BY KAREN GLASS
Multum non multa can be, and has been, translated in a number of ways. It is literally, “much, not many,” but the sense conveyed should be “quality, not quantity.” It is sometimes rendered “less is more.” The source usually cited for this phrase is a letter from Pliny the Younger to Fuscus.
Some classical educators have embraced this idea and are in favor of reducing the quantity of work we do in schools, in favor of quality. The multum non multa principle is one of those ideas that must be balanced, of course, because if “less is more” is taken too far, it becomes “less is not enough.” One cannot keep cutting and cutting and assume that less and less is always better. At some point, there must be a fairly ideal amount which is neither too much nor too little.
Charlotte Mason urges teachers to spread a generous feast before her pupils —
We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes [of the PNEU] and each small guest assimilates what he can.Philosophy of Education, p. 183
— and the supposed contradiction between an abundant “feast” and multum non multa has given rise to the myth that there is a contradiction between CM’s methods and this classical principle. This is not so, but there is a reason for the misunderstanding.
Imagine for a moment that you and I are standing on either side of a large, spreading tree. I am on the south side, and you are on the north, and we are both facing the tree. From an eastward-growing branch hangs a beautiful swing, and I tell you that the swing is on the right side of the tree. You can see the swing for yourself, and so you object to my statement, assuring me that the swing is, in fact on the left side of the tree. Which of us is right? Well, we both are, and although we are contradicting each other, it is only because our perspectives are different. We would understand each other better, and would be in agreement, if we simply altered our relative terms for more absolute ones and noted that the swing is on the east side of the tree.
“Much” and “many” are relative terms. “Too much” and “too many” are relative terms. Ultimately, the principle of multum non multa has to be applied individually to any given pupil, as too much for one is sometimes not enough for another. It is relative.
Pliny the Younger placed his statement within the context of advice he was giving to an adult friend in retirement about how to pursue his personal studies.
I have not told you what books I think you should read, though indeed, that was implied by my telling you what you should write. Pray remember to select with care the standard authors on each subject; for, as the saying is, ‘though we should read much, we should not read many books.’ (emphasis mine)
Within the context, he is not so much limiting the subjects as limiting the reading for each subject to the best books. In other words, if you are studying the Civil War, it is not necessary to read every book the library has on the subject. It is better to choose one or two excellent books from authoritative sources and take your time with those.
Charlotte Mason’s own advice is:
The best available book is chosen [for a subject] and read through in the course, it may be, of two or three years.Philosophy of Education, p. 244
Her “generous feast” does not involve gobbling up books quickly, but rather reading them at leisure with plenty of time allowed for understanding.
In his lecture on classical principles of education, Christopher Perrin speaks of a ninth grader reading 22 to 32 books during a literature course. He suggests that six books, read in depth, would be a good example of multum non multa, and better than the effort to dash through one book after another. Charlotte Mason would have considered six excellent literature selections a feast, with plenty of material to learn from. This is her description of a “wide” program for Form IV, similar to ninth grade:
Form IV may have quite a wide course of reading. For instance if the historical period for a term include the Commonwealth, they may read L’Allegro, and Il Penseroso, Lycidas, and contemporary poets as represented in a good anthology, or, for a later period, Pope’s Rape of the Lock or Gray’s poems.Philosophy of Education, p. 183-84
Modern, progressive education has evolved into a plethora of subjects which are given cursory treatment. Children are rushed through many books and subjects without adequate time to get to know them well. It is from this side of the tree that contemporary classical educators urge “much, not many.” Yet Charlotte Mason considered a few well-chosen books and poems a “feast.” In fact, Shakespeare earns that description on his own.
