Put Another Way: Our Thesis in a Nutshell
Contra the modern tendency in Christian apologetic movements, we desire that human letters and science be made perspicacious, pellucid, and integral with what is known of the nature of God. Anything less would be to cripple the possibility of developing a specifically Christian worldview, for what good is a world view that cannot account for itself, or remain true to itself, at all possible levels, and in all possible situations? At the same time, we wish to do this consciously, that it may be criticized, improved upon, or clarified in important points. In this sense, the effort to develop the Quadrivium and the Trivium can be called Christian Humanism.1 We agree with R. Scott Clark at Heidelblog that a Christian, or even a Reformed, humanism is quite possible: he refers us to other sources as well-
“On this see the massive work of Richard Muller, e.g., Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics or Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, eds.Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment or Willem van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism.”
It appears to this writer that the anti-classical movement (while making good points, generating sound insights, and clarifying some topics) actually requires more of man than God does, & says worse things about him than the Creator does, and that this is because they believe that man's reason is completely extinguished, and that the image of God in man is obliterated. Apparently, this theory does not extend to their own reasoning on the subject, nor (presumably) to that which they appeal to in their listener. I include the Biblical scholar Gary North in this category, and to a lesser extent, James Jordan. Rush Limbaugh has also joined the attack on “liberal studies”, bizarrely. Here is Lisa Van Damme, of the Ayn Rand Objectivist Standard, attacking “classical education”- she objects to this idea of a higher Wisdom with a capital W:
Like Hirsch’s Core Knowledge catalogue, The Well-Trained Mind fails to differentiate facts at various levels of abstraction. Facts are simply the automatically given raw material from which logical conclusions are drawn and impassioned arguments made. In the first years of schooling, the child is supplied with all the facts known to man—no matter how these facts actually came to be known, and thus regardless of how these facts can be truly understood firsthand. In the logic stage, he learns how to relate and interconnect the facts to form arguments. In the rhetoric stage, he learns to use his catalogue of facts and skill at argument to create new ideas and present them in a compelling manner. How is he to know that the said facts are facts? The answer is that he simply does not know; he is to accept them as facts because an authority says so....Nothing is more destructive to a child’s (or an adult’s) ability to reason than to be fed dogma and to swallow it. Reason functions by logically integrating observable facts of reality into a non-contradictory whole. In regard to every idea, a reasoning mind must ask: Is this supported by the facts of reality? And: How does this integrate with my other factual knowledge of reality? When a rational person spots a contradiction, he knows that at least one of his premises is wrong. But what is he to do with the Bible—which, if taken literally, provides him with an endless stream of absurd falsehoods and unscientific assertions? Can a bush talk, as is claimed in the Old Testament? Can a man walk on water or turn it to wine, as Jesus is purported to have done? Was everything created ex nihilo in six days? Was man created in his current form? Have Christians not caused major atrocities throughout history—and are these atrocities not sanctioned by the Bible? An education that places primacy on the observable, provable facts of reality can teach a child how to think and integrate; one that does not, short-circuits his mind by telling him to accept that which makes no sense and contradicts that which he knows.
Can the mind actually create ideas on its own, like a mushroom creates spores? Isn't it dogmatic to assert that “nothing is more destructive....to a mind than to be fed dogma and swallow it”? Also, is that true? Nothing? What about lying to yourself? What is meant by “observable” and provable”? “Facts” and “reality”?
Contrary to Van Damme's wishful thinking, there isn't an obervable, provable “reality” which everyone can easily agree on. Even worse, there isn't a consistent “method” that those who disagree on what “reality” is, can agree on either. The closest thing we have to this, which is the scientific method, is an agreement on procedure in certain instances, rather than “method” strictly speaking, since “method” implies (in addition to procedure) the tinctures of the contents and ambiance of the Mind. Yes, we all tend to agree that we experience reality, we hypothesize, we “test” or observe that hypothesis, and then we refine our theories. After that initial consensus, everything diverges into infinity, unless we are discussing the lowest mineral or chemical levels of reality, about which there is usually an easy agreement. This is true even among scientists.
