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How Christians can approach classical literature

Jacque-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, in a letter to Innocent XI

Logic and morals serve to cultivate the two principal operations of the human mind: the faculties of understanding and willing. For logic, we have drawn from Plato and Aristotle, not so as to serve vain disputes about words, but to form the judgment by solid reasoning, and we have restricted ourselves primarily to that part of logic that is used to find probable arguments, because these are the ones used in affairs of state. [NB, Bossuet is describing the curriculum for royal persons].

For the teaching of morals, we have mined the proper source: Scripture and the maxims of the Gospel. We have not, however, neglected to explain the morals of Aristotle, adn that admirable doctine of Socrates, truly sublime for his time, which may serve to give faith to the incredulous, and to make corrupt men blush.

Yet we have at the same time noted what the Christian philosophy condemns in it, and what she adds to it, what she approves, and with what authority she confirms the sane maxims of Socrates, and how she is superior to them, in such a way that the philosophy of Socrates, as grave as it appears, compared to the wisdom of the Gospel is but the infancy of morals.

As to philosophy, we have cleaved to those maxims that carry with them the certain character of truth, and which might be useful for the conduct of human life. As to the systems and philosophical opnions that are subjects for the vain disputes of men, we have limited ourselves to reporting them under the form of an historical recital, for we have thought that it was fitting to the dignity of a young prince to know the diverse and opposed opinions that have much occupied the great minds, while equally protecting the parties and refusing to share their enthusiasm or their prejudice. The one who is called to command should learn to judge and not to dispute.

Yet after having considered that philosophy consists above all in recalling the mind to itself in order then to raise one’s thoughts to God, we have first sought self-knowledge. This preliminary study, by presenting us with fewer difficulties, at the same time offers our researches the most useful and most noble end: for, to become a true philosopher, man must study himself, and without losing himself in the useless and puerile attempt to learn what others have said and thought, he need but seek into and ask questions of himself, and he will thus find the one who has given him the ability to be, to know, and to will.

Bossuet provides some provocative ideas in the foregoing. Things to think about, which isn’t why people visit blogs, I know. But take a few minutes some time to print this passage and reflect on it. You’ll grow doing so. It will benefit your students.

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