Classical Education in the Eighteenth Century

Classical Education in the Eighteenth Century

An immense interest in classical education emerged during the eighteenth century, demonstrating that a classical education was still revered in educational circles as the apex of intellectual training. Its notions have been recycled for centuries, acquiring new meaning and as well as new ideologies, but essentially bearing the same results. A classical education was the basis for any intellectual–it provided reason and rationality for arguments, gave writers examples to look towards, and cemented education’s place in any society. The Enlightenment of the late 17th and the 18th century called for the re-examination of classical concepts and helped emphasize many of the key points of classical education, including the idea that reason requires knowledge, and that reasoning skills are necessary to succeed in any society.

The King's Library by Creative Commons
The King’s Library by Creative Commons

The Interest in Classical Education

Medieval universities began to resurrect traditional education in the 12th and 13th centuries. Before this, most knowledge was to be gained at monasteries, where the main focus remained liturgy and prayer. Cathedral schools (small schools run by clergy to train future priests) were developed as a response to the Gregorian reform of the early eleventh century. These schools, although religious, began to train lay students (students not “of the clergy”) as well as clergy students. Canon law was taught, but as time progressed, the more secular aspects of the church (control of finances, logic for preaching) were introduced into the curriculum. Teachers gained prestige, cathedral schools were looked at as predecessors to university, and the great demand of these schools inspired the founding of new universities and their move into the larger cities of Europe, such as Bologna and Paris.

Sixteenth century humanism explored and promoted the ideas of the Classics as their movement swept across Europe. Latin was the first language to be taught in schools, generally followed by Greek. Classical ideas remained strong throughout the centuries, showing their strength and ability to adapt to rapidly changing time periods. These universities expounded many religious ideas and thoughts, but began to move towards secular studies. This move to worldly knowledge necessitated the need for the renewal of classical concepts.

Curriculum and Areas of Study

Classical Education in ancient times depended on the seven liberal arts which were then divided into the three-fold Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, and the four-fold Quadrivium of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy
The modern renaissance of classical education based their “primary education” curriculum on the Trivium. They would use the Quadrivium as the basis of their “secondary education” curriculum.

  • Elements of the Trivium
    • The grammar stage in which the foundations for advanced study are laid. The craft of reading and writing is taught. (Equivalent to elementary school)
      • at the grammar stage, children are seen as “sponges” ready to memorize and learn the important concepts of language
      • it is important that children acquire a many words and concepts as possible at this stage
    • The logic stage in which students learn to carefully think through arguments (equivalent to middle school)
      • at this point, students are able to be critical of other’s arguments as well of their own
    • The rhetoric stage where students learn to effectively express themselves (equivalent to high school)
      • Now, students can both understand other’s arguments, as well as pose their own and persuade others
      • The ability to emulate Classical poets, such as Ovid, was an important technique

  • Elements of the Quadrivium
    • Arithmetic taught the science of the numbers
    • Geometry focused on the science of forms
    • Music taught the science of sound and harmony
    • Astronomy was the study of time (of “form in motion”)

   This detail shot of Hans Holbein the Younger's painting "The French Ambassadors" (1533) references the essential elements of the quadrivium--seen in the globe, calendar, level, compass, etc.
This detail shot of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting “The French Ambassadors” (1533) references the essential elements of the quadrivium–seen in the globe, calendar, level, compass, etc.

Deciding on which seven arts were to be studied was no mindless choice. Plato, who learned of these arts from the Pythagorean, who learned them from the priestly schools of Babylon or Egypt, exalted the Quadrivium as “the essential education for the philosopher”. The seven liberal arts were some of the only classical “seeds” to survive the fall the Roman Empire, rescued and preserved by monasteries. Twelfth and thirteenth century universities resurrected the interest in higher education as they evolved from the monastic origins and became recognizable institutions of higher education. Latin was the language predominantly taught in schools, generally followed by Greek. Until the 17th century Latin was internationally used, and so knowledge of that language was necessary for society’s leaders (priests, kings, clergy, etc). Eventually, Latin developed into the Romance languages and bibles and other texts begin to be translated from Latin into vernacular languages, expanding the audience of scholarly and religious texts.

