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Why We Need the Quadrivium Again

Part I: THE LOST SCHOOLS OF LEARNING –
Resurrecting the Quadrivium in Prisms of Amber
Since the justly acclaimed essays by Sayers, & others following (eg., Douglas Wilson), Christian education movements began recovering “the lost tools of learning” by going back to the Trivium and its progression of Grammar, Logic, & Rhetoric, three stages of learning which roughly matched the ages of the pupils: Facts (Grammar) for elementary, Argument (Logic) for adolescents, & Persuasion (Rhetoric) for high school.
Of course, the movement itself was much, much more than a sort of “Phonics-approach” to Thinking, although it certainly made the sort of common sense that made you wonder why it was ever abandoned to begin with. It was also a drive to recover the riches of Western Tradition, because (traditionally), pupils had advanced through these three stages of learning by cutting their teeth on Greek and Latin grammar, advancing through classical history in the Mediterranean basin by reading thinkers like Herodotus, and finishing by studying the dialogues of Plato (along with art, literature, etc. from that period), which allowed them to see and imitate and “persuade” themselves and others towards a finished product, which Douglas Wilson has pointed out is a term used in Scripture : the Paideia.
So the classical Christian education movement embraced the glory that was Greece & the grandeur that was Rome in the process of recovering a method of learning. Why this was so is interesting in its own right, and proponents can point to Augustine’s maxim of “spoiling the Egyptians” to buttress the practice of studying ideal Greek beauty & classical Roman order. There are a host of good books on the subject, and the argument will not be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that the author himself, with some reservatio mentalis, takes it for granted both personally and for purposes of his own argument: there is something special about “Mediterranean Man” – God himself reveals in Scripture that the coming of the Christ was “not done in a corner” and occurred in the “fullness of time”. In the inner sea of the Mediterranean, East and North and South and West came together to produce a world that was a crossroads for all of mankind. This, by the way, was the world of Daniel’s dream, where the huge statue of man had gold, silver, iron, bronze, and clay stages, but was toppled by a rock that grew into a mountain.
This site & essay is about how we can participate in the growth of a rock, into a mountain.
As such, it is not primarily about method, but rather about content – in other words, let us take the Trivium as a given. What I wish to emphasize, nay insist on, is the Quadrivium.
In surveying the classical Christian tutoring sites on-line, what I notice is that a large emphasis is placed upon a literary content (with the exception of Geometry, in Fritz Heinrich’s case). That is, history, literature, rhetoric, and philosophy take top honors, not only in the humanities, but in all of the subjects. The Omnibus for most Classical schools is going to follow a four year sequence of Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance/Early Modern, American – or something close to this, with heavy doses of literature and history and theology and philosophy. In modern day parlance, this amounts to a History of Ideas course. If you examine the New St. Andrews website, you will find that the Westminster Confession undergirds all of their studies and all of their teaching. In some ways, it is a Worldview seminar that lasts for four years, albeit one given the rhetorical rigor and artistic foundations and breadth of history it needs to be much more than Christian boot-camp. It is the current Christian answer to the rise of modernity and secularization.
If one goes to the Middle Ages, the Quadrivium (however) is nothing like this. It is not primarily history and theology. It is (in fact), Number, Geometry, Music, and Cosmology. Its goal was not to produce merely a man of letters (belles lettres), but to do something else entirely. If we enter the Renaissance, we immediately associate humane learning with “Renaissance men”. Milton himself thought that half of young men’s education should be devoted to athletic or martial training (Aeropagita). So, admitting that there has been disagreement over what education should properly do, historically, it is clear that the classical Christian ideal of modern times is primarily organized around Western tradition and the sequence of Great Books and Big Conversations, from a theologically sound perspective. Proponents may at this point argue that they are not defensively preparing children for apologetics (which I can grant), but rather actively to “take every thought captive for Christ” (which I can also grant). However, the main point here is that they do this by working through “Great Literature” – that is, text sources (in translation for the most part) that are considered part of Western canon. And most of these texts are works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Herodotus’ Histories, Machiavelli’s treatise The Prince, or perhaps St. Athanasius or Anselm (Cur Deus Homo). Dostoevsky often makes honorable mention. In other words, history and literature and political treatises and philosophy (or theology).
