Classical Education and Christian Discipleship: Reforming Men (Part II)

In part two, we will consider the remarkable similarities and the complementary functions of classical education and Christian discipleship, even as we draw distinctions between them – the most important of which is that as disciple-makers, we are not seeking to sculpt better versions of Adam, but rather we are God’s instruments in His molding of young men and women into the brilliant image of Jesus.

Brandon Shuman

Brandon serves as the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Midland Classical Academy deep in the heart of West Texas. Over the course of his ministry at MCA, he has Socratically taught over 28 different junior high, high school and parent courses from a wide range of academic disciplines, including Great Books, Greek, apologetics, history and movie production. Brandon writes education articles for Midland's local newspaper and co-hosts the Good Knight Dad podcast, which encourages and empowers parents to better leverage their experience at MCA. Brandon enjoys coffee, fly fishing, playing baseball in the backyard with his two sons, singing to his newborn daughter and adventuring through life alongside his beautiful wife, Laura.

Classical Education and Christian Discipleship: Cultivating Virtue (Part I)

Aristotle wrote that man, “when perfected, is the noblest of all animals, but when separated from justice, he is the worst of all.” In the first part of this two-part session, we will contemplate the enterprise of classical education. We will consider how its foundational assumptions about nature and man; its methodology of the Trivium; its guiding principles of truth, goodness and beauty; and its telos for the good life all intersect in the cultivation of virtuous men and society.

Brandon Shuman

Brandon serves as the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Midland Classical Academy deep in the heart of West Texas. Over the course of his ministry at MCA, he has Socratically taught over 28 different junior high, high school and parent courses from a wide range of academic disciplines, including Great Books, Greek, apologetics, history and movie production. Brandon writes education articles for Midland's local newspaper and co-hosts the Good Knight Dad podcast, which encourages and empowers parents to better leverage their experience at MCA. Brandon enjoys coffee, fly fishing, playing baseball in the backyard with his two sons, singing to his newborn daughter and adventuring through life alongside his beautiful wife, Laura.

Heroes and Villains: Civic Virtue Through Inquiry and Primary Sources

Participants will work through three Bill of Rights Institute lessons to develop skills for providing students with primary sources, content-rich narratives and critical thinking as part of integrated civic learning and character development.

Rachel Davison Humphries

Rachel Davison Humphries has worked as an educator for almost a decade, most recently as a mentor teacher in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She has presented at conferences and led professional development workshops in a variety of subjects, including economics, literature, adolescence, Socratic teaching, project-based learning and the pedagogy of freedom. Rachel has worked to help students grow and learn in a variety of environments, including charter schools, private schools and summer programs for college students. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, and a teaching certificate in adolescent education from the Association Montessori Internationale. She started at the Bill of Rights Institute in 2015 and now leads its teacher programs team.

Ancient Hinges: How the Classical Virtues Inform Transformational Leadership

The cardinal virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice were espoused by Plato, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius long before Christianity formally adopted them. Through the classical influence on the scholastics, Christian scholars like Thomas Aquinas and poets like Dante Alighieri came to understand the immense value of these virtues. If 2,000 years of scholarship has defended these virtues, we would be wise to take note. Drawing from his own research, D. Michael Lindsay argues for a renewed understanding of everything the cardinal virtues have to offer us in fulfilling our own callings and in shaping the lives of the next generation of leaders.

D. Michael LIndsay

Award-winning sociologist and educator D. Michael Lindsay is the eighth president of Gordon College, and an expert on religion, culture and leadership. In his book, View from the Top, Dr. Lindsay reports the findings of his 10-year Platinum Study, the largest-ever, interview-based study of organizational leaders – including former presidents and CEOs. Since his appointment to President of Gordon College in 2011, the school has experienced banner years in terms of enrollment, fundraising, financial strength, campus diversity, sponsored research, athletic success and faith expression. He regards these gains as evidence of a winning team. He also serves on the boards of Christianity Today and the Veritas Forum.

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.

