The Form of True Education

The classical tradition and the Church teach us to attend to a more fundamental reality: to being formed, so that we may exist more fully as human beings, formed by our knowledge of what is beautiful, good, and true.

Detail from "The School Of Athens" (1510-11) by Raphael []

Editor’s note: The following essay is a summary of an address given at Martin Saints Classical High School, in May 2019.


Modern education as we have known it for a century now tries to impart a formless flexibility, as if a human being were a “jack knife,” infinitely adaptable to whatever task should be encountered. We associate this vision of education with the pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey, and the appealingly open, but really vapid, conceit of teaching students “to learn how to learn.” But life is a matter of becoming formed, of taking on the substantial shape that completes our nature and makes us to be some specific, good creation, rather than simply a mutable multi-tool.

St. Augustine described sin as the condition of being “divided against oneself,” by which he meant sin disfigures, misshapes, fragments, and deforms the soul. Sin is a perennial problem; a specifically modern problem is one which T.S. Eliot described in his homage to the late music hall performer, Marie Lloyd. There, he observes that the middle classes of his day had fallen into “protoplasm.” Such persons lack substance, have become mere consumers, what later writers will call an “undifferentiated mass” of urban and suburban dwellers who lack the clearly defined and definite character of earlier ages.

Human beings should not be amorphous, gray blobs, faceless drudges drifting through the streets on their way to work, Eliot claimed, though that’s exactly what they had become. Rather, they ought to be like a medieval stained glass window, a thing of bright color and firm border. They should be like Lloyd herself, a voluptuous personality, a bit vulgar perhaps, but unmistakable both in her individuality and in her capacity to represent a whole culture and draw in a whole community with her music.

Though Eliot lamented formlessness as a peculiarly modern condition, Dante shows us, in his Inferno, and following the Book of Revelation, that it is the tepid soul, the one undefined by a firm choice for good or evil, that is the most contemptible of creatures. Following a flag from left to right and without end, it is the lukewarm who envy the more clearly defined fate of every other soul. No matter the era of our birth, we sense instinctively that we want to attain a fullness of form, an clear definition of personality, and not to remain either formless or self-divided or lukewarm.

To embark on the study of the liberal arts is an act of self-formation: an act of subjecting oneself to, and falling in love with, works that have been definitely formed and which may form us in turn. The scholar’s life is sometimes solitary, but is richest when undertaken within the form of a sound institution: the form of a school containing and initiating one into the forms of many good things, from Homer and Virgil to Plato and Aristotle; from Aquinas and Dante to Newman and Hopkins; from Thérèse of Lisieux and Edith Stein to Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

The Church herself teaches that we are to be formed. But what is “form”?

In classical and scholastic philosophy, “form” is the quiddity, the specifying “whatness” of a thing that makes it to have a proper nature, to be one thing rather than another. Form is the active principle of existence; to be unformed or deformed is not to exist or to exist barely and badly.

Deweyite principles of education generally have a view to helping us to “subsist,” to scrape out a living within our lives, those lives being in themselves taken for granted and left unexamined. They teach us to value no particular form as good in itself and even to become suspicious of all claims of value. A supposed flexibility and mutability of mind naturally leads to a refusal of all thought of fulfillment and definition. In order to preserve our freedom potentially to know anything, we refuse the gift of actually knowing something.

The classical tradition and the Church teach us to attend to a more fundamental reality: to being formed, so that we may exist more fully as human beings, formed by our knowledge of what is beautiful, good, and true.

Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans, states, “those whom” the Father “foreknew he also predestined to be conformed [italics mine] to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). The word “symmorphos” in Paul’s Greek means to have the form (morphos) together with (sym) Christ. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar explains Paul’s meaning by re-describing the life of the Christian precisely as this act of being formed to the form of Christ:

What is a person without this? What is a person without a life-form, that is to say, without a form which he has chosen for his life, a form into which and through which to pour out his life, so that his life becomes the soul of the form and the form becomes the expression of his soul?

We were deformed by sin, but now have been whipped into shape; we were flabby and ill-defined with our boredom and mediocrity, but now have been given the shape of Christ that our life-form, our story, may take on heroic dimensions. Von Balthasar speaks of form as the “primal phenomenon.” There’s no getting behind it. But there’s also no getting beyond it; if we want to live well, we must become creatures with a form proper to ourselves, our personalities having a definite portrait, our lives having a definite plot, our aims a definite end.

This language of form comes to us originally from classical philosophy. For the ancients, to be per se is to be formed. For Plato, it was by participating in a form, that is, in a subsisting truth, an eternal idea beyond the rim of heaven, that a given particular thing in this fluctuating and unstable world takes on actuality and participates in reality. For Aristotle, it was the union and composition of the form, or essence, and matter that caused things to exist in their own right.

