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Classical Christian Movement

Truth and the Classical Curriculum

By October 1, 2014January 25th, 2023No Comments

One argument for Classical Christian education is its practical effectiveness. An educated human being needs to command language and mathematics. The best route to teach the arts of language begins with grammar, proceeds to logic or dialectic and culminates in rhetoric. Some
feel that this route parallels the way children develop. Others believe that learning any subject proceeds through these stages, from memorizing fundamentals to learning how to manipulate them to attaining real creativity. In the arts of mathematics, the quadrivium, students learn the basics, arithmetic, then how to apply these basics to two- and three-dimensional objects, geometry, with reasons for every step and then proceed to science, specifically astronomy, and music. (Obviously geometry is a good propaedeutic for other arts, such as painting or architecture.) Since this scheme of learning can be applied to all subjects, it might seem a matter of indifference what subjects, topics and works are used in actually teaching our students.

Classical educators have not drawn this conclusion, however. In the fourth century AD, after the emperor Constantine declared the Christian faith a legal cult, Christian educators worked on defining the curricular content of Classical Christian education.

Since the ancient world the grammar stage of language was taught using Latin. “Grammar schools” taught Latin grammar. (During the Renaissance ancient Greek became part of the curriculum because the New Testament was written in Greek.) The content of the “reading list” was two-fold: Biblical and Classical. This double reading list could have introduced a sharp difference between the works of the Two Canons. The classical works of the curriculum were of high artistic quality, like Homer and Plato in Greek or Virgil and Cicero in Latin, but they did not possess the authority of Holy Scripture and contained polytheism and other ethical and religious errors. The Bible, on the other hand, taught divine truth infallibly, but its artistic quality varied from great literature like Isaiah or Job to plain and simple narratives such as Mark’s Gospel. There have always been those who made this distinction, from Augustine in the fourth century, who in his Confessions objected to being led

to feel sympathy for Dido because of the beauty of Virgil’s verse, to Jan Comenius in the seventeenth, who denounced the immoral stories of Greek myth and Roman paganism.

For the most part, however, over the centuries classically educated Christians have been impressed by the truth found in the beauty of ancient literature. Naturally they acknowledged that the Christian faith contained truths known to us only by revelation in the Bible, for instance, Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. The great works of pagan literature, however, contained within their beauty important ethical, philosophical and even religious truths that made them essential for a liberal arts education. This point was made in the fourth century by Augustine’s Greek Christian contemporary, Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea. In his “Address to Young People, on how to profit from Pagan Literature,” he urged his nephews not to be misled by the religious errors of pagan literature into ignoring the moral truths found in works from Homer’s Odyssey to Plato’s dialogues. Those truths were like the fruit found on trees whose leaves gave pleasure to the eyes and also protected the fruit. Pagan literature contained inappropriate elements, but the great works combined beauty and truth to provide an excellent basis for a liberal arts education for Christians.

Homer and Plato were the highest exemplars of Greek pagan literature; Virgil and Cicero held a similar position in Latin literature. Does their artistic beauty explain their continuing role in the classical curriculum? Why, for instance, did colonial colleges like Harvard and William and Mary insist that young men demonstrate the ability to read the orations and dialogues of Cicero to gain admission? I suggest the reason was Cicero’s character as much as his talent. Cicero (106-43 BC) was a popular politician, who rose to the highest office in republican Rome, the consulship. He was a successful defense attorney, who also prosecuted a few significant cases. He composed dialogues on rhetoric, politics and ethics and wrote letters that are models of the genre. Cicero’s range of accomplishments inspired the ideal of the Renaissance man, the man for all seasons. In our own time we appeal to the specialist, the expert. During the great creative periods of the modern age from the Renaissance through the American Founding, the opposite was true. Men as different as David Hume, Edmund Burke and John Adams took Cicero as their model in their careers and writings. Bright amateurs knew Cicero in ways that no specialist does today because today’s academic specialists do not model their lives on Cicero. His influence encouraged many educated folk to strive for lives that balanced philosophical thought and political action. The care and brilliance of Cicero’s epistles encouraged Jefferson to devote similar attention to his letters. Burke spent years prosecuting Warren Hastings for his mistreatment of the people of India in imitation of Cicero’s prosecution of Varro for his abuse of the people of Sicily. Hume’s Dialogue on Natural Religion carefully imitated Cicero’s dialogues. These are only some eighteenth century figures decisively influenced by Cicero’s life and example. Their ideal was a man who balanced a thoughtful ethical life with active participation in politics. Their wide-ranging creativity and deep commitment to consensual institutions reflected their admiration for the kind of excellence they found in Cicero’s life and works.

Virgil (70-19 BC), the other peak of Latin literature was equally influential. His poetry has played an important role in education since the Aeneid was first published under the Emperor Augustus. Almost every Latin poet after its appearance responded to it in admiration, imitation, competition or parody. It is the most commonly quoted work among the graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii. Its role in education continued into Christian times. The one surviving speech of the emperor Constantine devotes pages to explicating Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue as a prophecy of the birth of Our Lord. (Constantine’s “Address to the Assembly of the Saints” is preserved in a Greek translation made by the fourth century Church historian, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea.) Manuscripts of Virgil’s works copied in the ancient world still survive, one of the few ancient texts beside the Bible of which that can be said.