This may be of the essence of liberal learning (it is certainly not in opposition to the Trivium method, as any subject or cluster of subjects can be taught in this manner), or perhaps humane learning, and it is certainly what (for example) students at Columbia University would have roughly done circa as late as 1940, under Jacques Barzun. As noted before, this is also learning in the belles lettres tradition that comes from France (although it would have been more French and more rigorous). However, it is not (I would argue) strictly speaking classical, nor medieval. It is still relatively modern. That is, the goal is to produce a man conversant with a certain selected strain of literary and philosophical tradition – in this case, it is broadened by deliberate Christian underpinnings (albeit strictly Reformed ones, in general), and also given depth by the thoroughness of the Trivium method and the store of learning invariably associated or attached to authors, teachers, etc. who are either read or are teaching in the movement.
However, it has neglected the Quadrivium. We hear much of the Trivium, and very little of the Quadrivium.1 The Quadrivium has been relegated to the same antiquated medieval museum where you will find terms like manumission, wappen-take, or the Antipodes.
Yet lately, there has been a spell of interest in the Quadrivium. Not only in publication of books obviously tailored for classical students2, but also in conferences and associated Weblogs3. Some one may naturally interject that classical schools already teach the Quadrivium – do not our schools teach mathematics, biology, chemistry, & even physics? Of course they do – in the same manner that public schools generally taught history and literature circa 1930 : that is, out of a textbook, and in a manner suited more to favor a broad and passing familiarity with the sweep of developmental knowledge, rather than intimate acquaintance with the lives and works of great natural scientists. Our students study “workbooks” or “factbooks” or “textbooks” – they do not read principal texts, the rare exception being Euclid’s work on Geometry, or perhaps Darwin’s Origin of the Species, arguably more of a philosophical work. We force our students to sample a year of Biology, half a year of Trigonometry, two years of Algebra, maybe a year of Calculus, a half-hearted year of Chemistry.
We do this because we imagine that the Natural Sciences are fundamentally distinct from the Humanities – no one would even conceive of teaching a year of generic “Poetry”, two years of “History”, a half a year of “Civic Class”. This would be the “Gradgrindification” of all beauty in Knowledge, particularly evidenced in the Humanities in a modern “state” university. It would teach a gray, dull, endless and factoid-based world printed on ultra-thin, ultimately degradable, workbook paper. Obviously, some amount of “Saxon Math” or Latin conjugations (even a great deal of it) is going to form fiber in the student’s mental diet, but to arrange the inner form of the curriculum upon these lines is to risk alienating the student. Even in the Natural Sciences, there is a tremendous need to provide a humane background for the “harder sciences”4, allow students to diversify and go in depth into favorite subjects5, and also demonstrate the simultaneously revolutionary and conservative nature of the “sciences”6.
In fact, Natural Science is inherently different (in some sense) from the Humanities. When the medievals named and classified the Quadrivium, the subjects being enumerated were not merely empirical, natural sciences. Cosmology included philosophy (quite naturally), and “Number” was a very broad term also including philosophical subjects. Without slavishly following the medieval example, we can remark here that whatever else they were trying to accomplish, the general aim was to prepare a student to follow the Logos or pattern. In Christian theology, this term is elaborated by Augustine, who argues that God implanted “seeds” of order, straight from the world of Ideas which exist within Himself, into Creation. The justification for empirical studies stems from the certitude of God’s pattern/Logos. It is important to note, here, that the modern notion of empirical studies is far removed from this basis, and in fact, could genuinely be said to have no link to, nor respect for, its own origins. Although it is commendable to direct students to the theological foundations of modern science, in order to draw attention to the orderly nature of the empiric world that we inhabit, even this emphasis on “Logos” does not do justice to the medieval/classical model, because it moves entirely in the wrong direction. It sends the student out into the world to conquer a supine Nature, rather than drawing him back to contemplation upon interior states which correspond to the pattern observed in the natural world. The difference here can be immediately intuited by imagining two approaches to natural science: in the modern approach, one observes wildlife (say a golden eagle attempting to kill a fox), and draws “biological” inferences about the eagle’s diet, the fox’s speed and agility, and so forth. In the medieval approach (and one might add, the approach of most people who live close to the wild), attention would rather be drawn to the spiritual qualities inherent in the conflict between two predators. Does the fox survive by turning to fight? What conclusions about courage and daring can we reach? What does the eagle symbolize? What does the fox mean?
