The Church, the School, and the Political Economy of Virtue

The final book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, paints a provocative political scenario. A talking ape dresses up a talking donkey in a lion skin to impersonate Aslan. The ape hopes to rule Narnia by using the lion-donkey as his puppet mouthpiece. When the donkey, named Puzzle, objects that he does not want to rule Narnia, the ape, named Shift, tries to convince him of the benefits.

“Everyone would do whatever you tell them.”

“But I don’t want to tell them anything.”

“But think of the good we could do!” said Shift. “You’d have me to advise you, you know. I’d think of sensible orders for you to give. And everyone would have to obey us, even the King himself. We would set everything right in Narnia.”

“But isn’t everything right already?” said Puzzle.

“What!” cried Shift. “Everything right? When there are no oranges or bananas?”

“Well, you know,” said Puzzle, “there aren’t many people – in fact, I don’t think there’s anyone but yourself – who wants those sort of things.”

“There’s sugar, too,” said Shift.

“H’m, yes,” said the Ass. “It would be nice if there was more sugar.”

“Well then, that’s settled,” said the Ape. “You will pretend to be Aslan, and I’ll tell you what to say.”

In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis brings Narnia to anend. Father Time rolls up the sky, and the stars are eachsummoned to Aslan’s side. But this occurs only after Narnia falls to the bizarre and tyrannical rule of the ape, aligned with the Calormenes who worship the evil god Tash. At first, the true king of Narnia, Tirian, does not know that Aslan has not appeared and is only being impersonated. The talking beasts all report to Tirian that Aslan has come and that indeed he is “not a tame lion.” The beasts did not perceive the ape and donkey’s lie. But Tirian and his steed, Jewel the Unicorn, conclude by the disgusting behavior and vicious commands of the false Aslan that something was dreadfully amiss. Tirian begins:

“Horrible thoughts arise in my heart. If we had died before today we should have been happy.”

“Yes,” said Jewel. “The worst thing in the world has come upon us.”

What is this worst thing in the world? It is to conclude that the lord whom one has worshiped and placed hope in is in fact an unjust and cruel tyrant. It is to conclude that
the foundation of justice is itself unjust. The reported deeds of this false Aslan nearly convince Jewel and Tirian that he is an impostor. But it is finally the words of the Ape that ring as blatant heresy and spring Tirian into action. The Ape says:

“Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now …. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”

To this Tirian finally objects:

“Ape,” he cried with a great voice, “you lie. You lie damnably. You lie like a Calormene. You lie like an Ape.”

Slowly the plot thickens and the differences between the two sorts of government emerge. Both the traditional Narnian rule and the government of the ape have habits, causal explanations and theological foundations. But one ruling culture believes in a transcendent source of divine goodness, and the other says good and evil are the same.

The statements of the Ape and the Calormenes feel familiar even to a child – familiar but disingenuous. They have the recognizable tinge of hypocrisy. At the bottom of that system lie the arbitrary wants and desires of the Ape and the king of the Calormenes, the Tisroc. While they claim to serve everyone, they serve only themselves. Nonetheless a whole government emerges around these motivations. How? In contrast to the Narnians, the Calormenes are ruled not by their own consciences or by alignment with what is right. The Calormenes are full of trickery and deceit and are compelled by force. The Narnians who defect to their side are willing to affirm their deplorable practices grounded in Realpolitik.

The true and faithful Narnians, on the other hand, are ruled by a transcendent code of conduct, the pursuit of virtue. At one point King Tirian and Jewel strike down two Calormenes without first warning them of attack and calling them to arms. After some reflection, the two Narnians feel disgraced. While the Calormenes were indeed part of an evil plot, the Narnians conclude that the way they themselves attacked the Calormenes was outside the bounds of proper combat. The end did not justify the means.

