Category Archives: Classical Pedagogy

Notes on “the Secular” (6): What About Secular*ism*??

In the previous five posts of this series, I’ve made a case for why classical educators ought not to treat the secular domain as malum in se, and so ought not to use the “secular” word family as either connative nouns or adjectives conveying intrinsic opprobrium.

Now, at the end, it’s time to take serious note of some of the most important features of the secular domain that many classical educators use as prime evidence supporting their denunciations. These features also come with a convenient connotation word created by the addition of the suffix “ism” – thus, the very great evil of secularism which must be the target of constant, total war by all those faithful to Christ, most especially those who advocate for classical education.

What to say about this topic given all that I’ve said before by way of qualification? Here we see the trouble that frequently gets caused by heavy reliance on connotation words: at some point crucial distinctions such as the ones I’ve outlined previously become blurred, polemics and apologetics take over, and the result is a confused understanding of the original topic and its applications to present circumstances. All things secular come to be sloppily wrapped up in the slur word secularism, the whole mass of which is held to be instrinsically hostile to all things good and godly.

It makes perfect sense how easy it is for us to gather up all these evil things into one totalizing, systematic package and label them with the convenient ideological header secularism. Yet the classical tradition teaches us that virtue is precisely not the easy path, but one which continually challenges us to examine our own assumptions and our own hearts first and foremost rather than placing blame on external factors. This is no pedantic distinction, but one that fundamentally affects our conception as classical educators of our disciplines and our goals. What then are we to make of secularism?

First let me say that nothing I’ve written in this series denies that there is in fact a culture war, and that speaking very broadly faithful Christians are in fact ranged against a pervasive and many faceted assault of forces of corruption.1

Second, let me say that although I want more clarity in our terminology, I quite see the point that is being aimed at by gathering up all the negative cultural things into a definable and examinable package of problems that are particular to our own time and place. Indeed, providing Christians with a meaningful (and so opposable) description of the evils of our own temporal and cultural setting is exactly the point of using the term secularism.

As I consider the nature and meaning of secularism, I am ever mindful of such passages as Galatians 1:3-4, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,” and Ephesians 2:1-2, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” I am mindful, as well, of this one:

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:12-14

We stand on firm biblical ground when we think of the age we live in – the age between the two advents of Christ – as consistently displaying a manifold variety of ungodliness, worldly passions, and ways of living prompted by spiritual forces in high places whom we are to cast down. The age between Christ’s two advents manifests an “already, not yet” character: Christ has already triumphed over the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15), but his victory has not yet completely worked itself out in the space and time societies that his people inhabit as foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb. 13:13).

Consequently, there is a real war between the saints and the dragon and his forces. My argument throughout this series has not been that there is no war, but that we as classical educators must take care to construe the nature of that war properly. Although we are indeed ranged at every point of culture against great and wicked darknesses, and although, consistent with the original denotation of secular as “an age, a time,” these evils peculiar to our age, our time, my argument is still that the secular is not malum in se. The war is real: what I am arguing is that many classical educators seriously misconstrue the battlefields and so wind up, through elevating sectarian distinctives2 to controlling hermeneutical status, depriving the classical tradition of much of its reforming power.

As I’ve labored to show, because evil is not a thing but rather a privation of thing-ness, it is not proper to identify things as evil because they come from the secular. Thus, although it is completely contrary to the prevailing wisdom of large swaths of the classical school movement, secular schools are not evil because they are secular. Further, the totalizingly dualistic notion that it is necessary for Christian parents to remove their kids from such schools en masse and put them into Christian (non-secular) schools because such removal is constitutive of the only real cultural solution to the problems we see is also fallacious.3

There is a major philosophical, theological, and practical difference between saying with Scripture that the age we live in (between Christ’s two advents) is an evil one and saying, quite contrary to Scripture, that the things that come from the time period in which we live are evil in themselves. The former is an ethical statement ; the latter is metaphysical. Ethical corruption in the things that come to us from the secular realm is most properly dealt with by rigorously deploying the categories of our tradition in terms of ordered vs. disordered loves, ordered vs. disordered end goals, and prudential vs. imprudential use of good things. By stark contrast, positing metaphysical corruption in the sense of certain domains of created reality being malum in se, and then setting against them some specially metaphysically-hallowed realm (“the Church”, “Christendom,” etc.) is not even a Christian doctrine, and so does not belong in any way to a genuinely Christian pursuit of classical education.4

So, again, what about secularism? If you’ve worried throughout this series that I’m somehow weirdly denying the reality of systematic cultural attacks on Christianity, rest assured that I dont hold he referent of the term secularism to be simply a phantasm of overactive Christian culture-warrior imaginations. In fact, in researching material for this series, I ran across this fascinating explanation of where the term “secularism” originated. According to this explanation, the originator of the term described “secularism” like this:

Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life — which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible — which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service.

Clearly, this approach is unChristian and calls us forth to combat it as one of those “hig things that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.” Moreover, numerous non-Christians accept the term with some such definition as the above as a meaningful descriptor for their irreligious views. And all of us who grew up in the late 70s to early 90s can well remember being riled up by hearing constantly about “secular humanists” and their awful Humanist Manifesto I (1933) and Humanist Manifesto II (1973).5 Yes, clearly, secularism is a real problem, and it is one that we classical educators, if we are actually faithful to the books of our great millennia-old tradition rather than neutering them with the rationalistic tools of more recent biblicist thought forms, could have much of lasting wisdom to say.6

To wind down this post and the series itself, I will offer these few summary thoughts:

As argued in the previous posts, secular denotes “a time, an age,” and so is not a simple synonym for godlessness and evil. Neither the Old nor New Testaments support a totalizingly dualistic denunication of things that come to us from the secular realm, and unless we wish to reject the Augustinian basis of most of our own theology, we can’t permit ourselves to classify the secular as malum in se. The secular is just the intellectual, material, and social conditions in which God’s providence has placed us so that we might seek Him (Acts 17:26-27). To assert that these conditions per se are evil and to thus seek escape from them in some realm we designate “spiritual” (and into which we illegitimately fold classical education as a mere instrument to obtain “spiritual” ends) is, in effect, to war against God’s providence itself.

By contrast, secularism doesn’t refer to a time period (a thing), but to an ethical corruption of the complex interwoven package of conditions and circumstances particular to us in this our time. In this our particular iteration of the inter-advental age, which is evil in that it remains subject to spiritual forces in heavenly places (who have been “already-not yet” defeated), we Christians live in two kingdoms, the City of God and the City of Man.

But it is crucial that we grasp that these Cities are not the same things as “the Church” and “the secular world.” For as Augustine, the originator of the scheme, takes great pains to outline, these two Cities intertwine throughout history in ways that are impossible for our puny minds to fully entangle. In other words, the two Cities do not map onto the totalizingly dualistic sacred / secular dichotomy I have identified as erroneous, but are a different type of heuristic altogether. And so a scheme of classical education that seeks to make that good thing a merely instrumental component of achieving and maintaining a totalizing dualism has entirely missed Augustine’s point, and in so doing, also departed very far from classical education’s actual purpose, the cultivation of wisdom-seeking.7

Once more, the things that originate in and come to us from the secular are not malum in se, but a great many of them certainly have been taken up by non-Christians, twisted away from their proper end, love of God, and pointed instead toward a self-referential, corrupted sort of love that is privative of the intrinsic good of the things themselves. To the extent that a whole bunch of these things twisted-up-away-from-God can be gathered together under one banner of false love, we may legitimately speak of “secularism” – an ideology that wraps its adherents up in the sorts of fantastically self-deceptive justifications that we see, say, in Dante’s Inferno.

That thing – secularism so defined – absolutely must be fought in a thoroughgoing way, most especially by classical educators. But as a final reiteration of a theme explained earlier in the series, the way to fight this false-love package of secularism is not to self-righteously place the whole of the secular outside of the true, outside of the good, outside of the beautiful, and posit as an alternate-reality that real true, real good, and real beauty only ever can exist in some specially hallowed realm of our own self-selected identification (again, “the Church,” “Christendom,” etc.).

Moreover, we must come to see that a consciously classical education oriented toward love of God just isn’t anywhere near the same thing as bending the books and all contemplation of them into the mechanical-instrumental service of an artificial system (“worldview”) laid out with precision for the express purpose of maintaining the totalizing dualism that in reality characterizes many of the worst heresies the Gospel has faced, not the Gospel itself.

Secularism is most certainly a privation of the good, and in this sense, is evil and must be fought. But we must take care in fighting it that we do not overcorrect and merely wind up justifying sectarian pride of place and grace-less mockery of the very realm – in our terms, the secular – from which Augustine himself reminds us that all converts, ourselves included, to the City of God come.8

I here end this series, very much aware that it is at best an inadequate initial stab at covering some extremely complex ideas and their extremely complex practical outworkings. Much more can and should be said, and no doubt much more clearly. But as the aforementioned Augustine was often wont to say in The City of God, no author can say everything in a single treatise, and no one else should expect him to!

  1. As one of many examples, this long form essay by Alistair Roberts shows how much of the culture warring which we Christians have in fact already lost has been fought on the battleground of popular entertainment – our own complicity in which we ought to spend much time pondering so as to see how corrupting forces that we might like to call secularism do not always appear in such outlandishly obvious garb as, say, abortion activism and transgender story hours at public libraries. []
  2. Such as the types of subculture-based standards and wisdom-impoverished dualisms outlined here. []
  3. The issue of secular schools, a.k.a. government schools is far too large to say any more about here. But the fact that much of the classical school movement is ideologically fixated on a totalizingly dualistic concept of education in which non-Christian / secular is a simple, convertible synonym for godlessness is theologically dangerous and needlessly polarizing given the fantastic riches of our multivalent 2,000 year old pedagogical tradition in terms of dealing with secular realities. []
  4. It’s darkly ironic that when staunch advocates of Christian worldview thinking posit the totalizingly dualistic concept of the secular as malum in se, they are much closer to old paganisms like Neoplatonism and Gnosticism than authentically Christian categories. What value is not being “secular” if instead your view of the relations of spiritual and material things is just a baptized cousin of Mani or Plotinus? []
  5. Short descriptions of these and a more recent one, Humanist Manifesto III, from 2003 may be found here. []
  6. By “more recent biblicist thought forms, I have in mind the widespread misconstrual by Protestants of sola Scriptura, such that Scripture is held to be not just the only infallible rule of faith of practice, but the only reliable rule of faith and practice. The best short treatment of this problem I know is G. Shane Morris’ “Scripture Alone Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means.” This rather basic error deeply distorts many classical educators’ grasp of the classical texts, and causes them frequently to confuse superficial reactions of their own with serious, wisdom-producing engagement. []
  7. See this page on my main site for some brief thoughts on wisdom-seeking. []
  8. See this essay on how a certain sort of dualistic war-obsessed classical educator has childishly treated the actually profound Epic of Gilgamesh. Numerous other examples could be produced, all showing a severe lack of intellectual and imaginative depth of engagement with the texts. []

Notes on “the Secular” (5): Nothing is Evil in Itself

Having spent four posts now defining and examining the dichotomous Sacred Vs. Secular interpretation of reality which I have dubbed “totalizing dualism,” I’ve stated several times that it is incompatible with classical education. In my last two posts for this series, I want to provide some support for those statements from a major author whose inclusion in the canon of books we accept as classical educators, I would assume no one would question: St. Augustine of Hippo.1

In terms of our theology and philosophy about the secular we should begin, surely, at the beginning, where God tells us multiple times after He creates some part of the space-and-time world that it is “very good.” Not to be repetitious, but God made everything that is a part of the space-and-time world “very good.” Therefore, nothing God made is evil in itself. Nothing.

