The Aesthetic Pedagogy of Francis of Assisi
ABSTRACT: Despite his anti-intellectualism, Francis of Assisi was an effective teacher who intentionally illustrated the life of virtue in his own way of living. He was a teacher in the sense that the Hebrew prophets, Socrates or Gandhi were teachers. He was a performance artist for whom drama functioned pedagogically. His life was not always meant to be an example to his followers; sometimes it was a dramatic lesson, meant to be watched, not imitated. All drama is inherently a distortion of reality because it focuses the attention on one aspect of reality. Francis’ dramatized life distorts the importance of poverty, but this is a distortion from which we may be able to learn if we are able to imaginatively identify with Francis. For Francis, asceticism was a form of obedience, and obedience a mode of knowledge. Such ‘personalized,’ lived teaching is the only way in which virtue (as opposed to ethics) may be effectively taught. Francis followed the same model of paideia as Gandhi, bringing together the physical discipline of radical asceticism with the aesthetic experience of a dramatic life in which he played the roles of troubadour and fool.
Unlike most of the other Western European figures of the 12th-century who are frequent subjects of academic study, Francis of Assisi was not a scholar. He had the education appropriate to the middle-class son of a prosperous merchant, but he never taught in a university, never wrote a Summa or a Commentary on the Sentences, never spent time in libraries. For much of his lifetime, the Order of Friars Minor didn’t even own a Bible, let alone any other books. Brother Leo, one of Francis’ closest companions, wrote of him that he "did not want his friars to be eager for learning or for books."(1)
As the order grew, this anti-intellectualism became a problem for some of the brothers. Especially as the membership began to include priests, more and more of the friars were educated men who wanted to use their education in the work of preaching to which Francis called them. They began to ask to combine the Franciscan commitment to rigorous poverty with intellectual rigor and study, but Francis remained adamantly opposed to any synthesis between poverty and study.
Despite this anti-intellectualism, Francis always functioned as a teacher. He was no hermit, isolated in the desert, absorbed in his own quest for union with God. The immediate result of his conversion was the formation of a fraternity, a group of men who became his students and followers, and who then joined him in the ministry of preaching and teaching to their broader community. Almost all of the extant writings of Francis are pedagogical, consisting of either practical guidance for how the friars are to live or prayers and responses for them to use in daily worship. He expected his brothers to watch his way of life and learn from him.
The topic of Francis’ instruction is the virtuous life. He...