Predominant Schools

The following list encompasses the names of leading Grammar Schools, Colleges, and Universities of England, Scotland, and Ireland which incorporated classical studies into their main curriculum:

  • Aberdeen Grammar School
  • Eton Grammar School
  • Winchester Grammar School
  • Westminster Grammar School
  • Trinity College
  • Eton College
  • Gresham College
  • Oxford University
  • Cambridge University

John Milton (1608-1674)- English poet, author of “Paradise Lost”

Famous Writers with Classical Educations

John Milton (1608-1674) Although Milton is not an 18th century poet, his training in classical education shows the trend for future centuries. Famous for his epic poem, Paradise Lost, Milton studied at Cambridge and there became well versed in the “classics”.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) English poet known for various political and satirical works including An Essay on Man, Rape of the Lock, and his satirical translation of Homer. Before the age of 12, he had begun to learn the Latin and Greek languages from various sources. Many of his masters were Roman Catholic priests (due to the church’s influence in the revival of the classics).
Joseph Addison (1672-1719) English essayist and poet. He attended a number of primary schools including Charterhouse, followed by Oxford University, where he received his degree. While at Oxford, his skill in Latin verse allowed him to elevate to the ranks of a Magdalen Fellow. He later became dean of Lichfield. Addison’s major works include his contributions to The Tatler, as well as the opera of Rosamund (“Joseph Addison”).
Thomas Gray (1716-1771) English poet, Classical scholar, and professor at Cambridge University. Gray attended Eton College and later, Cambridge, where he excelled in classical studies, became a notably successful scholar of Greek, and developed many Latin works. Among his published works are Elegy Written in in a Country Churchyard as well as various Odes, include Ode on the Spring and Ode to Adversity (Huber).
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English poet, essayist, biographer and critic, Johnson Attended Pembroke College, Oxford. Johnson is well knows as the author of A Dictionary of the English Language, Vanity of Human Wishes, and London (Lynch).

Evidence of Classical Education in 18th Century Literature

  • Throughout 18th century British literature, from poetry to prose, and plays to weekly publications, there is evidence of the influence of classical education. The use of Latin, allusions to and imitations of ancient Greek and Roman figures and texts, the use of satire, and the promotion of classical education and ideology are among the prominent features evident in 18th century writings which reveal both the classical training of the authors, and the familiarity of the general population with classical teachings. Among the literary works produced during this period which reflect society’s renewed interest in the classical tradition as resultant from the educational system at that time are: An Essay On Criticism, An Essay on Man, and The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, Cato, a Tragedy, and Genius by Joseph Addison, The Vanity of Human Wishes, and essays in The Ramble by Samuel Johnson, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift.

Examples of Classical References and Ideologies from the Literature

In this passage from An Essay on Criticism (1711) by Alexander Pope, we see evidence of his Classical Education as he references the ancient Greek poet Homer, Virgil’s Aenid (the “Mantuan Muse”), and promotes their study as a means by which to learn the art of criticism:

You then whose Judgment the right Course wou’d steer,
Know well each ANCIENT’s proper Character,
His Fable, Subject, Scope in ev’ry Page,
Religion, Country, Genius of his Age:
Without all these at once before your Eyes,
Cavil you may, but never Criticize.
Be Homer’s Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring;
Still with It self compar’d, his Text peruse;
And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse.

Criticism, the focus of Pope’s essay, was a skill cherished by the neoclassical movement, encouraged and honed by all stages of the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

This excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s (1754) 121st essay in his weekly publication, The Rambler, like Pope’s essay, encourages study of ancient works as a means of enlightenment:

Even those to whom Providence hath allotted greater strength of understanding can expect only to improve a single science. In every other part of learning they must be content to follow opinions which they are not able to examine; and, even in that which they claim as peculiarly their own, can seldom add more than some small particle of knowledge to the hereditary stock devolved to them from ancient times, the collective labour of a thousand intellects.

Johnson’s argument coalesces with the neoclassical ideology that rules of science, math, logic, grammar, and so forth were largely already discovered, and could best be learned by study of the accounts of old.