But this means that the things we encounter in the world outside of our being-sanctified churchy-spiritual circles are not evil. Owing to the fact that the English word “secular” and its derivatives come from the Latin word saeculum meaning “age, lifetime” and the Old French word seculer meaning “not living in a religious order,” it is indisputably denotatively true that a thing is not evil because it is “secular.” “Secular” cannot be equivalent to “evil” because the things of which it consists are fundamental parts of the world God made, and God made nothing that is evil in itself.

So I contend that as classical educators we’re denotatively using the secular word family incorrectly if we default to connotatively using them as synonyms for godlessness and evil. And the misuse of words ought to concern us since one of the major themes of classical Christian education, via its Rhetoric aspect, is to use words properly and well and to make actions cohere with true speech.2

Ah, but I’m being pedantic, no? For as I’ve already observed, the common use of these words (“secular,” etc.) is a sort of shorthand, a figure of speech, words being used connotatively within a certain community to convey a certain meaning. Now, ordinarily, words acquiring connotations that go beyond their simple denotations is not necessarily a problem. It happens all the time in the course of normal human speech over periods of time.

Well, again, not to sound simplistic – we ought to understand that orthodox Christian theology and metaphysics strongly forbid this specific connotative use. God made nothing evil; therefore, the secular, considered as a thing, is not and cannot be evil. And since it is not and cannot be evil, no one concerned with the proper use of language should use the words in this way. To be a bit more fine-tuned, it should just be intellectually out of bounds for classical Christian educators to use the words this way.3

In the previous post, I mentioned that I would demonstrate – at least to those who take major classical Christian authors as in some real way normative for our own theological musings – that speaking of “the secular” and its derivative words as being merely the realm of evil, demonic forces such that against “the secular” we must always prosecute a constant, total war, is actually an anti-Christian and un-classical thing to do.

While I can’t do this exhaustively or in a way that no one could ever conceivably raise good counterpoints to, I am going to do it using an authority that only the most obtuse “classical” educator would take flippant issue with, St. Augustine of Hippo, who stands as an integral part of the bedrock of everything we as Western Christians are doing or ever might wish to do.

In his Confessions, a few chapters after explaining in no small detail how God brought him out of the pagan dualism of the Manichees, Augustine writes:

…it was made clear to me that all things are good even if they are corrupted. They could not be corrupted if they were supremely good; but unless they were good they could not be corrupted. If they were supremely good, they would be incorruptible; if they were not good at all, there would be nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption harms; but unless it could diminish goodness, it could not harm. Either, then, corruption does not harm—which cannot be—or, as is certain, all that is corrupted is thereby deprived of good. But if they are deprived of all good, they will cease to be. For if they are at all and cannot be at all corrupted, they will become better, because they will remain incorruptible. Now what can be more monstrous than to maintain that by losing all good they have become better? If, then, they are deprived of all good, they will cease to exist. So long as they are, therefore, they are good. Therefore, whatsoever is, is good. Evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.

Confessions VII.12

Now this is a mouthful, to be sure. Of course, no one will be foolish enough to say that any human author, even the great St. Augustine, isn’t liable to make mistakes, and that when they do, later generations might be able to correct those mistakes. And some among us may point out that in this citation and others like it Augustine is relying somewhat heavily on Neoplatonist philosophical categories. Whatever may be said in general critique of Platonism, Neoplatonism, and non-Christian thought as a whole, I and the bulk of the historic classical education tradition assume the basic normativity of Augustine’s theology of the goodness of creation and the non-existence of evil (since God made all things but can’t make evil). Dissenters should own the burden of proof themselves, since they are the novelty-makers.

Notice first that Augustine says that “all things are good even if they are corrupted.” The distinction here is between the thing in se and a spoiling or dissolution of the thing in se. The thing itself is good; what we mean if we ever say it is “evil” is that it has been spoiled by some factor ancillary to its created nature. Evil is not a thing, but the accidental (contingent) corruption of a thing that is bonum in se – good in itself.

This is of absolutely critical importance in talking about anything by applying to it the term “secular.” It is undeniably true – the evidence hits us in our faces every day! – that things coming to us from the secular domain present themselves to us in a condition of having been spoiled – which is exactly what we really mean when we default to using words like “godless” and “evil.” But that condition of having been spoiled does not entail that the things themselves are evil or godless.

It’s my contention that if we classical educators are just too impatient to make this crucial distinction, ponder it with respect to a given thing in the world, and speak more clearly than the promptings of polemical passions dictate, we’re likely too shallow to do any really serious redemptive cultural analysis.

Notice second that Augustine says that corruption can “diminish goodness.” Again, this means that the thing in itself is good, but when we call it “evil” what we mean is that it has experienced a loss of some of that inherent goodness. It is not evil in se, but rather corrupted good. Moreover, because corruption can exist in various degrees, not all of which require discarding or destruction, it would behoove the careful classical thinker to more closely examine particular things he wants to classify as “secular” when he means by this term “evil” or “godless.” The Evangelical world has long had the problem of attaching “Christian” as a dichotomizing adjective to ordinary earthly matters in order to sort of holy-fy them – which just assumes, wrongly, that the ordinary earthly world is bad in itself. What if the exact same thing is going on with our too frequent use of “secular” as an adjective?4

Notice third that Augustine says that a thing deprived of all good no longer even exists; therefore, if a thing still exists, it still has some good in it. The critical import of this principle for any discussion about secular things consists in the simple application of a theme I’ve already mentioned with respect to the Reformation: the old Medieval dichotomy between Secular and Sacred, taken as expressing a metaphysical antithesis, is fundamentally unbiblical and philosophically corrupt. It doesn’t belong in the intellectual toolbox of any thoroughgoing classical educator.

Elsewhere Augustine writes:

To thee there is no such thing as evil, and even in thy whole creation taken as a whole, there is not; because there is nothing from beyond it that can burst in and destroy the order which thou hast appointed for it. But in the parts of creation, some things, because they do not harmonize with others, are considered evil. Yet those same things harmonize with others and are good, and in themselves are good. …

Confessions VII.13

Here we as classical educators ought to stop for a long moment, for the thought structure in which Augustine is articulating his ideas about evil happens to be a deeply classical one. Namely, on the basis of knowing what a thing is (because they assume that the human mind is made to know reality), classical authors liked to explore the various ways the thing could be either bettered or worsened. In so doing, the nature of the subject at hand tended to get pretty thoroughly covered, and the mind received the thorough training needed to make ever clearer and needful distinctions so as to avoid easily made errors.

So let’s stop and parse Augustine’s words here, keeping in mind the theme of why it’s improper to use the “secular” word family in sloppy ways that imply the things being spoken of are malum in se.

Recall that our English word “secular” comes from Latin and Old French and refers essentially to the current time period and also to modes and activities of life that are not bound up in a formal religious order (as in monasteries and the like). This etymology places the “secular” word family squarely in what we might otherwise call ordinary life, life not specifically oriented toward churchy and ministerial goals. And, though you’ve heard it from me now many times in this series, if one hails from a Reformational tradition, it’s impermissible to label these non-ecclesiastical realities as being somehow of lesser being or lesser importance. 5

What Augustine shows us in the words above is that we shouldn’t speak of “secular” things as being fundamentally opposed to God’s order of the world, since God made all things and nothing can “burst in” from outside His order to destroy it. What can and does happen is that some things fail to harmonize with some other things and are on that basis considered evil even though they do harmonize with yet other things and are not evil in themselves.6

This kind of thinking is not easy to work through, which is precisely why I think it ought to be required exercise for classical educators who like to talk down about “secular” realities. Sloppy thinking ought to come nowhere near classical education activities, and if avoiding it entails slowing down – perhaps even ceasing to write and talk for a bit – and thinking matters through with more care, this will be no bad thing. Perhaps by reexamining our thoughts we may even attain a bit more wisdom than we had before – certainly the main goal of all classical education!

Though much more could be produced on this theme, I think it sufficient for now to engage with one more citation of Augustine, in which he expounds more closely on what “evil” really and truly means:

In this universe, even what is called evil, when it is rightly ordered and kept in its place, commends the good more eminently, since good things yield greater pleasure and praise when compared to the bad things. For the Omnipotent God, whom even the heathen acknowledge as the Supreme Power over all, would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil. What, after all, is anything we call evil except the privation of good? In animal bodies, for instance, sickness and wounds are nothing but the privation of health. When a cure is effected, the evils which were present (i.e., the sickness and the wounds) do not retreat and go elsewhere. Rather, they simply do not exist any more. For such evil is not a substance; the wound or the disease is a defect of the bodily substance which, as a substance, is good. Evil, then, is an accident, i.e., a privation of that good which is called health. Thus, whatever defects there are in a soul are privations of a natural good. When a cure takes place, they are not transferred elsewhere but, since they are no longer present in the state of health, they no longer exist at all.

Enchiridion, Ch. III

Here we read one of the single most important principles of Christian theology: evil is not a thing. Regardless of what one thinks about Greek philosophy in general or Platonism and Neoplatonism in particular, surely it is incontrovertible from Scripture that God made everything and that He declared it all “very good,” so there actually is no thing that just simply is evil. All manner of things that God created can experience privations of their natural goods, corruptions, vitiations, and so on, but no thing that God created can ever just simply be evil. For if all its natural goods get lost, it ceases to exist at all.

