Classical Education and Money

Note: The following essay is a rough draft of a work long in progress, and I am posting it here only to solicit feedback, either positive or negative.  Please comment on this post if you wish.

The title of this essay sounds very practical, but the content of the following pages is likely the most impractical exposition you will read for some time.

The issue of the relationship of education and money is, it seems on the one hand, very simple.  It can be expressed in logical form:

(1) Our culture is defined and dominated by the flow of products and
services.

(2)  Education is widely considered both a product and a service.

(3)  The flow of products and services is enabled by money.

(4) Therefore, education must, like everything else, be defined and
dominated by the presence or absence of money.

(5) What applies to education simpliciter also applies to classical education,
as a species of the genus.

It is an argument of elegant simplicity and seems, all things being equal, irrefutable.  A school building cannot be built, let alone maintained, without money.  Amenities required not just for basic creature comfort, but also for sanitary health, such as electricity and water, cannot be attained without money.  The grounds cannot be kept attractive without money.  And, of course, there can be no teachers without money.

This is all before we get to the practical argument that the very purpose and goal of the educative activities taking place in the school must be to facilitate the entrance of the students into the great web of economic life in which the school is just one node.

By this practical argument, education is defined as being about money in an even more profound way than the mere provision and upkeep of premises and staff.  Education is really and truly and fully aboutmoney because everything it does, its whole reason for being, is to create agents trained to “get a good job” and so focus on continually buying and selling things, thus preserving the flow of products and services through the great web.

All this is eminently practical, which is to say, it is about the “real world” of bodies-in-motion, hustling and bustling, constantly moving things about, producing and consuming things useful for the material prosperity of the nation (and perhaps, as a moralistic afterthought, of the rest of the world).

This is why I began by saying that despite its apparently very practical title, the content of the following pages is likely the most impractical exposition you will read for some time.  For, although acknowledging the necessity of money for certain activities connected with classical education, this essay denies that classical education is meant to be “practical” in the above-outlined sense.

Indeed, my argument in this essay is that while money is necessary for buildings and utilities and salaries, beyond such concerns its presence or absence is utterly irrelevant to classical education.  Further still, it is my thesis that the presence or absence of money beyond such activities as those listed is not only hindering to, but finally, entirely destructive of classical education.

Bold, perhaps novel-sounding, words.  To learn why I write them, read on.

  1. Some Unusual Thoughts About Economics (in General)

The title of this essay declares a focus not just on education simpliciter, but on a certain type of education – classical education.  To be clear, classical education is a mode of pedagogy drawn from the literary canon that is often called “the classics” or “the Great Books,” though a higher emphasis is put on the Greco-Roman aspect of those than upon Modern additions to the canon.  Sometimes this mode of education gets identified with the term “Liberal Arts,” the ancient disciplines pertaining to liberi, “free people.”

Working within the classical paradigm as just defined, in order to explore the relationship of money to classical education,I must first provide a look at the more general topic of economics.

I call what follows “unusual thoughts” because in my experience, teachers and lecturers in the classical education movement do not talk about economic matters in this way – that is, with specific reference to the classical texts.  Indeed, much of what passes for economics talk in terms of “the Christian worldview” is little more than a few carefully-selected passages of Scripture deployed to justify the present-day system of capitalism while excoriating the present-day system of socialism.

In other words, much talk of economics in classical education circles is purely agenda-driven, not classics-driven.This has the unfortunate side-effect of too closely identifying the time-honored, trans-cultural cause of classical education with the passing political fads of our own culture. This essay is a first, undoubtedly clumsy, attempt to begin filling the gap.

These days, the word economics refers to a discipline that is broadly considered a “social science” (like anthropology or religious studies) but in the hands of many of its practitioners proceeds as if it is another “hard science” (like physics or chemistry).

Operating as if it is a hard science, economics concerns itself with the collection of “data” from which it creates supposedly empirically-testable hypotheses in order to generate “laws,” analogues to such brute action-reaction principles as E=mc2 and F=ma.

