Should We Replace Rousseau And Augustine With John Piper?

Feb 12, 2019

Parent: I wanted to tell you that I read this really amazing book by John Piper recently and it blessed me so much that I thought I should tell you about it. I think it would be a great fit in the school’s theology curriculum.

Dean: I am sure the book is quite good, but given that John Piper is still alive, the book does not meet the basic criteria which this school uses for admitting new titles into the curriculum.

Parent: What criteria would that be?

Dean: For starters, curriculum books ought to be old.

Parent: How old?

Dean: It is best if the author has been dead for a hundred years.

Parent: Why a hundred years?

Dean: After a hundred years, it is safe to assume no living person ever met the author. If the author is still considered worth reading after he has been dead for a hundred years, it means he speaks from the grave. It means there is something immortal about his wisdom, something divine.  

Parent: I know the book I am recommending was written recently, but it is good and true. Don’t classicists care about truth, beauty, and goodness? If so, does it really matter how old a good thing is?

Dean: Yes. Classicists do not simply care about the truth, beauty, and goodness of a book, they also care about who is claiming the book is true, beautiful, and good. Classicists are not content to trust their own judgments, but act in harmony with the judgments of their ancestors. We might judge a recently published work of theology to be good, but that judgment could not be made in harmony with our ancestors, because our ancestors never read the book.

Parent: But where do classics come from? Someone has to read them when they come out. If you don’t read new books, is the curriculum frozen? Nothing new can be added?

Dean: Classicists read new books, they simply do not afford new books the honor of being taught in the classroom.

Parent: Doesn’t it seem rather legalistic to permit a book at home, but not at school? How can a book be good enough for the living room, but not good enough for the classroom?

Dean: In the same way that a book can be good enough for the home but not good enough for the nave. I really enjoyed The Remains of the Day, but I would be aghast if a minister of the gospel devoted a sermon series to it.

Parent: Are you comparing the classroom to a church?

Dean: I am. A classical school takes many cues from the church. We begin each day with Scripture and psalm singing. Many of our classes have a liturgical structure, beginning with prayer and catechesis, then ending with prayer, as well. We have learned to do this from the church.

Parent: But the goals of the church and the goals of a school are very different.

Dean: Yes and no. A church is a eucharistic body and a school is not. The school does not administer communion, does not baptize, does not marry, and cannot pronounce someone a heretic. However, the purpose of a classical school is to help people grow in virtue, and faith is a virtue. While church is more important than school, and the two are separate and different, they ought to work quite well together. As opposed to viewing the church as a thing which is radically separated from the world, classicists tend to view the church as a blueprint for organizing many realms of life.

Parent: But this school is comprised of people from so many different churches. This is not a parochial school.

Dean: This is quite true.  While the various families from this school are not in agreement over issues like the sacraments, the priesthood, eschatology, and so forth, a classical school openly embraces a preference for old things. A classical school also undertakes the labor of inculcating virtue in students. Regardless of your ecclesiastical tradition, enrolling your child in a classical school means tacit agreement to such things.

Parent: What do you mean by “a preference for old things”?

Dean: I mean a respect for tradition. Chesterton did an apt job summarizing the classical mindset when he wrote that “tradition is only democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Many classicists have quoted those words often enough, they have them memorized.

Parent: What if a new book is so obviously good that our ancestors would doubtlessly approve of it?

Dean: Our ancestors might approve of new theology books. However, classicists believe it is more important to see what our ancestors actually said than to conjecture on what they might have said.

Parent: Are you not worried about your students getting stuck in the past?

Dean: Getting “stuck in the past” is not a problem anyone in our age is ever apt to encounter. Outside of this school, our students are inundated with the up-to-date, the trendy, the popular. A man must have an opinion this hour about this hour’s news or the world will pass him by. The wisdom of the past is off-putting and confrontational, though. We shy away from it instinctively, because it hurts our feelings and offends our tastes. Getting people to care about the past and respect the past is like pulling teeth, and so I am not terribly worried about my students getting stuck in the past. I am far more worried about them getting stuck in the present.

