Book review

The Journey to Wisdom addresses a broad array of topics in education, the natural world, and medieval intellectual history. The book examines a philosophy of education that originated with the ancient Greeks and that reached its culmination in the late-medieval and early-Renaissance periods. That philosophy of education promotes a journey to wisdom, involving an escape from pure subjectivity and “the seductions of rhetoric” and leading to a profound awareness of the natural world and “nature’s God.” It grants us a renewed sense of education as a self-directed, transforming journey to knowledge and insight—rather than (as is so often the case now) as an impersonal, bureaucratized trek that reflects little sense of the ultimate aims of education.
The volume opens with a discussion of the quarrel in ancient Greece between the Sophists and the so-called “philosophers”—a quarrel, Paul A. Olson writes, “out of which the [philosophers’] tradition centering education in reality, as opposed to social convention, develops.” Subsequent chapters follow the development of this tradition in the writings of Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Petrarch, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and others. Here Olson refutes several recent theories: that medieval intellectuals helped legitimize technological mastery and exploitation of the environment; that medieval education involved no systematic progress “toward recognizing the sanctity of creation”; and that all literary works—medieval ones included—“are self-referenced,” and therefore that they offer no guidance to a world beyond themselves.
The Journey to Wisdom will be essential reading for students of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance intellectual history. But in its unmistakably modern concerns about education, the book also speaks to a far wider spectrum of readers. Olson’s study falls into that rarest category of scholarly productions: one that reflects both its author’s profound knowledge of the past and his equally great commitment to the present. That dual commitment accounts for the uncommon insights—and pleasures—offered by this book.

The Journey to Wisdom: Self-Education in Patristic and Medieval Literature by Paul A. Olson

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Paul A. Olson
University of Nebraska Press
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The Journey to Wisdom: Self-Education in Patristic and Medieval Literature

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