Classical Education and the Cultivation of the Christian Imagination: Part 1 – John Stuart Mill and the Incomplete Classical Education

In the present age, an education in experimental science is an important and necessary feature for students; however, the Classical Christian Education movement recognizes the shortcomings of an education whose principal concern is teaching science and technology. The human dimension is often lacking from a predominantly scientific program. A proper education attends to the moral imagination of students, drawing from traditional and classical sources. The moral imagination, that faculty which informs the habits, practices, affections, and dispositions of a people, should be nurtured through content and methods. Such an education involves religion, literature, and philosophy—the permanent things.

The Classical perspective also rightly rejects education that avoids engagement with tradition. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher who inspired the French Revolution, proposed such an approach. The program of Rousseau’s book Emile looks directly to nature, without the mediation of culture or tradition, in the education of the child. The child’s natural curiosity guides his education. Such a program is for unschoolers and those of the 1960’s counter-culture. However, a traditional study of the Classics themselves does not make for a classical education in the full sense desired.

Education informs the affect and sensibility as well as the intellect. It looks also to integrate faith and reason in such a way as to avoid dualism and fragmentation of thought. Classical education should avoid lesser goals: the secularist wanting better SAT scores from the Latin student, the Protestant wanting his student simply to be able to read Koine and the Greek New Testament, or the Catholic learning Latin to better participate in the Tridentine Mass.

A better education looks to a more comprehensive goal, one that attends to the moral imagination. The expression the moral imagination is one used by Edmund Burke in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France to describe what was lacking in the French radicals. The phrase was popularized in the twentieth century by Russell Kirk. Moral imagination guides actions and thought. As Kirk says, “the expression of the moral imagination is …to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.” Moral imagination is expanded in a culture especially by the culture’s great poets, and is apprehended by individuals within a culture as they expand their own individual poetic imaginations. Classical education, properly executed, nurtures this imaginative faculty.

Not all that is “classical” is to be promoted. The example of a type of classical education that we might avoid is presented in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography. Along with Jeremy Bentham, Mill promoted utilitarian philosophy. He is probably best known for his tract , On Liberty, a staple of many introductory philosophy classes. The education of this Victorian era polymath, while superficially compelling, is ultimately a cautionary tale to be shunned as much as that of Rousseau.

In his autobiography, Mill describes the rigorous educational program that his father initiated and managed. To a certain extent, Mill was his father’s educational guinea pig, as he groomed his son to be a champion of Benthamite Utilitarianism, the elder Mill’s philosophical commitment. Homeschooled in a rich environment, the results of Mill’s schooling were astounding. The study of Greek began at age three and by age eight, Latin. He could read The Iliad in Greek before he was ten and by age twelve was reading Horace, Livy, and Virgil in Latin. Mill was convinced that this program could be applied universally, that it was not simply for the genius, but that other students could be similarly successful. He taught his younger siblings using this course as he matured.

Mill’s education included methods of reasoning learned directly from the classics as well. The person of Socrates revealed in the Platonic Dialogs was very influential. Mill noted:

“The Socratic method, of which the Platonic Dialogs are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting errors…The close, searching enclus, by which the man of vague generalities is constrained either to express his meaning to himself in definite terms, or to confess that he does not know what he is talking about; the perpetual testing of general statements by particular instances; the siege in form which is laid to the meaning of large abstract terms, by fixing upon some still larger class…all of this as an education for precise thinking, is estimable, and all this even at that age, took such hold of me that it became part of my own mind.” (p.38-9)

The rigor of reasoning in the Dialogs excited him. One notes that Mill was attracted to the Dialogs for their usefulness in equipping the student for argument. Their intrinsic merit as philosophy may have been of less interest.

Mill’s classical studies introduced him to an extraordinary amount of literature, studying at a high level. He became a critical thinker, able to analyze arguments incisively. Using his education, he madegreat contributions in economics, utilitarian philosophy, politics, and education. Towards the end of his life, he was elected as Rector at St. Andrews in Edinburgh. There he advocated for a classical program which was integrated with scientific pursuits, a program based on his own education. He recounted an address given at St. Andrews this way:

“I gave expression to many thoughts and opinions which have been accumulating in me through life respecting the various studies which belong to a liberal education, their uses and influences, and the mode in which they should render those influences most beneficial. The position I took up vindicating the high educational value alike of the old classic and the new scientific studies , even on stronger grounds than are urged by most of their advocates, and insisting that it is only the stupid inefficiency of the usual teaching which makes those studies be regarded as competitors instead of allies, was, I think, calculated, not only to aid and stimulate the improvement which was happily commenced in the national institutions for higher education, but to diffuse juster ideas than we often find even in highly educated men on the conditions of the highest mental cultivation.” (p 225)