Lewis, a master of history, in Narnia and elsewhere often contrasts the ideologies of the present with the ideals of the past. In his Funeral for a Great Myth, he criticizes the myth
of progress, the notion that things are inevitably getting better all the time. And nowhere else in The Chronicles of Narnia besides The Last Battle does he more vividly depict the differences between the ancient and modern visions of political economy.

While readers of the Chronicles feel the contrast, they may still wonder, “What would a political economy founded in Christian virtue look like?” This is a good question because the term “political economy” did not enter into the Western lexicon until after politics itself had departed from upholding the primacy of virtue for public life. The word “economics” is an old one, used by Aristotle and meaning “the law of the household” or “household management.” In ancient Greece, households were also small businesses, often specializing in a craft such as the production of cloth or another trade. But the word “economics” did not come to have its contemporary meaning until after the days of Adam Smith. Adam Smith wrote about political economy, “the household management of nations.” He extended Aristotle’s meaning to ask about the relations not merely within the city but between cities and nations – between polities. For both Aristotle and Adam Smith, economics and politics were within the discourse of moral philosophy, the mother of contemporary social science. As Gladys Bryson explains in The Emergence of the Social Sciences from Moral Philosophy, “From the time of Socrates until the emergence of the social sciences in the 19th century, moral philosophy consistently offered the most comprehensive discussion of human relations and institutions.”

Aristotle wrote two key books on moral philosophy – what he called practical philosophy – Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. In Aristotle’s point of view, human bonds are natural, and one cannot learn to be ethical in a social vacuum. Rather, one learns virtue in the context of the community, the city, the polis. “Man is by nature a political animal,” he wrote in Politics. Virtue was historically a central concern of moral philosophy and, therefore, of both politics and economics. To grow in virtue was a lifelong pursuit that began in childhood and was not finished until death. Aristotle writes Nicomachean Ethics that, “Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” He goes on to explain that, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” Moreover, the majority of moral philosophers throughout the ancient and medieval world believed that one could not live a happy or blessed life without growing in virtue. Virtue was essential to the purpose of life.

While there are key differences between the ancient pagan notions of virtue and Christian notions, they do share similarities that are now rejected by the modern moral order. Both the pagans and the Christians believed that there is a transcendent order and that to grow in virtue is to grow more aligned with that order. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.”

In the modern moral order, there are no given goals or ends for human beings. Machiavelli and Hobbes stand at the headwaters of the modern political tradition. Both are less interested in the development of virtue among the citizens of the polis than they are interested in the means to accomplish the purposes of the ruler. How can The Prince
(or the state) accomplish his goals, whatever they may be? The questions ignore ends and ask only of means. Only in this post-Hobbesian context could Adam Smith advance in his Theory of Moral Sentiments the centrality of self-interest or “self-love” for accomplishing desirable ends without falling afoul of historic Christian thought. Nonetheless, Adam Smith sounds more balanced than his immediate predecessor, Bernard Mandeville, who in 1705 wrote a book titled The Fable of the Bees: or Private Lives, Public Benefits. Just four centuries earlier at the time of Dante, the Augustinian notion of virtue as “ordered loves” was still axiomatic. While Augustine conceded that the “City of Man” is indeed ordered around self-love, the “City of God” is ordered around the love of God. Christians are called to a political economy of ordered loves, a political economy of virtue.

In a telling passage from The Last Battle, the Ape explains the goals of his rule. What does it mean to “set everything right in Narnia” and what does a well-governed productive society look like?

“Everybody who can work is going to be made to work in the future. Aslan has it all settled with the King of Calormen…”

“No, no, no,” howled the Beasts. “It can’t be true. Aslan would never sell us into slavery to the King of Calormen.”

 “None of that! Hold your noise!” said the Ape with a snarl. “Who said anything about slavery? You won’t be slaves. You’ll be paid – very good wages, too. That is to say, your pay will be paid in to Aslan’s treasury and he will use it all for everybody’s good … There, you see!” said the Ape. “It’s all arranged. And all for your own good. We’ll be able, with the money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in. There’ll be oranges and bananas pouring in – and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons. Oh, everything.” 

