Classical Education, Freedom, and the Ordered Soul

Understanding is a spiritual thing, though rooted in really existing things, even ultimately in divine things

Editor’s note: This essay was originally given in a slightly different form as an address, “On Not ‘Keeping Quiet About a Study’”, at Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, in Napa, California, on August 8, 2014.

Athenian: ‘We generally say that so far as the supreme deity and the universe are concerned, we ought not to bother our heads hunting up explanations, because that is an act of impiety. In fact, precisely the opposite seems to be true.’

Clinias: ‘What’s your point?’

Athenian: ‘My words will surprise you, and you may well think them out of place on the lips of an old man. But it’s quite impossible to keep quiet about a study, if one believes it is noble and true, a blessing to society, and pleasing in the sight of God.”

— Plato, The Laws, #821a.

I.

A recent essay in the New Republic was entitled “Don’t Send Your Kids to Ivy League Schools” (July 21, 2014). Its thesis was that such schools merely prepare snobs who belong to a wealthy elite mostly out of touch with real people. We can be almost certain that this admonition not to send our kids to Ivy League schools will increase the number of their applicants. Snobs like to be with snobs. An elite likes to meet other elite.

The solution to this presumed problem, offered by the author, himself an Ivy League grad, was to send most everyone to state schools at state expense. This solution would assure equality and more diversity. I call this proposal “the totalitarian solution to the elitist problem.” It is the natural offspring of never having read with care Plato or Aristotle.

Allan Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, had already said that the unhappiest people in our society today are those students who go to the twenty most expensive universities. He also said, as if this fact might just be the source of the problem, that any professor, on entering a classroom, can assume that every student is, or thinks he is, a relativist. That is, he is someone who does not think that any truth is possible. Pope Benedict often spoke of the same issue at the cultural level.

The current annual tuition at Loyola/Marymount in Los Angeles, someone told me recently, is $53.000. The tuition per semester at Santa Clara when I was a student there in the 1940’s was $250. Loyola seems to have no difficulty in attracting students. Whether that is enough to make it an elite school is doubtful. Really elite universities generally waive tuition costs for students who cannot afford it if they can qualify to pass entrance requirements. An “elite” school today is one that can give free rides to the students it desires, such as football players. Just where the best education is given is not easily answered in terms of prestige, money, or state power. In fact, as I have often observed, the best education may well be mostly outside any academic institution.

Pope Francis often speaks of jobs and unemployment. He cites the number of unemployed youth in Europe, some 75 million. He talks about the frustration of youth who have no employment future even with education; he thinks a job is almost basic to human dignity. On the other hand, many economists tell us that there is no need for so many jobs in the future. Technology is rapidly replacing most all jobs but the menial ones. And immigrants are taking these latter jobs. There is some employment but we have to be highly educated in technology. We saw animals replaced by machines. Now we see that machines replace stores, robots replace factory workers, money is replaced by cards and automatic tellers, stores and shops are replaced by Costco, and Costco is replaced by Amazon.com. Newspapers and journals are on-line. Books are on Kindle.

Writers like Wendell Berry think that this process is a disaster for the culture. The culture of family tradition, work, and social cohesion is broken when the young begin to go off to college. They seldom return to their places of origin. This view is the American take on the developmental brain drain in which the educated class left their countries for education and never returned. There is a small back-to-the-land, distributist movement. But this appears to be more like a hobby, however healthy it may be for the few who can still live on the land. E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful was also an attempt to gear machinery to a human size and not to make man a stranger among monstrous machines. Technology responded by making the tiny machines everyone carries in his pockets so they can talk to anyone, any time, any place in the world.

Looked at from another angle, however, the world has made great strides in reducing and eliminating poverty. At least 6/7th of the world’s population are not now in dire poverty. It is an astonishing record, really. It was caused largely by innovation and global, relatively free markets. And most of the remaining poverty is caused by government inefficiency, corruption, ideology, or by religions and cultural concepts that make improvement difficult or impossible.

