Christianity came historically out of Judaism. But when the classical cultures of Greece and Rome were subsumed in Christianity, the fathers of the Church did not reject the concept of an ideal man. While they reviled the vices of the Romans, they did not reject their virtues. The cardinal virtues theorized about by the Greeks and practiced by the Romans―justice, temperance, courage, and prudence―were fully accepted by Christian thinkers. But at the same time they saw their insufficiency. Rather than rejecting the concept of an ideal man, the Christians informed the concept with new life. To the cardinal virtues of the ancients they added the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.
To the Christians, the ideal man was Christ, the second Adam. While Homer’s Achilles was born of a mortal father and an immortal mother, Christ was born of a mortal mother and the immortal Father; while fictional Achilles was half god, half man, the historical Christ was fully God and fully man.
When G. K. Chesterton said that Christianity was the “fulfillment of paganism,” this is what he meant: not that Christianity was a further development of ancient paganism, but that ancient paganism (or at least the Greek and Roman form of it) was a stunted form of a truth that they, as men made in the image of God, knew was there but didn’t have direct access to.
This is what Lewis meant too when he contrasted paganism and modern secularism, saying that paganism was as a virgin and modern secularism like a divorceé in relation to Christianity. Modern secularism rejects the truth it knows; the paganism of the Greeks and Romans accepted a truth they had no way of knowing.
And one of the truths modern secularism rejects is the existence of any human ideal. It cannot accept the concept of an ideal man because it does not believe in man, but only in men. In fact, it rejects all transcendent truth. This is part of the reason that the classical education that was once taught in schools has been abandoned: because it was a scandal to the modern mind. This is why, in the course of about two decades around the turn of the 20th century, a new philosophy of education took control of schools. In several waves, beginning in the 1920’s, first progressivism, whose goal is to change the culture, and then pragmatism, whose goal is to fit children to the culture, took control of schools. The goal of passing on a culture passed away. Latin, the chief means of learning grammar, the first of the liberal arts, was made a specialty subject in high schools and then eliminated altogether. Classic literature and history―the primary means of teaching cultural values―still hangs on, but only by a thread. These subjects cannot meet the new (and mostly meaningless) criterion of “career readiness.”
Modern schools talk about “cooperation,” after having abandoned the literature that once taught students how human beings related to one another. They champion “creativity” in the very act of stifling the imagination. They rattle on about “critical thinking skills” after having abandoned the only program that has any right to the title: the liberal arts.
If you want to conduct an interesting experiment, there is a very simple question you can ask the next time your educator friend tells you how much he thinks we need to teach critical thinking skills. Let him finish his sermon, and then ask, “Could you define critical thinking skills for me?”
You will never see a blanker stare.
Modern educators have abandoned the very things that are required to accomplish the goals they profess to admire. They have, in Lewis’ words, removed the organ whose function they demand. “They castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Classical education is not only the best way to educate children classically, it is the only way to educate them at all. It is not just the best form of Christian education, it is the only kind of education that can accomplish the purpose of secular education.
“It is only Christian men,” said Chesterton, that “guard even heathen things.”
While we look down our noses at the Greeks and Romans because they worshiped man, we burn incense to the basest god of all: the Self.