“But we don’t want all those things,” said an old Bear. “We want to be free. And we want to hear Aslan speak himself.”

“Now don’t you start arguing,” said the Ape, “for it’s a thing I won’t stand. I’m a Man: you’re only a fat, stupid old Bear. What do you know about freedom? You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.”

No arguing, says the Ape. More pointedly, no moral discourse. In the modern moral order the foundation for applying moral reasoning has been eroded. (See Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.) The traditional notion of the liberal arts supported exactly the polity that was founded upon the freedom of conscience. Though in Cicero’s Orator he uses the Latin words probare, delectare and flectere (to test, to delight and to persuade) in describing the duties of the orator, by the Renaissance the Ciceronian duties of the
orator are commonly listed as movere, docere and delectare (to move, to teach and to delight). The goals of dialectic are to discover and demonstrate arguments through reasoned dialogue. Aquinas writes in Summa Theologica that they are called liberal arts “in order to distinguish them from those arts which are ordained to works done by the body, which arts are, in a fashion, servile, inasmuch as the body is in servile subjection to the soul, and man as regards his soul is free.” The church fathers recognized in the liberal arts those studies that support the freedom of conscience. Regarding this freedom, Christ said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Aquinas similarly wrote that, “Man as regards his soul is free.” One can say that 2+2=37 all day long and threaten another’s life and limb if he does not accept this as true. While the mathematically persecuted man may repeat any phrase that is demanded, when the threat is removed he will again acknowledge that 2+2=4. You cannot make somebody believe something against his will. He must be persuaded. This is the job of the liberal arts. The opposite is when states of affairs are enacted by force not by reason and conscience. This kind of dogmatic bureaucracy is too often a marker of contemporary social ideology. Nonetheless, it can be detected. The behavior and commands of the Ape, despite all his platitudes, brought slavery, not freedom.

Surely Lewis was aware of the political philosophy of Jean Jacque Rousseau who describes the role of the state thus:

He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual who is by himself a complete and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being … He must, in a word, take away from man his own resources and give him instead new ones alien to him, and incapable of being made use of without the help of other men.

The 20th-century UC Berkeley and Columbia University professor, Robert Nisbet, says this of the modern state in Twilight of Authority:

The word bureaucracy has come to symbolize, above all others in our time, the transfer of government from the people, as organized in their natural communities in the social order, as equipped with the tastes, desires and aspirations which are the natural elements of their nurture, to a class of professional technicians whose principal job is that of substituting their organizations their tastes, desires and aspirations, for those of the people. It is this seemingly ineradicable aspect of bureaucracy that makes for the relentless, unending conflict between bureaucracy and freedom that more and more people in the present age have come to regard as very nearly central. And it is this same aspect that has led so many persons in the present age to despair of restoring to political government those foundations in popular will which are utterly vital to the political community.

Or in other words, “You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.”

Interestingly, these words themselves are not altogether wrong. Consider this prayer of St. Augustine which informs an Anglican liturgy that C. S. Lewis would have known: “Grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom, in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

There is one whom to serve is perfect freedom. It is the one who is himself the way, the truth and the life. It is the one who is the foundation of all virtue. Hans Boersma, the J. I. Packer Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent College, speaks of the way the church fathers thought about virtue. He writes this of the 4th-century Christian
thinker Gregory of Nyssa in Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa:

First, for Gregory, virtue is primarily identified with God or Christ. Virtue, insists
Gregory, is identical to divine characteristics such as blamelessness, holiness, purity, and
incorruptibility. The reason, therefore, that Gregory expounds on virtue . . . is [because] by
expounding on virtue one discusses the goodness and beauty of God himself. Second, human virtue is participatory in character. It is by putting on the “garb of Christ” that we become virtuous, and it is through our eating of the body of Christ in the Eucharist that we ourselves are transformed. The metaphor of Christ as the head and the Church as his body points to the participatory character of human virtue. The bride’s beauty is, in a real
sense, the Bridegroom’s beauty, because the former is derived from and participates in the latter.

