Grant Horner argues that John Milton has much to teach us about developing a strong moral compass.

John Milton’s Areopagitica stands utterly alone in the great Western intellectual tradition. It was central to the rights of freedom of thought and expression n America’s founding and is the single greatest anti-censorship argument ever penned. But in that same summer of 1644, Milton also wrote a much shorter, less-known work. Of Education, like Areopagitica, stands alone. Today, it still occupies primacy of place in arguments for a classical Christian education—and with good reason.

The Puritan John Milton has been called the greatest genius of the seventeenth century—the “century of genius.” This is the age of Shakespeare, of the greatest Puritan theologians, and of Francis Bacon’s invention of inductive rationalism: the scientific method. Milton attended Saint Paul’s School in London, where the classical curriculum and intense study of the Bible and ancient languages prepared him not only for Cambridge University but also for a long life as one of England’s most-beloved poets and most-hated political polemicists—and, perhaps, its deepest thinker about Christianity and culture. Milton mastered about a dozen languages and had facility in several others, was said to have his Homer and his Bible “by heart,” and, by all scholarly account, apparently read everything available in the seventeenth century. He is best known for his epic Paradise Lost, but his staggering output fills a sizeable shelf of poetry and prose, theology and politics, history and cultural critique. A major intellectual force in the Commonwealth government both before and after the beheading of Charles I, he wrote extensively supporting that first toppling of a European king; his first publication – a poem on Shakespeare – came at the tender age of 23 in the second edition of Shakespeare’s works; and he befriended the most famous “religious prisoner” in Europe: Galileo. And, yes — he looked through that very first telescope. Milton hardly fits the stereotypical image of a Puritan.

Then, if you can imagine such a disaster for a brilliant scholar, whose lives are their eyes: in his early forties at the height of his fame and influence, he went blind.

What he produced—his greatest long poems and many other works—after his blindness is indeed staggering and shows the power of a great mind dedicated to God. Of Education lays out his views on classical Christian education. It is essential reading for those involved in the current revival of the ancient model.

Milton begins with one of his most famous lines: “The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.” The goal of learning, for a Christian, is to begin the process of recovering from the damage of the Fall. Milton does not believe that education removes or alters the fallen nature. But ignorance is a costly way to live, and education should always teach us about ourselves, our world, and our God. It thus has the possibility of making us better people who live more wisely in this world and who love God more and more.

The problem according to Milton is that languages and other disciplines are taught poorly and unwisely. Most students have a disastrous experience: “So that they having but newly left those Grammatick flats and shallows where they stuck unreasonably to learn a few words with lamentable construction, and now on the sudden transported under another climate to be tost and turmoil’d with their unballasted wits in fadomless and unquiet deeps of controversie, do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of Learning … while they expected worthy and delightful knowledge.” Students are dragged, unready, into deep, complex issues before they can even parse sentences. As a result, they grow weary and contemptuous of learning.

Milton has a plan. “I shall detain you no longer in the demonstration of what we should not do, but strait conduct ye to a hill side, where I will point ye out the right path of a vertuous and noble Education; laborious indeed at the first ascent, but else so smooth, so green, so full of goodly prospect, and melodious sounds on every side, that the Harp of Orpheus was not more charming.” A truly virtuous and noble education is difficult at first, yes, but his metaphor of ascending a hill is perfect. The first steps are painful, but, as we warm to the work, our pace quickens, our view widens, and we gain new prospects from higher positions with each passing day. Learning, instead of drudgery, becomes a thrilling adventure of exploration, challenging the mind and satisfying the soul.

Milton’s full curriculum and pedagogy is beyond the scope of a short essay, but his text, though dense, is not long. He delineates a strong course of study grounded in the humanities and languages, rounded out with science, mathematics, and athletics — including wrestling and swordsmanship! Intense reading, writing, and Socratic discussion are designed to form a critical, discerning mind. The teacher’s qualities are crucial: “he who hath the Art, and proper Eloquence to catch them with, what with mild and effectual perswasions, and what with the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example, might in a short space gain them to an incredible diligence and courage: infusing into their young brests such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men.” The teacher must be someone worth imitating in both life and thought.