Is Cultivating Virtue Wrong? Acedia and the Strange Beliefs of our Students

Acedia is not a well-known sin in our day, not because we have overcome it, but because it is nearly omnipresent and has accordingly become invisible. Acedia is spiritual sluggishness, a dullness of soul. It is the sin that makes young men sing hymns in a mediocre fashion. It is the sin that makes young women think vanity is an acceptable quality of youth. Acedia is a disbelief that spiritual struggle ever pays off. Acedia whispers that no tradition deserves our undivided respect, and that anything and everything may be suddenly and boringly called into question. How can a sin so common be bested? Only by way of the cruciform lectern. Come and hear.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is the editor of FilmFisher, a frequent contributor at the CiRCE Institute, and a teacher of great books at Veritas School in Richmond, VA. He has been labeled “insane” by two Pulitzer Prize– winning poets and once abandoned a moving vehicle for fear of his life. He married a girl he fell in love with in high school and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names.

The Centrality of Virtue in the Ancient Understanding of Education

In the contemporary discourse about education, discussion of virtue as the goal of education is strikingly absent. When “virtue education” is mentioned, it is generally treated as an add-on to the curriculum, not as the overarching goal of everything that is studied. This conception
of education, however, stands in stark contrast to the ancient understanding that the primary purpose of education is is the cultivation of students into virtuous human beings. While this understanding of education can be seen across a wide swath of thinkers throughout history, in this seminar we will examine two key ancient thinkers: Plato and Aristotle. In focusing on their understanding of the purpose of education, we will explore the central role that virtue plays in their thought and how we can apply their insights today.

David Diener

Dr. David Diener began his formal post-secondary education at Wheaton College where he graduated Summa Cum Laude with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Ancient Languages. After putting his philosophical training to work by building custom cabinets and doing high-end nish carpentry for an Amish company, he moved with his wife to Bogotá, Colombia, where they served as missionaries for three years at a Christian international school. He then a ended graduate school at Indiana University where he earned a M.A. in Philosophy, a M.S. in History and Philosophy of Education, and a dual Ph.D. in Philosophy and Philosophy of Education. A er teaching for one year at The Stony Brook School on Long Island he moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he served as Head of Upper Schools at Covenant Classical School. He now is the new Headmaster at Grace Academy in Georgetown, Texas.

The Liberal Arts and Human Flourishing

One encounters any number of reasons for the importance of a liberal arts education, both from within the Christian classical renewal and in the broader educational culture. In Christian classical circles one is likely to hear an emphasis upon the potency of the liberal arts as tools of learning, while in the broader culture the emphases one often meets range from vague notions of well-roundedness to pragmatic claims of employability. Thus the thesis advanced in the present article may appear to some as bold and somewhat surprising.

The best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is not that it produces well-rounded persons, though the breadth of human experience it affords is expansive. Nor is it that the liberal arts foster or engender the kind of written, verbal, or critical thinking skills sought after by some employers, though the skills of persuasive writing and speaking and of interpretive reading and analysis indeed lie at the core of the liberal arts curriculum. Rather, the most compelling reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is the distinct claim that the historical, aesthetic, philological disciplines of the traditional liberal arts curriculum
cultivate the qualities of moral judgment, common sense (sensus communis), and taste.1 It is not only that the Western tradition has understood the distinctively human element of civilization to consist in the acquisition and exercise of these qualities, but also that they actually constitute the pre-critical conditions for human rationality itself. Put most simply, then, the best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing, both in terms of human reason and of human moral being in the world. It is also the most compelling because it is perfectly attuned to our own cultural moment.