In the medieval worldview, a good “magic” was possible7 because there was an inner link between the stars that moved the heavens and the workings of the human heart. Dante summarizes this,
and Immanuel Kant also repeats it (albeit emphasizing Law rather than Love):
“But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars….”
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.8
Or, as Scripture puts it, the law of God is written upon man’s heart. This “Law” is not only moral, but natural, and not only natural, but aesthetic and metaphysical. It is, in fact, all there really is, though under diverse forms. It is the Logos, and the entire Christian classical project began when the early Church assimilated known learning to the pattern of the Logos, thus fusing the Hebraic-Hellenistic world, and creating “Western tradition” as we still know it today.
This, despite the fact that medieval science quickly followed the path downwards towards matter. Thus, empirical science in a purely technological sense was unknown either to ancient society, or the medieval world (or in fact, to our own, because the spiritual underpinnings of modern assumptions are simply unstated or concealed from view). Number, Music, Geometry, and Cosmology were meant to teach the symbolons or keys of knowledge, whereby a skilled student would learn the various patterns, archetypes, and symbols which would give subtlety, power, and detailed form to the welter of the physical world. In point of fact, many mathematicians (and mathematics or at least the science of various forms or permutations is the basis of natural, empirical science) gained their insights in a non-empirical manner.10
So, at its best and at a minimum, the Quadrivium gives both a living content, as well as natural beauty and outer form, to the skeleton of the Trivium. The Trivium beautifies the content of Quadrivium in the same way, whether the Quadrivium is conceived as the humanities or the natural sciences (or both), and gives order and organization to new bodies of knowledge. In either case, the very division and inter-relationship between them reflects the Western drive to organize the world and the education of man in terms of the Logos: it was a way of balancing method and content, as well as balancing the inter-relationships of various methods and contents within themselves.
The well-educated Christian, under the various formats that classical Western education has attempted11, was the mark aimed at: a human being in whom the image of God was restored through hard, natural work under the tutelage of faith, re-assimilating the individual to the energies of God and exposing him to the radical grace which upholds Nature and Super-Nature. That the ideal was abused, or ill-conceived, or implemented in a faulty or abusive manner is hardly the point – Ideals remain Ideals whether they are well-perceived or justly accomplished. Classical Education is itself such an ideal, that of preparing every student that comes under its umbrella, whether they are little or destined for future greatness, to begin to take every thought captive for Christ, in the corner of the world that they are occupied. Even Luther (who hated “scholasticism”) argued that the ploughman at his plough had a dominion mandate, one which could be enhanced through the pre-evangelium of training the mind towards truth, beauty, and goodness. If the Trivium reflects Paul’s maxim that “everything be done decently and in order”, the Quadrivium reflects his admonition to meditate on “whatsoever things are good, pure, beautiful, of good report”. In ancient Christian churches, many of the philosophers were actually painted on the walls of the naves, thus indicating that pure knowledge and love of truth was preparatory to the Gospel. This would have pleased Erasmus.
The thesis of this work is that the classical exercise occurs according to the nature of the student, in conformity with the original Logos, in whatever subjects are deemed worthy, but with especial emphasis upon harmony, balance, and inter-relationship in both method and content. Here we can see the Trinitarian pattern of inquiring after the One-and-the-Many together, the perichoresis of the dance of knowledge under the Lord of the Dance, the Logos. The medieval world chose Number, Music, Geometry, and Cosmology, supplemented with theological and religious exercises and what we could call a period of Quodlibeta, a section of the day in which students could ask whatever questions they wished of the teacher.12 We may call them different names, or choose a slightly different emphasis (more replete with the scope and sweep of “new knowledge”), or privilege various subjects at the expense of others (Geography and Chemistry seem to fare pretty poorly in America), or entirely neglect others (Anthropology and a host of other subjects like Archaeology virtually don’t exist at the high school level), but we can still aim for what they aimed for – the natural pattern of re-integrating man’s image with the Divine Logos. The Chinese “Quadrivium” was painting, calligraphy, strategy, and a stringed instrument. Here we see the same pattern: the emphasis was on creating an idealized and new man, rather than directing the man to dominate Nature.  In this, we share Francis of Assissi’s belief that Nature is not our “Mother”, nor our “Slave”, but rather our “Sister”.