Thus, to grow in Christ is to grow in virtue. And to grow in virtue is to experience true freedom. Here we encounter the centrality of the church for the fostering of true freedom. As it was for the ancient Greeks, virtue is something that is nurtured in community. But for Christians that community is not the Greek city state; it is the Church. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (2 Corinthians 12:27). It is within the context of the Church that parents are to raise their children. As it says in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers do not exasperate your children, but raise them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

It is precisely this older vision of raising up children within the context of the Church for growth in virtue and growth in Christ that is today threatened. Harvard historian, Christopher Dawson explains in Crisis:

In the new America the socialization and secularization of education has created an
immense professionalized organ for the creation of moral and intellectual uniformity. In this way the constitutional principle of the separateness of Church and State which was intended to secure religious freedom has become the means of secularizing the American mind so that the churches have lost all control over the religious formation of the people. This was not so in the earlier phase of American history when the churches were the chief, and often the only, organs of education and culture. The American way of life was built on a threefold tradition of freedom – political, economic, and religious – and if the new secularist forces were to subjugate these freedoms to a monolithic technological order, it would destroy the foundations on which American culture was based. The American way of life can only maintain its character within the general framework of Western Christian culture. If this relation is lost, something essential to the life of the nation will be lost and American democracy itself will become subordinated to the technological order.

This is why The Last Battle feels so familiar. It describes the order of the Ape, a bureaucratic order in which the natural organizations of the Narnians have been replaced with the artificially imposed order of the Calormenes and the Ape. It is an order in which the Narnians’ desires for virtue and freedom have been replaced with intemperance and an inordinate lust for goods and progress – goods detached from natural desires and progress detached from reasonable human purposes. It is an order in which there is no basis for moral discourse and public reasoning, only various thinly veiled coercive techniques. What is instead needed is a political economy of virtue. And the only polis that can support this economy of virtue is the city of God, that city ordered around the love of God and not the love of self.

Knowing the Past to Navigate the Future

I f we are to guide 21st century students towards truth, beauty, and goodness, we have to understand the default assumptions they bring with them to every conversation. Knowing what they believe and where those beliefs originate is especially important in the realm of moral and political education, where the distance between where they are and where they should be is so extensive.

Our students inhabit a disorienting world. The salient feature of contemporary moral and political discourse is that we have what seem to be unresolvable disagreements about the nature of the good life. Disagreements about which actions are right and wrong, about which policies the government should adopt, and about which goods we should privilege over others boil down to fundamental disagreements about the nature of the good life. Moral pluralism and an accompanying relativism are assumed realities by nearly everyone who enters the public square in the 21st century, and our students are no exception.

Moral and political discourse has not always been so disordered, and it became so through a series of subtle shifts over the course of the past half century. Introducing students to the Classical and Medieval authors who lived prior to the disintegration of moral and political discourse, showing them where in history the conversation shifted, and helping them think through the consequences of those shifts can help them understand themselves better and help them critically examine the assumptions they have inherited from their culture. In what follows, I recount some of the history. The story is much more complicated than the one I shall tell here, but my hope is that this brief introduction will provide some context for further study.

We start with the ancients. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews believed that the Good was something objective, universal, and eternal and that purpose was woven deeply into the fabric of the universe. Plato, writing against the relativists of his day, the sophists, argued that the Good was an eternal form in which all other good things participated. By taming the wild parts of one’s nature, the appetites and the strong emotions, with reason, one could steer one’s life towards the Good. Disagreements about the nature of the good life were for him the fault of human ignorance, not indicators of the lack of objective standards.