Like other laws in the hard sciences, economic laws are thought to be both rationally understood and rationally manipulable through mathematical calculation.  The discipline of economics concerns the generation and practice of various schemes to manipulate the laws in order to bring about results favorable to the particular theorist working the math problems.

In short, economics for us looks a lot like a kind of technology.  And, like other forms of technology, we tend to think of economics as morally neutral, just a tool the results of which are good or bad in proportion to the goodness or badness of the person using it.[1]

From a classical perspective – recall how I defined that above – this paradigm for economics is flawed and must be rejected.  The flaws begin with the assumption that economics is, or even can be, a science as we are pleased to think of “science.”

It is almost humorous in this connection that many Christian “worldview thinkers” today begin their exposition of economics with the 18th century A.D. theorist Adam Smith, as if economics originally sprang from the head of Moderns like Athena from the head of Zeus.

It is not so.  Anyone who claims to be involved in “classical education” ought to take the classical books with the utmost of seriousness, and that entails beginning talk of nearly every discipline we can think of – art, architecture, astronomy, physics, biology, literature, history, empirical science, politics, and yes, economics – with sober consideration of the Greeks, who either invented or else trailblazingly refined practically all of them.

Historically and etymologically, the word economics stems from the Greek wods oikos and nomos, literally meaning “house law.”  In the ancient agrarian world, the original oikonomos (economics) involved the attempt to be self-sufficient, that is, reliant upon no outside source for any necessities of life.

For as the poet Hesiod had taught the Greeks, the gods had deliberately made man’s life physically difficult so that he could, by very hard work in his own domain, focused primarily on his own things, secure just enough to live, but not enough to make him prideful and forget his place in the cosmos.[2]

Hesiod’s poetic discussion in the Works and Days implies the primacy of the small, individual family farm. We Moderns, living in sprawling mega-cities interconnected in an incomprehensible web called “the global economy,” may thus be inclined simply to dismiss the classical perspective as irrelevant to proper economic thinking.  As one of the two teachers of Greece (Homer being the other one), it would seem that Hesiod is hopelessly outmoded for denizens of a world run by what some have called “the Wal-Mart Effect.”

What can a bunch of old, dead Greek guys who had to quite literally tear up the rocky earth with crude pieces of iron drug by oxen, guys who were utterly dependent on the weather, and who were extremely lucky if their trade ships (carrying fairly rare and exceedingly hard-won surpluses) weren’t sunk by storms within shouting distance of the shore, have to say to us?

As Quickbeam of Fangorn famously said, we must not be hasty.  When Hesiod wrote his poems (8th century B.C.), the Greeks had already transcended the severe limitations of the individual, isolated family farm per se by developing the polis, which we often translate as either “city” or “city-state.”  When we first see talk of economics, it is in this context, the historical life of small communities of families living in close connection with Nature and having all their activities related to what was good for the community.

This mode of lifecame from the original, natural associative desires of human beings.  First man and woman joined for the preservation of the race.  Following marriage was the generation of a family (household).  In the hardscrabble life of ancient agrarianism, the members of the family worked constantly just to provide their own daily needs.  Later joinings of many such households produced a village, which made possible the division of labor, and so some measure of leisure time and interest in luxuries.  Last came the agglomeration of many villages into a polis – the city.[3]

If we wish to call ourselves classical educators, these considerations – the “house law,” the ancient city – must situate our initial talk of economics.  We may (must), of course, move beyond this level, but we must not fail to start at this level.  If we get our first principles wrong, all that follows will also be wrong.

Aristotle followed Hesiod’s lines of thought through his own Ethics and Politics by adding a very developed discussion regarding how all things, man included, have rationally-understandable natures that seek fulfillment in something they identify as good.  There are many kinds of goods, each relative to a specific mode of inquiry or action,but all of them ultimately arrange themselves with reference to a final, objective The Good.

For Aristotle, the city is this natural, final Good of man, for in it all man’s desires and abilities find organization and expression in a life of virtuous moderation.  This he terms “the Good Life.”

All this means that beginning our thoughts about economics where our classical tradition begins, the natural end of economics must be seen as the philosophically-defined “Good Life” in community with others. Whereas Modern economics is all about individual fulfillment, the original concept of man’s economic life was as a derivative of his naturally-created naturally-defined social life.  The city situates a man’s own, private things in the larger, public world of a community of equals all committed to living together in friendship and justice.

