Understanding Classical Catholic Education
by William C. Michael
I. IntroductionII. The Arts in Ancient IsraelIII. The Arts in Ancient GreeceIV. The Arts in Ancient RomeV. The Arts in the Hellenistic WorldVI. The Arts in the First CenturyVII. The Arts in the Early Middle AgesVIII. The Arts in the Higher Middle AgesIX. Renaissance & ReformationX. The Scientific RevolutionXI. American Public EducationXII. The Dawn of Modern EducationXIII. Catholic Schools in AmericaXIV. The Classical Liberal Arts AcademyXV. The Goal of EducationXVI. The Means to True Happiness
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As we begin our study of the classical liberal arts, we will first consider the philosophy behind this ancient system of learning. We will see that modern educational philosophies are not alternatives to the ancient system but errors leading men away from sound philosophy and ultimately, true happiness.
We must understand, first of all, that as neither God, truth, nor man has ever changed in nature, true education has never changed either. What has happened over time is that new forms of education have arisen as man has invented new philosophies of life or of the purpose of education. Thus, when Solomon says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” he does not mean that men have not invented or cannot invent new errors. He means that as far as truth and happiness are concerned, nothing is new and nothing will ever be new. This is a principle we must believe and reason from in our thinking about education, for the eternity and constancy of God and the truth that is in Him provide the only source of peace and happiness in human life. Thus, when we consider man–body and soul–that element which is more like God (the soul) is that in which our happiness consists and this must be the focus of true education.
You may read this with no great surprise, but the errors in modern education are found right here: the denial of the eternal nature of man, and the denial of the superiority of the soul. If you understand this, and reason from these facts you will soon come to see the errors of modern education and the wisdom of the classical liberal arts.
The Power of Reason
When we look back at the ancient world, we obviously can find wise men. In Israel we know of Noah, Abraham, Job, Moses, Samuel, Solomon, David, Isaiah–and many more. Outside of Israel we find wise men, most of whom have unfortunately been made to appear ridiculous through the exaggeration of the poets. The question we must ask is: How did these men obtain their wisdom? What form of education did they receive? With none of the technology or tools available to us they obtained wisdom and understanding of the world that is hard for us to fathom who learn so little despite having so much.
Man is referred to scientifically as homo sapiens or “reasoning man”. This notion of man’s rational nature may be understood when we consider the four operations of the human mind: perception, predication, reasoning and arrangement. These direct us in understanding the means to true education.
Perception is the operation of the mind whereby mental images are collected through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The mind operates like a camera, storing images of what is perceived. For this reason you can close your eyes and still “see” a friend, “smell” a rose or “feel” a warm fire. These mental images are called “ideas” and are the first action or operation of the human mind.
Predication is the operation of the mind whereby images are compared and either joined together or disjoined. We call this a predication, or a judgment. For example, our mind has an idea of ice and an idea of coldness and joins them together: All ice is cold. The “is” is simply a link or copula. On the contrary, our mind disjoins the idea of ice from the idea of hotness and predicates: No ice is hot. Here we are denying the link and are saying, “Ice and hot do not agree.”
The mind continues to from predication to Reasoning by comparing one predication or judgment with another, leading to new and more complex judgments by means of the syllogism. For example, the mind reflecting upon the fact that “All ice is cold.” and that “The sun is hot.” produces a new judgment, that “The sun is not ice.”.
Lastly, the mind arranges these arguments to form systems through which future perceptions, predications and reasonings are categorized for yet further reasonings.
Now, when we imagine this mind set loose in the world as it was at creation, it does not require much time for man to make great progress in learning in the world. More importantly, inasmuch as the world was designed by the wisdom of God, it was also a perfect teacher of man, which silently speaks to man’s reason. Man’s ability to reason can safely lead him to the mastery of creation’s resources and ultimately to the knowledge and love of their Creator.
It was by this “eye of the soul” that the ancients made such great progress and this was God’s intention for them. If left to themselves with this guide alone, man had the capacity of enjoying a life full of happiness and wisdom. Eden could have remained a paradise forever and the world would have known only truth.
The Necessity of Revelation
After considering the power of human reason, it would seem that man would need no further help in discovering all truth. However, man was not created alone in the world and was therefore vulnerable to turning away from the truth because of his freedom.
Man dwelt (and does dwell!) in a world that is also inhabited by myriads of spirits. These spirits were not all good. Evil spirits led men to false perceptions and false predications, which led to false reasonings and entire systems of falsehood. Moreover, men were tempted to turn away from reason and the eye of the soul was darkened, if not altogether blinded. Our Lord later addressed this condition when He warned, “If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!”.
To rectify these evils, God revealed necessary truths to men and exposed the errors common among them. He did this by disclosing truths (some of which were beyond the power of human reason), by giving signs and by honoring the wise and humbling those enslaved to folly. Moreover, God helped men to understand the reality of contradictory and malevolent spirits. Thus, we see in the earliest books of Scripture stories of Satan tempting Job, and of the Devil deceiving Adam and Eve. These stories give man insight into the invisible world of spirits which, though not perceived by the senses are comprehended by the eye of the soul. God mercifully enlightened man’s way, so that the Psalmist could later sing, “In thy light we see light.”