We can still resist the tendency to either educate the masses in identical fashion (ie., Christian schools as “public schools, only better”) or to try to give technical skills in specialized fashion to a variety of graduates who will become dollar-earners in a modern “service-economy”. A good friend of mine asked me, “how many degrees in medieval studies do we need?”. His position was that more hard science would provide the intellectual formation to fill badly needed jobs in computer language or data services. This is, no doubt, entirely true, and he is certainly right to point out the strong need we have for more training in technical skills. Some students will only understand education as this. But education is more than this, so much more, that it is hardly wrong to say that it is not this at all.
Medieval or classical studies can be recovered from this embarrassment, not merely by allowing many to pursue detailed inquiries in engineering, mathematics, or statistical genetics (and here one might expand “Quodlibeta” to include the proclivities of various students towards individual interest, a strength of home-schooling that classical schools could imitate), but also by recognizing that “Number, Music, Geometry, and Cosmology” stand for the study of divine patterns and harmonies in Nature which persist in Nature and Super-Nature under various permutations.13
Thus, what we want in recovering the “Quadrivium” is to recover the idea that Western Tradition is perfectly capable of assimilating any new form of knowledge, of guiding it, and of bringing it into re-assimilation with the perfect nature of Christ. But to do this, or to do it well, it has to be grounded in a real metaphysics.14 This is what Number, Music, Geometry, and Cosmology really mean. It means a recovery of principles and deep penetration into the mind of God, thinking His thoughts after Him. It means a sifting of both mind and heart, to divide and pierce the marrow with the sword of the Spirit, a striving after excellence in education and knowledge which will rival that of the early West trying to save Roman civilization by constructing the cathedrals and their schools. It will require hard work and almost sublime inspiration. In proportion as this occurs, the classical rubric will be able to recover and re-assert itself against those who say that it is out-moded or out-landish, a dinosaur which would be better off, for all concerned (including the dinosaur), extinct.
If the Christians involved in classical education live up to their high calling (and your involvement in the movement is a formal sign of “election” or calling), their vocation, then classical schools can begin to become (eventually) the true standard in sanctity, intellect, and also skill or even specialization. Doing this will involve restoration of balance between the “Great Book List” & the new sciences.15 But this itself can only be successfully done if the Church and the schools attached to them are recalled to a profound remembrance of what the Logos really is. The Logos is not just a reaction to relativism and anti-Western propaganda (although we understandably are tempted in that direction), it is a pattern, the pattern, by which the worlds were made and came into existence, the worlds, as the Creed says, both visible and invisible. It is accessible to human Reason, provided the passions are subdued, and capable of being “taken by storm”, because the Kingdom of God does not destroy Nature, but perfects it. We may even find that the Great Book list needs revising. Perhaps Dante’s De Monarchia, rather than Augustine’s City of God? Or, Clement’s Stromata rather than more Athanasius? 
 
The task is a synthesizing and re-integration, in which analytics can only help to initially discriminate, but will be powerless to help construct the creative edifice which “Restoring the Ruins” will involve. What we are looking for, once again, as barbarism grows around us, is a return to “permanent things”. What is more permanent than the Logos? And, along the way, provided we follow the clues contained in the Quadrivium, we may find it also more useful, new, and exciting than the modern stale-mates and grid-locks, where we are endlessly torn between a yearning to return to the world of Plato’s dialogues, and the harsh reality that 21st century life imposes upon us in many aspects. Rediscovering the Quadrivium would open up the last door in Bluebeard’s Castle: it would give us the incentive and the maturity and the composure to attempt to bring the new sciences into real metaphysical context within the Logos. It would give us, not just a Reformation and a Revival, but a Renaissance as well, because it would be all three – a Restoration.