The classical world had derived a rather careful and conservative, but effective, remedy for this confusion. By using the locus of common texts (eg., Homer's Odyssey, Euclidean geometry, etc.) it became possible to awaken the possibilities inherent in the student.2 In the ancient tradition of the liberal arts, it was recognized that “only like can know like”. Although many Christians today deride this as “Platonism”, it was simply a recognized epistemological maxim of the older world that was shared in common, by and large. Stoics would also have accepted it, as would have Pythagoreans, the mystery schools, and a variety of other philosophical schools. Jesus put the same truth in its purest form: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. If we accept that maxim, we can see why humans will never experience identical “reality” on the inside – the interior of men is different, and some people are incapable of understanding what others do. At the same time, there is a kind of basic similarity in all men – their “noetic” faculty is divided into the image and the likeness of God: we all share God's image, but we participate in His likeness to the degree which we are able, according to our talents. It was the common, shared “image” of God which created Mediterranean, classical “humanism”, later baptized and furthered by the Christian community of the Dark Ages.
It was a firm belief in the continuity between Grace and Nature that lead (to some degree) the ancient, and (to a greater degree) the medieval, worlds to canonize what they called the seven Liberal Arts. True, Grace doesn't merely restore the primordial state, but neither does it obliterate it by something entirely Other or alien. One is tempted to express the difference between Greece/Rome on the one hand, and medieval Europe on the other this way: the ancient world possessed transcendence and immanence, but it had no stable or sane way to bring them together – it was the coming of Christ that reconciled the interior worlds with the exterior cosmos. From then on, humanism made sense, but only as Christian humanism.
Francis Schaeffer in his magisterial work How Shall We Then Live stated that towards the end of the Middle Ages there happened
an increasing distortion of the teaching of the Bible and the early church. Humanist elements had entered. For example, the authority of the church took precedence over the teachings of the Bible; fallen man was considered able to return to God by meriting the merit of Christ; and there was a mixture of Christian and ancient non-Christian thought (as Aquinas' emphasis on Aristotle). This opened the way for people to think of themselves as autonomous and the center of all things.3
With enormous respect to Schaeffer (to whom I owe very much), there is a lack of subtlety in this sweeping approach. While it is true that the Middle Ages gave birth to the “numeracy” and computus of modern Science, a tendency that was certainly exaggerated and reached its peak in the Deistic period of 18th century humanism and the Enlightenment, there were competing tendencies within the sharpening of the Western intellect which lost out (over time) to the quantitative approaches to both Nature and God. “Reason” in the Middle Ages stood for the noetic faculty, rightly used (including in inquiry into Nature), so it was not until the great nominalist debate and William of Ockham, that the West decisively turned towards the dark side of reductionism and determinism4.
To give just one example of the survival and continuity of the older view, Jean Calvin quotes with approval Saint Bernard of Clarivaux in his Institutes, on the righteousness of Christ. So that if we return to that high point of the medieval period, during the 10th-13th centuries, we find a very different kind of “humanism” than existed in either ancient Rome or the Renaissance, or (for that matter), the Reformation. Looking past the label, what we encounter is a deliberate attempt to work out the cultural implications of the doctrine of theosis, which Athanasius championed:
God became man, that man might become God.
Hugh of St. Victor says it even better, this way:
This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, this is what they intend, namely, to restore within us the divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his nature. The more we are conformed to the divine nature, the more do we possess Wisdom, for then there begins to shine forth again in us what has forever existed in the divine Image or Pattern, coming and going in us, but standing changeless in God.” - Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalion. 5
When Christendom rose up out of the Dark Ages, it arose in Northwest Europe, rather than in Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, precisely because the ancient world beyond the Rhine retained enough cultural “paganism” in a certain form to render it susceptible to the preaching of the Gospel. Since you cannot convert someone who believes in nothing, & you cannot convert someone who believes in everything, it took the world of the barbarian tribes to be balanced at the right enough point to culturally implement the Gospel, so that European man could have been said (with all his faults, and they were many) to have Christian “bones”.
These preconditions meant that it was in the Western world that Christianity was able to take shape.6The Germanic peoples who accepted Christ did so because they already understood, latently, the chivalric ideal proclaimed in Christ's passion:
"If I had been there with my Franks I would have revenged his wrongs!" (Clovis the Frankish king).
