Sing, O Muse of Classical Education
Updated: Feb 5
The good, the true, and the beautiful is becoming a common slogan or motto. Touting these transcendentals, many new schools, both religious and secular, are popping up that claim to provide a classical education. Many parish schools, like ours, are aiming to recast themselves in this traditional mold.
As our vigorous discussions last August proved, defining classical education is difficult. What does one mean by classical education? Greek and Latin literature? Humanism, getting the best from the past? Classicus (“best of its kind”)?
Today I hope (1) to define classical education, (2) put it in context, and (3) to show how it best delivers on the fortunately fashionable aim of “critical thinking.”
Most reject the conclusions of centuries of learning. George Santayana said, ”Today we no longer bother to refute our predecessors. We simply wave them goodbye.” Tradition is simply unknown and out of style. Certainly, only an atavistic old fogey would bother studying ancient literature, Counter-Reformation polyphony, or “dead” languages like Latin and Greek. St. Newman must have encountered similar resistance when he wrote in his Idea of a University:
Do not suppose, that in thus appealing to the ancients, I am throwing back the world two thousand years, and fettering Philosophy with the reasonings of paganism. While the world lasts, will Aristotle's doctrine on these matters last, for he is the oracle of nature and of truth. While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle; and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it.
T.S. Eliot also described how this unconscious debt is also our wealth: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
The pre-Socratic philosophers were grasping for causes for creation and beginning to question their polytheistic theology. Venerating reason, they posited that material things were composed of water, fire, air, or as Anaxagoras thought, arranged by Mind. A humble attitude toward truth was also being developed. Heraclitus, as Socrates after him, said, “Listen not to me, but to reason.” As we see in Plato’s Symposium, in which the characters argue all night whether a true artist would have to be a master of both tragedy and comedy, drunk or sober, the Greeks were always intoxicated with dialogue. St. Luke comments on this Athenian trait in Acts 17:21 before St. Paul is asked to speak in the Areopagus. “Now all of the Athenians and foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Still the exemplar of a teacher today, Socrates had this Athenian trait to such an extreme that he was satirized by Aristophanes. Eager to disabuse others of false opinions or priorities, Socrates, unlike the famous sophists Gorgias or Protagoras, charged his students nothing. After he crashes the party in the Symposium, Alcibiades, the brilliant playboy of the day, describes being hounded by Socrates’ appeals to the live a better life.
I have heard Pericles and other great orators, but they never stirred my soul or made me angry at living in a way that was no better than a slave. But his man has often brought me to such a pass that I felt I could hardly endure the life I was leading, neglecting the needs of my soul. I have sometimes wished that he was dead.
This concern for the character of one’s students is a mark of a classical education. In fact, Socrates described his relationship with his students as a sort of friendship as they seek a common goal, truth, together. God’s first words in Genesis, Fiat Lux (“Let there be light.”), create the light, which is a perfect analogy for this pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. “As light-seekers and light-givers, the Greeks focused intensively on three areas: the light of reality, the light of reason, and the light of beauty.”
If an Athenian education is classical education, then St. Paul’s Choir School is the premier classical education in New England. For music and mathematics, St. Paul’s strengths, were the principle subjects taught to boys in ancient Athenian grammar schools. The most prestigious secondary school, Plato’s Academy, which lasted for 900 years, had written over its entrance “He that does not know Geometry, may not enter here.” Music, and the study of geometric proofs, were seen as necessary for “critical thinking,” the life of the mind.
I myself marvel that Aristotle studied under Plato for 20 years before tutoring Alexander and starting a school of his own. This approach to knowledge could not be more contrary to Francis Bacon’s ubiquitous “Knowledge is power.” For the Greeks, knowledge was savored and desirable for its own sake. Learning was the most noble, as well as the most fun activity for a “rational animal.” The closest Aristotle came to sounding passionate, was we when he appealed to people to use this gift of reason:
If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything…for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.
For the Greeks, not having the ability or the power to use this rational faculty made one less of a man. “A slave is he who cannot speak his thought,” said Euripides. Citizens of Greece’s neighbors to the East, namely the Persians and the Egesyptians, were essentially slaves without the freedom to speak or to act freely. Even the priestly castes had to beware of the whimsy of the despot. Herodotus’ Histories, is full of stories of wealthy Persians or Magi who happen to say the wrong thing around Darius or Xerxes and suffer horrible consequences like being impaled or having one’s son cut in half or even served to you for dinner. The dignity of the individual, freedom, or democratic government simply did not exist elsewhere as it did in the Greek West. Much like totalitarian countries today (the head of the opposition party in Russia was poisoned last week), the virtue in these societies was having the self-control to resist offending the despot. What a contrast the Spartan messengers are who refuse to kneel before Xerxes saying that “it was not their custom to prostrate themselves before any human being.”
Edith Hamilton said that, “the Greeks changed a world that was full of fear into a world full of beauty.” Their victories over much larger Persian armies at Marathon and Salamis, caused them to grow in confidence. Later in the 12th century St. Dominic, tired of having his priests lose street arguments to the Cathar heretics, sent his priests to the University of Paris to learn Greek philosophy. From then on, the Dominicans prevailed in their town square debates and spawned an intellectual revolution in theology which culminated in St. Thomas Aquinas. What we call Western Civilization is both Athens and Rome.
Before defining classical education, we should look at education itself. The word is used equivocally constantly. Presuming that students are wise enough to know what is good for them, today, in most universities, education is a sort of vocational training for their major in which students also learn about personality and psychology, rather than ethics. Traditionally, education is a sort of well roundedness that results from studying many different arts and sciences which leaves one knowing what degree of precision each science can demand. According to Aristotle, it should make one a critical thinker.
For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgement as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this…We only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge. (Parts of Animals 639a5-11)
Classical education is a modern term to differentiate this traditional meaning education from its modern vocational peers. I define classical education as one whose curriculum (“race course”) spans the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) and geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium) and whose students, long for the truth and are enthused by Socratic discussion to discover it on their own becoming free men in the process.
Communicating all of the above to parents, to whom this may sound stodgy and even snobby, is a tall order. When I was helping to start the Lyceum School, our first headmaster, when presenting to new parents, quipped that we were going to “have the kids wear tweed jackets and issue them pipes.” Instead, we started a Plato book club for the parents to have them experience this type of truth seeking for themselves. Once they had “feasted,” as Plato aptly describes intellectual dialogues in the Lysis, it was an easy sell. For, as Aristotle begins his Metaphysics, “all men by nature desire to know.”
Eric Maurer holds a Masters in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies from Brandeis and teaches Math, Science, and Latin at St. Paul’s Choir School.