The Greek understanding of polis thusmoved the original, small-scale “house law”idea of economics beyond the realm of mere animal provision of daily needs, and even beyond the initial village-level division of labor that made leisure time and luxuries possible.  City-life moved economics to the highest level possible: a practical activity taking place in accord with philosophical considerations aiming at a final, objective end.[4]

Hence, as oikonomos, economics, adapted itself from the single household to the life of a whole city, a polis, an interesting creature called “politics”appeared.Derived, obviously, from polis, “politics” was the name of the life of citizens in a cityThis made all talk of production and consumption an integral part of the philosophically-understood, community-governed “Good Life.”[5]

Let us now reconnect to the earlier point that economics is not a “science” as we think of “science.”  For the Greeks, a science was a rationally-governed way to achieve knowledge.  But they made a distinction we don’t – between contemplative science and practicalscience. Contemplative sciences were disciplines that began from rationally-indisputable premises, like the premises of geometrical axioms, and proceeded to rationally-certain conclusions.[6]  Practical sciences, by contrast, were disciplines that began from rationally-disputable premises and so could arrive only at relatively-certain conclusions.

For the Greeks, all “human things,” all things pertaining to the analysis of the rational animal known as man, were practical sciences, not contemplative ones. As one of the “human things” (ethics and politics being others), economics, the community-based aim for the Good Life and the various means contrived to secure it, was not and could not have been a hard science.

Why?  Not only is an agrarian life one that attempts to live in accord with a natural world beyond our rational control, but because man himself is not a mechanism, economics could not have been a mechanically describable and manipulable process.  Community transcends mechanism, and so cannot be described in mechanistic terms.  Hence, economics was not and cannot be a hard science.

In short, to the extent that any of us as classical educators take our culture’s conventional, mechanistic-scientific wisdom about economics (and so also about ethics and politics, intimately connected with economics) as our starting point for thinking about money and education, to that exact extent we are unclassical.

Taking Stock

Before moving on to the next section, let us discern what the above “unusual thoughts” about economics in general have to do with the overall topic, of classical education and money.  As I noted earlier, these thoughts are unusual because they are rooted in the classical books, but, judging by much of the output at conferences and in curricula, the classical books do not often provide the basic categories of thought for classical schools.

What then, does all this about Hesiod and Aristotle and a naturally-defined social life and the progression of oikos (house) to polis (city) have to do with the approach to economics as it pertains to classical Christian schools?  As the Apostle Paul might say, “Much in every way!”

We cannot, of course, just pick up these old Greek authors and set their texts down on our Modern life and imagine that we can repristinate their context and mimic them.  Past ages of time are gone forever.  We don’t live then, but now.  Moreover, as always when we look at cultures other than our own, there are things in the Greeks that we would not wish to repristinate even if we could.  So the questions these texts raise for us, the categories with which they invite us to think about matters of money, do not concern making our culture look like theirs.

Rather, the questions these texts raise and the categories they provide for us are, rather, ones of enduring insight into human nature, insights we may mine from their texts and apply to our own circumstances.  The immense linguistic, sociocultural, and technological changes that separate us from human beings like Hesiod and Aristotle do not separate us from that which we share with them: the human itself.

For instance, we live in environments packed full of millions of anonymous people, such that Aristotle would have considered our “cities” merely associations of strangers for convenience’s sake’s sake.  But this aside, Aristotle is correct that the foundation of a society is mutual respect for the intelligence of others and a desire to live in friendship with them and observe justice relative to them.  This principle already requires a radically different approach to economics than our present “culture war” mentality between “conservatives” and “liberals” allows.

For another, Hesiod’s insistence that life is designed to be very hard, and so each must work very hard on his own things, underlies the very notion of justice in a community.  For implied in that view is that it is the nature of the cosmos that one cannot get something for nothing.  If, then, one is experiencing an easy economic life, or if one aims at that sort of life, one is involved in injustice, of somehow trying to get something for nothing.  And Nature will not tolerate this.

