Last week I visited a befriended couple with 3 young children. I played some game with the daughter of 3 and a half and of course I lost because we had to play according to her rules. A set of rules within a restricted area of time and/or place is called a game or play. Not only within games or sports we have such rules, but also outside those fields. In 1938 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published his study Homo Ludens, in which he gave a description of play as an element of culture. To be sure: he did not mean sports or game, but the concept of play self as constituent. For instance, negotiations between states have an element of play or the way a judge and lawyers behave in a court case. Huizinga was initially trained as a Sanskrit scholar and was well aware of the role of play and gambling in the Mahabharata and his dissertation was about the role of the vidusaka (jester) in Sanskrit drama, so his interest in the concept of play may have originated in his initial Ausbilding.
Within a different context St Augustine too pointed to the concept of play in culture, but for him man was a homo peccans and play is all that which distracts the soul away from God. He recalls that as a child he was punished for playing rather than studying. As O’Connel remarks in his online commentary on the Confessiones, it never occurs to Augustine that the child's idleness could be anything but culpable. The focus and the implementation are different, but Augustine draws the same parallel as Huizinga. But where for Huizinga ludere is a positive constituent of culture, it is for Augustine something reprehensible. But if reprehensible, how should a teacher deal with it? Augustine deeply condemns the way teachers dealt with playful children: namely by hard punishment. Being far from a saintly schoolboy, he often had to suffer such punishments. He felt such punishments were unjust because adults often acted in the same way as children, but they called it differently: `maiorum nugae negotia vocantur’ (the trifles of adults are called business). Indeed he himself bemoans that he too used what he had learnt as a kind of play while teaching rhetoric before he turned to religion.
The first sentence is a bit complicated, both in grammar and chain of thought. Clearly it is an emotional outcry. The idea is I think thus: is there someone who out of a deep love (praegrandi affectu ) for God considers instruments of torture as little and at the same time loves those who fear such instruments? How is it than that our parents laugh at us when we are beaten up by teachers, when at the same time they fear torture from the state when brought to court?
In the final sentence Augustine points to the fact that adults show the same emotions when they lose a some trifle dispute as he felt when beaten at some ball game. In his critique of corporeal punishment of children as a pedagogical mean Augustine was ways ahead of his time.
Augustinus Confessiones, 1.9.15
estne quisquam, domine, tam magnus animus, praegrandi affectu tibi cohaerens, estne, inquam, quisquam - facit enim hoc quaedam etiam stoliditas - est ergo, qui tibi pie cohaerendo ita sit affectus granditer, ut eculeos et ungulas atque huiuscemodi varia tormenta (pro quibus effugiendis tibi per universas terras cum timore magno supplicatur) ita parvi aestimet, diligens eos qui haec acerbissime formidant, quemadmodum parentes nostri ridebant tormenta quibus pueri a magistris affligebamur? non enim aut minus ea metuebamus aut minus te de his evadendis deprecabamur, et peccabamus tamen minus scribendo aut legendo aut cogitando de litteris quam exigebatur a nobis. non enim deerat, domine, memoria vel ingenium, quae nos habere voluisti pro illa aetate satis, sed delectabat ludere et vindicabatur in nos ab eis qui talia utique agebant. sed maiorum nugae negotia vocantur, puerorum autem talia cum sint, puniuntur a maioribus, et nemo miseratur pueros vel illos vel utrosque. nisi vero approbat quisquam bonus rerum arbiter vapulasse me, quia ludebam pila puer et eo ludo impediebar quominus celeriter discerem litteras, quibus maior deformius luderem. aut aliud faciebat idem ipse a quo vapulabam, qui si in aliqua quaestiuncula a condoctore suo victus esset, magis bile atque invidia torqueretur quam ego, cum in certamine pilae a conlusore meo superabar?
stoliditas –atis (f.): dullness, stubbornness (post cl. Latin word)
sit affectus granditer: in such an exalted mood
eculeus: a wooden rack in the shape of a horse
ungula: a claw to tear the skin open
supplico: beseech, beg
dilligens: concessive `though he loves’ (some translations follow the reading deridens, found in one manuscript. Unfortunately all English online translations do.)
acerbissime: most strongly
formido: to fear
quemadmodum: as for instance
te…deprecabamur: we (as children) beseeched you
quam exigebatur a nobis: than was demanded from us
pro illa aetate satis: enough for that age
delectabat: impersonal `it delighted’
vindicabatur in nos ab eis qui talia utique agebant: we were punished by those who did surely the same things (vindicabatur: impersonal construction)
vapulo: to be flogged (note that this word is passive in English!)
impedior: to hamper
quibus maior deformius luderem: by which as adult I used to play in a scandalous way
idem ipse: the very same
quaestiuncula: a question of no importance
condoctor: fellow teacher (late Latin)
bilis –is (f.): bile, anger
Drawing after a fresco at Herculaneum of a boy being punished at a school.