Aristotle agreed with Plato that moral goodness was objective and universally applicable to all human beings. To be a good human being meant to be good as the type of thing humans are, namely rational animals. A flourishing human being on his view was one that optimized both his rational faculties and was able to contribute to the common good. To do that, one needed to acquire the virtues, dispositions to think, feel, and do what is right and good. One gained the virtues through education, particularly through education that habituated students into good communal practices. The key virtues he and Plato exalted were justice, wisdom, fortitude, and temperance. Aristotle added other qualities that made one good in social settings, like being witty and generous, to the list as well. Most virtues, for him, were the mean between excess and deficiency, so being witty was good, but being either a boor or being a buffoon was vicious. Cowardice was irrationally deficient, while rashness was irrationally excessive, and courage, the mean between the two, was the ability to do the good in the face of danger.

The good life for both Plato and Aristotle was only possible in a community oriented towards the common good. Members of the community were to be educated to share a conception of the good life for human beings and to acquire the virtues needed to pursue that common good. In stark contrast to contemporary individualism, the ancient Greeks believed that the individual good and the common good were deeply connected.

The Hebrews, though markedly different than the ancient Greeks in many respects, were like them in that they believed in an objective moral order. They offered deeper insights into the nature of the good life through the doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. The Doctrine of Creation asserts that human beings are given a nature within the context of an ordered universe. Because of the fall, however, human beings became broken and therefore unable to enjoy the friendship with God they were intended to have. As a result of sin, the law was given to restrain sin and incline people’s hearts towards God. Through the covenants, God reached down to broken humanity to offer restoration, which came decisively in the sacrificial and transformative death and resurrection of Christ. Followers of Christ are promised justification and sanctification and an eventual end to all the chaos and suffering caused by the fall. Because God has reconciled humanity to himself, the good life becomes possible again, though only in an imperfect way this side of Heaven. In the promised consummation Christians are given a sure hope that frees them to pursue limited, imperfect goods in this life, knowing that perfection awaits them in Heaven.

In the Medieval era, Augustine, a kind of neo- Platonist Christian, shared Plato’s conception of the good as being transcendent, over and above all particular examples of good things and true independently of human knowledge or choice. As a Christian, he equated that Good with God. His conception of the good life was Platonic in many ways but complicated by his deep understanding of the will. For Augustine, it is not the case that to know the good is to do the good. Rather, humans can know the good and still willfully rebel against it. He considered sin the orientation of the heart away from the Good towards nothingness. Drawing from the teachings of Jesus, he was more concerned about the orientation of the heart than he was about external actions or even the good life in this world. Augustine made an important distinction between the good life in the worldly city of man and the good life in the city is God. Writing while the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble, Augustine gave Christians a way to live the good life and establish good communities in the absence of worldly order. He complicated the Greek worldview by suggesting that the virtues needed for citizenship in the city of God sometimes make one less successful in the city of man. When the world is out of joint, he argued, one might need to take the path of martyrdom.

Thomas Aquinas, like Augustine, was a Christian, but unlike Augustine, he traced his intellectual heritage back to Aristotle.

He argued that Aristotle was basically right that if one wanted to flourish in this world, one needed the virtues. However, like Augustine, Aquinas argued that humans were not just created to flourish in this world. We were created for loving union with God, and union with God requires the acquisition of the theological virtues – faith, hope, and love. The life of the virtuous man may not always lead to success in this life. It will, however, lead to beatitude in the afterlife.

Aquinas on the political side made some distinctions between various types of law. He asserted the existence of a divine law, which he split into the eternal law, the overarching principles by which God governs the universe, and the divine commands He gives us in Scripture. The natural law, according to Aquinas, flows out of the divine law. God created us with a certain nature and that nature determines what we must do and not do to flourish. So the natural law is grounded in creation, which is grounded in the eternal law, and the divine laws simply clarify for us what should be clear to us by means of the natural law. Aquinas thought that we should be able to know most of what God wants us to do simply by utilizing reason properly to study human nature. The natural law consists of objective truths about morality. When we create civil laws, they are either in harmony with the natural law or they are not. With a conception of the objective natural law standing above all civil laws, those who subscribed to Aquinas’s natural law theory had grounds for criticizing bad laws. If civil law were the highest law, then those in power would determine the laws, and the laws would only be overturned by force. According to Aquinas, might does not make right. The natural law stands in judgment over the civil law, making it possible to criticize unjust laws.