Thus, when we look back upon the ancients we must avoid criticism that neglects the influence of deceiving spirits and the confusion they introduced. We must focus on the positive intellectual achievements of men and the power of reason displayed by them, while looking with understanding on their failures and flaws. The irreverent and unjust attacks on the ancients is an important part of the rhetoric of modern philosophers and one we must oppose.
Meditation & Early Philosophy
It should not surprise us that in the ancient world we find wise men in retreat–taciturn and patient–thinking and reasoning in solitude. We know, therefore, that the primary form of learning in the ancient world was reflection, simply thinking about one’s experiences and observations with the goal being to develop an understanding of the origins and reasons for them, “chewing the cud” as it were. Due to the fact that this was common knowledge in the past, we must appreciate occasional references to the practice, such as we find in Job’s meditation in Job 3 or in the following reference in Genesis 24:
“Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening.”
We must avoid the modern tendency to assume that ancient people were ignorant or “primitive”. Many of the discoveries we glory in today were not beyond the understanding of the ancients. The early philosophers understood that there was a sound path to wisdom that was contrary to the approach being tried by men of the modern world. We glory in our access to information, libraries filled with books, microscopes, telescopes, and so on, but none of these have the power to make man wise and good. Socrates warned of our generation:
“they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”
The ancients were not interested in gaining an “appearance of knowledge” and sought out greater freedom for reflection, prayer, etc.. Rather than mock their simplicity, we should first consider whether they were right. The technology and information available today does not address the ultimate need: that wisdom dwell in our souls. Rather than rush with the crowd after books, computers and degrees, we should consider that the men and women we honor as Saints were those who lived as the ancients advised. We will learn to do the same as we progress in the classical liberal arts.
The Branches of Learning
St. Stephen, before offering his life in martyrdom, spoke of the education of Moses:
“Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians: and he was mighty in his words and in his deeds.”
Here we see that men were aware of the wisdom of the past, and a method of instruction. What however, is this “wisdom of the Egyptians”? We may find the fruits of this wisdom in the book of Genesis, which Moses later wrote. However, this wisdom was purified and perfected by means of the divine revelation received by Moses.
We read this book over 3,000 years later and fail to appreciate the wisdom needed to write it when it was written. Consider the contents. Moses writes of God, spirits, animals, the sun, the moon, the stars, time, the seasons, the calendar, weather, geography, moral philosophy, language, measurements, law and much, much more. This was not common knowledge! Moses set down in writing a complete explanation of the world’s origin and organization that was true. It was the only book of its kind in the world, and it stood as a light to all men.
When we look more carefully at the wisdom Moses possessed we will see that it can be classified into a number of basic branches. Moses’ study of the origins of words and names belongs to Grammar. Moses’ debates and conferences with God and men belong to Dialectic. Moses’ poetic language, his speech-making and his famous ethos belong to Rhetoric. Moses’ knowledge of numbers and calculations belong to Arithmetic. His understanding of the earth and its measurements, shapes, magnitude, along with geography all belong to Geometry. The knowledge Moses had of the origin of musical instruments, his own art of composing and the employment of song in worship reveals a knowledge of Music. Moses’ understanding of the heavens, the seasons and time belong to Astronomy. Beyond this, we see in Moses great understanding of Logic (by which he judges from the Law), Moral Philosophy (by which He composes the Law), Natural Philosophy (by which he discusses animals and their use) and Metaphysics (by which He discusses the existence and attributes of God)–the four branches of Philosophy. Of course, most obvious of all is Moses’ knowledge of God and man in reference to God, that is, Theology.
Again, because of modern Christians’ ignorance of these subjects we fail to see them in Moses’ writing. We think of Moses as a cartoon character in a children’s story Bible, rather than as a philosopher able to stand with any that came after him. Yet we find him 1,400 years before Christ! That means 400 years before Solomon and 1,000 years before Socrates, Plato or Aristotle. When we see the wisdom Moses possessed and how long ago it was possessed we will begin to understand the truth about education. We will understand that man does not need any assistance from technology or science to attain the highest and best knowledge, but has the ultimate organum (or instrument) built right into his soul.
The Growth of Education
If we think back to the four operations of the mind, we will remember that the last operation involves the systematizing of knowledge. Therefore, what we should expect to find over time is not the creation of new subjects, but the increasing orderliness and systematizing of knowledge. This is exactly what we do find.
While the timeless arts of learning are all found in the wisdom of Moses–the most ancient of Christian writers–they are not arranged as neatly as education would require. After all, the goal of education is to pass on to students the intellectual achievements of the past for them to preserve, internalize, act upon and communicate more effectively to the next generation.
Thus, through history, we find not a changing of these branches of learning but a clarification and distinguishing of them. We also find men gaining greater proficiency in the individual arts. For example, we find drama introducing speech to literature and poetry adding meter to prose. We find religion becoming clearer and more complex as men reason through new questions about the nature of God along with good and evil. We find sons building upon their father’s achievements–for centuries and centuries.
In the next lesson, we will study the specifics of the historical development of education from the time of Moses through the founding of the Greek schools.
II. The Arts in Ancient Israel
What can I learn from ancient Israel to improve my Classical Catholic Education?
In the first lesson, we considered the philosophical foundations of the classical liberal arts curriculum and tracked its earliest progress. We saw that God equipped man with a reasonable soul. We looked at the operations of the mind and how the mind relentlessly attacks any and every object of perception. We also looked at the cause of divine revelation and how it, in conjunction with the mind, guides men into all truth. Lastly we looked at the example of Moses to whom the earliest and greatest gifts of revelation were granted.
In this second lesson we will connect two important points in the history of the classical liberal arts curriculum. We will consider the development of the arts after Moses up to the time of the development of the famous Greek schools.
Israel: A Nation Built on Divine Revelation
Normally, when we consider the people of Israel we think of the ceremonial traditions they zealously maintained–and rightfully did they do so. We fail to compare and contrast this nation with the rest of the world. We take them for granted in the same way we take Moses for granted. Let us consider them with a fresh look at who they are and what they mean for us in the history of education.
Before we enter upon this reflection, we must prepare ourselves to enter with faith in the content of Sacred Scripture. We must accept the propositions of Scripture for what they are–the word of God–and allow them to become the new premises by which we renew our minds. If you are not willing to do so, you have no hope of understanding and might as well get your money back now.
By the time Moses dies, we have this great multitude that possesses something no other people on earth possess: the true story of the origin of the world and the law of God for mankind. We must stop here and not move on until this reality is fixed in out minds. To this point in history (ca 1400 BC) men knew of God or the gods by means of reason. Revelation was scarce and what there was of it was dark and mysterious. For example, a covenant was made with Abraham that was personal, not legal, leaving man’s relationship with God to be understood as a relationship with and through a man. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending upon a ladder into heaven, but what did all this mean? Worst of all, this was the condition of the chosen people! If the light among the sons of Abraham was dim, how dark was that among the nations? Yet, through Moses a great light is fixed in Palestine and that light begins to enlighten every man coming into the world from that point on.
The next great light is found in the great kings David and Solomon. Once again, silly Bible stories have robbed them of their dignity and magnanimity and have discouraged us in our interest in them. When we hear the name David, we think Bathsheba and when we hear Solomon we think of his wives. We move on with no profit from the mystery and wisdom that enshrouds these two ancient men and all that they have to offer us in understanding the nature of true human education.
Before we look at them individually, we must keep in mind that they are among the first generations of men to start with the light of the five books of Moses (the Torah). Therefore, we find in these men the next radical advance in human wisdom as the revelation of Moses supplies the first principles to these great minds. Moreover, we find that new revelation is prepared for them.
As stated above, most of what we know of king David comes from children’s books. We know of his time as a shepherd. We know he played the harp and sang Psalms. We know he killed Goliath. We know he stole Bathsheba from Uriah–and so on. However, if this was the true message of the life of David, would it justify the use of his writings as the core of all true worship in the Church? There must be something more to David than these superficial children’s stories. God help us to understand David.
In our first introduction to David we find him not as a king, nor a warrior, but as a musician. By our lack of reflection and ignorance of history we miss the point of this: there are not many musicians in the ancient world (here 1000 BC). The art of music is in its earliest development and David is a shepherd boy. Where does this art of music come from and how did a lonely shepherd boy acquire it?
We learned through Moses of the origin of musical instruments. However, the manufacturing of musical instruments and our understanding of the proper uses of music are two separate arts, with the latter being superior. What we find in David is the first true musician. David’s musical skill is a divine gift that demonstrates the power of this skill to man and that in reference to God, which is wisdom. The Scripture does not present music to us as a source of leisure or entertainment. Scripture reveals that music has an enchanting effect on the soul of man. Through the story of King Saul’s spiritual attacks, and the relief David’s music brings, we receive yet another glimpse into the invisible world, which is essential for our progress in true wisdom. Music has a power to deliver man from evil and maintain a sound mind within him.
This understanding of music will be central to our discussion of the liberal arts for the rest of history, but we find the world’s earliest divine musician in David. The Greek legend of Orpheus and the mystery which surrounded his skill should add to our admiration of David, whose achievements are “more sure” than those of the famous Greek.
However, before we move on to Solomon, you may want to see where exactly the knowledge of the classical liberal arts is found in David. Remember that the arts are not present in their tidy little categories as we know them now, for that is the development that will follow in coming centuries. We find in David the mass of wisdom, but not an awareness of all of its proper divisions.
Let us consider an iceberg to understand how to examine the wisdom of ancient men and David in particular. We know that the visible portion of the iceberg, that which protrudes above the surface of the water, is but a sign of the great mass that exists below. In the same way, the wisdom of the ancients is not seen in formal, systematic teachings, but in their deeds.