Common Objects of Love

Jun 1, 2020

Survey a number of parents on the most important aspect of a school, and the majority will say “community.” Community is a fashionable word. Everyone talks about building community, being in community, or doing life together. Because man is a political animal, this is perfectly reasonable. Yet, like many trends, the word is often used without a sensible definition. Communities are founded upon something. There is a glue which binds them. Much like bricks without mortar, a people cannot cohere without something holding them together. If classical schools wish to thrive, they must clarify and nourish their central commitment to ancient wisdom. 

Augustine aptly defines community in the City of God:

“But let us disregard this definition of a people and adopt another: let us say that a ‘people’ is an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love. In this case, if we are to discover the character of any people, we have only to examine what it loves. If it is an assembled multitude, not of animals but of rational creatures, and is united by a common agreement as to what it loves, then it is not absurd to call it a ‘people’, no matter what the objects of its love may be. Clearly, however, the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; the worse the objects, the worse the people.” (Civ Dei, 19.24) 

Here, Augustine clarifies that a people is not defined by geography or ethnicity, but by its “common agreement as to the objects of their love.” Mere being-together is not sufficient to create a people. One is formed by a shared love drawing it together. He further observes that a community is discovered by examining its loves. Thus, for Augustine, community is not a good in itself but only in reference to its ultimate allegiance. A society of robbers is a community. There are many wicked gatherings that should be disbanded despite the fellowship of their members. If we are to talk sensibly about community, we must stop speaking of it as an unmitigated good in itself. Communities are only good in relation to their common objects of love.

But what happens if a people has several such objects? If common objects of love do not exist, then there is no community but a loose collection of factions. Each vies for preeminence and there is no true society. Ordinarily competing interests can peaceably coexist if united under a shared end. The one thing that does not bring groups together is the desire for community as an abstract good. Many desires exist within a classical school so it can be difficult to identify a single object, yet if a classical school exists as a distinct community, it must have shared “agreement as to the objects of its love.”

What unites a community also identifies it as a particular community. What makes a chess club a distinct group is its love of chess. If the common love was merely of great games, it would cease to be a chess club, but would be a game club. Packers fans are united not by their love of football generally, but of a particular team. We cannot say classical schools are bound by their love for Christ because Christ marks a Christian people not a classical school. What is the love that distinctively marks a classical community?

What makes a school classical is its commitment to and prioritization of old things that have withstood time’s erosion. This includes old books, old art and music, and old languages. It is old things that define the classical school. It is not Dorothy Sayers, house games, college-preparation, rigorous academics, or uniforms, but their esteem for the wisdom of the past—ancient ends, means, content, and ideas—which marks classical schools. Without this clear goal in mind, classical schools will continue to fall into the same progressive traps that have perennially plagued education. If a commitment to ancient wisdom and beauty is not shared between parents, teachers, and board, the school cannot long exist as a classical school. 

When evaluating prospective teachers, do you consider what they read? What they enjoy? How they spend their leisure? When accepting new families, does your school take stock of their home routines and disciplines? How about their appreciation of classical books or languages? Unfortunately, many in our schools do not actually prize a classical education but simply a more effective way of achieving the ends marked out by progressive standards. Classical education represents a more efficient, pragmatic way of making good citizens who pursue the same ends as their peers: making and spending money. 

Likewise, a school in which the administration and board do not read great books, enjoy old art, or value classic music is not likely to sustain itself as a classical school. The pressing demands of the modern and empirical will crowd out the ancient and ideal. The place given to the reading of old, difficult books will shrink year by year until all that a school offers to students is a broad exposure—a sampler—to the great symposium of the ages. In order for a community to exist, its leaders must be committed clarifying and nourishing “common agreement as to the objects of their love.” For a classical school, this is teaching wisdom and virtue through a love of old things.

A school that is unsettled in its fundamental commitment to classical education builds with one hand, while tearing down with another. If a school lays claim to the title, classical, it ought to make it clear that it is inculcating a love of old things with the end of growing in wisdom and virtue. It does not prize the new and trendy. It does not favor new educational methods or technologies. Classical education nourishes the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty through enduring (old) works of wisdom and art. No classical community exists if this commitment is not shared by the school’s constituents for a school is only created and sustained by its common objects of love.

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman teaches at Charis Classical Academy in Madison, WI.

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

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