Shakespeare is not to be studied in a year; he is to be read continuously throughout life, from ten years old and onwards. But a child of ten cannot understand Shakespeare. No; but can a man of fifty? Is not our great poet rather an ample feast of which every one takes according to his needs, and leaves what he has no stomach for?Formation of Character, p. 226
Charlotte Mason was standing on the other side of the tree, when two rather different types of education were commonly practiced, both of which were severely limited in scope. One was labeled “classical,” but it was the truncated classical education of Victorian England, which she compares to a starvation diet:
Here perhaps the Public Schools have a little pull over the rest of us—the diet they afford may be meagre, meagre almost to the starvation point for the average boy, but it is not destitute of ideas; for, however sparsely, boys are nourished on the best thoughts of the best minds. (emphasis mine)Philosophy of Education, p. 106
It was a common practice to review the same material again and again, and the pupils in the “classical schools” who learned Latin and sometimes Greek missed out on many areas of knowledge such as history, geography, and English literature. For the lower classes, education was often limited to the utilitarian “3 R’s,” and they were not offered the knowledge of literature and ideas.
She tells us:
We must get rid of the notion that to learn the ‘three R’s’ or the Latin grammar well, a child should learn these and nothing else. It is as true for children as for ourselves that, the wider the range of interests, the more intelligent is the apprehension of each.School Education, p. 209
Her feast isn’t really different from Pliny’s “much, not many.” It’s interesting to see that in the same letter in which he advises multum non multa, Pliny the Younger also says,
As land is improved by sowing it with various crops in rotation, so is the mind by exercising it with different studies.
He knew that limiting studies too severely would be stultifying, and Charlotte Mason’s “generous feast” is not a license to overdo. She has little use for cramming or reading quickly through one book after the other without thoughtful reflection.
The young person who reads three books a week from Mudie’s, [a lending library] or elsewhere, is not likely to find in any of them ‘example of life and instruction in manners.’ These things arrive to us after many readings of a book that is worth while; and the absurdity of saying, ‘I have read’ Jane Austen or the Waverley novels should be realised. (emphasis mine)Formation of Character, p. 374
Although she uses different words, she is advocating reading “much” — deeply and well — rather than “many” books which pass over the mind without providing real food for thought.
It may seem contradictory that Charlotte Mason’s “generous feast” is actually an example of multum non multa, but it is a matter of perspective. There is a passage in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in which two sisters discuss the matter of wealth.
Marianne says: “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?”
“Grandeur has but little,” said Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.”
“Elinor, for shame!” said Marianne, “money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.”
“Perhaps,” said Elinor, smiling, “we may come to the same point. YOUR competence and MY wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?”
“About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than THAT.”
Elinor laughed. “TWO thousand a year! ONE is my wealth! I guessed how it would end.”
Marianne considered two thousand pounds per year a mere “competence,” while Elinor called one thousand “wealth.” When we speak in relative terms, we may think that we are talking about different things, but in the end, like these two sisters, we find that classical education’s multum non multa and Charlotte Mason’s “feast” are much the same thing.
There is a reason that Charlotte recommends a “wide and generous” curriculum. The most vital of her educational principles after “Children are born persons” is “Education is the science of relations.” The most important thing for children to be doing is building relationships with every area of knowledge.
In proportion to the range of living relationships we put in his way, will he have wide and vital interests, fulness of joy in living.School Education, p. 187
When we view education from a relational perspective, we find that limiting relationships is not really a desirable thing to do. We cannot take “less is more” to a level which cuts children off from vital areas of interest. Mystie Winkler reminds us:
Quality over quantity is generally true, but when it comes to time for building relationships, quantity is just as important.
The classical principle of multum non multa should never limit children’s relationships with knowledge to a starvation level, and Charlotte Mason’s “generous feast” should never be used to push a child to consume more (intellectually) than he can easily manage. Properly understood, Charlotte Mason’s feast of ideas is in fact a happy implementation of “much, not many.”
Karen Glass is part of the Advisory of AmblesideOnline. She has homeschooled her four children according to Charlotte Mason’s methods since 1994. She is also the author of Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, released in October 2014.
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