The Liberal Tradition in Arts and Letters

The phrase “liberal arts” or “liberal education” calls to mind various undergraduate curricula, all centered around the “Great Books” or the “Western canon.”  Institutions such as St. John’s College and educators such as Eva Brann are well-known examples, and deservedly so.  These programs and the books they include have a very specific goal in mind, which differs significantly from most undergraduate courses of study.

This goal is concisely expressed in the editor’s introduction to the Harvard Classics library.  Its 50 volumes, first published in 1909, were compiled and edited by Charles Eliot, then-president of Harvard University.  Eliot writes, “My purpose in selecting The Harvard Classics was to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century…I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man.  The best acquisition of a cultivated man is a liberal frame of mind or way of thinking [emphasis added]…The purpose of The Harvard Classics is, therefore,…to present so ample and characteristic a record of the stream of the world’s thought that the observant reader’s mind shall be enriched, refined, and fertilized by it.”

An ambitious project!  It should be clear from this that liberal education is not just about a specific kind of curriculum.  It is about character.  Education is for the cultivation of the whole person: body, mind, and soul.  Increasing the facts at one’s command is not education.  Neither is becoming expert in a specific subject area.  The root word of “liberal” means “freedom.”  The freedom a liberal education bestows is largely freedom from ourselves: the worst parts and tendencies of our character that keep us from flourishing.  Through a liberal education, we also free ourselves from a restricted and parochial worldview.  Left to ourselves, we think too much of the here and now.  We privilege our circumstances, insist we are special and different, and are prone to pride.  A liberal education should humanize us by calling to our attention the permanent features of the human condition, as well as its manifestation in varying historical circumstances.  Liberal education is, by necessity, education sub specie aeternitatis.

History’s greatest minds affirm the moral dimension of education, giving it a central role in their discussions of what it means to be educated.  Plato has Socrates expound an ethical view of education just after the allegory of the cave in The Republic: “[T]he power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, the good.”

In The Laws, Plato’s Athenian distinguishes liberal from illiberal education.  Liberal education is an “education in virtue from the youth upwards, which makes a man eagerly pursue the ideal perfection of citizenship, and teaches him how rightly to rule and how to obey.”  In contrast, the “other sort of training, which aims at the acquisition of wealth or bodily strength, or mere cleverness apart from intelligence and justice, is mean and illiberal, and is not worthy to be called education at all.”  We need not share the implied disdain for the so-called servile arts in order to appreciate that a liberal education is necessary to practice those arts wisely.

It is commonplace to contrast the philosophical systems of Plato and his greatest student, Aristotle.  Whatever their differences, they shared the belief that education was an ethical project.  In his Politics, Aristotle asserts that “there are branches of learning and education which we must study with a view to the enjoyment of leisure, and these are to be valued for their own sake; whereas those kinds of knowledge which are useful in business are to be deemed necessary, and exist for the sake of other things.”  Importantly, “leisure” has a very different meaning in Aristotle’s usage than it does today.  Leisure is devoted to contemplation, as well as other activities in which we delight because they are ends in themselves.  Education is both moral and leisurely; in fact, it is moral because it is leisurely.

The classical authors’ perspective on education was further developed by the Christian Church.  The Church “baptized” this view by reframing its central meaning in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Education is still about striving for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  But now these ideals have become personal, because they are about a Person—Jesus Christ the God-Man, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (cf. Jn 14:6).  Christian writers took the educational paradigm of classical antiquity and infused it with new meaning.

A highly illustrative example is St. Basil the Great’s sermon, “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature.”  Basil was well-read in arts and letters.  As a Churchman, he knew that the Church could not uncritically adopt pagan educational standards.  But disdaining these literary treasures also was improper.  Basil advised taking from this literature “only that which is useful” while discarding “that which ought to be overlooked.” 

Christians must prepare continuously for life eternal in the age to come, Basil counsels.  Undoubtedly the Holy Scriptures are the surest guide to perfection and deification.  But the Scriptures are filled with mysteries, and “it is impossible…to understand the depths and meaning of these” in their entirety.  Thus, Christians would do well to “associate with poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul.”  In this view, the corpus of non-Christian literature is valuable both for the moral lessons it contains—so long as one avoids its seedier themes!—and because it prepares the mind and the soul to receive the Scriptures.  It is not only licit, but commendable, to “be instructed by these outside means,” in order to better “understand the sacred and mystical teachings; and like those who have become accustomed to seeing the reflection of the sun in water, so we shall then direct our eyes to the light itself.”  For Basil, as for the ancients, education is soulcraft. 

The same perspective can be found in St. John Chrysostom’s writings.  His “Address on Vainglory” contains a section with advice for parents on child-rearing.  Chrysostom firmly believes in the formative role of education: “To each of you fathers and mothers I say, just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours…Like the creators of statues do you give all your leisure to fashioning these wondrous statues for God.  And, as you remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking, inspect them day by day, to see what good qualities nature has supplied so that you will increase them, and what faults so that you will eradicate them.”  Here Chrysostom displays his familiarity with the classics.  Many writers used sculpting as an analogy for training the soul, including Plato.  Chrysostom concurs with Basil that education must prepare the soul for eternity.

Hence, education requires careful self-inspection and improvement for a moral purpose.  Christians disagree with the ancient authorities on what that purpose is.  But they agree that it is primarily moral.  They also agree on its freeing (liberal) character.  If an education is not liberal, it is not really education.

While liberal education is not the same thing as a Great Books education, there is a reason so many liberal curricula focus on these books.  There is something special about them, especially the literary, historical, philosophical, and theological works, which makes them particularly well-suited for education as a moral enterprise.  This was eloquently expressed by Albert J. Nock, one of the 20th centuries eminent men of letters.  In his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Nock writes:

“The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest, most complete and most nearly continuous record we have of what the strange creature known as Homo sapiens has been busy about in virtually every department of spiritual, intellectual and social activity. That record covers nearly twenty-five hundred years in an unbroken stretch of this animated oddity's operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, logic, politics, botany, zoology, medicine, geography, theology,—everything, I believe, that lies in the range of human knowledge or speculation. Hence the mind which has attentively canvassed this record is much more than a disciplined mind, it is an experienced mind. It has come, as Emerson says, into a feeling of immense longevity, and it instinctively views contemporary man and his doings in the perspective set by this profound and weighty experience. Our studies were properly called formative, because beyond all others their effect was powerfully maturing. Cicero told the unvarnished truth in saying that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children; and if one wished to characterise the collective mind of this present period, or indeed of any period,—the use it makes of its powers of observation, reflection, logical inference,—one would best do it by the one word immaturity.”

We now have a good idea of what a liberal education is, and what it is supposed to do.  We also saw why history and the humanities feature heavily in a liberal education.  Next, I need to clarify the idea of “economics,” and show how it fits in.  The above discussion may make it appear economics has no place in a liberal education.  But this appearance is a mirage.  Economics belongs, because there is something about it that makes it impeccably liberal.


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