Classical teachers become classical teachers because they have fallen in love with the Good, and, like all who are in love, can speak of nothing but the beloved. Their deep desire to capture, as in a prism, a beam of the Good, and to display its glory refracted through literature and music and art and philosophy and the maths and sciences, compels them into the classroom.
But, having themselves been swept away by the Good, they sometimes assume that the mere vision of the Good should sweep their students away as well. They suffer disillusionment when students yawn during the opening chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, crack poor jokes at Homer’s expense, or give a daily shout of joy the moment algebra class ends.
Unlike us, Plato, Dante, Milton, and other great lovers of the Good would not have been disillusioned, for they would not have been surprised. They would have expected—and, if we read them carefully, will teach us to expect—nothing less.
Think of the analogy of the cave in Plato’s Republic. The Western tradition’s most enduring image of the Good spares no pains to emphasize our aversion to it. We are the creatures who are chained at the bottom of the cave, heads fixed, gazing at the shadowy puppet-show projected from a fire behind us. Delighted by this inane display of “images of images”—reality twice removed—we are those who must be ripped from our chains and forced up the cave’s rocky ascent. We are those who wail for our hurting eyes in the sun’s brightness, who despise the beauty of the open air, who must be restrained from running back into the cave, until, at long last, we become those whose eyes grow strong and behold, first the world, and finally the Sun, the Good.
Plato gives the lie to our assumption that merely showing students the Good will inspire their love for it. Until we have been prepared for love, there can be no love at first sight, no matter the loveliness of the object. When we feel that we are dragging unwilling students from the shadow-show of hollow thrills and aural opiates dispensed too easily by Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, young adult literature, and the “drama” of school hallways—when we receive the complaints that Sophocles or geometry makes the head hurt—we must not despair, or worse, begin to scorn. Firm compassion is required: the pain is real, and does not signify students’ laziness or impermeability, but rather testifies that they are truly sensing the presence of the Good. They are being prepared to love.
Do not worry when students complain about the Great Books; worry when they nod sagely, say they liked the story, and bring no questions nor objections. They are reading Sparknotes during the shadow-show’s intermission. They have not moved one inch towards the Good.
Even when eyes begin to adjust, and students express a bit of fondness for poor old Oedipus or some admiration for the Law of Identity—even when their eyes begin to glow with the reflection of the light, and their hearts are clearly moved as they discuss Odysseus’ homecoming or the music of the spheres—do not sigh in relief, and do not be surprised when they walk out of your classroom into the hallways and immediately begin gushing over Twilight and Taylor Swift. For, while Plato depicts our aversion to the Good, Dante narrates our faithlessness to it.
When the pilgrim Dante finally reaches the height of Mount Purgatory, he is welcomed by a holy procession that ushers in Beatrice, the woman whose earthly beauty and virtue had first warmed Dante’s soul to Beauty itself and its source in God Himself. Years before this moment, Beatrice had died, and so Dante is “captured by adoration, stunned by awe” at the fresh sight of her, turning to tell Virgil that “Not one drop of blood / is left inside my veins that does not throb” (Purgatorio XXX.36, 46-47).
But Beatrice’s words to him, shattering his trance of softness and beauty and light, are a sharp, even scorning, rebuke: “So, you at last have deigned to climb the mountain? / You learned at last that here lies human bliss?” (XXX.74-75). The repeated “at last” underscores, like nails across a chalkboard, Dante’s long dalliance with lesser goods than that he finally faces here. Her accusation, harsh and eloquent, merits meditation:
There was a time my countenance sufficed,
as I let him look into my young eyes
for guidance on the straight path to his goal;
but when I passed into my second age
and changed my life for Life, that man you see
strayed after others and abandoned me . . .
. . . and wandered from the path that leads to truth,
pursuing simulacra of the good,
which promise more than they can ever give. . . .
. . . In your journey of desire for me,
leading you toward that Good beyond
which naught exists to which a man’s heart may aspire,
what pitfalls did you find, what chains stretched out
across your path, that you felt you were forced
to abandon every hope of going on?
And what appealed to you, what did you find
so promising in all those other things
that made you feel obliged to spend your time
in courting them?
(XXX.121-126, 131-132; XXXI.21-31)
That word “simulacra” recalls Plato’s images of images; Dante, after beholding the Sun, wandered back into the cave. It is the same movement of the student who, after being moved by the mathematical and celestial harmonies of a Palestrina mass, calls Justin Bieber a good musician. It is the student who writes a profound essay on the nobleness of self-giving in The Song of Roland, and is then called to the carpet for harmful, self-serving gossip. It is Peter who says “You are the Christ,” and then denies Him three times. It is every sinner who is prone to wander, and feels it; prone to leave the God he does love. Only rebuke—of Beatrice, of the Lord’s glance, of the Spirit of God, and perhaps even of a teacher—can reverse the movement, can prompt repentance.
For, if the Good once loved is abandoned, and repentance not pursued, our response to a fresh apprehension of it twists into jealousy, anger, and even violence—the response to goodness of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Beholding for the first time God’s new creation of Adam and Eve in the garden, Satan breathes that they are “Creatures . . . whom my thoughts pursue / With wonder, and could love, so lively shines / In them divine resemblance” (IV.360, 362-363). But, having already shut out any thought of repentance—“that word [submission] / Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame / Among the Spirits beneath” (IV.81-83)—and resolved, “Evil be thou my good” (IV.110), Satan steels himself against even the momentary softening caused by this apprehension of the Good from which he has exiled himself. Instead, he responds to the Good by plotting its corruption.
Milton’s approach throughout Paradise Lost is to sketch, with stunning skill, the psychology of sin and temptation, and the portrait lours darkly. What do we do when we encounter a goodness we feel we do not, cannot, possess—a presentation at which we marvel but could not produce, a depth of understanding we can appreciate but not ourselves plumb, an essay we read and wish we had written, a story of sacrifice or virtue whose protagonist we wish we were? Too often, rather than gratitude and repentance, we flirt with jealousy. But, as in Satan’s soliloquy, jealously morphs into anger, and anger matures into a violence whose goal is to mar the Good that originally stirred “wonder and love”; though, as Milton says in a hundred ways, it is not the Good that will be marred, but the one who sought its harm. Teachers who press students towards the Good must do so in fear and trembling, for apprehending it brings either the greatest fulfillment or the greatest danger of learning.
Like the Israelites who were dragged murmuring through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land, and who, once there, wandered to images of wood and stone, and who finally defamed the One who brought them there—our students, and we as well, will forever struggle to love the Good, being drawn instead to ignore, or abandon, or defame it. Those who have best apprehended the Good know this truth also the best. And they can teach us the patience, the firm compassion, and the proper fear that should shape the ways we strive to show our students the Good, and to help them to an enduring love.