This was no mere jest – time and again, with far lesser reason, and against outrageous odds, the barbarians of the West stood on the day of battle for as little a thing (as Hamlet says) “as an eggshell” - it was to be expected that the baptism of this Gospel would produce a society which would be extremely brave and high-minded, which it did. So a culture (of chivalry in this case) matters, because culture is part of God's given world, His already given gift to us7. If God was not a “Gifter”, but a pretender or a scrooge, then we could say that Mozart, Goethe, and Milton do not matter.
So does politics and language and learning: all these are “matter” and they matter. To list a few instances, when Rome fell, the various Christological heresies dominated Church and politics. When Spain was occupied by the the Visigoths, the Church there became Arian. When Byzantium conquered the remains of the Empire and split it with Charlemagne and his Franks, the Church was fractured. When Rome persecuted the Church, the Church became permanently impressed with an underground and impoverished character. When the Founding Fathers subordinated Christendom to the Enlightenment (and the Church to “freedom of religion”), classical secular liberalism came into existence and stamped the Church with a sectarian and “second hand” character. Time and time again, in the history of the West, the “Empire” or secular arm's lack of health has caused the Church to catch a cold from its sneezing; in our day, it is “culture” itself which infects the Church, the Church having let it go to seed. We now have a vicious cycle of Church and culture influencing (and neglecting) one another to the detriment of each.
So a defense of Christendom is not out of order, but in fact represents an essential element of health, without which the Ekklesia has immense difficulty in ordering its own soul and the souls of its sheep. It is highly in the interests of Christians, thinking or not, whether the secular arm is dominated by a democracy, Caesar, or a demagogue or a tyrant (to name a few)8. Or whether we live in a world lead by Brittney Spears and the Kardashians, or one dedicated more to Brahms or Wagner. Even if culture were purely neutral or even negative, it would still be true that sustaining it with some forms of beauty, truth, and goodness was a valuable way of making it stable and holding certain forces at bay outside the Church, until the Church could regain its health. Even if it were a negligible non-entity, it would still serve as a buffer or a nursery: better still, it could be transformed, intentionally, by the Church for express and spiritual reasons, to make something better than itself alone.
To be even more precise, we do not make the claim that goodness is either guaranteed by high culture, or that high culture is a precondition for any goodness, especially one that will save. It is not too much, even given this, to say that
the Greeks and the Romans taught us, by edict and example, the dangers of cultural complacency. Culture does not breathe on its own; it is preserved by those convinced of its value. This is not a new gospel. It is simply true. The classical vision has been renewed, time and again down the long centuries after being threatened with extinction by prophets touting their New Jerusalem. But for students of history, the burden of proof must lie on the shoulders of those who would deny that vision's value...the case for classical education is not airtight, nor can it be; it contains too many provisos. But...homage has been paid to it before our time, and by finer minds...anyone trained at least for a time to view the world as the Greeks and Romans saw it may learn to ask pregnant questions. And even if the ancient answers be rejected, the student – of whatever age – will know what they are, and approach his own world with freshened vision, one no longer blinkered by ideology and the reigning fashion. He would have a liberal, because liberating, education indeed. No longer would he be imprisoned exclusively within the velvet walls of his own world's preoccupations and fetishes. No longer would he be just and only a child of his own time. He might even partake of the divine.9
So we are not maintaining a high argument that high culture is inevitably and uniquely Christian (although I have a suspicion that this might be very possible); rather, the aim of the argument is to show that Christianity can be more true to its Maker, and thereby, itself, by receiving as a gift the “shields of the earth” from the hand of the Giver10. We conclude, therefore, that both high culture and Christianity will be better together, than they could have been, separately. How much better, or in what way, is a story that will be left up to those willing to be mastered by both the high culture of the West, as well as the Master Himself.11 Nothing else is worthy of free men who possess any form of memory, and not to know the Mediterranean tradition is to have a form of higher amnesia. To reject it consciously is a form of madness, or deliberate surrender.
