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They Buried Their Dead in Caves

An Apology for Classical, Christian Education

Last summer, I heard a conversation at a conference. It stood out because it crystallized what good conversations do: elicit epiphanies, flashes of perception that bounce off the words going back and forth like sparks that dance off pieces of flint being struck.

I have been dwelling with that conversation, off and on (like living with a small fire flickering from a few embers) for a year.

It concerned the value of a classical, liberal arts—specifically Great Books—education. In its most meaty moments, from my perspective, it distilled down to the following question: Why should Christians emulate the philosophical underpinnings of pagan education, particularly those of the ancient Greeks?

This is not only a good, but a significant question for all who engage in classical education. Like any such questions, the answer is manifold. It would be, and has been, worthy of a book…or a large collection of books…not a casual essay such as this. Therefore, what I want to focus on is just a particular corner of the answer, because the conversation aimed at the question from the following specific locus: virtue.

Christians certainly feel that virtue is essential. Virtue was also of great importance to the ancients. In fact, virtue has always been a matter of concern for people. At the very least, most agree, this is because we must live together and any happiness at all demands that some human beings endeavor to cultivate some virtues. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man:

“‘All within the four seas are his brothers’ (xii. 5) says Confucius of the Chün-Tzu…Humani nihil a me alienum puto says the Stoic. ‘Do as you would be done by,’ says Jesus. ‘Humanity is to be preserved,’ says Locke. All the principles…for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao [Traditional Morality or the Natural Law].”1

The Greeks concentrated hard on virtue. At their pinnacle, they bent a great deal of thought to educating their youth towards its acquisition. Both giants of Greek thought, Plato and Aristotle, regarded the pursuit of aretê (Greek for ‘virtue,’ which is also often translated as ‘excellence’) as a critical goal of paideia, the education of the youth. David Hicks writes in Norms & Nobility:

“As Aristotle demonstrates, the Greek achievement in education found its abundant source in Plato’s question: Can virtue be taught? Can the knowledge of good, the love of beauty, the vision of greatness, and the passion for excellence be learned in a classroom? No notable or influential ancient, it is fair to say, ever answered this question in the negative. Not even Socrates, the man who raised it, doubted that somehow virtue can be taught and that the teacher’s most enviable and essential task is to teach it.”2

Yet Hicks also points out that the deepest questions about this education, such as why the student should authentically pursue aretê along such a path of rigor and difficulty, could not be answered by the ancient Greeks.

One lesson to learn from the Greeks is to grasp that they connected virtue and self-transcendence. The character-building nature of classical education was that it intentionally aspired to lead the conscience to be governed by things higher than the self. Its goal was to cause a ‘self-death’…not a suicide, but a living-out of submission to transcendent norms. The Greeks realized that to cultivate virtue, as the Scriptures frame it, students had to ‘die to self.’ The success of this pagan objective was that it articulated a vision of education that teetered on the brink of achieving its goal; its disappointing dilemma was that it did not fully actualize that goal.

Why? The reason became clear to me the day of that memorable conversation.

“…so that he could pull the next guy out…”

Plato spun a revealing tale about Greek education. He did it, bard-like, through mythos. This is how we recapitulate to that memorable conversation: the story of the aspirations, achievements, and ultimate disappointment of the Greek education towards aretê is expressed (in its clarity, in its metaphors, in its breathtaking self-awareness) through the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic. The conversation I heard focused right in on that allegory as though a homing beacon drew it there.

The allegory articulates the purpose of education towards virtue, where virtue comes from being in the presence of things as they really are, obtaining freedom from the bondage of illusions and narrow tunnels of perception, and transcending self to the point where one comes into the realm of Reality and encounters Truth:

“[He] will be able to see the sun…in its proper place…He will then proceed to argue that this sun is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things… This entire allegory…the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun…the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth… and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed..”3

As Hick’s writes, the purpose of classical education was to cultivate virtue: “the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.”4

As the allegory continues, however, deep problems surface: it is a mystery how the man ascended from the cave in the first place. Socrates is quite plain in saying that even when the prisoner is freed, he is “dragged up…and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun.” Furthermore, the man who has been propelled along this journey does not voluntarily wish to return to the depths of the cave. For the good of others, however, he must be forced to descend.