Thus we have to return to the fundamental wrongness of using the “secular” word family as a synecdoche for “evil” and “godless.” Whether the terms are functioning as nouns or adjectives, to connotatively imbue them with evil and godlessness is at best a careless misuse of words and at worst an expression of a heretical theology.

This is all the more true if the connotative use is paired with an opposite exaltation of another class of things termed in a totalizing antithetical sense as “spiritual.” Often one finds classical educators speaking and writing as if the cause we are engaged in is basically just a subset of evangelism and apologetics – spiritual activities. But what is this if not the tiresome old medieval Sacred / Secular dichotomy against which the Reformers fought so vigorously?7

What is it if not a total mischaracterization of classical education as being a fundamentally brainy thing involving thinking all the “correct” thoughts about everything by making sure all things we think about have first been baptized with “spiritual” categories? Interestingly, the most thoroughgoing historical instance we have of this kind of hyperspiritualization of something rooted in the ordinary and quite good space and time world was how the Roman Catholic hierarchy attempted to bend all aspects of culture into submission to the pope as Christ’s Authorized Substitute on earth. For Protestant classicists, anyway, probably most of my audience, no more needs be said about the basic errors of that paradigm.8

At any rate, it is quite acceptable within the Augustinian framework I have been expounding in this and the previous post to apprehend something that is “secular” and spend time and energy arguing that it has been corrupted, vitiated, deprived of, various actual goods that God intended it to have (and which, really, are still fundamentally in its being, or else it would have passed into non-existence). But it is quite unacceptable to apprehend something that is “secular” and rapaciously abominate it as fundamentally belonging to the realm of the Devil and so deserving the application of constant, totalizing warfare until it is destroyed.

In the same vein, it is quite unacceptable to portray anything being done within the orbit of classical education as somehow transcending in being whatever it is ranged against because classical is “spiritual” and the other thing is “secular.” To borrow some other terms frequently misused by classical educators who, in my considered opinion, just flat insufficiently understand the texts of our tradition (especially Augustine’s City of God), this sort of dichotomous thinking is not just an instance of Seed of the Woman Vs. Seed of the Serpent, but is instead an instance of attributing real evil to something that God made good but which has been to some degree marred by sinful humans.

Indeed, since we have so many “Romish” ecclesiocrats among us trying to co-opt classical education for purposes alien to its nature (wisdom-seeking), it ought to be plainly said that confusing the general revelation-based Liberal Arts with special revelation-based theological agendas reveals even further lack of proper analysis and evaluation. For in fact, everything used in any Sacred cause (all the material things used in church services, for instance, as well as any mode of educational formation that ministers have gained during the course of their lives in the space-and-time world) originated in the secular.9

Consequently, to imagine that oneself can, as it were, pull such material and temporal things “out of the world” and ritualistically induct them into some sort of metaphysically superior set of purportedly “spiritual” activities (like evangelism and apologetics) is just superstition, not true religion. And it certainly has nothing to do with the great intellectual and ethical tradition (read: mind and body, religious and secular) to which we say we are committed as classical educators.

Concluding these Augustinian thoughts on the nature of evil relative to “the secular,” then, a thing is not and cannot be evil or godless simply because it originates in or persists in the “non-spiritual” realm that a lot of us call “the secular.” Thus:

  • Secular government is not evil or godless because it is secular.
  • Secular music is not evil or godless because it is secular.
  • Secular literature, architecture, artistry, athletics, and are not evil or godless because they are secular.
  • And, to wax probably the most controversial of all, secular education is not evil or godless because it is secular.10

To say otherwise about any of these things than that they are goods that in various ways have experienced corruption (and so may be redeemed) is to maintain not the actually Christian idea of creation but the unChristian idea that there are things in God’s world that are by nature just simply, fundamentally, irremediably evil and which thus must be constantly, actively, and totalistically warred against until they are destroyed.

To avoid such careless verbal distortion of orthodox theology, then, classical educators ought to train ourselves to use the words “secular” and its derivatives far less often when we nearly always mean to say is only that certain things are being wrongly oriented away from God by sinful human beings.

In my next and final post for this series, I will address some of the real live, on the ground concerns that we as classical educators have about things that come to us from the domain of the secular – concerns that we like to connotatively wrap in the term “secularism.”

  1. I’d really like to provide more support from more authors, such as Dante and Calvin, but doing so would make this post fall into that most lamentable of modern impatience-driven categories, tl;dr. []
  2. Yes, I am unapologetically implying that the wrong use of these words can and does spill over into wrong actions by those who use the words wrongly. And the wrong use of words to persuade others to do actions which are wrong ought to deeply concern anyone. As James 3:1 tells us, teachers bear greater responsibility than others. []
  3. For anyone who knows the work of Francis Schaeffer, recall a point he often made about how “connotation words” distort communication about religious matters. In truth, I’m doing nothing in this series that isn’t in some way connected to Schaeffer’s observation on this point. []
  4. The main targets here are, of course, the nouns “government” and “education” – good and noble things in themselves that are often wrongly made to appear intrinsically evil by the sloppy addition of the dichotomizing adjective “secular.” []
  5. To be a Reformational Christian and talk down about “secular” things in radical contradistinction to “spiritual” things is basically to betray one’s own tradition in favor of alien ideas. []
  6. The role of news junkies among us needs to be carefully considered, for they are constantly showing us representative examples of The Latest Utterly Shocking Secular Evil while failing to make distinctions as they rile us up emotionally to engage in war-to-the-knife like a bunch of beasts rather than a bunch of human beings. []
  7. I keep mentioning the Reformation not because I think every classical educator hails from a Reformational tradition, but because most of them do and so this is a graspable point of contact between my seemingly controversial arguments and real goods that they already accept and love. []
  8. I only note, with no small irony, how it tends to be Protestant classical educators who exhibit serious attraction to an error that they might on other points more familiar to themselves (such as soteriology proper) label as “papist”! []
  9. One of Augustine’s most powerful points in The City of God is, in fact, that every convert to the City of God came from the City of Man, so the goal of the Christian is not to seek the destruction of the latter but to wait with patience “until we find them confessing the faith.” []
  10. Like everything else in the fallen world, a school is, on Augustinian categories, “permixta” (a mixture) of good and corruption. This is one hundred percent true of Christian schools, too, whose teachers and students frequently reveal much more subtle modes of captivity to the “secular” than the Bright Shiny ones that tend to appear on simplistic “worldview thinking” charts. []

Notes on “the Secular” (4): Extremes are Not Virtuous

In the first post, second post, and third post of this series, I defined and briefly examined the problem of what I call totalizing dualism in Christian thinking today about the word “secular” and its derivatives. If you are arriving at reading this series in this post, please read the first three first, as they lay crucial groundwork for the larger argument I am explicating in this series.

Although as I’ve said a number of times now, it is quite common for conservative Christians engaged in the task of classical education to connotatively use the “secular” word family as shorthand for “evil” and “godless,” this is conceptually and practically improper. For etymologically, these words refer to “age, generation, span of time” and also to “not distinctively religious” in the old sense of the word “religious” as a community perfectionistically separated from outsiders. To use “secular” and its derivatives as synonyms for other concepts that rely upon begged questions is linguistically misleading.

Moreover, when a connotation, a definition relative to a particular sub-group (here, Evangelical Christians), is allowed to alter denotations and also allowed to become unquestionable foundational premises for ways of living involving totalistic denunication of outsiders and totalistic aggrandizement of insiders, other serious issues appear: the theological problem of self-righteousness and the practical problem of uncorrectable intellectual sectarianism.

As heirs of the Solomonic and Socratic search for wisdom, we really ought to be asking why the ordinary sorts of embodied contexts in which we all find ourselves all the time, the this-worldly “secular” things, should be thought evil in themselves, since we know that God created all things “very good.” Going beyond the surface appearances of verbal connotations that serve as boundary markers for sectarian consciousness, how can it be that any thing is inherently evil because it originates from and exists within a domain called “secular’?1

Definitionally alone this equation is questionable, but more importantly it is incoherent because not even its advocates can live consistent with it. For to speak simply, because we have physical bodies and experience continual temporal change, each and every one of us Christians already and inextricably lives within a secular context, that is, a set of this-worldly, wide and deep social realities that surround us and in which we participate in a hundred or more ways every day without ever giving any of them much thought. So if secular is evil in itself, all of us Christians are already evil in ways we rarely bother to think much about!2

Since many classical educators hail from Protestant traditions, this point should be all the more powerful: the Reformers were of one mind regarding the idea that “secular” things, things outside of specially-demarcated spiritual ones, are not evil or godless things in and of themselves. For contemporary Protestants to speak and act as if they are equivalent is to betray at least a weak doctrine of creation (for God declared all things that He made “very good”) and likely also a weak doctrine of general revelation and common grace.3

What it comes down to, it seems to me, is that the totalizingly dualistic position is an extreme distortion of classical education, not a design feature. Specifically, the totalizing position has failed to internalize one of the most important lessons of the classical Christian tradition, found stamped all over most of the books we read: namely, that virtue is a mean between extremes, and to find that mean requires very careful parsing of the actual situations at hand.

That is, the position a person concerned with being good (and also godly) ought to seek is one that doesn’t skew off to the far right or the far left by adopting simplistic overmagnifications of ideas that on their own might be fine but which, disconnected from others, seriously distort all that follows from them.4

As our tradition amply shows us, it is fantastically easy for anyone to fall into an extreme, and fantastically difficult for anyone to attain the mean between extremes. “Christian culture” sounds like an awesome, godly goal for classical educators to pursue, but what does the term mean? To what extent do we consult the historical models of that thing (history being the teacher of virtue and vice, as our tradition proclaims), not merely to pat ourselves on the back for supposedly being “more biblical” than they, but also to help soften the unrealistic romanticisms with which we are inclined to imbue our own projected goals?5

The sad truth is that classical educators aren’t automatically going to be better at walking virtuously than anyone else – we too have to strive really hard every moment of every day.6 And this is precisely why critiquing the popular, and very sloppy use of the “secular” word family is a necessary activity. Even were it to be shown that I am incorrect on nearly every point I make herein, the very action of extensively walking through arguments that aren’t typically voiced in our circles is an exercise encouraging us in the hard work of virtue, not the easy path of vice.

