At some point upon entering 9th grade, the mindset of the student changes. Previously, he may have considered grades a curiosity, but now they are a badge of pride or shame. The new obsession with grades is not entirely internal, as parents also look towards college and its guardians: SATs and scholarships. While parents and students may once have accepted that a classical education is meant to nourish the soul in wisdom and virtue, they now confess the real goal is higher test scores and better colleges.
“Watch me. Now you try.” These five words are constantly repeated by parents to their children. But they are for people of every age. We are mimetic creatures who learn by imitation. Every good baseball coach teaches a batting stance by modeling one for the athlete. Preachers provide examples and illustrations so their congregants can apply theological truths. Parents read stories and fables to their children which provide models for emulation. Because we learn by imitation, teaching is inescapably mimetic.
Medieval authors consistently amaze with their apparent ability to remember everything. How did Boethius compose The Consolation of Philosophy from a prison cell? He fills his work with classical allusions and direct quotations all without his library, Wikipedia, or the internet. Boethius, while brilliant, is by no means an exception. Dante could reportedly recite the entire Aeneid. Yet medievals also had various helps for their memory; one of their greatest was the commonplace book.
The classical renewal places great emphasis on the trivium and on language. In contrast to modern progressive education which only “has a mind of metal and wheels,” classical education restores the primacy of the word over the gadget. Rather than the know-how of mechanical manipulation, a language-based education ascends to the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. And the crowning achievement of language is poetry for it moves us from the mundane to the spiritual through the symbolic layers of its words.
In one of the most well-known passages of City of God, Augustine describes the ordo amoris, or order of loves. In his characteristic style of inserting brilliant theological observation within historical description, Augustine exposes the superstructure of his theology. In the midst of classical culture, he identified the central problem of humanity not in externals as the Manichaeans nor ignorance as the Pelagians, but in the fallen human will. More than the intellect alone, Augustine understood that we are pulled—compelled—by love.
“Despair is for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” Gandalf cautions the men, elves, and dwarves (and hobbits) who have gathered to discuss Mordor’s activity and the revelation of the One Ring. While Sauron gathers orcs and evil men to himself, in a stroke of fortune they hold the Enemy’s great Weapon. The gathering is divided between two possible strategies: they will either use the Ring’s power to conquer the Dark Lord, or they will destroy it in Mount Doom’s fire.
Technology dominates our lives. Most of us walk about carrying supercomputers with more processing power than NASA had for the Apollo 11 mission. These labor-saving devices promise freedom, but we are more enslaved than ever. Eliminating communication barriers means that we may be interrupted at any moment by a call or text. Constantly dinging notifications (real or imagined!) trigger a Pavlovian response to glance at our screen. The time saved by our devices is quickly devoured as we consume the hours on social media trivialities.
Why do Hobbits seem always to travel in pairs? “Because two Halflings make a whole,” responded a student. This answer perfectly encapsulates the closeness between Hobbit companions. Today, intimate friendships are increasingly rare, and our individualistic society reflects this through relativism, intersectionality, and partisanship. Although commonly blamed on Luther or Descartes, radical individualism is symptomatic of a disease Aristotle described two millennia earlier. The fracturing of culture results from a loss of good friendships.