Hesiod’s poem underscores the divinely-ordained difficulty of making the earth provide food (and by extension, all other things we need), and he draws from this fact a corollary that no one should want more than the moderate share he is able to produce by his own efforts from cooperating with the natural world.  The first part of this point is congruent with the Christian theology of the Fall, and so not surprising to Christians, but the second is the product of sophisticated reflection on the nature and limitations of human work under the sun.

What the poet does with this reflection, however, is intriguing.  For wrapped up in his stanzas about farming is the subtle message that it is the very nature of the cosmos to punish those who indulge in the wrongdoing of wanting more than is proper for one man to have.  When in the context of the hardscrabble life of farming Hesiod says that justice involves a man using his intelligence to peer past the appearances, “perceiving all, taking notice of what is better in the end,” when he says that only fools do not understand “how much better the half is than the whole,” he subtly teaches that an economically moderate life, observing duties towards other people in the community, is the best thing for a man.

Those who break this moderation-based oikonomos – that is, those who pervert economics by making it a tool for their own unrestricted gain – the gods punish by making them suffer loss.  Conversely, those who observe proper oikonomos in concert with their neighbors enjoy a polis free from conflict and suffering, for they are living in accord with the divine pattern of the universe.

The critical observation here is that as for Aristotle politics is natural, for Hesiod, economics is natural, arising directly from man’s being rooted in a natural order beyond his control.  Also, economics is defined not, as for us, as the constant efficient movement of goods and services in a machine whose gears are greased by money, but by an overriding concern for justice – for minding one’s own things more than those of others and avoiding desire for excessive accumulation. Lastly, for Hesiod, economics is related not to individuals qua individuals, but to life in community.

These principles are of profound relevance to us, living in a society created by and dominated by the constant, efficient motion of goods and services in a machine whose gears are greased by money.  We are taught every day in a thousand subtle ways that our nature as human beings is to be productive of things to consume, and consumptive of things produced.

In all of this, we are not taught to observe moderation in our desires, nor to set our desires – and our things themselves – in a larger web of naturally created and naturally conditioned social relationships in which our duties toward others are far more important than our personal rights.  We do not believe, with Aristotle, that we are made for life in community with others, and that therefore, everything we say and do finds its meaning only in just relationships with others.

Our unfamiliarity with, and so unconscious rejection of, these classical first principles of economics explains why our views on the subject are utterly self-centered and lacking in any consideration of ethics that transcend “matter in motion” – the constant, efficient movement of goods and services in a machine whose gears are greased by money.  Our unclassical orientation is also why our political views are forever aimed at rhetorically vituperative and socially degrading culture-warring with those with whom we disagree.

With all this in mind, let us now turn to what the classical tradition shows us about the thing that greases the gears of the constant, efficient motion of goods and services: money.

[1]   This is one reason why when economics arises, as it always does, in political arguments, one finds continual, often highly personal, invective coming from self-described “conservatives” and “liberals” and aimed at each other. Each side thinks itself as people to be “good” and the other as people to be “bad,” which means that the morally neutral, scientific law-based tool of economics can be used by either, but with “good” or “bad” results depending on who is using it.

[2]   See Hesiod’s Works and Days, a relatively short, quasi-divinely inspired meditation on the farming life and its relationship to the city and justice.  The focus on his own things (not other people’s) is the key to the justice component of economics.

[3]   See the opening two sections of Book I of Aristotle’s Politics.

[4]   Notice the important fact that in the original discussion, that which was philosophical was on intimate terms with that which was practical.  Today, philosophy and practicality are usually regarded as incompatible, which is why our economics is discussed as an abstract, impersonal, (allegedly) morally neutral technical matter and our politics is often merely a frantic, also (allegedly) morally neutral, scramble for control of the levers of power.

[5]By the way, as a historical aside, this progression of thought is one reason that what we now call “economics” was, until not so long ago, called “political economy.”  Economics and politics were held as symbiotic, whereas in our day the former is just a tool in the power schemes of the latter.

[6]   Interestingly, for them Theology was the first and foremost example of this kind of science.

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