1As we will see in our short survey, part of this is an undoubted difficulty and confusion over what the medieval “worldview” was really after. When they studied Number or Music, they were not merely studying numerals and tones, but also symbolons and higher knowledge reflected in the patterns of number and music. Since most moderns, even Christians, reject a symbolic world, or even an analogical one, in favor of “empirical data” (this trend being even more pronounced in Anglo Saxon nations), they have a hard time knowing what to do with the Quadrivium. The Trivium makes “horse sense” – the Quadrivium is weird or archaic. Additionally, the subjects studied have expanded – “Number” now includes “transcendental numbers” and irrational numbers, as well as Chaos Theory, etc. This argument is made more explicit in an article here, by someone in favor of simply revising the classical curriculum entirely in favor of the material world: http://www.sigmaxi.org/meetings/archive/forum.2001.online.tri.shtml.
The author is acutely aware of the conflict between classical and modern modes of learning. George Steiner made a similar argument in Bluebeard’s Castle, in which he recommended a thorough perusal of Lucretius rather than Homer. My position is that this “conflict” is largely illusory, and is itself a product of memes and ideologies present in the modern mind. A thoroughly educated man in the classical tradition would have no need of an ethics class on cloning, simply because he might observe that those who require classes in ethics to learn them do not have an ethos to begin with. Education cannot “draw out” what is absent in a morally corrupt student.
Without a certain substance of soul, either inherent or imparted through theological, civilization, or moral (mores) ways and means, the technical training of facts will lead to clever self-delusion. One either understands that the world is not primarily physical (but rather revelational), or one is immersed in calculations concerning matter, to the detriment of wisdom. Wiser pedagogues in the past understood that the primary task of education was the imparting of ethos to those who were capable of benefiting from it, and desired it, already possessing it in some measure. It was the passing of the soul from generation to generation. Even the great formal unbelievers (such as Bertrand Russell or John Stuart Mill) benefited from the classical model, whose methods and structure they applied to build up the edifice of apostasy and unbelief. There has been a palpable loss of “soul”, style, and even raw empirical substance from C. Darwin to R. Dawkins.
Even granting the argument that new issues in science will boggle existing human defense and regulatory mechanisms (genetic science and its implications, for instance), this is just a self-fulfilling prophecy : modern man has “problems coping” in the first place because we have had three or four centuries of deliberate and long-term undermining in real metaphysical thought. Clever and persuasive arguments will be made as to why we should abandon the patrimony of the past in totality, but they always rely on the already existing fact of the modern techno-jungle, which was itself built up out of more innocent and nascent arguments along the very same lines. Man will not download his consciousness into computer chips, or succeed in creating miniature suns in laboratories which will heat our cities and sustain a growing liberal utopia by supplying infinite and free energy without constraint, thus allowing the project of ignoring God to continue to grow indefinitely.
2Quadrivium: The Four Liberal Arts of Number, Music, Geometry, & Cosmology
3http://towardthequadrivium.com/ This website has articles about James Nickels (author of several books on Christianity and mathematics) and other tutors like Wesley Callihan, focusing on the Quadrivium.
4Beyond Numeracy
5Neville Longbottom’s interest in biology in the Harry Potter series springs to mind, here. Why don’t we teach young boys the classifications of dinosaurs? That’s all they naturally want to learn between ages 5 and 9 anyway.
6School and Sunday school require a kind of simplification at many stages, which then requires a fine art to unravel and allow to blossom without ruining the work – much like planning, planting, fertilizing, and then pruning a young tree is an art. It is not merely putting a seed in the ground, nor of pouring huge amounts of water and mulch on top of the plant (assuming it comes up) – one also has to prune, correct, and work with the natural energy of the plant to obtain an ideal in fitting with the possibilities of nature. Students might be better served, at the higher grades, by rapidly finding within the natural sciences either a subject “niche” or else an area of broad interest centered around a time period or single figure. The former would allow pre-specialization (which is what really successful careerists do anyway) and the latter would give a deep appreciation for how scientific advances or shifts occur in history. The nature of the student will determine the nature of the study, provided the teacher has the knowledge and art to oversee this transition.
