Are Democratic Ideals Compatible With Classical Education?

Nov 21, 2013

In a recent piece for First Things (“The Impossibility of Secular Society", October 2013), Remi Brague suggests that a purely democratic society is incapable of discerning between government and game. What is a purely democratic society? It is a society which conceives of itself after the fashion of Rousseau. First, there was man, and then man wanted government for the ease it might provide him, and so he created government to serve his own ends. Enlightenment philosophers who contemplated government using the “state of nature” as a laboratory for ideas presupposed government was a thing invented by man, and not a transcendent reality into which man entered. In order to discover the purpose of government, Rousseau imagined a world wherein man existed but government did not (the “state of nature”) and asked why man wanted to form government in the first place. Brague argues such a concept of law is not much different than the rules which come with a Monopoly set— endlessly changeable, provided all the players agree to the changes.

Consider for a moment a group of friends who have all taken seats around a table to play a game of Monopoly. One player says “Let’s start with five hundred in Free Parking,” and the other players agree. The rules which have come with the game are no transcendent standard, but parameters given by Parker Brothers such that all the players can have a good time. If the players decide that a better time might be had by changing the rules, and all can agree on the change, then the rules are changed. If someone does not agree on the change, then that person either excuses himself from the game or else the other players agree to not amend the rules. Brague quotes Hobbes, who opined, “It is in the laws of a commonwealth, as in the laws of gaming: Whatsoever the gamesters all agree on, is injustice to none of them.” A lengthy quotation from Brague’s article is justified here:

For the game to be fair, it must be secular. The space of our democratic societies is flat. Nobody is allowed to stand higher than others. The first to be excluded is the One Above, especially when people claim to have received from him some message or mission that puts them closer to his divine reality—and thus higher. Democratic space must remain inside itself… The democratic social space is not only flat but closed. And it is closed because it is has to be flat. What is outside, whatever claims to have worth and authority in itself and not as part of the game, must be excluded. Whoever and whatever will not take a seat at the table at the same level as all other claims and authorities, however mundane, is barred from the game. Again, the Great Outsider must be dismissed.

To return to the Monopoly game, none of the players need to ask what way of playing the game will be best for their grandchildren, and neither do they need to phone persons across town and ask if they like the amendment to the rules. Only those at the table matter. When the game is over, none of the players need to get others to continue playing the game in their absence. The game is over when someone wins. How do you win at life, in a secular society? You simply enjoy the game as much as you can for as long as you can. American society has spent oceans of money extending human life as long as possible, and in opening up every sensual pleasure possible, such that everyone can win a little more and for a little longer.

Such a vision of law is difficult to respect, though.

Another example: in an organized game of hockey, if you hit someone in the legs with a hockey stick, you might go to the penalty box for two minutes. Twelve feet away, outside the hockey rink, if you hit someone with a hockey stick, you might go to jail for two years. Is one kind of hitting moral and the other immoral? Is law in a purely democratic society able to pronounce things immoral or just illegal? What if the hockey player had to spend three minutes in the penalty box? Four minutes? Five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Five years, and we cease to call the penalty box a penalty box and call it a penitentiary instead? Liquor is legal because it is comfortable that it should be so. When it is not comfortable for liquor to be legal, we will make it illegal, and when that is no longer comfortable, we will make it legal again. Who needs speak of good and evil?

Of course, Brague gives no credence to Rousseau’s “state of nature.” Long before man, God governed. Angels governed. Spheres governed. Man enters the picture later, steps into the reality of government, is beholden to the government of God and angels and spheres, which decree time and season. The Christian conception of government makes all men beholden to a holy Transcendent Governor Who beckons man to Himself.

What might be said of law in a purely democratic society might also be said of modern education; just as the law exists to make life comfortable, so education exists to aid in the comfort. For this reason, education exists in America to make getting a job easier, and a good job is the principle means by which happiness is achieved. Poverty is necessarily miserable, a great evil.

Classical Christian schools have not entirely exempted themselves from standards of education present in public school. We often speak as though a classical education will enable future plumbers to be better plumbers. Future bakers will be better bakers because they have read Augustine and Boethius. Future policemen will be better policemen because they have read Plato. Future husbands will be better at husbandry for having been classically educated. Reading Plato has no value in and of itself. This would be news to the ancients and the Medievals, though. A classical education had nothing more to do with becoming a better baker than did an education in carpentry. “You should go to carpentry school. It will help you be a better baker.” No, nothing of the sort. Carpentry is a discipline unto itself. As is baking. As is philosophy. Rather, any ancient would have said a man studies philosophy so he can become a philosopher, a teacher of philosophy, a contemplative. Does our work ethic allow for contemplation, though?

If law has no transcendent horizon, then we may make whatever laws are most pleasing; education will follow suit, better enabling us to pursue all those things the law has opened up to us. Classical education seems to be at odds with a purely democratic law for a host of reasons, then. Just as government has reality and purpose prior to man, so must education if education and law can function harmoniously. In Paradise Lost, Milton suggests that the angels teach man what he must know of creation, of God; within such a view, education is not merely an investigation into what man is interested in at the moment. Rather, those things a man must learn are determined prior to man, and man enters into a vast river of knowledge which extends further back than can be seen. The classical educator is beholden not only to the texts he has been given, but to the purposes of those texts, the methods by which those texts were taught, the kind of persons to whom those texts have traditionally been taught. If an educator sharply departs from the traditional texts, purposes, methods and audience, he should be aware of the effect this will have on the whole academic endeavor.

In the revival of classical education over the last thirty years, one of the greatest points of departure from the liberal arts education of old has been the intended audience. Formerly, a liberal arts education was pursued for its own sake, for love of those things studied. A monk studying theology during the Carolingian Renaissance had not (often) been forced to join a monastery, but left father and mother and farm to do so, filled with awe, curiosity, and wonder. In ancient Greece, the philosopher catered to persons who were not satisfied by the success of the polis and desired a personal, individual religious knowledge. Philosophers were often outcasts, and so becoming the disciple of a philosopher exposed one to ridicule and scorn. Suffice to say, no one was forced to become a philosopher. You might, rather, be forced not to become a philosopher in the same way a mother forces a bookworm to do the dishes.

Anyone involved in classical education has doubtless encountered the student who does not want a classical education, or the parent who wants a classical education for their son or daughter for the material benefits it stands to confer later. If we expect a child who does not want a classical education to be benefitted by it, why? Is it classical to act as though a classical education will do such a person any good? What kind of work do we assume learning to be if a person can be forced to do it? Does it not become purely physical?

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you, as St. James teaches. A classical education aims to show a student how to draw near to God, but assumes a desire to do so. The omnipresent God is not dawn near to as though He were an object, but within the heart, because He is recognized as Beauty and Truth. Is this negotiable? Can we simply change the rules of the education game to make it more enticing to the players at the table? From where does the authority to change classical forms arise?     

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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