Later William of Ockham and John Duns Scotus developed the concept of natural law further, but they ultimately embraced and refined divine command theory. They argued that God’s commanding or willing X is what makes X right, and God’s forbidding Y is what makes Y wrong. God’s reasons for willing X and prohibiting Y they considered ultimately inscrutable. We cannot always know the reasons for God’s commands. We have to obey because of our position under God’s authority. Whether natural lawyers or divine command theorists, the late medievals believed that there was a standard above worldly standards and that it may be morally required that someone rebel against a civil authority. Objective standards, external and superior to human will, provided a constant check on power.

Some major changes occurred in the transition to the early modern era. One of the major catalysts of change was Machiavelli, who moved away from the concept of virtue, the good-making qualities that are supposed to help one flourish as a human being, to the concept of virtú, which are the qualities that will make one successful. We can hear the echoes of the sophists here. How can I win friends and influence people in Renaissance polite society? By having virtú. Machiavelli makes a clear fact/value distinction. Politics is about facts. Morality is about values. Through careful study, one can discover the objective truth about how to maintain one’s power. Machiavelli argued that one must sometimes use immorality to your advantage, or else come to ruin. Morality is more flexible than that. Sometimes a prince must lie, cheat, steal, threaten, and kill to achieve his ends.

Another major change took place when Thomas Hobbes replaced the divine right of kings with secular absolutism. Prior to Hobbes, within the feudal system, kings began to centralize their power, asserting that they functioned as God’s representatives on Earth. Prior to the Reformation, the only possible legitimate check on their power within that system would have been the Catholic Church under the leadership of the popes. In the Leviathan, Hobbes removed God from the equation. Like many Christian political theorists before him, he examined humans in the state of nature, which he described not as Edenic, but rather as a savage world in which everyone had a right to everything, a right to steal, kill, and harm whomever they wished. Life in the state of nature for him was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As he tells the story, living in such a savage state of nature, everyone feared everyone else because even the strongest, most intelligent person could be killed by the weakest person if given the right opportunity. Nobody was safe. Out of fear all decided to bind themselves together in a social contract, a kind of secular covenant with each other. In the contract everyone relinquished their rights to everything in exchange for the safety only a very powerful sovereign could provide. Hobbes argued that the sovereign, because he was made sovereign by contract, embodied the will of the many. Law thus became the expression of the will of the sovereign. Later, Locke and Rousseau, who neither shared Hobbes’s pessimism about human nature nor his love for monarchs, worked to limit the power of individual sovereigns and give the power back to those represented by the government. In the process, however, they largely kept God out of the equation, leaving humans to determine the nature of the good life on their own.

Modern moral theorists such as Kant and John Stuart Mill attempted to rescue the Christian moral system in the face of increasing opposition during the Enlightenment. They tried to generate universal principles that would help ground the inherited Christian moral system in some aspect of human nature. Kant tried to ground morality in pure reason. His principle, the Categorical Imperative, read much like the Golden Rule, requiring individuals to try to imagine what it would be like if their plan of action were to become the general rule that all people would follow. So, for example, if one was not able to rationally and consistently will that all people should lie, then one ought not to lie ever. In another formulation of the Categorical Imperative, Kant required that one always treat humans as ends in themselves and never merely as means. In other words, if one was planning to do X to someone else, one must first have that person’s consent before proceeding. No one can morally simply use another human being for his or her own ends.

Mill argued that when deciding between possible courses of action, we should always try to bring about the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. By happiness he meant not the rich conception of human flourishing Aristotle and Aquinas described but rather pleasure and the absence of pain. Though he made allowances for intellectual and aesthetic pleasures to count as higher than base physical pleasures, his conception of happiness depended entirely upon what humans, in their fallen state, actually desired rather than what they were created to desire.

