suaviter viventium ( Wisdom is not found in the land of those who live in delights) suggests an appreciation of the difficulties of dispassionate intellectual inquiry. The Typus examines the different operations of the mind (forming concepts, making distinctions etc) as part of its wide, expansive attempt to understand the nature of learning and understanding. Later, Berger, examines how the Descriptio and the Typus influenced Johann Justus Winkelmann whose Logica memorativa was published in 1725, indicating how enduring was the work of Meurisse, Gaulthier and Chéron.
Chapter three deals with student notebooks, a very different
matter from the notes students produce today. In
The same skills which went into the illustrations of the
notebooks are found too in the
amicorum. These included
the square of opposition, an ingenious depiction of the logical
relations between propositions and the taxonomic
Tree of Porphyry. The
rector of the Latin school in Tiel, Johannes van Aelhuijsen included
in his album in c 1655 a marvellous coloured drawing depicting
Eloquentiae Latinae Triumphus
(The Triumph of Latin Eloquence) in which Athena and Fame ride in a
chariot pulled by two white horses, Athena carrying a portrait of
In chapter five, Berger discusses Dürer and Hobbes, the later understanding the importance of visual eloquence as a means of making his arguments. There is much more to be said about this excellent and remarkable book. It is a revelation and a pleasure. It is of interest not only to art historians but to anyone curious about how many of our fundamental intellectual concepts were taught and passed down to us. It is altogether fascinating; the kind of book you never tire of reading.
Perhaps one of its greatest virtues is to make us inordinately grateful for the diligence, seriousness and application of the people whose work it examines. Needless to say, Berger too displays those qualities in great measure.