I love classical education. I am watching it work before my very eyes. I am enjoying hanging detailed information through dialectic discussion on the pegs of knowledge that were formed by memorywork back in the grammar stage. But as discussed in previous posts I have a few a few reservations, too. I am wary of the reverence and worship of man. I am wary of the writings of ancient pagans. I am wary of the arrogance that such knowledge has the potential to create. But I do not find these objections insurmountable. The real point of reading the classics that I force my students to wade through is not to assimilate the ideas of each writer as their own. It is not to create knowledge with no place to use it. It is not even to make sure that they are more well read than their peers. It is to join the great conversation: to follow the train of western thought and the development of civilization. Doing so enables us to understand our own times as well as the triumphs and failures of the past. It gives us a rational hope for the future and perspective on our humanity in relationship to God’s sovereignty.
It follows then that the chief reason to read the ancient philosophers is to gain a foundation for reading what happened next. Reading Socrates (therefore Plato) and Aristotle is incomplete. We are left with questions and without hope. Socrates’ discussion of the just man, whom he could not find in his time, leaves us empty and longing. Plato and Aristotle lead us to reading Augustine and Aquinas. Augustine was led to Christ (the truly just man) by reading Socrates’ description. Aquinas attempted to apply the ideas of Aristotle to his own philosophy and theology. John Calvin and Martin Luther were both greatly influenced by Augustine. The writings of Aquinas influenced the evolution of modern pschycology. If we stopped with ancient philosophers there is little point to reading them. It becomes mostly useless trivia. If we start at the beginning, the dawn of creation and examine Socrates on our way to understanding Burke, Rosseau, Freud and Marx, we have a background for understanding, accepting and rejecting, the ideas that inform our culture and that influence the friends and neighbors that we debate with. So I would caution to tread carefully through the ancients, but do tread. Homer is essential to understanding the myths referenced constantly throughout all later literature. Examining the god myths shows us what it looks like when man creates their own gods, with the same fickle natures. Plutarch’s Lives then shows what the best in a human hero has to offer. I find it remarkable that Cinncinnatus was the hero of George Washington, both men having stepped down from the height of power, knowing the temptation and refusing to succumb, in order to set an example for future generations. How fortunate for all Americans!
The cycle of regimes should be in the back of every mind. Plato’s writings on democracy give a realistic perspective of the limitations of democracy to its advocates. The cave allegory is still used to illustrate philosophies from addiction to technology. An understanding of ancient writings is foundational. But it is essential mainly because of where, when and how it has been applied throughout history. As always, perspective is viewing everything through the lens of God’s word. It is good to know that Christians do not have the monopoly on truth. But they have its source, provided they study it. Which brings us back around to the beginning. The Bible is foundational to understanding the ancient philosophers. They write in detail about the human condition. The Bible tells us how we got that way and what to do about it. A study of Greek philosophers and Roman orators belongs in a sandwich of the Bible and Augustine and Aquinas. Of course it is a Dagwood Bumstead sort of sandwich that continues on to modern philosophy, but fostering a love of learning and a sense of historical perspective is where it starts.