Virgil’s works were copied and used as school texts from the time of the revival of Classical education in the days of Charlemagne. They continued to be taught, studied and read with the humanist and Reformation reforms of medieval education in the early modern period. Classical education, including reading Virgil, continued to be the gold standard for education throughout the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century Virgil was the standard author read in fourth year Latin in high schools. Reading Virgil was the culmination of pre-collegiate classical education. Apart from the rich vocabulary and subtle use of syntax that studying Latin gave to the founders of modern Europe and America, Virgil played a major role in the lives of students. They took him seriously as a role model and a source of truth.

There is no more significant figure in the popular Christianity of the last century than C. S. Lewis. His Christian apologetics touched many lives. He made important contributions to scholarship and creative writing in science fiction and children’s literature. His conversion to Christianity marked a sharp division in his life, one memorably recounted in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. One area of continuity, not division, is his study and love of the ancient Classics, especially Virgil.

Lewis himself was the product of a classical education, studying Greek and Latin at four English public schools and with a private tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick, the inspiration for Professor Kirke in the Narnia books. Lewis loved Virgil’s Aeneid wholeheartedly (1939).

I have read the Aeneid through more often than I have read any long poem; I have just finished re- reading the Iliad; to lose what I owe to Plato and Aristotle would be like the amputation of a limb. Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek. If any question of the value of classical studies were before us, you would find me on the extreme right. I do not know where the last ditch in our educational war may be at the moment; but point it out to me on the trench map and I will go to it.

In Preface to Paradise Lost Lewis sees clearly that at the heart of the Aeneid lies the question of vocation.

It is the nature of a vocation to appear to men in the double character of a duty and a desire, and Virgil does justice to both…. On the one hand we have Aeneas, who suffers but obeys….On the other hand, we have the women, who have heard the call, and live long in painful obedience, and yet desert at last. Virgil sees their tragedy very clearly. To follow the vocation does not mean happiness: but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow…. The will remains suspended between two equal intolerables.

‘Twixt miserable longing for the present land

And the far realms that call them by the

fates’ command.’

It will be seen that in these two lines Virgil, with no intention of allegory, has described once and for all the very quality of most human life as it is experienced by anyone who has not yet risen to holiness nor sunk to animality. It is not thanks to the Fourth Eclogue alone that he has become almost a great Christian poet. In making his one legend symbolical of the destiny of Rome, he has, willy- nilly, symbolized the destiny of Man.

J. R. R. Tolkien, like his friend, C. S. Lewis, had a classical education, which shaped him as scholar and creative writer. He wrote a family friend, “I was brought up in the classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.” In his important essay on “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” Tolkien turned to Virgil to explain what the Beowulf-poet was trying to do. (In the process he tells us much about what he was to attempt in Lord of the Rings.) “He was, in fact, like Virgil, learned enough in the vernacular department to have an historical perspective…. He knew much about the old days,” but “one thing he knew clearly: those days were heathen—heathen, noble and hopeless…. The poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” “In Beowulf we have, then, an historical poem about the pagan past…. It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who, looking back on the heroism and sorrow, feels in them something permanent and something symbolical.” Beowulf is “his attempt to depict ancient pre- Christian days, intending to emphasize their nobility, and the desire of the good for truth.” Tolkien’s description of Beowulf is also true of Lord of the Rings.

Vocation is one theme not found in Beowulf that is central to Lord of the Rings and the Aeneid. For all their differences, Frodo and Aragorn share a deep sense of vocation. Vocation is linked to destiny, fatum, a key word in the Aeneid. Christians call it Providence. Fate and Providence come from different worldviews, but they touch in the speeches of Jupiter and Anchises. At the end of Book Eight Aeneas picks up his mother’s gift, a shield decorated with scenes from Rome’s future history. “He rejoices in the pictures, though he does not know the events.” (rerumque ignarus imagine gaudet.) Tolkien may have remembered this line as he composed the Council at Rivendell, where Frodo accepts his mission. “I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

We must never ignore the beauty and artistic power of the great works of classical literature, but these works also shaped people’s lives and moral commitments. Cicero gave to key figures from Petrarch in the fourteenth century to Adams and Jefferson, Hume and Burke in the eighteenth a model of the fulfilled human life that they strove to emulate. Virgil did not just achieve high standards of artistic accomplishment, although that is no small gift. He gave to Christians like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien a literary work shaped by a sense of vocation that is both fulfilled and tragic. Vocation is guided in the Aeneid by pagan fatum, which is not the same as, but is also not completely different from Christian providence. Lewis and Tolkien learned many things from their Classical Christian education. Among them is what Tolkien called “nobility and the desire of the good for truth.” We need these traits if we hope to keep the Western Tradition alive.

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