Parent: Can contemporary books not be confrontational?

Dean: They can be. And I would never deny the unique thrill of reading a contemporary book. All the allusions and references in a new work of literature are familiar to us, and so we can breeze through new books at a good pace. I like that feeling. People hardly need training in reading new books, though. But old books are an acquired taste. Did you receive a classical education?

Parent: I wish I did.

Dean: I didn’t receive a classical education, either. How often do you read old books?

Parent: Not very often.  

Dean: The same is true of myself. Reading and interpreting old books is a discreet skill. Old books are not like new books. Enjoying old books takes practice. I am 45 years old and I still don’t enjoy old books as much as new books. Old books are tough. Old books are an endangered species, but a classical school is a haven for old books and old ideas. Old ideas are safe in a classical school.

Parent: But some old ideas are wrong.

Dean: Agreed. Some old ideas are wrong. But most new ideas aren’t doing so hot.

Parent: What about slavery? What about racism? Wasn’t racism far more accepted long ago than it is today?

Dean: When I condemn slavery and racism in the classroom, I generally use the words of St. Augustine to do so. His condemnation of slavery in the City of God is the most theologically-savvy takedown of slavery I’ve ever read. What is more, Augustine’s theology of universal human brotherhood (to say nothing of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s universal human vision) is far more profound than we’re accustomed to hearing in our own era, which is often driven by sentimentality. Not every old problem is a problem of the Western tradition.

Parent: So you think the Western Tradition is infallible?

Dean: Absolutely not. The classical preference for the past is by no means a wholesale exoneration of any opinion stated more than a hundred years ago.

Parent: So who got it wrong?

Dean: Well, Burke and Rousseau disagreed on most things, and I’d put both of them within the Western Tradition. Of course, we teach both Burke and Rousseau at this school. Augustine disagreed with Jerome, and they both disagreed with Origen, although very few theologians can claim the influence over hermeneutics which Origen enjoyed.

Parent: You’re not arguing Rousseau got more right than Piper?

Dean: No. Nothing of the kind. I would not let Rousseau near my children, while John Piper is, by all accounts, a godly and righteous man. Rousseau abandoned five of his own children to foundling homes. He was a terrible person.

Parent: So why read Rousseau? How much time do you devote to Rousseau?

Dean: I believe Rousseau was often wrong, but he was gloriously wrong. Classical schools borrow one of their great rallying cries from Renaissance schools, and that is, “Ad fontes,” which means, “Back to the sources.” To understand what things are, we must know where they come from. Rousseau is one of the great architects of modern thought; encountering the modern spirit in its nascent form allows us to see the philosophy and theology which underwrites our own world. A classical education assumes students want to know the hidden causes of the world, and to discern those causes, we must dig. So Rousseau was wrong, but he was wrong with style, with clarity, with poetry, and he persuaded millions.  

Parent: Are you worried that students will be suckered by the seductiveness of figures like Rousseau?

Dean: Yes.

Parent: Does it not seem dangerous to expose students to figures like Rousseau?

Dean: Yes, it seems dangerous.

Parent: Then why do it?

Dean: Because I am far more worried that students who never encounter Rousseau will get suckered by the delicious mediocrity of the world and be mindlessly swept along with the spirit of our age. To be frank, though, most books by John Piper make sense on their own. Classical schools tend to teach books which require a tutor or a guide. Rousseau requires a guide, as does St. Augustine, say.  

Parent: So you’re not opposed to new things?

Dean: Heavens, no. I want to be patient, though, and I want to second guess myself. A great many “life-changing” bestsellers are read once, then shelved, never picked up a second time, and summarily forgotten by the time the next life-changing bestseller comes out.  

Parent: So what books would you advise someone like myself to read?

Dean: I would advise you to read books which are good for your soul, and to force yourself to read classics as often as possible.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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