The extreme of totalizing dualism, focused on abominating “secular” things must be rejected because, as I’ve been arguing, it is a connotation scare word lacking coherence and livability, and is also a misreading of various biblical texts. Even if you didn’t buy my presentation on the Old Testament two posts ago, surely the persistent message of Christ regarding obsessing on externals rather than internals, regarding confusing external “cleanness” with internal righteousness, ought to resonate. Totalizing dualism’s most fundamental error consists precisely of drawing the line between good and evil in the wrong place – a place defined by immediate sensory perception of externals.

More than this, dualism should be rejected because it recklessly flirts with one of the most basic philosophical errors that the classical Christian tradition has long battled, namely, positing that evil is a thing, and that therefore, there are things in the world – here, “the secular” – that are malum in se – evil in themselves. Because of the perfectionistic concept of “spiritual” that tends to get deployed against its supposed polar opposite, “secular,” it turns out that all this malum in se necessarily exists outside of ourselves and our special little communities pursuing intrinsically “spiritual” tasks. 7

In the next post I’ll take a look at some important observations on the nature of evil by one of the most foundational and influential authors of the classical Christian tradition, St. Augustine of Hippo.8 As a bit of a preview, I’m going to interact with Augustine in order to posit that 1) evil is not a thing, 2) the secular is a thing, 3) therefore, the secular cannot be malum in se.

It is certainly true (as any decent acquaintance with the news will show us every minute of every day) that many evils – properly defined as privations of good – certainly do emanate from the secular domain. But these evils are not the substance of the secular: their origination from the secular domain rather than from special “spiritual” or churchy domain, is not what makes them evil. And since Christians are not inherently or necessarily immune to committing many of the same such evils, the stark dualistic denunciation of the “secular,” treating it as malum in se, is incompatible with classical education.

  1. If we are inclined to enthuse about the superior virtue of vaguely-defined entities like “the Church” and “Christian culture,” serious reflection on the history of the Middle Ages, in which Christian kingdoms often performed much great evil in the name of Christ, should be sufficient to dispel the romance. Because Christians, just like “secular” people, are sinners, there is no guarantee at all that a “Christian culture,” not even one created by classical education, will necessarily be superior to its surrounding secular context. []
  2. In this connection, I invite the reader to take a look at these thoughts focused on questions we rarely ask ourselves about our own desires. []
  3. Which raises a corollary issue that I can’t explore here – an unfortunately popular distortion of the Reformation maxim sola Scriptura. Rather than the correct idea that Scripture is the only infallible rule of doctrine and life, the distortion holds that Scripture is the only reliable rule of doctrine and life. This results in devaluing, or in some radical cases, eliminating appeals to, general revelation and common grace, ironically the very foundations of the Liberal Arts that classical education so ardently advocates. []
  4. Here economics and politics are area in which many classical teachers persistently confuse merely contemporary “conservative” takes on the size of government, its powers relative to commerce, its taxing powers, its ability to limit the rights of individuals, and so on, with biblical and classical truths. It’s not an accident that such classical educators also tend to confuse dogmatically-articulated mish-mashes of Republican and Libertarian politics against broad classes of people they label “Leftists” and “Socialists” and the like, with biblical and classical truths about political order. []
  5. Extremes readily grab our attention precisely because they are extremes: so bright! so colorful! so loud! so thrilling to our passions! so aggrandizing of what we already thought – and don’t care much to examine. []
  6. In case anyone is wondering, no, I don’t think that I myself have arrived at the mean. I’m very much a work in progress. []
  7. Thus does abominating “the secular” in a totalizingly dualistic way make us ripe for falling for the additional error of trying to distance ourselves from the evils in our own hearts by adopting legalistic rigorism about externals. And again, for those of us who hail from Reformation traditions, to even countenance this kind of dualism is already inherently self-contradictory. []
  8. If any author should be called “classically Christian, surely it is Augustine. []

Notes on “the Secular” (3): Is the New Testament Totalizingly Dualistic?

Last time I too-briefly walked through the question of whether the Old Testament underwrites a totalizingly dualistic approach to the matter of “the secular.” My argument is thatwWhat all those “Choose you this day whom you will serve…” type verses show is the basic, uncontroversial truth of the Christian religion that we believers are to strive to avoid adopting the idolatrous norms of those outside the covenant lest those idolatrous norms drag us also away from God.

Now at first glance I would agree that totalizing dualism seems to be uhpeld by the Old Testament’s model of God’s covenant people being sociologically distinct from those outside the covenant. Israel’s kings were forbidden to marry outsiders, religious ideas and practices from other nations were abominated, and parents were instructed to ensure their children learned the laws and ways of God. What could be clearer than that the secular, that which lay outside the covenant people, should be thought of as intrinsically anti-God?

Despite the critiques I’m marshalling in this series, I am somewhat sympathetic to the above line of reasoning. I grant that if the word “secular” is allowed to be simply stipulated as a synonym for “evil / ungodly,” the entire totalizing dualism paradigm I’m criticizing really does seem to follow by logical reasoning from premises supplied by the Bible.

But that great big if is exactly what I’m resting my arguments on because I don’t believe it’s linguistically correct or, in the end, theologically and sociologically helpful to construe “secular” in that manner. To read “secular” in the way that totalizing dualism urges us to is to declare ordinary life itself the mere realm of the Devil, and to in principle cut off as intrinsically sinful the entire package of the Liberal Arts as disciplines following norms built into God’s creation.

On the contrary, what we really ought to be saying as classical educators is that the line that must be drawn between good and evil does not run through sociocultural generalizations like “the secular world” and “the church,” but through the hearts of each and every individual sinner – even those currently in the process of being redeemed. It is not a thing’s being “secular” that makes it evil or godless, but rather that thing’s being oriented toward an evil or godless end. Evil is not a thing, so nothing that is “secular” can be evil because it is “secular.” I contend that what we classical educators are trying to say something different than that, so we really ought to use words more carefully.

I’ll look more at the key idea that nothing is evil in itself in the next two posts. This time I want to briefly engage with the New Testament, to see if it offers support for totalizing dualism. First up, the Apostle Paul:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership can righteousness have with wickedness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement can exist between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will dwell with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” Therefore come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” And: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

2 Corinthians 6:14-18

Additionally, we read this:

For though we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh. The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world. Instead, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We tear down arguments and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 

2 Corinthians 10:3-5

In these passages, at least, it looks like we have something that might underwrite a totalizing dualistic approach: flesh vs. spirit, divine weapons vs. worldy weapons, tearing down every presumption and taking captive every thought.

Yet notice that this passage is written to Christians and is dealing specifically with problems within the Christian church at Corinth, among which were frequent attacks on Paul’s own apostleship and teachings. Corinth was a hotbed of incipient heresies, some of which were being promoted, interestingly, by thinkers of the Second Sophistic movement using the tools of classical rhetoric.1 The primary focus of these passages is manifestly not a harsh polemic against some generic cultural boogeman, say, “the secular worldview.” The primary focus of these passages is, rather, disciplining wayward Christians in terms of the spiritual weapons Christ furnishes.

It is of course quite true that the passages can and sometimes must be applied to other domains of thought and action than just the original Corinthian circumstances. No doubt one reason these made it into Scripture was because they encapsulate ideas which all Christians in all ages must grapple with. But such applications, especially if they are of a broadbrush and scattershot nature, using popular scare words in a merely connotative sense rather than a well-thought out sense will have to argued, not merely asserted within a larger begged question about the supposed fundamental evils and godlessness of “the secular world.”

Let’s next look at a fairly alarming imperative from the Lord’s brother:

You adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of the world renders himself an enemy of God. Or do you think the Scripture says without reason that the Spirit He caused to dwell in us yearns with envy?

James 4:4-5

I have to ask again, what does the principle articulated here have to do with a generic and totalizing abomination of “the secular”? It matters quite a bit that the term “friendship” is preceded by the term “adulteresses,” for adultery is elsewhere described in Scripture as a kind of slavery to one’s passions – that is, to disordered desire. We are frequently shown by scandals in the news that Christians are just as prone to having disordered desires as any unbeliever – no special protection can or ever will come to us because we perfectionistically imagine that we’re not secular people. Sin is not outside of the human being, but inside him – a reality from which Christians are certainly not immune.2

James’ imperative has to do with ethical corruption in and of itself, not merely the time-bound particularities of “the secular” with which none of us can actually help having something to do as we go about our daily lives. In short, there’s no totalizing dualism to see here. Rather, I would suggest that demonizing “the secular” in a totalizing fashion might become an awful distraction from our own sanctification – after all, if the Great Evils of the Age are out there, not right among us in our own private, self-aggrandizing little hearts, shouldn’t we just sit back on our laurels and thank God we aren’t like those “sinners”? Oh wait…

But what of John? Surely John gives us reason to totalizingly rail against “secular” things:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away, along with its desires; but whoever does the will of God remains forever.

I John 2:15-17

Here we are admonished not to love the world or the things in it, so given how we commonly use the word “secular,” as as synonym for “the world,” isn’t totalizing dualism obviously true? No, not really. It seems plain from John’s own terms that “love” here is equivalent to “lust” – and lust classically considered means a disordered desire for an object that is bonum in se – good in itself.

In view here is the character of our desires, whether they are in harmony with God or only aggrandizing of ourselves. And once more, no pretension to be living in a “Christian culture” that is hermetically sealed off from “the secular world” can protect Christians from having and giving in to disordered desires.3 In ways difficult to enumerate and engage well, we are all of us capable of being just as secular as any “humanist” we want to abominate. Where is the room for boasting, then?

Now clearly the Christian life may be properly described as involving a great and serious war with forces of darkness in this present age. As we know, Paul graphically describes the lost like this:

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

1 Cor. 2:14


But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

2 Cor. 4:3-4

Since all Christians accept these teachings, the issue at hand is not what the Bible says. The issue at hand is what the Bible means by these teachings. This is an easy distinction to make, but not at all an easy distinction to explicate.

Most serious Bible students know of the need to examine the Greek uses of kosmos, typically translated “the world” and aion, typically translated “age,” so I need not reproduce any of that here. It will have to suffice merely to invoke a persistent feature of New Testament religion, namely, the great tension that Christians will always feel because of the “already, not yet” eschatological aspect of Christ’s victory. By faith, like Abraham, we are looking forward to a city whose builder and maker is God (cf. Heb. 11:10). But so long as we are in the flesh we are members of this-worldly societies to which we have important social and civic duties.4

On the other hand, some of the passages I’ve cited (and others like them) entail a necessary resistance to organized unbelief, which surely does at times manifest itself in “systems” of ideas and practices. That sort of thing is, again, what the common polemic against “secular” things is trying to convey, and that’s why, as I said above, I do have some sympathy for it. I get what the intention is, and with the intention I agree. But my contention here is not that the thought itself is wrong, but that words chosen to express it are wrong.

