Classical Learning: Friend & Foe

» Posted by on Jul 6, 2011 in Blog, Education History | Comments Off on Classical Learning: Friend & Foe

If “classical education” means anything but thoroughly Christian learning for youngsters, then we should abandon it.  There is a long tradition of this kind of healthy concern, even among those who did not agree with Tertullian that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem, and even among the greatest of classical, liberal arts scholars such as Hugh of St. Victor:

“. . . how many men of letters we now see who wish to be called Christians, who enter the church with the rest of the faithful, who there partake of the sacraments of Christ, yet in whose hearts the memory of Saturn and Jove, of Hercules and Mars, of Achilles and Hector, of Pollux and Castor, of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle is more often found than that of Christ and his saints. . .” (On the Moral Interpretation of the Ark of Noah, as cited in Jerome Taylor’s translation of Hugh’s Didascalicon, p. 167).

Those like Hugh were well acquainted with the idea of “plundering the Egyptians” from Exodus 3, of taking whatever is good from the pagans and making it our own for Christian use.  Augustine’s well-known description helps us see that the reason we plunder, in fact, is that we are claiming it “from those who have unlawful possession of it” (On Christian Doctrine, II.60).  All knowable truth is from God and for his saints, even when for a time he allows those who do not fear him to possess it.  Hugh, known as the second Augustine, must have understood this notion of plundering, because he certainly did plenty of it himself.  But his words above touch upon how we are to go about it.  The point is who and what we are devoted to and are taken by in the stories and in the learning.  Men like Hugh (and Augustine, who was less enthusiastic than Hugh about the liberal arts) knew the classical, pagan resources better than anybody of our day, and therefore also knew its power to seduce.

So even as we benefit from Aristotle in our study of logic, for example, we do it knowing that consistent and clear thinking comes from the Creator.  Aristotle was brilliantly enabled to figure some things out, but he is not our hero.  The Word incarnate is he “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not Aristotle.  Aristotle was given some good things, and the mysterious purpose for which he was given those things was that they be claimed later by God’s people, and claimed to that end in Christ, who, as Augustine and Hugh both emphasize, is logic (the eternal Logos).

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