But while we have, hopefully, seen the end of communism, we have seen the rise of Islam as it returns to its own roots in the aggressive manner that characterized its beginnings of world conquest in the seventh and eighth centuries.

We also see so-called liberal states themselves rapidly declining in population with little sense of the future of their kind. We see the rejection of our freedoms and law in the name of “rights.” We see the rise of a democratic totalitarianism reminiscent of Rousseau’s being “forced to be free”. From the beginning of political philosophy, Aristotle had seen this potential in democracy, with its relation to the smooth, eloquent tyrant.

We remain confused and astonished at the rapidity freedom of religion is now under heavy fire. Indeed, we see Christianity itself more and more designated as what is preventing a new worldly utopia in our midst. Christians in the West are increasingly being given a version of what I call “the Muslim choice”—either convert to the ruling ideology or accept and pay for second class citizenship. The word “persecution” is increasingly on the lips of Christian leaders, from the Pope on down. We see photos of Christians kneeling before Muslim thugs and being shot in the heads as they pray. But we don’t say much. We have no solution as Christians are being eliminated from Muslim lands. We talk of dialogue and peace. It only emboldens the persecutors.

II.

In the beginning, I cited a striking passage from Plato’s Laws. Two things were made clear in that passage. One maintained that it was not a good thing if we ceased to look for explanations of all things on the grounds that it would be impious to the gods. In other words, we are to seek to know what we can of the gods. We do not compliment them by not seeking to discover what we can about them. We are not voluntarists for whom God’s omnipotence includes His not being bound by the principle of contradiction; that “freedom” means, logically, that right can be wrong one day and reverse itself the next. In such an unstable world, no investigation of reason, of logos, can take place. There is literally nothing stable enough to investigate.

The second point is that we really should not, indeed cannot, keep silent about noble and profound things that are good for the service of others and the praise of the gods. What is out there that is not ourselves stirs our souls. This response seems to me to be an aspect of the point made by Aquinas. In the Contra Gentiles, he sawthat creation itself needed to be praised by someone within it. The existence of the world was one thing, but not enough to explain why it was intelligible. The world for its completion needs the appreciation of it by what is not God but by what can know and praise. This “praise” of what is in existence seems to be necessary for the world itself, but this praise arises out of free response, not from a determinism. This freedom explains why the world and its causes can and are too often hated for they imply something greater than man.

In a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown, with an angry look on his face, is standing by the sidewalk. A young girl has just passes right by him. She pays no attention to him. He cries out to her in a rather loud voice: “BELIEVE IN ME!” In the next sequence, Snoopy trots by, ignoring him. Again Charlie shouts to the mutt: “BELIEVE IN ME!” Now Charlie is mad. Lucy also walks right by him. He follows her yelling: “BELIEVE IN ME!” In the last scene, Charlie has gotten the point. He sits dejectedly on a step, chin in hands, to whisper to himself: “I just can’t get people to believe in me.”

The point is, as I see it, that we are not ourselves the object of belief; best to pass us by if we think that we are. It is a good thing that we can get no one to “believe” in us. Perhaps we can get people to trust us or love us, but not to believe in us. So what do we do when we both believe in the gods and seek to know all we can about them from what is revealed to us and from what we can figure out with our reason? This is the Platonic proposition.

Chesterton’s essay, “On the Classics”, in Come to Think of It, offers us some clue. Chesterton once met a young man who was “in fine frenzy,” as he put it. “The study of Latin and Greek is not of much use in the battle of life,” the young man maintained. As an alternative to the study of the “dead languages”—which I know very few study today—the young man proposed that we study something “practical”, like Health. We should rather study “the facts and functions of the body.” Chesterton himself admitted that, at school, he “consistently neglected to do any work in which I was supposed to be learning Latin and Greek….” He did pick up some Latin that later came in “handy.” Chesterton is most amusing. He goes to the heart of what there is to study. “The trouble about always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do it without destroying the health of the mind. Health is the most unhealthy of all topics.”

