What Is Classical Education, Really?


“If you are on the wrong road,” says C.S. Lewis, “progress means doing an about-turn and walking to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” Is this not what we, advocates for classical education, claim? Yet understanding our history and restoring classical education are so interconnected that we cannot make progress in one without touching upon the other. Our task then is to make progress on this very issue: we wish to better understand classical education so that we may understand our own history; and by understanding our own history, we will better identify what true classical education is. Given the ambitious nature of this undertaking, let the reader permit a rude adumbration on this topic. To begin, we will need to examine the presuppositions behind this form of education.

Presuppositions of Classical Education

The term “classical education,” though used ambiguously in our day, has at least two clear sets of assumptions. First, the term assumes a historical form of education, i.e. an education passed down through a tradition. Thus, what we call classical education must find its basis in history. Secondly, there are two philosophical presuppositions that must be accounted for: a metaphysical and anthropological one. The metaphysical assumption is that the truths handed down from classical education are timeless and applicable in every time and age. Hence, this form of education, though ancient, will always remain new. The anthropological assumption is that, since the human person is the very subject matter of any education, and since the truths taught by such an education are unchanging, unperishable, and therefore applicable to every age in history, these truths will always remain relevant for mankind. Thus, whatever classical education is, it must have a basis in history while remaining consistent with these philosophical presuppositions.

Explicitly aware of the assumptions tied to the term “classical education,” we may now consider what classical education is. This will be done best by examining, as others claim to do, the Medieval Syllabus, since it presents classical education in its most mature form.

The Division of the Liberal Arts

The Medievals understood classical education’s curriculum to consist in knowledge entrenched in the arts and the sciences. All arts divide into two kinds: the servile arts, which are meant for the slave or person who tends to the world of work; and the liberal arts, which are studied by those who gaze upon those things that are higher, dignified, and unchanging. The liberal arts divide into two groups, the trivium and quadrivium.

The trivium consists of three arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This division is not artificial, but is grounded upon the very nature and purposes of speech. For St. Bonaventure writes, “Since there are three reasons why one might express through speech what one has in mind: namely, to reveal one’s thought, to move another to greater faith, or to arouse love or hatred in another, it follows that discursive or rational philosophy has three sub-divisions: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.”

Similarly, the quadrivium divides into four arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Like the division of the trivium, the division of the quadrivium is grounded upon reason itself. Namely, mathematics divides exclusively into magnitude and multitude. Again, magnitude exclusively divides into magnitude at rest, which we call Geometry, and magnitude in motion, which we call Astronomy. Multitude, on the other hand, exclusively divides into multitude considered absolutely, which we call arithmetic, and multitude considered in relation to another, which we call music. We see that the seven liberal arts were not human inventions, which are changeable across different cultures, times, or points in history. Rather, such arts have their foundation grounded upon the nature of human speech and reason.

Now, the liberal arts are not the end-all-be-all to education. Rather, they are the gateway to the higher philosophical sciences. This is proven both by the very nature of what it is to be an art (τέχνη), as well as by the testimonies of the philosophers themselves. All arts are necessarily directed towards another end. But whatever is directed towards another is not itself sufficient. Thus, the Liberal Arts must be directed to something else, which the ancients called philosophy. It is for this reason that Plato calls these arts “preludes” to philosophy, saying, “Don’t you know that all these subjects are merely preludes to the song itself that must be learned?” Similarly, Nicomachus of Gerasa adds, “It is clear that these studies are like ladders and bridges that carry our minds from things apprehended by sense and opinion to those comprehended by the mind and understanding.” Again, the Medieval thinker Hugh of St. Victor writes, “For these, one might say, constitute the best instruments, the best rudiments, by which the way is prepared for the mind’s complete knowledge of philosophic truth. Therefore, they are called by the name trivium and quadrivium, because by them, as by certain ways, a quick mind enters into the secret places of wisdom.” Thus, both reason and authority prove that the liberal arts are necessary prerequisites to the attainment of wisdom, an attainment pursued through philosophy.

The Division of the Philosophical Sciences

The philosophical sciences naturally divide into three groups. The first kind of science, which we call Rational Philosophy, considers the ordering of the mind through reflecting upon one’s own thinking. The second kind of science, Moral Philosophy, considers the ordering of the will. The third kind of science, which we call Natural Philosophy, considers the ordering of things that human reason considers but does not create.

The first division of philosophy, Rational Philosophy, divides into the trivium, i.e. Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Now though we’ve already covered the division of the trivium, it is worth pointing out the distinction between the Trivium considered as arts and as sciences. Considered as arts, the Trivium are directed to the perfection of the intellect through adequate speech, right thinking, and the proper use of the available means of persuasion. But when understood synonymously with Rational Philosophy, they are pursued for the sake of scientific (i.e. true and certain) knowledge itself. With this, we may proceed to the division of moral philosophy.

Moral philosophy divides into three sciences: individual ethics, domestic ethics, and politics. Explicating the subject matter of these, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “The first of these, which is called individual ethics, considers an individual’s operations as ordered to an end. The second, called domestic ethics, considers the operations of the domestic group. The third, called political science, considers the operations of the civic group.” Of these three, political philosophy is the greatest. For, as Aristotle notes, “[Political philosophy] ordains what sciences ought to be instituted in cities, and which of them ought to be learnt by the several individuals, and to what extent…. The end of this science will comprehend in itself the ends of the other practical sciences; so that this will be human good itself. For though the good of an individual and a city is the same, yet to obtain and preserve the good of a city, appears to be something greater and more perfect.”

Finally, the third philosophical science, Natural Philosophy, divides into three subsects: physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. Expounding on the subject matter of these sciences, St. Bonaventure writes, “So it is that physics treats of the generation and corruption of things according to natural powers and seminal principles; mathematics considers abstract forms in terms of their intelligible causes; metaphysics is concerned with the knowledge of all beings according to their ideal causes, tracing them back to the one first principle from which they proceeded.” The highest of these three sciences is Metaphysics, for it is through Metaphysics that one comes to know the highest principle(s) of things. But as attested to by Aristotle, “Men do not think they know a thing until they have grasped the ‘why’ of it (which is to grasp its primary cause.)” Hence, it is through Metaphysics that one attains the highest and loftiest knowledge of the causes available to the natural powers of human reason.

Although Metaphysics was considered to be the highest of the philosophical sciences, the Medievals, and in particular the Scholastics, thought that philosophy could not be an end in itself, thus pointing to the need for Theology. This is proven, not by way of mere subjective experience, but through the outcry of philosophy itself. As Aristotle states, all human beings desire happiness. Yet, as St. Bonaventure observes, “Since happiness is nothing other than the enjoyment of the highest good, and since the highest good is above us, we cannot find happiness without rising above ourselves, not by a bodily ascent, but by an ascent of the heart. But we cannot be elevated above ourselves unless a superior power lift us up.” In other words, though the end goal of the philosophical life is happiness, happiness is unattainable by man’s mere power, since attaining happiness requires that we transcend ourselves. Thus, though the philosopher is a lover of wisdom, and loves wisdom for the sake of happiness, he cannot attain the very thing he seeks. His reach exceeds his grasp. Therefore, either philosophy is directed towards a higher science, and man may be happy; or it is not, and man, in desiring the highest good, wills his own downfall. To put it simply, man must look into the depths of his soul while facing two options: faith or nihilism.

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