For one thing that the Bible cannot mean by such “separationist” teachings is that Christians are to treat everything outside of their own being-redeemed circles as the mere realm of the Devil and thus radically abominate it and even radically avoid it. Not only would we be unable to carry out the Great Commission were we thus radically separatist, but we would come into conflict with the principle of Paul’s words that:

I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.

I Cor. 5:9-10

In other words, there’s a certain type of radicalized Christian polemic about “the secular” that, if consistently maintained, would have to lead Christians to “go out of the world” rather than actually work in it for its redemption. On the contrary, we have to be part of and go out into the “secular” world because that’s just the overarching, large-scale space-and-time embodied world in which we live. Moreover, we can, in fact, associate significantly with those we might wish to simplistically dismiss as “secularists” on the grounds that it is God who will judge them, not we ourselves (1 Cor. 5:12-13).

Moreover, as we’ll see later, the denotation of the “secular” word family does not support a radicalized polemic of warfare, since in the most fundamental meaning of those terms, each and every last one of us inhabits and partakes of secular things every minute of every day – and cannot help but doing so. To speak in a totalizingly dualistic way about “the secular” is to speak falsely, for it simply isn’t possible for any Christian who interacts with wide ranges of people and wide domains of culture to literally “be separate” from secular realities.

It’s worth noting in this connection that the Reformation, with its holistic doctrine of vocation, freed Christian laymen from the tyrannical hyper-spiritualism of what is called the Secular / Sacred divide. Throughout the Middle Ages, wide-ranging cultural work by ordinary people was often inhibited by the idea that all activities not intrinisically “spiritual” were thereby intrinsically “secular,” and so to be avoided by “godly” people.

Ironically, although the Reformers overthrew this harmful dichotomy, it has made a great comeback among some of their contemporary heirs who have returned to speaking of “the secular” as a realm of intrinsic evil and ungodliness, against which Christians must form alternative and parallel subcultures of true spirituality, true friendship, true culture, and true justice – an idea that Luther would have abominated as the most un-Gospel like “monkishness.”

Moreover, the Bible cannot mean by the sorts of antithesis-like passages noted above a radical assault upon all that is not “churchy” and “spiritual” (i.e., “secular”), for numerous passages in the Epistles provide us with detailed instruction regarding how to actually live in the surrounding ungodly culture, not radically abandon it.

Consider, for instance, as is often pointed out, that Jesus does not require Roman soldiers who want to follow Him to desert their posts in the pagan army, but to live righteously within that context (Luke 3:14). Christians can serve in a “secular” military without feeling any great cognitive dissonance merely about that.

Consider that Paul endorses believers maintaining their “worldly” occupations while praying for the unbelievers in charge and aspiring to live quietly and peaceably among them (1 Cor. 4:11-12 and 1 Tim. 2:1-3). Why don’t classical educators who conceive of their pedagogical task as constant, total warfare against “secularism” spend any great amount of time urging their fellows and their students to aim, via studying the Liberal Arts, for quiet and peaceable lives?

Consider again that almost immediately after calling Christians “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people,” Peter charges us to

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.

1 Peter 2:13-16

Given such specific injunctions to embody our political life in terms of submission to the ordinances of the governments that God places over us, one thing, therefore, that the earlier cited “antithesis” type passages cannot mean is that Christians are to be totalizing dualists, operating as if there are two hermetically sealed off and absolutely opposed modes of thinking and living, and that one of these – just for grins let’s call it “the secular realm” – is simply evil in and of itself.

Such a stark dualism, which does not merely assert an ethical distinction between two conflicting things but rather a metaphysical separation between them does not comport with the witness of Scripture taken as a whole.

In the next few posts, I will demonstrate – at least to those who take major classical Christian authors as in some definable way normative for our own theological musings – that speaking of “the secular” and its derivative words as being merely the realm of evil, demonic forces such that against “the secular” we must always prosecute a constant, total war, is actually an anti-Christian and un-classical thing to do.

  1. This is where classical educators might really shine in how they engage things “secular” – by using the actual things found in the classical texts to illuminate Scripture, thereby better ensuring that students read Scripture more thoughtfully. []
  2. This is another line of argument why the quasi-popular “The Church is an alternative polis” theology often found in classical education circles is false: it draws the line between sin and righteousness in the wrong place, in the externals rather than the internals. []
  3. After this fact has been repeated a few times, surely it becomes apparent that the notion of totalizing dualism too easily functions as a blinder on Christian eyes rather than an illuminator of them. We’re not actually better than “the world.” That’s the whole point of constantly reminding ourselves of grace. []
  4. And lo and behold, the texts of our classical tradition are packed full of materials exhaustively exploring social and civic duties. It’s a mark of shallowness to read such texts having decided in advance that it’s all pagan poppycock and the Bible Alone shows us a totalizing blueprint for every question or issue human society could ever run up against. []

Notes on “the Secular” (2): Is the Old Testament Totalizingly Dualistic?

In the first post of this series, I laid out what I call the problem of totalizing dualism as a common way of viewing “the secular” in classical education circles. In this and the followinng post I want to review some of what Scripture itself says that might be used to support for a stark, inflexibly pugilistic attitude that inflects itself in totalizing dualism.

One of the most important argument structures I have seen used consists of using the correct hermeneutical principle that God’s people over human history have a covenantal continuity. This just means that the Christian church is in some respects a redemptive continuation of the Old Testament people of God. And if there is any very clear lesson in the Old Testament, it is that God’s people were continually told to avoid cultural assimilation with those outside the covenant, for they worship other gods and so create entirely different and ungodly societies.

It’s a biblically indisputable principle. The passages are too numerous to produce and talk through in an intentionally short series of short-ish blog posts, but here are at least a few to show the overall theme:

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

Joshua 24:15

Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods.They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.

Exodus 23:32-33

Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee:But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves:For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice;And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.  

Exodus 34:12-16

And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 

Numbers 25:1-3

Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. 

Ezra 9:1-2

Seems cut-and-dried, right? Myself, I believe there is a crucial distinction that needs to be made about these seemingly “totalizing” passages from the Old Testament:

In these types of statements what is in view is not some generic cultural entity that can be summed up in a single convenient word like “secularism” unless that word is already, via a begged question, assumed to be a synonym for “evil” and “ungodly.”

In subsequent posts, I will outline why this use of the secular word family is wholly inappropriate within a classical education context, being as it is a mere scare word deployed connotatively and at the detriment of some of the most important parts of our own Western tradition. Connotations are certainly important since they show in the very act of communicating what a given community thinks of itself and others. Connotations are a normal part of communication, but at the same time they can lead to confused ideas and practices rather than greater clarity and fidelity to truth. As I said, this demonstration will be forthcoming, so for now I am just noting that thinking of “secular” as a mere synonym for “evil” and “ungodly” is not at all an obviously correct usage, but needs to be interrogated thoroughly.

So what do these types of passages I cited above show? Undeniably they show that God’s people are not to seek after, love, or adopt the fundamentally idolatrous ways of unbelievers, lest they themselves be drawn away from God. At the very minimum, there has to be a hard and fast ethical dichotomy drawn between people whose lives are oriented toward love God and people whose lives aren’t. As Augustine extensively taught us, it matters a very great deal what we love, and also with what kind of love we love it.

No two ways about it, any really thoroughgoing and self-honest Bible believer must be actively on the lookout for idolatrous thoughts and ways of living that can pull our hearts away from the Living God. As one of our greatest forebears, John Calvin put it, “The human heart is an idol factory.”

Nevertheless, it isn’t obvious that the term “fundamentally idolatrous ways of unbelievers” just is simply equivalent to the broad social and cultural matrix that exists outside of the church and its various activities – that is, the “secular” world.

In fact, that notion of equivalence is incoherent, since no one involved in the church and its various activities can fully remove himself from structures of the world outside. It’s easy to rail about the great evils of “secular government” and “secular education” from the comfort of one’s armchair – but when we engage in such railery, do we realize that the reason we even have a comfortable life with a comfortable armchair is because we already are part of a larger, ironically “secular” social structure that falsifies superficial protests about the “spiritual” setting of our activities?

Here I should briefly mention a connected ideological trap into which many classical educators these days have fallen. Contrary to a somewhat influential thread of theology, there is no such timeless entity as “the Church” which constitutes an “alternative polis” or “counter-polis” to that of “the world.” Such a theology is false on its face when one understands the embodied meaning of the word “polis” and realizes that no institutional church and its associated activities can embrace all the aspects of a polis.

With only one exception seen in Scripture (Israel), visible bodies of God’s people (the church) are always surrounded by and embedded in a polis not of their own making – and those poleis are secular – i.e., this-worldly. As I noted above, the principle of covenantal continuity between ourselves and the Old Testament is essentially true. But on New Testament terms, it’s just flat incoherent and fallacious to portray either some idealistic abstraction called “the Church” or specific visible bodies of believers as what amounts to a complete, self-contained, self-governing, self-providing social reality standing in every embodied way apart from “the secular.”1

In sum regarding the sorts of seemingly “totalizing” Old Testament passages I reproduced above, I think it is fallacious (and actually unworkable in the real world outside of blogs and podcasts and training seminars and sermons) to string these together into a justification for an ideology of “constant, total war” against a generic cultural entity that can be summed up in a single convenient begged-question term like “the secular world.” We are not Israel of old; we are part of a new and better covenant that embraces the outside world in order to transform it, not pulls away from it in order to perfectionistically abominate it.

Again, all Christians must always be on the lookout for the siren songs of worldly idolatries, and where we find them in ourselves we must, with the power of the indwelling, sanctifying Spirit, ruthlessly work to root them out. We must carry out the Great Commission by going out into the field of our societies and laboring to bring the lost to Christ. But those tasks are not at all the same as identifying everything outside our (often very tiny-minded) circles of thought and action as malum in se and creating for ourselves self-contained ideological and daily living circumstances in which we pride ourselves on how we’ve so marvellously escaped the sad circumstances with which so many others – including other Christians who don’t follow our ideas! – remain beset.

I’m particularly concerned that we as classical educators especially not minimize or forget that if it really is true that we have at our fingertips a fantastic wealth of intellectual and spiritual and practical resources spanning more than 3,000 years of history, if we really are engaging in a pedagogical task having the power to illuminate the darkness and ennoble souls and their societies, and if we really are in touch with the most fundamental aspect of our Faith, there is no room for boasting, since everything we have is of grace. Snarky condescension to other Christians who don’t see things our way, let alone rapacious mockery of those who have yet to be graciously called by God, is just plain ungracious and unbecoming of those whose own tradition continually exhorts humility and wisdom-seeking, not prideful display of a self-written great Book of All Answers to All Problems.