All of this sounds well and good, educating our students to be good scientists as well as good classists, yet the man that Mill became and the education that he obtained is not one that we as Christianscan endorse. Mill’s course of study, while intensely classical in reference to antiquities, lacked any systematic study of Christian thought. His course of study, as dictated by his father, was non-Christian. As Mill puts it, his father directed him away from any connection between the Classics and Christianity:

“My father’s oral convictions, wholly dissevered from religion, were very much of the character of those Greek philosophers, and were delivered with force and decision which characterized all that came from him. (p. 54)

In Mill’s course of study there is no record that he studied any Christian writers from antiquity. No Augustine. No Jerome. No Greek fathers like Athanasius. His father, a lapsed Presbyterian and militant atheist, evidenced a negative mentality that may underlie all liberal thinking in one way or another. This thinking certainly influenced John Stuart Mill, a contented atheist throughout his life. Reading about Mill, however, one is struck with the thought that as great as his education was, he came up short.

One obvious consequence of his education is that Mill lacks an affective attachment to the Classics. Mill is detached from the classical sources themselves.

Sir Philip Sydney, the sixteenth century poet and critic, in his book, The Defense of Poesy, discusses the effect the reading of classical poetry ought to have on the student. Poetry, for Sydney, attends to virtue and inspires the reader. He recounts the scene in the Aeneid where Aeneas carries his father Anchises through the fires of the destruction of Troy. After reading this heroic action, Sydney asks rhetorically, “Who would not like to emulate Aeneas?” The classics live in the properly instructed reader in this way.

Recall in The Confessions St. Augustine’s response to reading Cicero’s Hortensius. He was emotionally engaged with this classic work in an intimate way that Mill lacks. The example of St. Jerome is also illustrative of this principle. Jerome was a trilingual man having command of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He was a lover of the Classics, as well as a lover of the Bible. As Rome was sacked in 412 AD, he looked to the poetry of Virgil to express his grief and horror:

Crudelis ubique luctus, ubique et plurima mortis imago (Grief everywhere, everywhere terror, and all shapes of death). Aeneid 2:368-9

In contrast, Mill describes his response to the Classics rather dryly. He recounts going through a piece with his father:

“Even at an early age at which I read with him the Memorabilia of Xenophon, I imbibed from that work and from his comments a deep respect for the character of Socrates; who stood in my mind as a model of ideal excellence: and I well remember how my father at the time impressed upon me the lesson of the ‘Choice of Hercules.’” (p. 51)

The ‘Choice of Hercules” as rendered by Xenophon is a prose allegory where Hercules has to choose between a life of hard virtue and a life of easy vice. While naturally appealing to a 19th century moralist, the story hardly engages the imagination. Mill doesn’t give the impression that the Classics had an effect on his imaginative faculty. One can’t imagine Mill’s marveling at Achilles returning to the trench in the Iliad, for instance.

Famously, in his early twenties, Mill plunged into a deep depression. He vividly describes this episode with an anti-Christian quip:

“I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their ‘conviction of sin.’” (p.112)

While depression is a problem for the Christian and the non-Christian, alike, the quality of his depression may be a reflection of his education. A Christian might speak of a depression as “a dark night of the soul” or a feeling of being abandoned by God. Mill’s own account of his depression points its beginning with dissatisfaction with his political perspective. His detachment from affective education and overemphasis on politics and liberal progress as intellectual pursuits is at the root of his problem. He notes:

“In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself, ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you were looking forward to, could be effected at this very instant: would that be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-conscious (voice) distinctly answered “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.’” (p. 112)

The quality of Mill’s depression seems also to be associated with shortcomings in his moral and poetic imagination. His education, “the whole foundation on which his life was constructed,” had steadfastly been directed at the temporal sphere. He, therefore, directed his life in a way to accomplish certain political ends: more even-handed treatment of the common man over against the landed gentry, a better and more equal treatment of women, etc. The accomplishment of these temporal goals, he saw, would not be ultimately satisfying. His depression suggests that his resources with respect to philosophy and religion, his perspective on the transcendental realm, were lacking.

He sought relief from his despondency in studying the works of Samuel Coleridge, a conservative and traditionalist in matters of religion and culture. Coleridge, a man of great poetic imagination, is deeply within the realm of the “permanent things,” suggesting that grounding in that tradition is what Mill lacked. In an essay on Coleridge, Mill admits a loosening of his attachment to Bentham as result of contemplating that traditional perspective.

The education of J. S. Mill, though quite classical in form and content, is deficient in two ways. The Classics, as he studied them, were not integrated into Christian thought. Also, his study of the Classics did not leaven through his life beyond his intellectual perspective. It did not inform his moral imagination. Perhaps, one might suggest, this could have been remedied if he had not had an atheist father and an insular education sequestered from others. Likely, however, the program of his education, apart from these considerations, would have produced the same result: a classically-trained , liberal atheist.


Coming Friday: Part Two, in which the author suggests some ways that we can avoid this kind of result in our own students.

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