This passage is mindful of a comment in Aristotle. He remarked that a doctor is directed to health, the health of a particular person. He seeks, by aiding nature, to bring this health about, if possible. But when one is healthy, no one has need for a doctor. The healthy person directs himself to the things that are beyond health. When we are healthy, we hardly notice it as we are busy with everything else but health.

Concern for our health can be quite morbid. There is nothing wrong with knowing what bodily functions are or attending to them when things go wrong. But if we “talk to a boy of fifteen or sixteen about it (some disease), and give only a few fragmentary hints of what it is like, he will,” Chesterton thought, “very probably come to the rapid conclusion that he has got” that disease.

What the boy lacks is that sense of proportion that he would get from a classical education. “Youth is a period when the wildest external carelessness often runs parallel to the most gloomy and concentrated internal cares.” I believe it was Chesterton’s friend, Shaw, if not Chesterton himself, who said that the only thing that youth lack is hope because they do not have enough experience to see alternatives ahead of them. C. S. Lewis also noted that we should study literature precisely so that we gain experience of other lives and places against which to balance the narrowness of our own personal lives.

So if we revise our school curriculum, which we have indeed largely done, to make our primary study that of the body and its needs, and not that of the mind, we will put our youth in a most dangerous state. “To throw a medical encyclopedia at the head of a young man in this condition,” Chesterton remarked, “is simply to provide him with a handbook of One Thousand Ways of Going Mad.” He will be convinced that he has every disease he reads about. Indeed, Chesterton recalls talking to a professor of medicine who told him, in spite of all the precautions, that medical students themselves often suffer from this problem of finding a recently discussed disease in themselves.

What is the issue here? Redolent of the passage in Orthodoxy that the madman is the man of one idea, Chesterton points out that advocates of “facts” in education do not really understand what a fact is. “Facts as facts do not always create a spirit of reality, because reality is a spirit. Facts by themselves can often feed a flame of madness, because sanity is a spirit.”

And this gets to the heart of what Chesterton is driving at. Madmen lack a sense of “proportion in a thing.” They really believe that Herodotus wrote Homer, or that the Great Pyramid “was a prophesy of the Great War.” Thus, we begin to see that “classical education” is not so “useless in the battle of life.” When Chesterton said that sanity or reality is a “spirit” not a “fact”, he meant precisely what we mentioned before from Plato—that the real world includes the understanding of it. Understanding is a spiritual thing, though rooted in really existing things, even ultimately in divine things.

It is not facts that are important but what lies behind and in them, their spirit, their causes, their truth. We hear much of the idea of culture. “What culture does, or ought to do, is to give a health of the mind that is parallel to the health of the body. It is ultimately a matter of intellectual instincts. A sane man knows when something would drive him mad, just as a man standing up knows at what angle he would fall down.” What causes this sanity is the careful reading of the Latin and Greek works, including the words of Scripture. “That is why the great men I have named (Johnson and Stevenson), so different in their natures, felt that the classics did count somehow in the battle of life.”

Though it is not bad, practical education is not enough. “Here is the door, here is the open air, Itur in antiquam silvam.” We know that for such a mind lunacies will always be lesser matters and sanity be like the open air.” The careful reading of the classical authors gives us the image of an ordered soul and an ordered city when this ordered life does not exist in the polity or culture to which we belong. This is the freedom Plato meant by the “city in speech.” This is why it can be said that in the battle of life, the classics free us. This is why we still read them.

In conclusion, let me say, that it is an illusion to think that if we study the classics, including the Christian classics, under the aspect of their truth, of their “non-necessity,” of their freedom, we will be missing something important. It is the other way around. If we do not study them, we will miss almost everything that is important.

I do not here intend to denigrate practical and efficient things. The improvement and humanization of the world is itself a major reason why man is in it. But he also exists to know what he is, what the world is, and in knowing them, what their origins are, why there is something, not nothing, why is this thing not that thing. We do not “believe” in ourselves. We “believe in God” as itself the last step in knowing why we exist in the first place. One cannot “keep quiet about a study if we know that it is noble and true.” Surely Plato was right. If there is any real excitement in academia, surely it is here.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.