Obviously I have not covered all possible bases in this short post. I am neither representing myself herein as an expert Bible scholar or as an unquestionable expositor of the classical Christian tradition. All I have attempted to do here is raise some important questions about the totalizing and perfectionistic nature of certain claims often made about the outside world and about the quality of biblical reasoning that often appears to justify those claims.

So, if the Old Testament doesn’t actually underwrite the sort of commonplace generic polemic often used in our circles against “secularism,” what about the New? I will turn to that topic in the next post.

  1. All this is, unfortunately, too large a set of issues to further explore here. In the near future, I hope to explain the unclassical nature of the alternate- / counter-polis notion in more detail. []

Notes on “the Secular” (1): The Problem of Totalizing Dualism

Initial disclosure: I was raised in the 1980s and came of age in the 1990s, and so, like pretty much any other conservative Christian of this stripe, my mind and heart got packed full of militant rhetorical posturing about the great evils of “Secular Humanism” and the grand necessity for Christians to always be on the lookout for the crafty denizens of that nefarious anti-God tribe trying to pull the wool over all our eyes.

In the more than two decades that I’ve been deeply involved in classical Christian education circles, I’ve seen how this not entirely wrong, but certainly quite blinkered, ideological framework, a lamentably long-running feature of American Protestantism around since at least the 1850s,1 was basically built right into the cause of classical education by some of its most influential thought leaders. As far as I can tell, a great many classical teachers seem to think this whole complex of Fear-the-Godless-Secularists is just simply a design feature of classical education rather than a really severe flaw.

In this series, I’ll begin exploring some of the most important aspects of this ideology, which – fair warning! – I myself as a classical educator no longer accept but instead have come to believe represents a fairly radically distortion on many fronts of “classical” activities by enslaving them to a continuously revolutionary, reactionary, and retrenchment-based mentality. Now that I’ve sufficiently offended a lot of people, let me really get started.

It is a commonly used trope in classical education circles that “secular” is a bad thing, the thing against which classical education pits itself and is seeking to supplant. The trope possesses a wide range: it’s not just a noun, referring to a thing which is held to be very bad, but also an adjective, describing any human idea or action that the classical educator using the term believes to be unbiblical, ungodly, and intolerable.

And so we are wont to generate much black-and-white criticism of such boogeymen as secularists (a broad class of people), secular education, secular government, secular culture, the secular worldview, and so on. Some, indeed, among us like to proclaim just about every time they get a chance that there must always be constant, total war between Christians and everything that is “secular.”

The dichotomy so starkly and uncompromisingly expressed is curious when considered in the light of our common history as Western Christians, especially given some of the most foundational texts written by our brethren from the past.

Viewed in this larger light, I have two contentions in this series. First, I contend that the commonplace way of using the word secular and its derivatives fails to adequately express the real points we want to make in defense of classical education. And second, I contend that the common way we use these words conveys a totalizing dualism that confuses destroying enemies with building a culture and in the process substitutes theological and philosophical factionalism for a true classical catholicity.

To get started, with respect to the secular and its derivatives, what do I mean by the description totalizing dualism as a criticism of the common way of speaking in classical circles? Simply put, totalizing dualism consists of:

construing the nature and practice of classical education as part of a larger theological and sociopolitical framework of absolutist, top-to-bottom, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, war-to-the-knife pugilism.

While each of the elements of that definition could be dwelt upon by way of exposition, this series is not meant to be merely pedantic, so I will forgo that sort of definitional subtlety here. Yet I will add this to the description: totalizing dualism as I am dealing with it here sees classical education as being about the task of culture-warring in the particular mode of pressing for and expecting, over multiple generations, Christian dominance of institutions and other social structures.

Dominance is the key word here. For the ideology I will be engaging in these posts doesn’t only acknowledge what is Scripturally undeniable – the great conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Rather, it seeks to maximize our perception of and expectation of open, uncompromising conflict by seeing stark antithetical divisions as occurring everywhere and at all times and in all places, and, most crucially, it identifies all these antitheses as “the secular.”

Moreover, because war and enemies are quite literally everywhere that the Christian looks, prosecuting war against enemies is quite literally the Christian’s most critical duty – a duty most importantly carried out by training the young in the boot camp of classical education to make every aspect of their Christian lives orbit the vocation of soldier. (Now of course by writing this way I am not denying the Bible’s own military metaphors for the Christian life. I am concerned rather about a particular and highly distortive understanding of those military metaphors.)

Everyone has heard the prooftexts, of course, most especially that one from the Dutch Reformed leader Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Very true, this! To the extent that classical educators today grasp and operate in accord with the New Testament’s teaching that Christ’s Gospel entails Christ’s kingship over all, it biblically follows that the King’s kingdom has to be defended (and extended), and that He has left us here with the Spirit as our guide to carry out this task.

With all this I firmly agree. Whatever criticisms of common classical education-world tropes you read in this series, none of them will be based on denying Christ’s kingship over the world or denying that He is historically engaged in a process of putting all enemies under His feet (1 Cor. 15:25) or that, with the sword of His mouth, in the end, He will strike the rebellious nations and rule them with an iron rod (Rev. 19:15).

Nothing I say herein aims to deny or minimize the reality of the great culture war that has been tearing the Western world to shreds for many decades now. Nothing I say herein is meant to deny that there are some fronts of this culture conflict (say, abortion and gender issues) on which defending Christian truths really does require pursuing visible and embodied reform of institutions and social realities.

But the divergence between a proper sort of cultural work aimed at these ends and the type I’m warning against as totalizing dualism makes itself known when its embodied targets, particularly summed up in the word secular and its derivative terms, are treated as malum in se – that is, as evil in themselves.

Throughout this series I will unapologetically contend that this common way of treating the secular in classical education circles, is sub-Christian because it treats the secular as malum in se whereas by contrast the classical Christian theological tradition denies that anything in God’s created world ever can be malum in se.

Although there is a many decades-long tradition of using the word secular as a synonym-codeword for “Godless,” I will try to prove over the course of this series that this is an improper usage which, ironically, obscures some of the most important ways that Christ mediates His kingship to us in the space-and-time world.

I will also argue throughout this series that the common way of treating the secular stands in stark contrast to the best and most culturally-redemptive parts of the classical Christian tradition. I will argue that by way of this error, the common parlance unintentionally defeats its own goal of redeeming culture and instead traps its adherents in tiny, self-validating intellectual sects that will almost surely fail to have any significant impact on anyone outside of their own hyper-committed people.

All these sorts of remarks demand, of course, exposition and defense. To that task most of the remainder of this series will be dedicated. But before moving on to the arguments, I think it is worth taking some time to review some of what Scripture itself says that might be used as support for a stark, inflexibly pugilistic attitude that inflects itself in totalizing dualism.

  1. This is a quasi-arbitrary date; I chose it because at the end of the 1850s Darwin’s theory arrived, and really serious, non-threatened Protestant cultural thought basically went downhill thereafter. []

“All Men Desire to Know” (3)

In the previous installment, I argued that:

“All men want to know.”  Indeed, but there are frequently worlds of difference wrapped up in that seemingly simple word want. As classical educators, we should be far more invested than we are (as a rule) in discerning and disciplining not only the wants of our students, but of ourselves as well. Before we can even discuss what we want to know – a discussion that easily draws our minds to curriculum and lesson plans and grades and classroom management skills and the like – we first need to ponder for a while the very nature of this want that directs the phrase “want to know.”

For if we do not want the right things, we will go looking for the wrong ones to supply the lack implied by the want – and to sort of fuse a bit of Socrates with a bit of Dante, on a misbegotten quest like that, we will invariably find that desire isn’t only the root of every good thing in life, but also of every evil thing.

The blunt truth of the matter is that not every student “wants by nature to know” reality in terms of “the causes of things” – those combined phrases being Aristotle’s definition of the goal of education, Wisdom.

Indeed, as any teacher (classical or no) who pays close attention on a daily basis can readily attest, a great many students show over long periods of time that they don’t want to know causes, don’t want to engage reality beyond the most superficial of levels, don’t want to pursue or acquire Wisdom.

Rather, many students are quite happy, just like animals, merely with repetitiously and merely sensorily perceiving the world and just reacting with no thought and little to no concern for or consultation with connected experience. This is one reason why review has become for far too many students not what it is supposed to be – a way to train and polish the memory – but, paradoxically, a way to avoid exercising the memory at all. Why bother learning the 1st Declension Latin endings when the teacher will always “review it” before the test or “because it’s hard to remember it all” just allow you to consult your notes on a test? Why not just complain about how weird the names in The Epic of Gilgamesh are, and so too difficult to recall, and how crazily hard it is to remember the main characters and events of Antigone when it’s been a few weeks since you read it?

Real knowledge is not what the merely sensory student is after – nor what the “classical” teacher is after whose pedagogical approach to reading and scope-and-sequence can be summed up with the metaphor of the firehose. (Yes, “classical” teachers are also a big part of the problem, most especially when they fallaciously believe that reading lots of pages very quickly is going to produce, evidently by some vague, osmosis-like aggregate of “exposure,” real understanding in anyone. I have long suspected that the very much unclassical frame of mind many “classical” teachers exhibit when talking about and applying the books they teach may be due to themselves being the sort of “firehose” readers just described.)

The Philosopher properly corrects us on this point of sensory overload in terms of rapid, ill-connected experience of individual items in the world: “Again, we do not regard any of the senses as Wisdom; yet surely these give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars. But they do not tell us the ‘why’ of anything – e.g. why fire is hot; they only say that it is hot.”

What we have to realize is that the simple, raw immediacy of sensory experience is a major reason why an education, whether or not (but especially if) it is called “classical”, that doesn’t rigorously interrogate the wants of both the teacher and the student before, during, and after a given book or topic is studied will never reach the standard of Wisdom-pursuit that is the actual goal of education. And this is because an education driven by sensory experiences (How many books have the students read this year? How many words have they written? What kinds of tests have they taken? How can we get their grades up before report cards come out?, and so on) never touches the crucial matter of the wants of everyone involved.

The simple, raw immediacy of sensory experience not philosophically moderated will never produce anything but sophistic imitations of knowledge: think here of Plato’s metaphor of the Cave, especially how the things that most lead the prisoners astray are the shadows they see. The eyes are made to receive light, and they will receive light of whatever shade or hue or intensity as often as it is presented to them. But it is only the active, questioning, judging mind that can process the images passively received by the eyes.

