What if virtue formation isn’t just about submitting oneself to the authority of great books of literature? If virtue formation were so confined, would it not mean that the only truly virtuous classes would be great books classes? Natural science, rhetoric, and music wouldn’t qualify.
People have always sought perfection. Kenneth Burke, a twentieth-century humanist, offered the following definition of man: “Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection.” Though each aspect of the definition is worth study, for the moment consider only “rotten with perfection.”
Last June I enjoyed the great delight of attending my first Society for Classical Learning Conference, which was held in Dallas, Texas. There were a number of excellent plenaries and presentations, some of which have continued to spark conversation. I also had the privilege of speaking on formal rhetoric curriculum. In hindsight I tried to pack far too much detail into the time, and as a result my presentation suffered from a lack of helpful, clarifying examples. (Thankfully there were fewer than ten folks in the room who had to suffer through the abstraction!)
In the preface to his translation of Plato’s Republic, Allan Bloom defends literal translations against contemporary conventions, which attempt to update old authors like Plato to modern standards. Bloom’s insights portray the kind of humility, deference, and intellectual curiosity indicative of the classical mind—the qualities classical teachers desire to embody before and impress upon their students.
Until the time Plato began teaching, it is likely that the art associated with persuasive speaking in law courts and legislative assemblies had no technical name. Those who taught the skills of persuasion called themselves sophists, wise ones, and purported to teach wisdom in the form of powerful words. In Plato’s Gorgias, for example, Gorgias, sophist extraordinaire, not only boasts of being able to answer any question to his inquirer’s satisfaction, but to do so in as many or as few words as the inquirer would wish.
In my last post I described how my class of high school sophomores struggled to believe Socrates’ arguments that a Just man is more powerful than a Tyrant. I turned to Aristotle for consolation, who confided to me that youth desire honor and victory. They hope for their future in the body moreso than do older people. They feel ashamed to challenge conventional norms moreso, too.
In Plato’s Gorgias, beginning in section 466b, Polus and Socrates disagree about what gives men power in the polis.
Polus argues that the ability of the tyrant to kill whomever he wills, plunder whatever he wills, and imprison whomever he wills demonstrates his enviable power. Socrates argues that knowledge of — living in accordance with — justice demonstrates power, and that tyrants are actually least powerful in the polis.
In my previous post I looked at the structure of change, and I argued that Augustine’s view of how people change is well suited to the nature of the human soul. Humans are not only thinking beings, nor is ignorance our only problem. Humans are creatures of desire, and our thoughts gravitate toward the things we love. Therefore, any change involves not only thinking on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, but also finding rest in (i.e. loving) our purpose as beings made by and for a Triune, Divine Creator.
Heraclitus (in)famously claimed that all is flux; that change is the only constant. Excluding the Triune, Infinite Being, there is plausibility to the more limited claim that all finite beings are flux, that change is a constant. The frail, clumsy body of a child grows into the strong, supple one of an adult. Even the soul of man grows out of infancy into maturity, out of frailty into fortitude, graced by wisdom and virtue.
I recently re-read this article, written by Josh Gibbs in the winter of 2013. The title makes it seem like the article is about sports, but its particular point is about grades. The general point, however, has to do with the natural affections of the human hearts which have been entrusted to teachers in Christian classical schools to be shaped and molded into lovers of truth, beauty, and goodness: lovers of Christ.