Cultivating moral judgement, common sense, and taste

There is perhaps no single aspect in which a liberal arts education is more obviously unique than in its telos— the acquisition of moral wisdom or judgment. Earlier thinkers such as Plato or Aristotle would have called this virtue phronesis, practical wisdom. While our own culture is preoccupied with a plurality of incommensurable educational goals—rational mastery of a subject, technical proficiency, the ability to calculate, to deduce, or to process data—the ideal of a liberal education has always been wise and responsible action in the world. Phronesis thus unites the theoretical and the practical goals of education; we might say that it is the good sense to know what to do with truth. Honed through imitation and continual practice, it is the skill of living a good human life in the world.2

The question arises, however, if the liberal arts are primarily academic in nature, how does such an education cultivate this virtue of practical rationality? The most direct answer is that they do not and cannot do so on their own. Acquiring the skill of living wisely in the world takes practice— real choices, real actions, real consequences.3 However, the liberal arts provide irreplaceable imaginative resources for acquiring this skill. In fact, imagination is perhaps principal among these resources, for the poets and historians have bequeathed to us the great gift of literature—narratives historical and fictional—where one may observe the lives of the wise and the foolish, experiencing those lives vicariously by entering imaginatively into their stories. Through the study of literature the student gains the kind of experience in life necessary for moral formation that his or her young age does not permit. Hence, what one lacks in lived experience he can glean from literary experience. Cicero adds a further dimension to our understanding of this imaginative effect of literary experience in his famous oration Pro Archia Poeta. “All books are full, all words of the wise are full, and all history is full of examples,” he writes; “I have always kept these images in view when serving as a magistrate, shaping my heart and mind after them by meditating on their excellences.” For Cicero the study of history and literature afforded by a liberal arts education not only instructed him but compelled him boldly to act for the common good of his community. The experience gained from the liberal arts provides narratives for making sense of one’s own life and directs one’s affections toward what is good and noble and true. Potent resources indeed for acquiring moral wisdom.

Sensus communis is closely connected to the skill of moral judgement. Although we often render this Latin phrase with the familiar words common sense, it is necessary to recall something of the technical meaning these words carry over from the art of rhetoric in order fully to appreciate their importance.4 Of course, we use the phrase common sense all of the time to mean an intuitive understanding of how to get along in the world, often contrasting it with academic or specialized knowledge.
(In fact, one is at times tempted to conclude that common sense is precisely the one quality many academics are lacking.) Although the ordinary meaning of the phrase is not identical to its technical sense, it happily flows from it. In classical rhetoric, sensus communis actually refers to that shared understanding of the world that a rhetorician can rely on when crafting his oration. It is not something he must prove, nor even that he will often state. Rather, it is that shared body of assumptions that invisibly bind together a group of people and, as writers from C. S. Lewis to Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrate,5 actually make moral reasoning possible in the first place. Since this quality was first marginalized and then suppressed during the Enlightenment, it is difficult for the contemporary reader to appreciate just how important the acquisition of common sense was to educators in the classical world.6 Aristotle notes in the Ethics, for example that the conscious transfer of the culture’s body of shared assumptions is one of education’s primary objectives.7

As a quality intentionally cultivated by the liberal arts curriculum, sensus communis is best characterized as a studied sense of the wisdom and insight (and indeed the prejudices and presuppositions) of previous generations. As such, it awakens us to that indefinably familiar atmosphere that breathes through the pages of the stories, shapes the historical narratives, and inflects the language of a people at a given place and time. It develops a conscious sense for what is commonly, though implicitly, held to be true. Common sense is thus closely related to what Edmund Burke famously coins the moral imagination in his Letter Concerning the Recent Revolution in France, and sounds remarkably like that distinctly human faculty-the chest-whose loss C. S. Lewis laments in the first part of The Abolition of Man. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur also seems to be invoking this sense of the common, when he speaks of the insight into life acquired via the “long detour” among the literary and imaginative works of humanity.8 He argues that what seems to be a detour is actually the obligatory path we must take if we are to understand ourselves and our culture. Failure to take this detour, to run along this path, is to guarantee the short-circuiting of self-knowledge. Interestingly, Ricoeur’s detour among the historical, aesthetic and philological disciplines is actually the well-worn path of the liberal arts curriculum—the study of history, literature, poetry, and language. The liberal arts connect us to our historical tradition by cultivating a sense for what is held in common throughout the history of that tradition.

