The Education of Ignatius Loyola

By Mullett, Michael A. | History Review, December 1999 | Go to article overview

The Education of Ignatius Loyola


Mullett, Michael A., History Review


Michael A. Mullett reveals that Loyola underwent several forms of education himself before setting the Jesuits on their educational mission.

From the sixteenth century onwards the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, founded by Ignatius Loyola (1491 - 1556), emerged as the most important of the `new orders' of the Counter-Reformation and the leading educational organisation in the Catholic Church. Given the Society's strong concern with teaching, the nature of the education of its founder himself is obviously a topic of considerable importance, not least because the Jesuits' teaching methods bore its deep impress. In this article we shall examine both Loyola's religious evolution and the steps along the road of his formal education.

Was Loyola's conversion also a revolution?

For Loyola himself, the key events in his life were a series of experiences during convalescence to recover from serious wounds sustained in his engagement as a professional soldier in a battle against the French at Pamplona in northern Spain in 1521. During enforced, bored and painful leisure, Loyola tells us in his Autobiography (1553-5), he turned to the reading of two medieval works of religious devotion: Vita Christi (Life of Christ) by the Carthusian monk Ludolph of Saxony (d. 1378) and Flos Sanctorum (popularly known as The Golden Legend) by Archbishop Jacopo of Voragine (d. 1298). According to Loyola's account, these two works of piety produced in him a radically transforming religious `conversion' -- a total make-over of the self and a drastic transition from sin to sainthood. Loyola gives the readers of his Autobiography the impression that, before his new reading programme began, what he had read nourished his knightly fantasies of deeds of derring-do in such works as the Spanish best-selling romance about chivalric and heroic accomplishment, Amadis de Gaula, published in 1508. Such material had fed Loyola's entirely worldly ambitions to `win fame ... in the exercise of arms'. It provided literary mirror-images for an individual ostensibly obsessed with his own valour and honour, a macho-man, brawler, peacock-dresser and womaniser. Yet when he shifted the focus of his reading programme from the chivalric romances to Christ and His saints, he later recalled, his whole approach to life and faith followed the shift and he was born again, a Christian.

We should, I believe, be a little sceptical about the scenario that Loyola traced for his readers in this pivotal section of his Autobiography. Its shaping was driven by conventions about the change that Christ makes in the souls of those who encounter Him which go back to St Paul's narration of his encounter with the Risen Lord on the Road to Damascus, a meeting that transformed him from persecutor to apostle, a 180-degree U-turn on a Syrian highway. Augustine, too, the great theologian of the post-Apostolic Christian Church (d. 430), drew up in his Confessions the classic autobiography of the self totally altered, from vice to virtue. Loyola cast the passages of his auto-history dealing with his discovery of Christ within venerable literary conventions, all of them emphasising the totality of a transformation of one's life ensuring that day-zero was the first day of the rest of it.

Yet it was not entirely so with Loyola, nor could it have been with one born and developing in Spain's profoundly Catholic civilisation, a religious culture intensified during the Catholic renaissance which was under way during the reigns of the `Catholic kings', Ferdinand of Aragon (d. 1516) and Isabella of Castile (d. 1504). There is, it should be said, every likelihood that in adolescence and young manhood, and especially following what may well have been the trauma, when he was fourteen, of his father's death, he went off the rails in terms of the value system that he had already imbibed. Sent to the royal court to make his way in the world, he can hardly have avoided a fashionable environment of sex, gambling and duelling, and it is utterly undeniable that he was arrested for fighting in 1515. …

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