Form is the word for what it means for something to be actualized; to be made real; to be something rather than nothing; to be knowable to others and to share in the whole pageant of beings that participate in the order of reality and give themselves to be known and contemplated.

There is more. The ancients rightly defined beauty as the splendor of form, as form and splendor. That is, they understood reality primarily as a shining-out of existent form, giving itself away as a gratuitous good destined to participate in the existence of others as part of the physical cosmos and the interior cosmos of knowing minds. Things are beautiful insofar as the more clearly defined they are the more they transcend themselves and participate more richly in reality as a whole. To exist is to be formed; to stand out as beautiful is to be properly formed, to have a fullness of existence.

No wonder then, classical education seeks to form the soul so that it has a magnanimous, that is to say, a great-souled form, both inside and out, as it were. It seeks to give the soul a fullness of figure that goes beyond itself in splendor. When it is attained, the soul is perfected, that is to say, wholly beautiful.

And, if sin is dis-figuring then it must be ugly; therefore, a beautiful soul is a saved soul, a soul conformed to Christ. For this reason, Augustine lifted up words of prayer to God, after his conversion, by proclaiming, “Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new.”

The Church takes its mission from these words of Augustine. It proclaims itself the caretaker of forms, the “arbiter of the arts” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 122). It would give form to all things so that existence itself holds together in beauty, both the beauty of beings here and now, but also the beauty that is to come in the glory of the Kingdom of God.

Thus, the Church forms priests for their ordination, to lead and govern itself, which is the body of Christ, the embodied form of Christ himself. Thus, it forms our year, our daily life, with the liturgical year. It forms our topography by placing its churches at the heart of every town and village. It forms our language through prayer, our bodies with the liturgy and the rigors of asceticism. It forms above all our minds, through proclaiming the word, and through governing and guiding the making of every good thing—especially the fine arts—so that our eyes, our ears, our thoughts are conformed to the image, the shape, of good things, those noble forms.

The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote, “to civilize is to spiritualize.” Civilization is just the total form drawing together all the forms that fill our lives. The better formed a civilization is, the better formed will we be. Our spirits will grow by being formed. And the telos, the goal, of all forming is to be conformed to Christ. Our goal in life is to become formed in the image of the divine beauty of the Son, the image of God. We are called to become children of God, divinized.

The classical dimension of education refers specifically to the treasury of forms, of many good things, that constitute a culture. By inundating ourselves with such forms, our soul is at once softened and refined, and rendered more firm and definite. We leave behind what smacks of primitive necessity, but only as we acquire things of greater value. The Catholic dimension of education is to illuminate and order all those forms—those definite good forms—into a coherent and well-formed (splendid) whole, all directed to Christ, whose form, imprinted upon us, reshaping us, redeems us, and draws us to eternal life.

Classical education is a restoration of real education. Catholic Classical education reunites the spiritual and intellectual formation of souls so that there will be no division, no disfigurement, of that soul on its path from form to form, good to good, on its way to the sovereign Good in whose presence we are conformed to the divine and made holy.

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About James Matthew Wilson 25 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).


  1. Great essay. I have heard of the church as a “Hospital for sinners” but this is the first time I have heard the church as also being a ‘Gym for the spiritually flabby’ – love it! Perfect anecdote to our intellectually and spiritually fast-food contemporary culture.

  2. True to the contents about the absolutely vital role of forms in this magnificent article, I will first enter into the form of it by first using a gentle summary of it and then by including some insights received in prayer to God as well. Modern education now tries to impart a formless flexibility, as if a human being is just a tool. But life is a matter of becoming formed, like in the womb, taking on the substantial shape that makes us an absolutely unique human being, and not a generic multi-tool, being just an ideological, ultra-equal, undifferentiated mass, a heartless blob. A blob is desperately narcissist, trying vainly to shape and fill its formless emptiness in demented ways, wanting to know everything, and therefore knowing nothing.

    True Love is a very definite form (Jesus Christ) and many of us hate forms and the God who created them in all that exists. That’s why indifference to good and evil makes ideal tools for insanity, violence, communism and social suicide. It’s also why the unborn babies are so hated by some, where impersonal, generic amino acids take the form of an absolutely unique human being in the divinely infused form at the glorious moment of conception. To exist is to have a fullness of form in God, a beauty, goodness and truth that we adore in animals and Nature but totally despise in ourselves. Growing daily to be shaped to Godly form in Jesus Christ is total freedom: ultimate, Grace-evolved human personhood.

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