The development of taste is something of an aesthetic analog to the cultivation of common sense. While it is not only artists who need to cultivate taste, reflection upon their experience is helpful in understanding its foundational importance. For to become a musician, fine artist, actor, or poet, is to take the long detour via the aesthetic achievements of humanity. The cellist works through the instrument’s received repertoire, the fine artist makes master copy after master copy, the actor rehearses the same lines countless other actors have performed for generations. I suppose we grasp intuitively the role tradition plays in the pedagogy of the arts. Lest we fail to recognize its significance, however, it is important to see that the specific claim of the arts in this regard is that creativity and artistic sensibilities are formed by attention to tradition. Picasso, to cite a somewhat dated but brilliant example, is highly original (to many of his time shockingly so); yet, without the tradition of European masters, there would be no blue paintings, no Guernica. Again, we grasp all of this intuitively; but how often do we fail to reflect upon the actual process of artistic formation when we wonder over much that is crass, tasteless, or vulgar in contemporary culture? The development of aesthetic taste, like the development of the adult palate, is formed by experience. As common sense is a studied sense for
the commonly held truths of a culture, taste is a sense for what is fitting or decent that is cultivated over time and experienced in the arts.

The liberal arts are more timely than timeless.

I asserted above that the most compelling reason to pursue a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing. To understand why this makes the liberal arts relevant to contemporary culture it is necessary to place our cultural moment within historical perspective. The last century witnessed a series of radical upheavals in the cultural and intellectual life of Western civilization. While one is tempted to think here only of cultural developments—the world wars, the advent of the nuclear age, or the sexual revolution—the intellectual landscape changed forever as well. Most importantly in this regard is the abandonment of what some intellectual historians have termed the Enlightenment project.9

To paint with very broad strokes, the Enlightenment is an episode in the intellectual life and culture of Western civilization, where on the basis of and in reaction to a number of factors—scientific, social, religious, and political—Western thinkers experienced an acute loss of confidence in central elements of human tradition and in the institutions which embodied and perpetuated that tradition. Where Western civilization had been maintained by a tensed harmony (at least in theory) of a number of incommensurable authorities—faith, tradition, reason, experience, community—the Enlightenment project is perhaps best characterized as the attempt to secure the goods of that tradition upon the putatively certain ground of reason. A brilliant illustration of this project
is Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? in which he famously describes enlightenment as man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity, an immaturity strictly defined as reliance upon such traditional mediating structures and institutions as books, doctors, priests, and judges in human intellectual, physical, religious, and moral life. To be enlightened, claims Kant, is to dare to think for oneself—sapere aude!— and thus his ideal human is a rationally autonomous subject for whom reason is the sole guarantor of human intellectual and moral goods. The notion that human flourishing is dependent upon anything more fundamental than reason is precisely what is repudiated here.

By the mid-twentieth century, when the realization that the European Enlightenment had culminated in the most devastating (and efficient) elimination of human  life the world has yet witnessed—indeed, greater in quantity than all armed conflicts in human history combined—recognition of the Enlightenment project’s failure was widespread. Yet, it was not merely malaise or disillusionment that signaled the end of the Enlightenment. Throughout the twentieth century there was also a succession of insights—notably from the sciences— concerning the role historical tradition and community practices play in forming our philosophical outlook, the influence that religious (or anti-religious) presuppositions have in our reasoning, and the comprehensive effect that language and culture have in shaping our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. With this succession of insights has come renewed appreciation for the displaced notions of faith, tradition, reason, experience, and community. There has been renewed appreciation as well for the practices and ways of being in the world that gave these notions plausibility prior to the Enlightenment.

It is this new way of thinking about human rationality that provides a renewed context for liberal arts education, and the most compelling case for its contemporary re-appropriation. An Enlightenment view of reason has simply proved too narrow to account for human rationality, much less to secure the goods of human life. The historical, aesthetic, and philological disciplines of the liberal arts curriculum, however, are especially well fitted to the more robust understanding of what it means to be rational in our current intellectual situation.

