John Colet’s life and learning represent Catholic humanism at its finest. He advocated for such reforms in education as the soundest minds of his day also desired. He knew the value of learning and—unlike more than a few intellectuals—he knew also the limits of its advantages.

To play about carelessly with the words “humanist” and “humanism” is a slightly dangerous game and one that is prone to confuse because of these words’ various definitions. Upon meeting someone who calls himself a humanist, my first assumptions about him tend to be that he likely reads more Steve Pinker than I do and is probably better acquainted with the principal neighborhoods of Seattle or Portland. There is an ill-founded but widespread supposition that the humanistic and the religious temperaments are everlasting enemies, and that the advance of the one has always involved the retreat of the other.

To instructed men and women of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries such a notion would have seemed entirely groundless. With the false idea that the cause of learning and the cause of faith stood then in irresolvable opposition few equally great historical misjudgments can stand comparison. Frequently, in studying the preeminent biographies of that era, we find that the men of the deepest spirituality have also to their credit the weightiest learning. The names of Fisher and More are famous enough, and beside them we may note a fair constellation of lesser-known ones—Lily and Grocyn and Linacre and Colet. The last of these was the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the founder of St. Paul’s School, whose students over the centuries have included John Milton, Samuel Pepys, Benjamin Jowett, Bernard Montgomery, and G.K. Chesterton.

Colet stood in his day for reform in education and in religious life. His own education was the fruit of studies in several fields of knowledge conducted in several European nations. Philosophy and mathematics he learned at Oxford; law, Greek, and patristic studies he studied on the continent, first in Paris, and then in Italy. While abroad, he became acquainted not only with books but with many of the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the day: The Dominican radical Savonarola made an impression on him; Erasmus, whom he had first met at Oxford, and the French classicist Guillaume Budé were among his friends. The former of these, in a letter to another English acquaintance, wrote, “When I listen to Colet, I seem to be listening to Plato himself… It is marvelous how general and abundant is the harvest of ancient learning in this country, to which you ought all the sooner to return.” It is sad to relate that forty years later Erasmus’ optimistic rhetoric would need to be somewhat diluted—a grim necessity in view of the second Tudor’s habit of snuffing out his country’s leading intellectual lights—but in that first decade of the sixteenth century, English learning was a match almost for that of any other country in Christendom: Newly endowed colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge were at that time sprouting up with unprecedented abundance, thanks in large part to the patronage of the Lady Margaret Beaufort, the matriarch of the royal family and champion of the new learning.

Colet himself was the father of the aforementioned St. Paul’s School, which he envisioned as a house both of Hellenic wisdom and Christian fidelity. On both subjects he had formed clear ideas which he held without compromise, and which he expressed with sometimes violent language, which occasionally brought him under a cloud of suspicion. Most famous among his public performances was his Convocation Sermon of 1512, which was against the English clergy accusations of corruption and evil living—accusations which inevitably entangled their author in troubles with certain members of the episcopal hierarchy. For this reason, it was long the fashion to assume that Colet was at heart a crypto-Protestant. The truth was otherwise; Colet certainly desired to see the late Medieval Church purified and renewed, but with Lollardy he never showed any sympathy, and Luther’s star was only beginning to rise when Colet died in 1519. The Anglican man of letters William Ralph Inge summed up the dean of St. Paul’s neatly when he wrote that “Colet wanted a Reformation, but not the Reformation which actually occurred. It is quite possible that if he had lived a little longer he would have shared the fate of More and Fisher, since he was not the man to conceal his convictions.”

These convictions included little respect of persons or titles. In the same year as Colet’s Convocation Sermon, the latest in the demoralizing series of wars between the French and Spanish kings, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the principalities of Italy broke out, and the English were not permitted to ignore it. The young Henry VIII threw in his lot with his father-in-law Ferdinand of Spain in pursuit of increased dominion in France, which nation the rulers of England still regarded as an unjustly lost birthright. (Remarkably, this claim the English monarchy did not officially relinquish until 1801.) Forces were mustered and preparations made. Colet saw the expedition for what it was, merely an excuse to add a feather to Henry’s cap at the expense of English lives and wealth, and said so in a sermon during which the king himself sat in attendance. Immediately thereafter Colet was summoned by the king to the royal residence at Greenwich, and was politely asked to give a clarification of his meaning, lest any should misunderstand him. There is no evidence that Colet retracted anything he had previously said, and, what is more surprising, Henry appears to have been pleased with the priest’s firmness. After their interview, the king is said to have remarked, “Let every man have his own doctor, and every one favor his own. This man is the doctor for me.” Impressed as he was with Colet’s frankness of speech, Henry did not alter his plans for war, and the campaign proceeded, resulting finally in a few ephemeral victories and several thousand dead—from disease, mainly. The doctor had done his best, and the patient had not listened.

Colet’s life and learning represent Catholic humanism at its finest. He advocated for such reforms in education as the soundest minds of his day also desired, and gave real impetus to the study of the Greek language, which was then seen by certain more cautious authorities as too powerful an intoxicant. He knew the value of learning and—unlike more than a few intellectuals—he knew also the limits of its advantages. So much we find in one of his surviving letters to Erasmus, in which he writes, “Of books and learning there is no end; but there is nothing better in this short life than to live purely and holily, to strive daily after perfection and enlightenment, as these books teach us; but that can only be done by a tender love and imitation of Jesus Christ.”

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The featured image is a portrait of John Colet, based on Henry Holland’s print of 1620, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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