7CS Lewis alludes to this possibility in his novel, The Hideous Strength, in which Merlin is awakened from the past and is capable of performing good “magic” because he comes from a time in which the passions of man were still young and uncorrupted, more in contact with a neutrality that existed before all spiritual power was strictly aligned between demons or angels. St Paul himself alludes to “tutors” which operated before Christ to raise nations and groups of people, and also to the future possibility of judging angels. Jesus also spoke about moving mountains (presumably by growing in spiritual stature). If one consults early Christian literature or history, the concern was not with magic per se, but the connection of magic with demonology (this is why St. Patrick allowed certain forms of druid practice to persist, while prohibiting others). If what we mean by magic is that connections between real metaphysical natures exist, then presumably, they are capable of being brought into captivity to the thought of the supreme Logos, as Paul teaches. One must not bow down to demons; this does not mean that the invisible world is inherently and totally evil (this is more of a Gnostic or Manichean idea that has crept into orthodox Chrisitianity, which is ironic).
81788, Critique of Practical Reason.
9Consult either the work of Cassiodorus or Boethius, both of whom attempted to salvage liberal learning during the barbarian incursions into Rome, and out of which the “Dark Ages” constructed a new civilization.
10Let us not forget the strange dream in his sleep that James Watson experienced, which lead to the unraveling of the DNA mystery, the double helix, itself an ancient symbol of healing and knowledge.
11See for instance the 18th century conflict between academies and universities, noted by Wilhelm von Humboldt in his essays. The academies themselves were “temples of knowledge” who were resisting the drive towards applied learning and certification. A member of an academy might, or might not be, a professor, and they might, or might not teach. The kings in France (and later the legislature) could elect luminaries to the Academy solely on the basis of contribution and character – it was the equivalent of British knighthood. Local French lyceums or German gymnasiums, and the English in the Rugby school under Thomas Arnold, for a long time conserved the ideal of being a “nursery” for a spiritual class of nobility who had high responsibilities to guide and govern.
12This is an ancient custom worth reviving – it would certainly make for better teachers.
13The Waldorf Schools ought to be imitated and learned from, and we look forward to the encounter of these schools with the growing classical Christian movement. Their contributions, warnings, and insights ought to be carefully considered – after all, they have been doing something similar for longer.
14One could read, for instance, the letters of Ananda Coomaraswamy, whom many Christians said was more “Christian than the Christians”. The early Christian, Lactantius, paid this compliment to certain Greek philosophers, like Socrates.

15Another writer capable of guiding thought at this point is Giambittista Vico.Part II:

The Revivalists are Trying to Have their Day – You Mean, Classical Ain’t Christian?
This leads to another essay, which are “Biblical” objections to classical education. Gary North attacks1 Christian Classical education on the grounds that the entire system was founded on pederasty. While it is true that certain very abhorrent practices were found in ancient Greece, we return to our dictum – man is made in God’s image. This means that even in the face of demon worship, pederasty, internecine civil war, & other things (like temple prostitution, which Paul mentions), the image of God endures in man. Truth, beauty, and goodness were still present in ancient Greece – the image was defaced, but cannot be eradicated. Additionally, there is the fact that other comparable societies from the same time period practiced even more abhorrent practices, or ones that were equally brutal, like human sacrifice, cannibalism, and demon worship which made Greece look like a Sunday school. There is simply no getting away from the nastiness of the roots of human survival in the past, and the conditions and desecrations which accompanied this.
Gary North and others like him (some of whom object that classical education is modeled on the lines of Jesuit theology and the Counter Reformation) want to reject the classical model (and the medieval model, which was co-terminous with it) because it isn’t part of their brand-name of sectarian Christian ideology, as they define it. While they may have valid criticisms which should be thoughtfully and thankfully considered, this view is intellectually isolationist in the extreme, to the point of being irresponsible. I have selected North’s argument as a foil, not because it is the most sophisticated argument, but because it (or versions like it) crop up again and again in rural, conservative, Christian circles.