Beyond the “well-rounded” student

Understanding this historical context also helps us to perceive the problem with the commonplace notion mentioned above that a liberal arts education produces well-rounded people. For it was precisely as an unquestioning response to Enlightenment rationality that the liberal arts were first defended as the means of making well-rounded persons. The rational and scientific disciplines, so the thinking went at the time, set the standards for what it meant to be well educated. The liberal arts are important for making one refined, cultured, humane. Thus, taste, common sense, and judgment were understood to be important subjective or intuitive qualities one should develop while acquiring an otherwise objective and scientific education. However laudable the intention, this notion is tragically mistaken for at least two important reasons. In the first place, rather than maintaining the liberal arts in something of a separate-but-equal status with the sciences, emphasizing their cultural or refining qualities actually served to relegate the liberal arts to educational window-dressing. In the age of science, urbanization, and industrialization, such accoutrement was superfluous—indeed, when it comes to making the automobile, not only history, but art and literature too, are bunk. In this brave new world of progress, the very notion of refinement was seen to smack of elitism and old-world aristocracy. Moreover, in light of the discussion above, it ought to be clear that the relegation of the liberal arts to
the periphery of the curriculum was philosophically naive. It was not apparent in the nineteenth century, but we see now that the qualities the liberal arts cultivate, much more than rounding out a practical, scientific education, actually play a fundamental role in the acquisition of human understanding as such. The liberal arts are thus essential to and not just an accidental element of education.

In The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis writes: “And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation— we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self- sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity
we remove the organ and demand the function.” He is lamenting the failure of modern education to cultivate
the very qualities we have addressed all too briefly in this essay—moral judgement, common sense, and taste—not, we should note, critical thinking or academic rigor. Modern education rendered the cultivation of these humanizing qualities impossible because it displaced the liberal arts curriculum with what was imagined to be a more practical or more relevant curriculum. Chesterton once remarked that thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world. Perhaps we could adapt his words here and apply them to our discussion: thoroughly practical people never understand what is truly practical. So in its departure from modern education, the Christian classical renewal has come to understand that it is precisely the liberal arts curriculum—that seemingly impractical detour among the literary and imaginative works of humanity— that cultivates the qualities necessary for meaningful human action, and indeed true human flourishing.

Believing and Behaving

It’s the most profitable 54 pages you could read in the next month. I’m talking about Josef Pieper’s, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. Pieper’s clarity and style – even the clunky passages woodenly translated from the original German – quickly induced me to welcome him as I would an old friend.

But first, some background if you haven’t read anything by Pieper. As a Catholic Social Philosopher, he was part of the neo-Thomistic revival of the twentieth century. Pieper isn’t well known among English-speaking Protestant Evangelicals, having spent the bulk of his career at the University of Münster where he taught from 1950 to 1976. Thereafter, until his death in 1997, he continued to lecture as Professor Emeritus. If you have hung out at SCL conferences, however, you’ve no doubt noticed on the table his better-known book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, an outstanding read that we’ll save for another day.

His gift to the German-speaking world was his translation of Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, suggesting his appreciation for brothers across traditions. His gift to us (one of them!) is this little reader nicely packaged in a thin 5×7 paper cover – suitable for your coat pocket. It’s so small it doesn’t even get notice on his Wikipedia entry, no doubt because it is a digest of his longer works on the virtues. As such, it’s a valuable introduction.

Pieper must be read with an awareness of some basic commitments. His sympathies are in the Scholastic tradition, notably with Aquinas, while remaining surprisingly more Platonic than Aristotelian. As Gilbert Meilaender noted in his obituary of Pieper in First Things, he had “inhabit[ed] a system of thought long enough to see the world in its terms. He had so digested Aquinas as to make him his own.” And, while Greek thought is not far beneath the surface, it is transcribed into theological constructs, viewed through the corrective lenses of biblical reflection. For example, Pieper says that “all duty is based on being. Reality is the basis of ethics. Goodness is the standard of reality” (11). In other words ethics is based on metaphysics.