Thus, Greek education had as its goal the ascent of man into the realm of the true, the good, and the beautiful whereby he experienced a living encounter with the real meaning of virtue: persistent action in accordance with what he knows to be true, good, and beautiful. Yet the allegory shows us that he cannot ascend of his own accord; should he ascend he would not wish to descend again, even if for the betterment of his fellows. The plot does not hold.

Thus the Allegory of the Cave expresses a stunning pagan comprehension that of their own accord, men—no matter how clearly they trace the path and how diligently they attempt to take it— cannot be guaranteed to achieve virtue through classical education alone. Again, Hicks writes:

“Why should the student seek to perfect himself?…How can a refinement of intelligence and sensibility save his soul? How can perfecting the self lead to self-transcendence? Ultimately, the pagan humanism of classical education could not answer these questions.”5

Thus the literary fable Socrates spins in The Republic explicitly spells out the pagan realization, at the height of its philosophical achievement, concerning the absolute need for a plot-saving mechanism: a deus ex machina.

“I always wondered how the first guy got out of the cave,

so that he could pull the next guy out?”

It is Christianity, and Christianity alone, that provides not a mechanistic, forced, and gimmicky solution to this problem but a full-blown, radically unexpected, miraculous redemption of the situation: The Incarnation.

Virtue Incarnate, Christ, descended of His own accord. He became a Truth-bearing cave-dweller. He was murdered for it. He ascended. Without Him, no other man fully makes the ascent. It is Christ who must free man from bondage, show him the light, and drag him up into the Truth. It is only thereby that the man has any hope of attaining the genuine self-transcendent virtue Christians, like the ancients, seek.

The paradigm of classical education, as embodied through the Liberal Arts properly understood, is worthy of emulation. It is what brought the ancient Greeks to the precise point of perceiving this great mystery, and it furthermore paved the way for the spread of the Gospel throughout the known world at the time. The man, perhaps, through whom this was, in turn, incarnated (again, we see the magnificence of the way in which God makes Real all that appears at first glance to be sur-real) was the Apostle Paul. Paul was a highly educated Jew who was also thoroughly classically educated as a Roman citizen; Rome, whose foundations rested in the bedrock of Greek thought (as Horace famously noted, “Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror.”), as well as Hebraic erudition, were his tutors. Paul became Christ’s messenger to the gentile world, a world saturated with Greek paideia. Yanked from his own understanding, his own foolish cave demolished, dragged from his darkness and given new enlightened eyes, Paul became emissary to cave-dwellers. To answer Tertullian, Athens and Jerusalem fuse in Paul.

Christ was the one who first completed the requisite descent and then ascent from the cave. He pulled the next man out. Thus classical education is to be emulated by Christians, because when it is synthesized with Christ it achieves exactly that which it sets out to accomplish. Christ is its living proof. Paul is its exemplar.

One final observation about the potency of the Allegory of the Cave, an observation that speaks also to the depth of the way in which God reaches us through metaphor: all one has to do is ask how the first man got out of the cave. If you know the Bible, another question may immediately follow, “Who was the only man in history who, of his own accord, walked away from the cave that was his tomb?”

The closing words of that memorable conversation a year ago have continued to flicker and flame during the months that have followed that day, when as I walked with my husband I repeated the question that still echoed, unanswered: “I too always wondered how the first guy got out of the cave, so that he could pull the next guy out,” I said. My husband turned to me, looked at me hard, paused, and smiled. Then he asked, “How did the Hebrews bury their dead?” I frowned for a moment.Then it suddenly dawned on me. “The Hebrews buried their dead in caves.”

(Post Script: This is one of the reasons why I love my husband, and cherish his conversation, very much.)

1 Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperCollins, 2001 (39).

2 Hicks, David V. Norms & Nobility. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1999 (22)

3 The History Guide – Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. Plato, The Allegory of the Cave.

4 Hicks, David V. Norms & Nobility. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1999 (20)

5 Ibid. (90)

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