Why a Classical Education?
Education, as Plato tells us, is the turning of the soul. True education turns the soul from mere appetite to a thoughtful understanding of what is worthy of love. Why? So that we may love each thing in God’s cosmos with the measure of affection due to its being and its role in the economy of creation. God has provided two great cities as means to achieve the pilgrimage to our heavenly goal. These are called by the Church Fathers the cities of Athens and Jerusalem.
What the early fathers meant by Athens was the extraordinary achievement of mind that occurred in that ancient city. By natural human faculties, reason led Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to understand that reason was meant to lead to a proper assessment of what is Good, what is True and what is Beautiful. Literature embodies the highest thoughts and aspirations of man in each and all times. It is the first and most powerfully emotional of all teachers, and woe to a people who leave it in the hands of the foolish or depraved. Logic enables man to separate what is just and true from what is only apparently so. Mathematics and astronomy, all of science, trace out the divine order and infinitely complex plan of the physical world and show God’s fingerprints in that lovely design of the Nature. Rhetoric and music are the means to show the beauty of a thought or embody that beauty in something which a human being might enact. History tells of the unfolding of God’s plan in the world of man and Man’s responses, for good or ill, to that plan. Of course each of these disciplines and knowledges interpenetrates and illumines each other, ultimately leading man up a ladder of love, all the way to God.
This great achievement of Athens, that put the Good, the True and the Beautiful at the center of human life rather than wealth, power, and cruelty, was the inspiration for Rome’s statesmen and her greatest poet Virgil, whose Aeneid told the Roman Empire that she owed her power to the will of God, and that all political powers and human efforts are parts of a master plan, subordinated to the purposes of a benevolent and all-seeing Will and Guide. How strange that so many Americans have forgotten what a pagan knew two thousand years ago! Is it any wonder that education must go back to ancient sources rather than naming as progress any may-fly fad of the present? The founding fathers of the United States shaped their ideals in large part on the Roman ideals of Virgil and Cicero, who in their turn, owed their civilized minds to Greek schoolmasters.
Yet Athens is always incomplete. Because human reason alone is not capable, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, of discovering what must be revealed by God. No human mind ever imagined the creation from nothing; nor the incarnation of God as man—what we know as the hypostatic union of two natures—one divine, one human, in one person; nor the coexistence of three persons in one substance of the Divine Trinity, nor the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the means of our Salvation; nor the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. These truths no amount of science, mathematics, logic or imagination could envision, had they not been first revealed. These truths were reserved for Jerusalem. The Catholic Church is the new Jerusalem where the deposit of God’s revelations is treasured up and followed. What need has such a city of Athenian learning? It is no accident that the Aramaic scriptures were soon put into the Greek Septuagint and later into the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. The early fathers debated the heresies of their fellow believers using the logical distinguishing which Socrates had taught the world. They wrote in heartbreakingly beautiful language of the mysteries of God, and simple believers painted lovely frescoes in the catacombs of Rome. Everywhere the use of Athenian/Roman learning became the vehicle for the revelations of Jerusalem. The great culmination of that process was in the work of St. Augustine where the finest of Athens met the holiest of Jerusalem after the tears of Monica had prevailed upon our Lord to give faith to her son. Ever since, all through the High Middle Ages, beauty, truth and goodness have been unlocked from the staggeringly compressed truths of Jerusalem by the techniques of art, science, logic and rhetoric. The Doctrines of the Trinity or of the hypostatic union or transubstantiation were not bluntly and clearly outlined by Jerusalem, but the Church came to know them through the combined actions of the Holy Spirit and the techniques of logical analysis. The beauty of the face of Christ or of His Blessed Mother were not described but repeatedly imaged by the glorious imagination of men who knew that there must be visual analogues to holiness, to submission, to wisdom, to justice. Gregorian chant, Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina’s polyphony, and later Bach’s cantatas taught us how to sing a music fit for the glories of God.
For while it certainly does not always require the knowledge of Athens to come to the city of God, in God’s economy of salvation such knowledge, the knowledge of the Classical Liberal Arts, the trivium and quadrivium, has been a steady guide to the infinite complexity of His ways to man.