The book begins boldly by asserting that “virtue is…the realization of the human capacity for being” (9). Thus, a “man is wise when all things taste to him as they really are” (21). Reality – and knowledge of it – is essential to an ordered and flourishing life.

When Pieper talks about reality, however, he doesn’t mean brute reality the way the Greeks talked about it. He insists that reality is the Triune God, and a Christian is one who, in faith, not only embraces this, but strives in hope for the fulfillment of his being in eternal life. This brings us to the heart of Pieper’s thought, the virtues: love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These are the means by which one apprehends the truth of God. “Becoming a moral person occurs in the individual’s appropriate response to reality” (17). This is a common theme not only here, but across Pieper’s writings, the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue. In order to grasp the reality of God, which is ultimate and final, we have to become a certain kind of person. If Augustine taught us to believe in order that we might know, Pieper reminds us that we have to behave, in order that we might know. “For us, the…connection that links the knowledge of truth to the condition of purity has vanished from our consciousness” (42). For the classical, Christian teacher, the implications for moral formation in education are profound. We teach
in a culture that intentionally and powerfully attempts to separate a student’s behavior, and his loves, from his intellectual development. Pieper says that this cannot be done.

Drawn out in summary in the Reader, Pieper shows us progressively how the virtues link together as pathways to truth. I can reduce them to some axioms; you’ll have to read the book to connect the dots fully:

– On prudence: Prudence belongs to the definition of the good; it is the birth mother of all human virtue (14-15); false prudence is really covetousness, “the anxious se- nility of a frantic self-preservation bent on only its own assurance and security” (19);

  • On justice – Justice is not merely giving each his due; the just man who is a recipient of the gifts of God, will alone be ready to fulfill to others what he does not owe (24);

  • –  On courage: Fortitude implies vulnerability; to be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound (25); fortitude protects a person from loving his life in such a way that he loses it (28);

  • –  On temperance: Abandonment of the soul to the sensual world wounds the fundamental capacity of the moral person to apprehend reality and respond to it appro- priately (42);

  • –  On hope: Human existence has the structure of hope;

we are “not yet” creatures.
And so on. Few have had the ability to navigate the world of the medieval mind. Pieper is one of them, and the Brief Reader is a gateway to that world.

Following the White Stag

At the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the four children, now mature rulers in Narnia, are hunting a White Stag which leads them to the lamp post where all their adventures in Narnia began. In spite of their foreboding that “strange adventures or some great change” in their fortunes will come if they pass the lamp post, they decide to continue following the White Stag. Peter makes the case for this course of action: “…never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over.” This argument convinces even fearful Susan who says, “Let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.”

It’s no accident that the word adventure is repeated twice more in the closing paragraphs of the book. C. S. Lewis the philologist is fully aware that the word adventure, from the Latin ad venire, means literally “that which comes to us.” And what is it that comes when the children pass the lamp post? What comes is the children’s return to their own world and the adventure of living in that world with a new vision given to them by their time in Narnia.

What has Lewis done here? He has given us a picture of what good stories can do. In his essay “Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings” Lewis writes:

The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity’; by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.

Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, as stand-ins for all children coming to the end of the final chapter of a good story, return to World War II England more able to see the challenges, difficulties, and choices before them as “high matters – battles, quests, feats of arms, and acts of justice” that require of them the same fortitude, magnanimity, and sense of justice they have learned to exercise in Narnia.

Children (and adults) need stories to show them how to fulfill their part in the Story. Each of us is a character in this real Story. What being in Narnia did for the Pevensie children can be done for anyone by the reading of a good book. Children can learn what virtue and vice look like through stories. Exhortation to act virtuously is important and good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough; it does not touch the heart and fire the imagination in the way that Peter’s slaying of the wolf Maugrim in order to rescue his sister does. Sir Philip Sydney makes this point in his Apology for Poetry. In an article on Tolkien’s moral vision Donald T. Williams paraphrases and quotes Sydney:

So the philosopher has the precept, and the historian has the example—but ‘both, not having both, do both halt.’ They stumble and fall short
of the ultimate goal of education: inspiring and enabling virtuous action on the part of the reader himself. But look, says Sydney, at what the poet can do: ‘Now doth the peerless Poet perform both. For whatsoever the Philosopher saith should be done, [the Poet] giveth a perfect picture of it in someone by whom he presupposeth it was done…a perfect picture, I say, for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the Philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as the other doth.’ Literature, then, has the serious moral purpose of providing role models that help us form the ideals and aspirations we live by; it achieves this purpose through concrete images of virtue and vice.