But what would make these critics happy with the model? Explicit courses on learning to listen to your “inner daimon”, just like Socrates? Detailed explanations of how the pederasty system worked and the positive things the Greeks argued on its behalf? No, of course not – for them, there is no honest and workable version of this, either cleaned up and baptized, or presented in all of its objectionable ancestry. Does North seriously believe that classical Christian education will lead to demon worship? I do not think so – more likely, he considers that it will lead to slow, Renaissance-styled apostasy, in which “man becomes the measure of all things”.
The problem with this criticism is that man is “the measure of all things”. Paul says that Christ was the sum of glory, and Christ was fully man2. Even fallen man is made in the image of God. Tolkien wrote this poem for CS Lewis during Lewis’ long conversion process:
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made
North’s objections in his 1995 letter are useful in minor ways – it is true that we cannot hope to provide fluency in Latin to most Christian scholars, and even if we did, it would do them little actual, practical good (although it would close off some career fields, or make them more difficult). There are other arguments in favor of Latin – the students will still be mentally exercised, be able to understand a great many unfamiliar English words (for instance, in A&P), and appreciate the mental skeleton of Western civilization.3 Some of them will read Latin literature and the Church Fathers. But these objections to Latin (on which North heaps a great deal of scorn, some of it perhaps justified) are secondary to his main argument, which is that classical education is an unstable synthesis of paganism and Christianity, a synthesis which is always breaking up in favor of paganism.
I want to focus on this aspect of his argument, because it seems very plausible, very noteworthy and important, and very strong. It is his central point – the kvetchings about Latin, notwithstanding, which are added for burlesque and to score easy debating points. North thinks that a “little leaven” will leaven the whole lump of Christian education, and prefers an education focused on mathematics, Shakespeare (and reading and writing) and the King James Bible. This education he claims will produce 1000+ scores on the SAT.
I will leave aside the fact that Shakespeare may, or may not have been, a member of esoteric Renaissance societies dedicated to undermining the Medieval civilization of Europe. It is convenient for North that he does not have to justify Shakespeare’s inclusion, and can count on people accepting him, generally (which is, of course, exactly what used to be the case for classical education). I also leave aside the emphasis on simply “teaching to the test” of the SAT, though it has a place.
Rather, let us consider what kind of Christianity is so weak that it inevitably succumbs, intellectually & spiritually, to the admixture of the pagans. North presumes that paganism will be mixed into the synthesis as leaven (rather than as content, content which has been cleaned up and baptized). But where is North’s leaven? Is it not strong enough to raise the loaf? Is it not potent enough to dominate the batch of bread? Why mix paganism in as leaven to begin with? Paganism, rather, is the flour, the water, the egg, the flavoring. The leaven is the kingdom of God. Paganism is the wheat or fruit of the mere earth, which is offered up in the process of divine fermentation to become, through the yeast, the body of the Lord. This is in fact the teaching of Jesus – He taught us to beware the leaven of the Pharisees, and to not be overcome by the world, but to transform it, by being first transformed. We are to be salt and light, in the world – in the world, but not of it, as the saying goes. North is teaching something slightly different, though he wants the same things. He really is not convinced that Christians can live intellectually, spiritually, physically in the world at all. We cannot, in fact, study ancient letters (or modern ones) at all. We should read the KJV (a translation by men steeped in those ancient letters he despises), imbibe Shakespeare (arguably one of the most alchemical English writers, as well as esoteric, possibly Bacon himself, or a confederate), and do many, many Saxon exercises in order to score well on the SAT.
This is philosophy by fear : fear of what might happen, fear of what will happen again, fear of “the Other”, when the Other isn’t really understood to begin with. The problem with philosophies of fear is that they invariably conjure up precisely what they fear (has anyone else seen this effect, in real life? – it is quite enlightening). If Christians abandon Western civilization to the infidels, it will only become more of precisely what North is claiming that it is.