Thus, a defense of the Quadrivium (in education) is tantamount to defending the reality and health of Christendom, because the mores and worldview of a society are formed in the nursery, the kindergarten, and the high schools & colleges12. The “soul of the university” is just as important as the “soul of the body politic” in maintaining the health and well being of the Church of our Lord. The liberal arts, as both Luther and Erasmus acknowledged, in their own separate ways, are a kind of pre-sanctum or preparatory study for the knowledge of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good (again, the archetypal Father, the embodied Son, and the end or Summation of all Things in the Spirit).
So it is un-apologetically and boldly that we do advance the thesis of this work, which we intend to defend as that which was normative “at all times, in all places, and by all”13, and present this fully, replete with scholarly detail and exegesis for those who wish to dig further.
This thesis is that the Quadrivium (and indeed the entire seven Liberal Arts by implication) are in fact the necessary framework for a full and healthy Christendom of the mind, without which neither the State, the Church, nor even the family can hope to plainly and clearly see where the true Good is found, beyond the “strife of race and clan” and the noise of the “maddening crowd”. The true seven Liberal arts are the enemy sworn of the world, the flesh, and the devil – we may call them the red right hand of God in the war on the dragon, for it is by ideas, forged with passions, that men are swayed, governed, and formed into an eternity, for either good or ill. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. Therefore, the kingdoms of the world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, the Christ, since, by faith he looked for a different city, whose builder and architect was God. Jesus did not receive the kingdoms at the hand of Satan, but at the hand of God, to deliver them back at the end of all times to the One who made them. This is what classical Christian education is, or can and should be, all about.
2The common body of texts was not a “matrix” in the sense of Obama's “common core”, but was (rather) a rough, general, but flexible canon of texts recognized as superior and helpful by previous learners. You could displace a text, but only by superseding it with something recognizably superior. Thus, the Stoics would not study the same texts as Pythagoreans or Platonists – but there differences were rational, known, and capable of being demonstrated for the inquirer. In modern terms, one might substitute Imre Madach's The Tragedy of Man for Goethe's Faust. I am not sure if it makes that much difference in the canon.
4Richard Weaver fingered William of Ockham for this in Ideas Have Consequences. The roots go back much farther, but in terms of accepted philosophy, they reach a crescendo in Ockham's nominalism.
6GK Chesterton makes this point at length, vis a vis Rome and Carthage, in The Everlasting Man.
7Jesus puts it this way – You didn't listen to the prophets, but stoned them and put them to death. What makes you think God should send you anything better? In fact, He does, but (naturally) because they don't “get it”, they end up doing the same thing to Jesus as well. In these essays, I argue this of Nature, as well: if you won't listen to Nature, then what right have you to expect Grace? You will get Grace, but it will only make you destroy yourself even more efficiently and finally. Appreciation of Nature is a prelude to appreciation of Grace.
8Please read TS Eliot on Christianity and Culture, or Peter Leithart's Against Christianity. Christ and culture are only at war because our culture is so degenerate. Culture ought to operate against the world (Empire), just as Empire should operate against culture (degenerate culture & false religion – the flesh and the devil). Or, to put it differently, could everyone just focus on doing their own jobs well?
9Tracy Lee Simons, Climbing Parnassus. P 22 & 24 2002 ISI Delaware.
10When Daniel was captive in Babylon, he and his friends were schooled and disciplined in the best and finest arts which the Babylonians possessed, and they are in no way censured for this by Scripture – quite the opposite – it was an occasion for great power and grace.
11Phillip Rieff, Fellow Teachers. “High culture belongs to whomever will be mastered by it.”
12Karl Marx's tenth proposition for a socialist society included the power of dictating what type of education the young would receive.
13St. Vincent of Lerins used this motto to describe Christian orthodoxy, which would include an orthodoxy of the mind, a philosophy of education, and a method and theory of training/learning. RJ Rushdoony goes so far as to claim in The Foundations of Social Order that the roots of Western civilization in fact lie within the ecumenical councils of the Church and her creeds. I would endorse this line of thinking, but not all of his conclusions, adding (at the least) that the Hellenistic world provided at least half of the framework of the creeds.