Virtue and vice are best understood in the context of a narrative. Characters in good stories who act with courage or perseverance provide children with a vision of goodness. They help counter what Peter Kreeft calls one of the chief heresies of our age: “the dullness of goodness and the beauty of badness.” Exposure to good stories also helps children understand that they inhabit a story and that their individual choices and actions are part of a narrative which gives those actions meaning and their lives a sense of purpose.

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre makes the point that our lives are “enacted narratives.”

…man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal…But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. It is through hearing stories of wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.

As Christian teachers we must help our students see and understand the Story of which they are a part. The modern world tells us that we are self-created, autonomous beings who write our own stories and who can be whatever we want to be. There are no “roles into which we have been drafted.” This is meant to be a message of freedom, but it is actually a source of alienation and a route to meaninglessness; nonetheless, this message permeates our culture and works against the culture of virtue we are trying to provide in our schools.

As belief in moral absolutes disappeared at the end of the 19th century, what some have called a culture of character was replaced by a culture of personality and a new view of what it means to be a person came into being. In the culture of character people understood themselves as essentially moral beings and, as David Wells explains in Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, the growth of the person was understood in terms of “virtue to be learned and practiced and private desires to be denied.” Character formation through training in virtues was a central goal of education. Virtues were seen as moral absolutes to which people were meant to conform. The culture of personality has overturned this understanding of who we are. No longer is the focus on moral virtues to be cultivated; the focus is now on
one’s image which can be fashioned. Life becomes a performance, a self-created narrative, in which people seek to look good and make themselves appealing to others. In the culture of personality there is no fixed or objective view of what a person is meant to be beyond what one makes of himself. We write our own stories and model ourselves after celebrities who have successfully created appealing images. Ken Myers in analyzing this phenomenon says: “The culture of celebrity and personal performance which permeates our society is profoundly destructive. It’s not just that being well-known for simply being well-known (in Daniel Boorstin’s classic formulation) is a thin and vapid achievement. More fundamentally disordering is the way in which the deeply sensed notion of ‘identity as performance’ promoted in the culture of celebrity undercuts the very idea of reality or real life; more than the work of nihilistic philosophers, the prominence of performers in our society nudges us toward referring to ‘reality’…rather than to Reality…In a culture of celebrity and performance the existence of reality becomes dubious and persons aspire to be desirable commodities.”

This, of course, is not surprising when people insist on creating their own reality. What has been lost is the Reality that we are all players in a narrative which we did not write for ourselves. We are created beings and the Creator is the Author of our story, a story which began with the Creation of the world, a story in which we each have a unique part to play. This understanding gives meaning and purpose to our choices and individual actions. It can motivate us and our children to persevere through hardship for the sake of a higher good. And best of all, the Author has already told us how the story ends; we know it has a wildly happy ending.

Children need stories; stories are not frills to be fit in somewhere after the grammar, math, history, and science are attended to. Good stories are food for their souls. Be careful not to kill and dissect the stories; C. S. Lewis warns us against efforts to teach children to appreciate good literature. That’s not our job; they need to discover a love for stories on their own. Create an environment that encourages reading stories; read to them; show them how much you love to read and help them become lovers of stories. And most important, be sure they know the Great Story of which they are a part. Help them come to understand that they have an important role, just as David, Esther, and Daniel did, in an adventure story in which virtuous actions matter.

As Bilbo says to Frodo near the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: “Do adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry the story.”