As the deontologists (as the followers of Kant came to be called) and the Utilitarians (as the followers of Mill came to be called) duked it out for moral theory supremacy, with both sides generating strong arguments against the other, philosophers like Nietzsche and later the British logical positivists called their whole enterprise into question. Nietzsche argued that humans should evolve past the herd morality they have inherited and create their own “table of values,” while the positivist contended that all moral language is literally meaningless except insofar as it expresses the speaker’s personal preferences.

So, today, in the absence of a shared conception of the common good, we are left with a weak libertarian no- harm principle. Because no one can agree on the nature of the good life, the only actions that should be outlawed are those actions that harm other people in their individual pursuit of whatever goods they choose. We are given no direction beyond that from most contemporary moral and political theorists. The focus has turned to rights over responsibilities, personal opinions instead of eternal truths, and respect and tolerance in place of wisdom, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love. If our students are to find moral direction and provide leadership in a fragmented and confused world, they must become conversant with the rich Classical and Medieval tradition and enter the public sphere with ideas that are so old that they will appear radical and innovative.

Philosophy in Christian Schools

We will investigate the benefits of making philosophy a core subject in 21st century Christian schools and discuss curricula and pedagogical approaches that work with high school students.

Sean Riley

Sean A. Riley earned his Ph.D in philosophy from Baylor University in 2011. He chairs the history department, teaches AP European History and two philosophy courses, coaches football, tennis, and the Ethics Bowl team, and serves as a dorm dad at The Stony Brook School on Long Island. He has also led summer travel courses to Greece, Turkey, and China. Prior to teaching at The Stony Brook School, he taught courses at Baylor University, McLennan Community College, and Live Oak Classical School in Waco, Texas. Sean is the author of Recovering the Saints from Modern Moral Theory, available on Kindle. He lives in Stony Brook with his wife, Emily, and his four children, Aidan, Liam, Honora, and Quinn.

Metaphysics Matters

We in Christian classical schooling champion the role that goodness, truth, and beauty play in shaping our curriculum and our culture. But would we ever consider teaching a class on them? The medievals did, and guess what they called it? Metaphysics. Goodness, truth, and beauty along with unity are considered the transcendental properties of being, an aspect of metaphysics. In other words, all of reality somehow exhibits these properties because reality is the creation of a good, true and beautiful God. It turns out that the medieval topic of metaphysics covered not only these transcendentals, but also such poignant questions such as the nature of truth and meaning. When we ask how we can defend absolute truth in a relativistic society, we must lean on metaphysics. Medieval metaphysics explored other deep questions like God’s relationship to creation and ‘the one and the many’ problem. It also provided a framework for the integration of the disciplines that is woefully lacking in fragmented modern education. This seminar will consider how to recapture the now lost category of metaphysics, so important to the ancients and the medievals, and explore how to teach it in our schools.

Ravi Jain

Ravi Jain graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor’s degree and interests in physics, ancient Greek and international political economies. He worked at various churches, received a master’s degree from Reformed Theological Seminary and later earned a graduate certificate in mathematics from the University of Central Florida. He began teaching calculus and physics at The Geneva School in 2003, where he has developed an integrated double-period class called The Scienti c Revolution. In this class, students read primary sources like Galileo and Newton in order to recapitulate the narrative of discovery while preserving the mathematical and scientific rigor expected of a college-level treatment. During his tenure there, he co-authored The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. He has given over 100 talks and workshops worldwide on topics related to education, mathematics and science. He has two young boys, Judah and Xavier. After the duties of the week have been discharged — usually by 8:53 on Saturday nights — he enjoys his few remaining hours with family, friends and his wife, Kelley Anne, whom he met in Japan.

John Milton, Proaeresis, and Education

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.