Milton comes to the crux of his curriculum, however, with the vexed issue of significant texts containing good and containing evil. The truly educated Christian must neither remain provincial nor bask in filth. How to strike the balance? Areopagitica famously argues against censorship: all minds must be free to choose what they accept or reject as wise, true, and valuable; otherwise virtue, being unexercised, will wither. But in Of Education his tactic is somewhat different. Areopagitica is a recommendation for a grown-up world of ideas; Of Education is about preparing young Christian minds for service.

So, after leading the students through the best that has been said and thought, Milton comes to the dangerous arena of risky material: “By this time, years and good general precepts will have furnisht them more distinctly with that act of reason which in Ethics is call’d Proairesis: that they may with some judgement contemplate upon moral good and evil.” Somewhere around the age of 13 or 14, students are finally exposed to morally problematic texts: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; the plays of Aristophanes or much of Shakespeare; Dido and Aeneas in the cave; and most dangerous of all—the pagan philosophers and their views on matters of morality and truth. All of these cultural objects will deviate more or less from the tenets of Scripture, and, because they will do so interestingly, beautifully, and persuasively, the teacher must be extraordinarily diligent: “Then will be requir’d a special reinforcement of constant and sound endoctrinating to set them right and firm, instructing them more amply in the knowledge of Vertue and the hatred of Vice: while their young and pliant affections are led through all the moral works of Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, Plutarch, Laertius, and those Locrian remnants…”

A child can be educated without experiencing the complex and often tempting moral dilemmas found in many “adult” texts; but an adult cannot be educated without grappling with these ideas at a certain minimal level. Children can be taught Aesop’s fables as well as the Biblical Proverbs. But they do not yet need to read Plato’s Republic or Euthyphro, or Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. They are incapable of the kind of subtle moral reasoning required for and created by reading such works. But the shift from puberty to adolescence changes everything. Education should produce adults by slowly and with great care walking them through the moral complexities of the fallen world. It takes mature judgment to contemplate evil and to reject it. But that is what virtue is.

The skill that is introduced and developed at this age is called proaeresis and is first found in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. It could be transliterated “divide before” and is etymologically related to the word “heresy.” Its semantic range includes the ideas of moral choice, will, and character. In Milton it means making moral distinctions regarding ideas, actions, or objects. It means dividing between good and evil by assenting to or rejecting what is at hand. This skill can only be learned by having the opportunity to make a mistake, or a bad decision. It is thus inherently dangerous.

How does the teacher develop proaeresis in the student without leading him or her into moral destruction? By the classical—and also biblical—method of comparative reading and discernment. Hebrews 5:12-14 reads: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of
the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” While the subject here—strong meat versus milk—is mature theology as opposed to infant theology, the principle of learning and discernment is transferable. Maturity comes not from remaining in an infantile state of cloistered seclusion from error but rather from learning to recognize it as error. The senses must be “exercised” in order to learn how to discern.

And what is the key, the necessary ingredient to rightly guide the impressionable mind of young adults as they learn to practice discernment in the real world? Milton’s reading program has its grounding, not in the pagans, though they make up a significant part of the curriculum by necessity. But after they study the works of man each day, all that they have learned is “still to be reduc’t in their nightward studies wherewith they close the dayes work, under the determinate sentence of David or Salomon, or the Evanges and Apostolic Scriptures.” In other words, read what men have to say—then compare it diligently with Scripture. Let the wisdom of Solomon, the worship of David, the hope of the gospels, and the theology of Paul “reduce” or “boil down” mere human texts to whatever truths the pagans may have produced. The word of God is a sharp sword (Hebrews 4:12), very handy for paring down the works of men, which are always shifting, irresolute, filled with attractive error mixed with some goodness and beauty. The Scriptures are instead called the “determinate sentence”; they are the final word, the ultimate arbiter of everything, the comparative text of the Absolute.

It is worth noting that proaeresis is always linked in classical thought and many early Christian theologians with the move from puberty to adolescence. This is not insignificant. Pagans and Christians have always noted a crucial change in moral awareness as a child becomes
an adult; our social and legal systems reflect this, as do personal expectations. I would argue that this spiritual/ psychological/ethical development is organically linked with the primary physical change of adolescence: our new ability to make fine moral distinctions parallels our new ability to make another human being, another imago dei. At this crucial moment, human accountability before God and man comes fully to fruition.

Cultivating the affections through wisely managed cultural exposure with an eye towards biblical-critical discernment has a significant effect on the moral compass. This is the end, the purpose of Classical Christian education. It is inherently risky. And there are no other options.

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