The eyes of the teacher may thoroughly enjoy the sight of 800 pages of Herodotus, but if he wants to just plow through it in a few weeks so he can say he has “studied classical literature” and met some administrator’s bureaucratic concept of scope-and-sequence, he’s missing the point entirely. Likewise the eyes of the student gape in dismay at the sight of those 800 pages, and wearisomely pass over line after line after line of unrealistic quantity-based reading assignments because he wants to say he’s “finished the work” and his parents want to say they’re providing him with significant engagement with the classics.

But why is nobody in this scenario prioritizing a want to understand the causes of the Persian Wars the way that Herodotus himself tried to do? That’s the real point of reading Herodotus, and not gratifying some artificial hoopla about how students involved in “classical education” are “reading” 50 serious books in one year, only one of which is Herodotus. For if the point of reading Herodotus was indeed to understand the causes, no one would be so silly as to try to standardize that process by insisting that the whole thing must be crammed into 4 weeks so that a test can be taken and the class can move on to sample the next intellectual dish in the sensory-smorgasbord.

Judging from my long experience in classical classrooms (experience to which I know many other teachers can relate) the action of young people dutifully carrying out such assignments as “Read 150 pages of The Iliad by next class time and answer these comprehension questions for our Socratic seminar” will all but certainly accomplish no more than bewilder the students and frustrate the teacher when he finds that his charges “know” next to nothing about what they spent a week “reading.”

Again, blame can go around liberally, here: poor students cause many problems, but so do unclassical teachers, that is, teachers whose own wants have not been properly disciplined by their own Arts.

What the former example (an unrealistic Iliad reading assignment) illustrates about work students do independently can also be confirmed by work they do in the teacher’s presence. Think about it, teachers. If you’ve ever seen a student day after day after day hastily scribble his name on a worksheet and proceed to mechanically fill it out item-by-item (usually with liberal breaks between “problems” for chatting, laughing, and otherwise being amused and distracted), if you’ve ever had to explain repeatedly to a student that there’s no way she really “read” three paragraphs of Latin or a few pages of Livy in 5 minutes (so she’s “completed” her homework), if you’ve ever had to spend any amount of time trying to prove to either students or parents that next-to-last minute “extra credit” grade-boosts bear zero relation to actual mastery of a piece of a body of knowledge, no further proof of either Aristotle’s distinction between types of people (sensory or philosophical) need be given.

Back to the last part of this question arising from Aristotle, then: What content do all men by nature want to know? Quite obviously, many – perhaps most – want to know only the content of ephemeral experiences. Their want for knowledge extends only so far as the effort required to quickly scratch an itch or indulge the munchies or enjoy a spot of amusement.

Only a few start with the experiences and, with these as raw matter only, begin to exercise, to whatever capacity they are able, real arts and reasonings because they want to know the causes. To root my thoughts once again in Aristotle, many students will never attain to real knowledge, let alone wisdom, because they don’t want it. While it is not proper, obviously, for a teacher to attempt to pigeonhole his charges, he does need to remember the categories I’ve been walking through as he interacts with students and evaluates them.

T.S. Eliot says somewhere that although a Liberal Arts education will not be acquired to the same degree by everyone who gets it, the Liberal Arts will ennoble everyone fortunate enough to gain significant exposure to them. This is a solid argument, especially in a Republic, for ensuring that everyone has access to a proper (that is a Liberal) education.

And yet there is a very important sense, which I think Aristotle excellently helps us to get at, in which we really do have to say that the Liberal Arts are not actually “for” everyone, because not everyone wants to be truly free. There is, in fact, a really existing class of human beings – each member of whom makes himself or herself into part of that class by how they respond to training and admonition – who will always be content with surface appearances, never truly seek the why (causes) of things, and so never gain the full benefit of the Arts.

We as teachers should never stop trying to train the young to seek virtue and wisdom, but neither should we ignore Jefferson’s sapiential words to John Adams in a letter dated October 28, 1813:

…there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.

“All men want to know,” indeed. The question for teachers, especially if they wish there to be any substance to their use of the adjective “classical,” far less concerns what do men want to know (curriculum, scope-and-sequence, testing results, etc.), and far more regarding what do men want, and how may their wants be best trained so that they focus on the True, Good, and Beautiful instead of the mere phantasms of unconnected, unreflective sensory experience.

[NB: A conceptually related post (which approaches the matter of natural distinctions between people that affect what they seek and how they seek it, may be found on another of my sites under the title “Toxic Equality.”

“Classical” Isn’t About the Color of Her Hair

Thanks to several decades of tireless work by many dedicated Christians, the term “classical education” has become virtually a household word. It’s so common, in fact, and so copiously discussed, that if you frequent “classical education” circles, you may easily come away with a particular impression of what the thing is, what it entails, and how it just must be practiced that seems as self-evident as, well, “What goes up must come down.”

In short, for much of the classical education world, a certain set of cultural norms has come to be so attached to the pedagogical ideals that the two can scarcely be distinguished. This is why so much of classical promotional material seems carelessly to use phrases like “Saving Western Civilization” and “Rebuilding Christendom” and the like, as if the nouns in those phrases have only one referent: that which the group itself deems essential and normative.

But so what, one asks. Didn’t Herodotus say that every group of people prefers its own customs to those of other groups? “Custom is king” – this is just a human thing. Everybody does it. And one side, the nicest side, of the dictum is precisely to give one’s own preferences the benefit of the doubt rather than rigorously interrogate them.

And so, what I’m interested in here is how, in these days of radical cultural apostasy, classical educators are tempted merely to almost entirely conflate the grand ideals of this ongoing classical education project with their own particular subculture’s preferred norms.

I don’t mean, of course, such things as a classical school having a particular dress code, or a proper philosophical and theological concern for the virtue of moderation in personal appearance or the rigorous promotion of a hierarchical and gender-appropriate code of etiquette. Such practices as these correctly hold a central position in a particular group’s self-concept and self-presentation to outsiders.

Uniforms, for instance, serve the important function of helping everyone, insiders and outsiders, clearly answer questions about Who We Are by better articulating distinctives. Standards for length of male hair, types of shoes, external adornments, and the like, are entirely appropriate “boundary markers” for a given community to establish and uphold. Requiring students to maintain good body posture, hold doors for others, show concern for smaller and weaker members of the body, and observe practices of verbal respect for adults are cultural and customary necessities providing everyday, every hour reminders of Who We Are.

“Custom is king,” per Herodotus. None of what I just mentioned is either wrong per se or even undesirable as matters of prudential practice and cultural maintenance.

Yet I’ve noticed in my travels throughout the world of classical education that the great ideals of the restored project (rooted in the Great Texts) seem, for many, to somehow underwrite not just a proper This is Who We Are posture, but more of an improper This is Who Everyone Ought to Be posturing. It’s a subtle error, which is precisely why it neither seems like an error to those who commit it nor gets subjected to examination prior to being regularly stated as a simple truism in the dealings of this type of self-portraying “classical” culture with other cultures outside of it.

It’s a subtle error, moving from the simply human fact that everyone assumes their own ways are best to the not simply human fact that, darn it, our way really is the best, just because and for everyone. After all, one of the virtues of the classical education project is the recovery of and courageous standing for the ideal of Objective Truth in a world that constantly runs screaming away from anything but mere subjective opinion. Doesn’t the mere fact that so many oppose our way go to prove that our way really is the Truth? “Wide is the path that leads to destruction…,” you know.

How supremely easy it is, really, to move from, say, arguing that classical education holds that tyranny is a disordered mode of government to asserting that classical education stipulates as the universal truth about civil order a particular mode of Small, Limited Government and an associated notion of Free Market Economics. The first item is an Objective Truth of the tradition; the second item is just a particular historically-conditioned – that is to say, quite fallible and possibly intelligently challengeable – attempt to ensure that the first gets its proper due.

To try to be as specific as possible, in my travels throughout Classical Education Land, here is a partial listing of doctrines I have seen widely promoted as if they just simply are essential truths of and applications of Objective Truth rooted in the great classical tradition itself:

  • Republican and / or Libertarianism as the sine qua non of Christian politics
  • Free Market Capitalism as God’s Own Economic System
  • the primacy of individual rights over any group concerns
  • civil government as inherently antithetical to familial and ecclesiastical government
  • clique-like advocacy of particular clothing styles and / or culinary requirements
  • frequent and implicitly exclusionary use of the adjective “biblical” as a presumed synonym for “what we believe”
  • inflexible advocacy of highly-specific soteriological and / or eschatological views

Let’s not forget Herodotus, here: “Everyone thinks their own customs are best.” It’s not wrong in any way for a particular subculture taking the name “classical” to articulate such ideas as these as a matter of letting everyone, inside and out, know clearly This is Who We Are. Were such items as these to be stated in just that way, as clear public articulations by a particular poleis of the principles that order their internal governance and describe their hoped-for cultural effects, there would be no problem.

The problem arises, however, where such items as these are stated as if they are not just boundary markers for these communities, but boundary markers for all communities, essential parts of the very definition of “classical.” The problem arises when those who confidently assert such items as essential to either classical education or Objective Truth itself just flat fail to recognize that what they have going on in their own groups won’t ever be anything more than small-scale and relatively-inflected iterations of the broad category “Classics-based culture.”

The point isn’t hard to see for anyone who has actually been immersed in and is undergoing formation by the classical sources: the ideals associated with the Classics have historically instantiated themselves in many varieties of culture, and really, just do transcend all such instantiations.

The “classical education” of the urban elites in, say, Tertullian’s day didn’t look precisely the same culturally as the “classical education” of the monks on Lindesfarne five centuries later, nor did the “classical education” in King Alfred’s court look precisely the same culturally as Thomas More’s seven centuries later. And it is for absolutely certain that the “classical education” in a Dorothy Sayers’ Trivium school of today looks culturally very different from that of Cicero’s or Augustine’s or Dante’s own days.

Obvious truisms, of course, and they would scarcely be worth mentioning (let alone devoting a whole article to!) did not too many classical educators today fail to remember Herodotus’ remark about cultural preferences and reflect upon how it automatically relativizes their entire system of claims about “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.”

Just about any time you hear a “classical” educator expressing consternation that others involved in the “classical” project have somehow (possibly culpably) failed to agree with themselves as to some refined standard of ideas or conduct that they have put forward, you are hearing someone who doesn’t grasp the dual-sided nature of Herodotus’ maxim “Custom is king.” You are looking at someone who doesn’t understand the natural and unavoidable multiplicity of human cultures as responses to God’s gigantic and super-complicated world.

