Ramus, Petrus 1515–1572 French Philosopher and Educator

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Ramus, Petrus
1515–1572 French philosopher and educator

Petrus Ramus was a controversial figure in France in the 1500s. A scholar, teacher, and speechmaker, he sought far-reaching changes in the educational system of his day. In particular, he challenged the authority of ancient writers whose works were central to Renaissance scholarship, such as the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Roman orator Cicero. Ramus drew on the work of scholars such as Rudolf Agricola to create a new method of inquiry that vastly simplified the techniques of Aristotle. He claimed that his new method was useful in all fields of knowledge.

Life and Works. Pierre de La Ramée was born into a poor farming family in the French province of Picardy. He later adopted the Latin form of his name, Petrus Ramus. Ramus went to Paris in 1523 and worked his way through school as a servant for richer students. In 1537 he began his teaching career in Paris. He soon became notorious for his attacks on Aristotle, whose system of logic had dominated the curriculum for centuries.

In 1543 Ramus published his two chief works, Training in Dialectic and Remarks on Aristotle. In these works, he harshly criticized the followers of Aristotle, both ancient and modern. He also proposed a plan to change the entire curriculum of the Renaissance university. Ramus's ideas infuriated many of his colleagues. The following year his critics persuaded the French king, Francis I, to ban Ramus from teaching either logic or philosophy. However, the next king, Henry II, lifted the ban in 1547.

In 1551 Ramus became royal lecturer at the Collège de France. He used this position to continue his attacks on Aristotle. In 1563 Ramus announced a plan for reforming the University of Paris, including firing professors, doing away with student fees, teaching physics in the arts curriculum, and adding professorships in astronomy, botany, and pharmacy. His plan, however, was short-lived. Within a year, the Wars of Religion had broken out between Catholics and Protestants in France. Ramus, who had converted to Protestantism in 1562, had to flee Paris.

For several years Ramus moved between France, Germany, and Switzerland. While he was living in France in 1572, a wave of religious violence, known as the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, occurred. During the course of the massacre, Ramus was murdered in his room. Some scholars believe his killers were assassins hired by a long-time academic enemy.

Ramus' Method. In the early Renaissance, university students learned logic and rhetoric* largely from the writings of Aristotle. His system of rhetoric involved five basic parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Invention, according to Aristotle, was the art of selecting the best arguments to prove a point. This process, he claimed, belonged to the field of dialectic (logic) as well as to rhetoric.

Several scholars of this time, including Agricola, Lorenzo Valla, and Juan Luis Vives, attempted to simplify Aristotle's system of logic. They came up with a new system based on invention and judgment—the art of laying out arguments in the most useful way. Ramus took up their ideas and carried them further. He sought to create a single method, with easily memorized rules, by which anyone could learn any subject.

In Ramus' method, students used the process of invention to find the relationship between a subject and the facts that could be stated about the subject. To take a simple example, in the sentence "Hot is the opposite of cold," the word "opposite" lays out the relationship between hot and cold. Ramus developed a list of 14 different arguments that could represent a relationship between subjects. To solve a problem, a student had to run through this list of arguments and select the best one for the topic. After choosing arguments, the student would then use the process of judgment, or arrangement, to assemble them in a useful order.

Ramus believed that students could use this approach to solve any kind of problem. After observing artisans* at work in Paris and in Germany, he began to see connections between mechanical and philosophical theories and practical problem solving. As a teacher, Ramus promoted his classes not to philosophers but to young men seeking success in the world of commerce, government, and the professions. Ramus's ideas spread quickly. By the year 1650 there were more than 1100 printings of his works in Europe. His method found favor among practicing lawyers, orators, and teachers, especially in northern Europe and Protestant countries.

(See alsoLogic; Philosophy. )

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson