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    Norms and Nobility: Answered in Christ

    July 16, 2010 by Brandy Vencel
    He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

    For since in the wisdom of God
    the world through its wisdom did not come to know God,
    God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed
    Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified,
    to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,

    In the end, the pagan classical system raised questions it couldn’t answer, aimed at goals it could never reach, attempted to develop virtues which fallen man cannot attain, and searched for knowledge it could never find. This is why, when Dante enters the first circle of Hell, the Greeks are there to greet him. The poet Virgil leads him to the blind world, and this is what he finds there:

    That one is Homer, Poet sovereign;

    He who comes next is Horace, the satirist;
    The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

    When I had lilted up my brows a little,

    The Master I beheld of those who know,
    Sit with his philosophic family.
    All gaze upon him, and all do him honour.
    There I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
    Who nearer him before the others stand;
    Democritus, who puts the world on chance,
    Diogenes, Anixagons, and Thales,
    Zeno, Empedocles, and Heraclitus;
    Of qualities I saw the good collector,
    Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I,
    Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca,
    Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy,
    Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna,
    Averroes, who the great Comment made.

    And why are all of these fathers of classical education lost in the world of the blind? Because, in the end, even the best methods do not save, do not sanctify, do not make worthy.

    Is the answer, then, to dispense with classical education altogether? It cannot save!

    Well, no, and for two primary reasons I can think of. First, the Lord commanded fathers to bring the children up in the paideia of God {c.f., Ephesians 6:4}. Paideia is classical education. The conclusion, then, is that the Lord redeemed and made effective classical education, rather than eliminating it. Secondly, the only other option seems to be a utilitarian education. Because a utilitarian education defines man as purely physical it is inappropriate for Christians.

    Thankfully, Hicks shows us the greatness of Christ in regard to education. But first, he shows us the risky business of trying to education classically without Christ.

    The Stoics’ adulation of simplicity, hardship, and self-denial may have hardened man for the ordeal of life, helping him to partake in some measure of the Ideal type or to die as he had lived, with grace and equanimity, but it never satisfied the craving for a transcendent justification of his absolute standard: that the life of virtue is right despite the hardships of the way and the contrary opinion of many. Consequently, the best lives often ended–like Cato the Younger’s at Utica–in a wistful, meaningless suicide.

    Hicks tells us that the pagan humanism upon which the ancient schools were founded suffered from “three self-destructive diseases”:

    1. It had a “tendency to push man into the position of supreme value.” If you recall your catechism, then you know that man’s purpose is to glorify and enjoy God. It is God who is the center. The result of placing man at center is devastating.

      The ancient school saved man from becoming an automaton, but at the cost of his transcendent self-awareness, for it taught him to seek inner perfection through a style so refined and self-conscious that in the end, he often became effete and lost the perspective and balance that he had set out to achieve.

    2. It had a “natural tendency to elitism,” which limited education to a very narrow group of people–men {not women} with political power, riches, and intellectual prowess:

      This ailment besets all programs for self-improvement and personal salvation that depend entirely upon the talents and efforts of the individual for their success. {emphasis mine}

    3. It sowed its own destruction in that it “sowed the contagion of ideological thinking.” Because paganism did not accept the Creator as the first cause, nor His purposes as the final cause, there was no source for defining man. This later bore fruit in today’s atheism:

      Evolutionism seats man on the throne of nature and regards all other species of life and sublife as somehow unfulfilled homo sapiens waiting at stages of development through which man has already passed. This permits man to look on the past with the same smug condescension that he lavishes on dinosaurs…[T]he ideological tendency in pagan humanism finds its ultimate expression in the modern superman, the archetypal monster, who, regarding himself as the supreme end of natural and human history, judges the past but is not judged by it.

    What saves present-day classicism from falling into these same difficulties? The answer is not a what, but a who–Jesus Christ. Not only this, but the tension between Christianity and paganism charges classicism with the energy of dialectic, says Hicks.

    I’m not going to lie to you. Some of the statements Hicks makes about Christ miss the mark. I still can’t figure out exactly where he is coming from. For instance:

    The story of Christ eventually led millions to the experience of faith.

    I know what I think he means, but what a strange way to say it! It is more accurate to say that Christ–Himself, the real, historical person–brought millions of people to real, actual, historical, living faith. We do not live our Christian lives running on the fumes of a single experience, but are given daily sustenance from a real Father in heaven.

    So we know that Christ saves individuals. We also know that Christ saves the nations. We know, too, that Christ saves families. His resurrection even impacts creation. So what, may we ask, is the impact of Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection upon classical education?

    Christ conquered the greatest obstacle, says Hicks:

    [T]he fundamental problem with man, as well as the greatest obstacle to his learning about himself and his purposes, is his self-centeredness. Man cannot be virtuous or wise until he gets off center.

    Paganism could sometime prod man to get off center for a time, but it could never get him off center and actually keep him there.

    [A]t the moments of finest flowering, both ancient schools anticipated the resolution of their conflict in Christianity.

    We already talked about how Christ, being the incarnate Word, settled once and for all the notion of tension between mythos and logos. That is only the beginning of all that Christ accomplished in regard to education. His greatest accomplishment was to free man from his self-centeredness once and for all, to allow him to be permanently off center–in other words, He put man exactly where he belongs.

    The tool He used to accomplish this is love.

    Love is the principle of truth in philosophy and of beauty in art that draws the spirit of man off center to participate imaginatively in the object of beauty or truth…Unlike self-denial or self-negation, love is a positive force, but it requires an object above the self for which the self is transcended. Once the knowledge of this transcendent object is established, whether by reason, by example, or by faith, love binds a person to this object. This binding is the supreme aim of classical education, the union of knowledge and responsibility tantamount to the formation of the virtuous man.

    Hicks tells us of Michelangelo, who nearer the end of his life, knew intimately this binding:

    Michelangelo…fought off the intoxicating effects of a merely beautiful style, hating his “divine objects” when they afforded him only an ecstatic escape from conscience, but adoring them when they inspired within him a devotion to God, empowering him to live rightly, yes, righteously.

    The ancients believed a work of art was the best object with which to accomplish this binding, but Christ took His rightful place, as God’s ultimate work of perfect art, becoming the one transcendent object for binding.

    As the early Christian thinkers within the classical tradition excitedly realized, the answer was provided in the person of Christ: the spirit of eros incarnate, the expressor of the divine will, and the truly divine object that self-transcending love requires.

    This revelation implied all the answers to questions and resolutions to tension which paganistic humanism had lacked:

    Why should the student seek to perfect himself? It was the will of God that all men should model themselves after the person of Christ, the perfect work of art, God painted in the flesh. The love of this work of art, because it was incontestably both perfect and transcendent, empowered man to satisfy the demands of conscience, while relieving him through grace of the anxiety of conscience.

    Christianity accounted for the nature of man and why we observe him to be, at once, both good and bad. It solved the dilemma between right thinking and right acting. It empowered the student to act rightly, both by telling him why and telling him how.

    Christ was the answer to all of the educational dilemmas.

    And we threw it all out.

    [T]he modern school has abandoned the classical striving after a normative education, as well as the hopeful Christian paideia that crowned the ancient tradition. Instead it adopts a posture of nondogmatic, value-free learning that is not only false, but dangerous.

    Hicks has a list of faults within modern schools {and what makes them modern is not, incidentally, where the funding comes from, but their approach to learning}:

    1. It is generally wished that the schools take no position, that they attempt a sort of journalistic objectivity in regard to absolutes {and therefore communicates that absolutes are not…absolute}.
    2. Teachers purposely and deliberately avoid normative issues, opting for “just the facts.”
    3. The schools do, whether they like it or not, teach values {because a value-free environment is not actually possible}, but by hiding it and trying not to do this, there is no reason obvious to the students for why the values exist–in other words, there is no foundation for normative behavior and thinking.
    4. What really matters is not what is taught, but how it is taught. The above three points result in a divorce between learning and responsibility. The result is “to wrest life from learning and to promote the illusion of knowledge without responsibility.”

    In short,

    modern education’s habit of considering everything analytically as a physical datum fails to inspire change in the learner.

    But, thankfully, Christian classical education offers redemption every which way, and it is growing in popularity around the country. At the heart of Christian classicism is not a particular book list or curriculum {though children deserve the best of books, sayeth Charlotte, and we fully agree, do we not?}, but the posture of the heart.

    [T]he intention of the learner, not the content of his lessons, is alone critical to the moral efficacy of education. The learner must want to be changed by his studies. He must read Shakespeare as a Christian reads his Bible. “Whenever the prince picks up a book,” advised Erasmus, “he should do so not with the idea of gaining pleasure but of bettering himself by his reading. He who really wants to be better can easily find the means of becoming better. A great part of goodness is the desire to be good.”

    And here we have more echoes of Charlotte:

    The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good: a desire that sharpens and shapes their understanding, that motivates and sustains their curiosity, and that imbues their studies with transcendent value.

    In the young, our main object is to keep them in a state of wonder and not damage their sweet, innocent desires {while disciplining their selfish desires and helping them form habits of goodness}. Do you remember how Charlotte assured us that the Word would reach down into their little hearts and grow up to bear fruit? It does! Hicks tells us so.

    Christian holiness heals this breach between the self and the conscience with the balm of selfless love. The holy man loves an object not because of its usefulness or attractiveness to him, but–imitatio Christi–because of God’s love for it.

    Near the close of the chapter, Hicks sounds just a bit like Josef Pieper. I am referring to his referencing a

    needful presence of divine assistance in the human quest for understanding.

    In other words, Hicks gets in line with Pieper and explains that to be wise in many things, we require a revealed sort of knowledge.

    According to Saint Paul, Christian paideia realized the transcendent objectives of classical education by offering access to the source of truth through prayer and access to the spiritual reality underlying the material universe through the indwelling Spirit of God.

    Hicks reminds us that the constant struggle for Greek education was uniting faith with the will. This is why, he says, the ancient Church suffered such controversial tension between faith and works. But Paul saw that Christianity did not exaggerate this dilemma, but rather solved the problem:

    [F]aith is regarded as the knowledge of God and works as the doing of His will…Saint Paul taught that faith embraces both knowing and doing through the power of Christ.

    That this has once again become a controversy says more about our paideia–our culture than education–that is does about Christ.

    Faith succeeded through the power of Christ where the Ideal Type of pagan humanism failed to raise man from his fallen state and to avert the tragic consequences of knowledge without responsibility.

    Christ, says Hicks, {and I was hoping he would} is the ultimate Ideal Type. And added to the pantheon He certainly was not.

    After him, there would be no more myths of heroes adding their idiosyncrasies to the evolving shape of the Ideal Type. The myths of heroes would give way to the lives of saints, men and women who partook of the Ideal Type but did not presume to enlarge upon it. In their lives, knowledge would joyously court responsibility and intellect would wed the will.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply GretchenJoanna July 16, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    I was just reading my notes on Norms and Nobility this afternoon, notes I wrote many years ago when I was reading a friend’s copy and still homeschooling. I think I will print out your thorough review to read instead and more easily refresh my memory of what I remember to be a very stimulating book.

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