Revival of Old Texts

As students of neoclassicism sought to tap into the wisdom of the ancients, a large focus of literary efforts turned to the revival of old texts. As a result, newly published editions and translations of classic Greek and Roman works, including Cicero’s De Oratore, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory flooded England throughout the Eighteenth century (Mahoney). The literary field’s focus on the revival of these texts both resulted from and was further encouraged by the educational system’s emphasis on the classical tradition.

Satire and The Mock-Epic

The prevalence of both satire and the Mock-Epic in 18th Century British literature reflect ancient influences accrued from classical education. For an example of direct relation, Samuel Johnson in The Vanity of Human Wishes recreates Juvenal’s Tenth Satire to reflect eighteenth century England. Juvenal was a Roman poet who, like many of his contemporaries in the first and second centuries, authored a number of satirical works. Following the tradition of ancient writers such as Juvenal whose works were studied in schools, Jonathon Swift in A Modest Proposal and Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock revived satire for Eighteenth Century England. Pope’s The Rape of the Lock also serves as an example of a Mock-Epic. Eighteenth Century writers such as Jonathon Swift and Alexander Pope often took the idea of the epic and combined it with satire to create a Mock-Epic. The classic epics of Ancient Greece and Rome such as Homer’s The Illiad and Virgil’s The Aenid were characterized by the presence of a hero of national importance, a serious and continuously elevated tone, and involvement of some supernatural or superhuman factors. Gulliver’s Travels and The Rape of the Lock as Mock-Epics, on the other hand, present more of a comedic image of hero-based tales while mocking human frailties and follies (Cody; Lynch).

The emergence and popularity of satire and the mock-epic through works such as The Rape of the Lock by Pope reflect the prevalence of classical influence in society as it became widespread through education. The chart below depicts the similarities and differences of the mock-epic of 18th century Britain and the ancient epics of Greece:

The Epic The Mock-Epic
The Illiad, Aeneid The Rape of the Lock
The arming of the Hero Toilet [dressing] scene
Battle Card Game
Stratagem The Pinch of Snuff
Meddling Gods and Goddesses Sylphs and Gnomes
The Journey to the Underworld The Cave of Spleen
Dream Dream

*original chart published on The Victorian Web by D. Cody.

Works Cited:

1. Bolgar, R.R. “Review: [untitled].” The Historical Journal 2(1959): 189-191.
Clarke, M. L. Classical Education in Britain,. 1500-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.
3. Cody, D. “The Mock Epic as Genre.” The Victorian Web. July 2000. 22 May 2008 <>
4. Huber, A. ed. “Biography.” The Thomas Gray Archive. 2008. University of Oxford. 23 May 2008 <<span style=”font-size: 10pt; line-height: 150%; font-family: Verdana”>>
5. Johnson, S. “The Rambler Essay #121” (May 14, 1751). 22 May 2008 <[[|>//<span]] style=”font-size: 110%”>
6. “Joseph Addison.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th Ed., Vol. I. 1910. 188. 22 May 2008 <>.
7. Lynch, J. “Epic.” Glossary of Literary and Rhetorical Terms. 3 August 1999. Rutgers University. 22 May 2008 <>
8. —. “Who is this Johnson Guy?” A Guide to Samuel Johnson. 26 July 2005. Rutgers University. 22 May 2008 <>
9. Mahoney, John L. “The Classical Tradition in Eighteenth Century English Rhetorical Education.” History of Education Journal 9.4 (1958): 93-97. History of Education Society. <

May, Gita. “The Status of Eighteenth-Century Studies.” The French Review 75(2001): 318-325
11. Pope, A. “An Essay on Criticism” in Longman Anthology of British Literature, Vol. 1C, 3rd ed. Damrosch et al. eds.
Vandamme, L. “The False Promise of Classical Education.” The Objective Standard. 2.2 (2007). May 2008 <**<span

Image Sources:
Creative Commons Photo “The King’s Library” by
Mujtaba Chohan Source: British Museum
Elements of the Quadrivium Photo: pi/index.php?news=3115**
John Milton Photo: 13619/13619-h/13619-h.htm

Megan Pettingill: Introduction, Interest in Classical Education, Curriculum and Areas of Study, Predominant Schools
Lillianah Shabo: Famous Writers with Classical Educations, Predominant Schools, Evidence of Classical Education in 18th Century Literature