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Classical Christian Movement

Can Virtue Be Taught?

By January 1, 2014January 27th, 2023No Comments

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100 years ago, Europe began its long, slow suicide in The Great War. It may well have been the greatest tragedy of the last millennium.

A year earlier, Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shocked by the treachery of one of its rising military stars. Colonel Redl, among the highest-ranking commoners, hope of the middle class in a steeply hierarchal society, recently head of Austrian counter-intelligence, was discovered selling highly classified information to the Russians. It seems that his need to provide luxuries for his paramour, a young officer called Stefan Hromodka, had driven him to betray the Empire. “Like a riptide the disaster churned through the Empire,” said author Frederick Morton.

C. S. Lewis famously said in The Abolition of Man, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

What is a man without a chest, and what is the link between the chest and virtue? And what has all this to do with Christian classical education in our 21stst century? Lewis is defending a position that is ancient because it is perennial: that humans possess an organ that resides between the head and the heart, the tending of which determines the well being of the soul and of society. Contemporary education disdains that organ. Following Homer, Plato, and others, Lewis calls it the chest.

It is in the chest that we are sensitive to honor, which opens us to the possibility of great evil (such as eating fruit when told it will make us God-like), yet also raises us above the utilitarian striving of the beasts, whose goal consists of comfortable survival and who put no thought into the artistry of their songs, homes, prayers, or meals. Lewis wisely sees the link between virtue, honor, and the chest.

Homer also believed that virtue depends on a healthy chest (“thumos” was his word for it). His love of virtue compelled him to write two nearly perfect epics that revolve around the two noble virtues of wisdom and justice. In the one on wisdom, Homer went so far as to give the name Arete to the queen of his idyllic, “faery” island. Arete is Greek for virtue.

Plato opened his dialogue, Meno, with the primal pedagogical question: “Can virtue be taught?” Socrates,

Plato’s Odysseus, questing for wisdom through many wanderings and transformations, shows Meno an answer that Meno seems unable to hear. He teaches virtue before his very eyes by teaching a slave-boy geometry. Socrates opens the boy’s mind to a truth the boy had failed to see previously, and he also whispered a truth into the minds of those of Plato’s readers who had ears to hear.

Plato had inherited the tradition of the “four cardinal virtues” on which every other virtue hinged (“cardinal” is Latin for “hinge”): wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. When Christ came, He showed that the truth sought by the Greeks depended on the spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and love. These three plus four became the seven cardinal virtues on which all human society and personal growth depend.

The attentive reader is perhaps wondering why I argued that Socrates was teaching virtue to a slave-boy when he was teaching him a simple geometry lesson. He may also wonder what that has to do with the seven cardinal virtues. These are such pregnant questions that I will encourage you to make them the matter of your own reflections and will content myself to take only one of the multifarious paths that open before us.

The Christian classical tradition speaks of at least four kinds of virtue: physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual. Each is good, because each enables us to function as human beings. Strength is better than weakness, memory than obliviousness, justice than bias, and faith than distrust. The four depend on each other.

It is fascinating; in a way it is a relief to see that each of these virtues is taught after the same pattern, which I will call Socratic coaching. Briefly, it involves modeling, imitating, reviewing, and refining the virtue taught, which is how Socrates taught the slave-boy intellectual virtue through geometry.

Consequently, we can observe how Socrates teaches the slave-boy, how Christ disciples the twelve, how a wise parent cultivates his children’s moral sensibilities, and how Vince Lombardi prepares his players. These reveal the challenging simplicity by which every master can cultivate the fitting virtues in his disciples.

Sadly, the teacher without a virtue can neither model nor assess it. That may explain why we teachers tend to fall back on rituals and moralism (like the Imperial Austrians) and affix the label of rebellion to any movement by the student toward self-mastery.

The second great pedagogical question is whether everybody can be taught. In Socrates’ day, most assumed that slaves were not teachable. Thus most could never see Socrates’ answer to Meno. Shakespeare deals with the same question in his magisterial wonder The Tempest. In it, Prospero the schoolmaster numbers among his students his daughter Miranda (whose name can be translated, “She who must be wondered at”) and Caliban (whose name seems to be an anagram for an early spelling of canibal).

Prospero gives up on Caliban, though perhaps Shakespeare does not. You and I, however, teach neither admirable Miranda nor incorrigible Caliban. We teach humans, neither angels nor beasts: potentially, men with chests.

The standard of our teaching cannot be the college and career focus of the Common Core for geldings. It must be the cultivation of virtue in those Mirandas we teach – those who must be wondered at first and taught only in the light of that wonder. For it is only in that wonder that we can fulfill our duty to awaken them “from the slumber of cold vulgarity”(Lewis again) and turn their opened eyes to the splendors of the virtuous soul. “For the glory of God,” said St. Irenaeus, “is the man fully alive.”