North, in fact, cannot escape the effect of “paganism”, Renaissance, and classicism, least of all by reading the KJV.4 No, the way forward is to recover the center – Christians should “fall back” in the sense of recovering the Traditional, Absolute, and transcendent roots of their own rituals, religion, and practice (not to mention, their thoughts), but go forward and recover mile after mile of enemy ground. German tactical doctrine in WWII was “always counter-attack”. The enemy is weakened by success, after hard fighting, and is unconsolidated. Now is the time to counter-attack. Now is the time to reclaim all of the disciplines, even the ones traditionally anti-Christian, from the enemy. Now is the time to take every thought captive.
This will be more easily done, easily done in fact, if Christians operate from the “high ground” of metaphysics and traditional theology.5 What good will it do to re-assert Sola Scriptura in a literal, fundamental sense, if the entire culture which surrounds these shrinking communities, the very air which one breaths, contradicts and undermines anything they learn? Humans learn from sensory data – if they are taught a Scriptural truth, and see it embodied in the day to day living of a culture, it takes very deep root. This was the medieval vision, as imperfect as it was. Learning, even Bible learning, divorced from cultural contexts tends towards the same abstractions which go to alienate people and by default create Revolutionary and Leftist environments, either by defection or by negative reactions to the ugliness inherent in those who lop elements of their intellect off in order to fit a sub-culture. Christian young people have no art or poetry or culture which can elevate their minds to the highest degrees of order and harmony. And the enemy presses relentlessly, taking our concessions, like Stalin, and moving on to more demands. No, what we want to do now is to counter-attack. It will come to that, anyway, when we are all huddled in our churches like rats.
“I believe not only that man shall endure, but that he shall prevail”. Was it Faulkner that said this? I think so. But the man which shall endure in the new age of Aquarius is the Christian man, born under the sign of the cross, carrying the symbol of the fish, who can breath under the spiritual waters with which God is flooding His new earth. It is this man who is equipped to become a spring-time man, to recreate dying cultures with the leaven of the Christ, just as Dark Age peasants and their offspring (along with converting intellectuals from the old Greco-Roman world), created the gigantic edifice of Gothic Christianity, the only thoroughly and totally Christian world and culture which mankind has ever built, flawed though it may have been.
As the world goes down the floods and waterfalls of its own disasters, Christians should imitate German tactical doctrine, & counter-attack. We should march forward. We may look backward, to find the center of our faith on the Cross, but we move forward. And in moving forward, we shall find God going ahead of us in the garden of the world, which was always His from the beginning. Because the past isn’t gone, it’s not even past.
2If I were making their case for them, I would proceed to argue from the infinity of God and the Fatherhood of the First Person, as well as the Recapitulation sequel, where Christ hands All in All back to the Archetype, as evidence that Humanism (Christian or not) and “Man as the Measure” has to have a counter-poise and limit, itself, against what is Absolute, the Unmanifest Essence of God. But they wouldn’t want to argue this either, so they are left with false dichotomizing, in which they reject the image of God in man in order to resist the pagan dictum from the Renaissance and the Greeks of “man as the measure”. A more meaningful phrase to cultivate might be, perhaps, that from the legend of Enoch and Hermes Trismegestus – “As above, so below”.
3Rosenstock-Huessy has a good work on this theme, Magna Carta Latina.
4It would be possible to reconstruct a “classicism” of Scripture from its stories. For instance, when King Ahab is challenged to combat by the enemies of Israel, he gives the tremendous retort – “Let not those who put on their armor boast as those who take it off”. This is worthy of Homer or Shakespeare, more worthy in fact. The Bible itself, though not compiled as poetry, could be made into a grand epic to rival anything in classical literature. Milton attempted just such a thing, although in the “hyperspace” of the Garden. Job could make a majestic tragedy, were it dramatized.
5I would like to recommend Jean Borella, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Donoso Cortes (along with Frithjof Schuon and Jean-Luc Marion) as thinkers which could help point Christians to undiscovered country within their own heritage. In particular, Coomaraswamy’s letters are master strokes of logic, metaphysic, poetry and common sense against the abandonment (by Christians) of their own faith (AKC was not a Christian, per se, but comes across as “more Christian than the Christians, in these letters).
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