Reflections on “Imitatio” as an Educational Ideal of English Humanism
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies. vol. 12 (2004 ) No. 1
This study of “imitatio” in the works of English humanists attempts to examine the relationship between the Renaissance theory of “imitatio” and the educational ideal of English humanism and how it manifests itself in practice. In order to discuss the educational ideals of English Humanism, we need to begin by first examining the meaning and concerns related to the term “Humanism.” Subjected to copious definitions, Humanism can most readily be grasped as a system of education which curriculum was the adaptation of newly discovered or revived pagan/classical learning by means of rote, precept, and exercise, the covering term for which was “imitatio.” The Humanists absorption with the imitation of classical learning, however, was more than mere transmission and establishment of texts but rather embraces a new/renewed mode of perception that rejects the ideological stability which distinguished the Middle Ages.
Before the introduction of Humanism into the fifteenth-century England, Christianity was arguably the guiding principal in the land. And, in the Christian scheme of things, all goals, ostensibly if not in reality, were “other-worldly.” The dominant experience of the medieval period was one of the ideas of contemptus mundi, this life as a preparation for the next and of a fundamental immutability. The stars were fixed in their spheres, and God’s creation was harmonious, stable, hierarchical. The humanists on the other hand, had a strong sense of discontinuity with their immediate past. As Thomas M. Greene points out, there was a clear break, during the Renaissance, away from medieval notions of identity as fixed, part of a collective such as social class or religious community and toward an idea of the “flexible self.” An optimistic ideal of autonomy was at work: not only could self-“formation” take place but also “transformation” could be striven for. According to Green, there was also the impulse for transformation-a “vertical” (as opposed to “horizontal”) flexibility that transcends human limitations-at work. Furthermore, this belief in the possibility of humanist “formation” continued to hold sway throughout most of the sixteenth century (Greene, 241-64).