In reality, many who crow the loudest about how they are “recovering Objective Truth” are actually some of the most subjective people you can find. And some of the purportedly most obviously “biblical worldview” notions floated as essentials of “classical education” are in reality some of the most blinkered sub-culture-ish opinions you are likely to find.

What’s worse, such narrow visions of “classical” that fail to make proper distinctions between Truth Per Se and prudential cultural attempts to instantiate Truth Per Se will, by their loud crowing, almost inevitably accomplish the self-defeating rhetorical feat of convincing equally loudly crowing deconstructionists that terms like “classical” and “Western” really are just code for White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant bigotries. It’s never a good idea to give your enemy precisely the weapon he needs to defeat you.

Thus, to be blunt, there’s no particular, let alone essential, relationship between (1) pursuing a Classics-based education and (2) holding particular highly-refined positions on the relationship of Church and State or how many earrings every woman everywhere ought to be allowed to wear or just how skinny jeans are morally allowed to be or constraining political economy discussions into tiny boxes drawn by ideological captives of the now dead-and-gone Cold War or pretending that disagreement with oneself is the very definition of having become irrational and unbiblical and so in need of repentance and reformation.

Custom is king – but custom comes in more shapes and sizes than are dreamed of in little philosophies trying to hijack grand concepts and stamp them with provincial copyrights and trademarks. Given the centrality of self-critical examination we find in the actual Old and Great Books that make up the classical heritage, the important task for anyone claiming the adjective “classical” in connection with education is to refuse to rigidly tie the word to mere subcultural distinctives in a universal way.

This is Who We Are, yes.

This is Who Everyone Ought to Be, no.

Less fretting in the context of Objective Truth about hair colors and clothing styles and eschatologies and dietary matters and the like, and more concern for, say, articulating and exegeting the Cardinal Virtues (while examining ourselves for indications of the Seven Deadly Sins), for comparing our received partisan political views with Plato and Aristotle and Cicero and Augustine and being willing to change ourselves rather than dismissing them, for less self-aggrandizing smiling at our own “classical” images in the mirror – these are the sorts of thoughts and actions we need in order to be appropriately in line with our great Tradition rather than just tribalists mouthing slogans and maxims and darkly wondering why the rest of the world hates Truth so much.

After all, isn’t one of the whole points of the Old Great Books precisely the fact that everyone sees through a glass darkly, no one has the whole truth, and that only a commitment to humble and rigorous self-criticism can free the mind from thoughtless slavery to illusions?

“All Men Desire to Know” (2)

In light of the introductory post to this series, I will here engage with the first of the three questions I posed. Arising directly from Aristotle’s discussion of the topic that all human beings desire by nature to know, the question I posed is: What content do all men by nature want to know?

The importance of this question – along with the fact that I have rarely ever seen any classical educator either pose it or significantly engage with it – has been pressed home to me for some years by the weight of much less-than-stellar pedagogical experiences in real classical schools in real classrooms with real students really engaging with classical materials. Multiple complex factors converge, of course, and there is surely plenty of “blame” to spread around in evaluating the implications of such negative experiences, but it is not my purpose to do so here. 

Rather, having acknowledged the backdrop of a great variance between the overly rosy picture one tends to get from classical education promotional materials and the actual experiences of classroom teachers, I want to approach the problem by drawing from Aristotle’s dictum and asking, What content do all men by nature want to know?  

Being a good classicist, knowing my rhetoric, I begin by saying that a division of the matter is critical for clarity.  In my judgment, dividing the question into parts in reverse order of the terms is the best way to proceed. Thus, to begin, what does it mean, precisely, to say that human beings “want to know”?

Though I’m talking Aristotle, allow me to borrow from Socrates, who presciently argued many times that a want is based on a lack, and that no one goes looking for what he already has. If you want something, it’s because you don’t have it. If you don’t want something, it’s because you do have it. Simple enough, right?

But let’s not let apparent simplicity divert us from examination, for already, even with so simple an observation we have stumbled upon a gold mine of principles and applications. For the Philosopher plainly says that “an indication” of the truth of his principle is “the delight we take in our senses,” most particularly sight. For sight “brings to light many differences between things.” Sight, that is, generates knowledge of distinctiveness, and, though Aristotle does not say it in so many words, knowledge of distinctiveness can provoke desire

Consider, if you will, that with respect to sight, wants can arise from recognizing something lacking in oneself that seems to be present in the object of sight.  Now consider, if you will, the radical notion (at least to our jaded era) that not all wants are created equal. A want is not good simply because it is, nor is a thing wanted good simply because it is wanted, nor has good been achieved merely because a thing wanted has been obtained. 

At every stage of this human wanting to know, then, we must beware of what Eve (and Pandora) discovered to the great detriment of all. Some things appear beautiful but aren’t, and immoderate or disordered wants have the power to ruin entire lives.

To bring this seemingly abstract discourse around to education, let’s go with Aristotle as he tells us that the major difference between animals and humans, both of whom have the sensation of sight, consists in the fact that “The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings.”

Now art and reasonings is just code for what makes the Liberal Arts even possible: the ability of the human mind to make judgments about the objects of sensory experience (especially sight). Unlike (mere) animals, the human animal (made in the image of God) doesn’t only perceive differences between things, but also discriminates between them, retaining and then drawing upon “connected experience” in order to advance in actual knowledge of the world.

This discrimination and reflection upon connected experiences gives rise to the arts, or skills, each of which in a particular domain sees and judges and organizes and extends human understanding such that again, unlike the (mere) animals, we do not only have our first and most rudimentary perceptions to live by. We have more: the considered reflections of active reason, plumbing the depths of cause-and-effect, searching out connections, rejecting fallacies, creating by the power art – what Dante called “God’s grandchild,” born of human subcreative work on created Nature – real bodies of insight into the world and human life in it.

(This is, by the way, why the adjective Liberal, Free, has been historically paired with the noun Arts: these bodies of insight into the world and human life in it are precisely the sorts of things that free the human being from mere brutish perceptions and reactions to those perceptions. By implication, there are also Servile, Slavish, arts that may, if not ordered to Virtue, aggrandize rather than civilize mere brutish perceptions.)

Aristotle goes on: “But yet we think that knowledge and understanding belong to art rather than to experience, and we suppose artists to be wiser than men of experience (which implies that Wisdom depends in all cases rather on knowledge); and this because the former know the cause, but the latter do not.” Here we see (!) the elementary distinction between people who just experience the world (like animals) and people who pursue arts and reasonings in order to “know the cause” of what they observe.

The distinction is critical for what it is we as classical educators should be expecting to occur in our real schools in real classrooms with real students. Of course – a thousand times of course! – we should treat all students as equal in legal status, in human dignity, in educational opportunity. No student should be a priori written off as undeserving of our best efforts at all times to ennoble and inspire toward a higher, non-brutish mode of living.  As the Declaration of Independence puts it of all human beings, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

“All men want to know.” Nevertheless, acknowledging the equal legal status, human dignity, and entitlement to educational opportunity of all does not in any way entail romantic idealisms about either ongoing progress or eventual outcomes. If a portrait of a classical education program looks too good to be true, it likely is too good to be true. If it’s pushing off criticisms of its current state by appealing to an epic vision of a future state, it’s resisting the call to lasting Wisdom and preferring changing mundanities. Sight is our primary sense, says Aristotle, the one that brings us the most delight. But that is precisely why we should not take it for granted. 

Just as we can lead a horse to water, we can make a student decline a Latin noun, parse a Greek verb, sit around a Harkness table trading “What it means to me” first impressions about Herodotus’ Histories, answer comprehension questions on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, write a progymnasmata on the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, memorize the first ten lines of Fitzgerald’s translation of The Aeneid, and expound a 20-page senior thesis on what the Biblical Worldview has to say about tattoos, and not one bit of any of it may ever constitute real knowledge, let alone a “classical education.”

“All men want to know.”  But want isn’t a neutral category, for it is already pregnant with a complex array of anthropological and epistemological and ethical habits that may be undermining all the work being done as fast as it can be done. (In this connection, wants might be thought of as Jesus’ types of ground in the parable of the sower – a metaphor no classical educator should imagine he has ever adequately grasped and applied to its fullest.)

“All men want to know.” But if Aristotle is correct – and he just simply is – that the human animal can live like a mere animal, subsisting on “appearances and memories, and hav[ing] but little of connected experience,” it simply does follow that not all students “want by nature to know” in precisely the same way – which means that no classical / Liberal Arts education worthy of the name ought ever to portray itself as “for everyone” in precisely the same way.

“All men want to know.”  Indeed, but there are frequently worlds of difference wrapped up in that seemingly simple word want. As classical educators, we should be far more invested than we are (as a rule) in discerning and disciplining not only the wants of our students, but of ourselves as well. Before we can even discuss what we want to know – a discussion that easily draws our minds to curriculum and lesson plans and grades and classroom management skills and the like – we first need to ponder for a while the very nature of this want that directs the phrase “want to know.”

For if we do not want the right things, we will go looking for the wrong ones to supply the lack implied by the want – and to sort of fuse a bit of Socrates with a bit of Dante, on a misbegotten quest like that, we will invariably find that desire isn’t only the root of every good thing in life, but also of every evil thing.

In the next installment, I’ll move further back in the question What contentdo all men by nature want to know? by focusing on the phrase “by nature.”

“All Men Desire to Know” (1)

Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the famous line, “All men by nature desire to know.” What better teleological hope could a classical educator adopt than this? Of course, we will adopt it in the context of the necessary confession that ultimately, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Christ (Col. 2:3) – but still, in terms of what kind of creature the human being is, surely Aristotle the pagan has precisely hit the God-made nail with the God-made hammer. All human beings by nature desire to know.”

But several important questions immediately arise, not just for specifically classical educators, but for anyone, really, pursuing education in the mode of the the Liberal Arts (whether the old or modern idea of such).

First, arising directly from Aristotle’s discussion, what content do all men by nature want to know?

Second, also arising from that milieu, what does it mean and entail to say that they by nature want to know content?

And third, arising directly from the fact that contemporary classical / Liberal Arts education is being done within the vastly different cultural context of an aspiration for universal literacy driving the production of a public mass culture, who exactly should be expected to thoroughly profit from exposure to such an education?

Allow me to briefly (I hope!) expand on each of these questions in subsequent entries.