Do you want to know the truth?

The authors of The Liberal Arts Tradition have expressed their broad interpretation of classical education with the acronym PGMAPT (pronounced pee-gee-mapped). It stands for Piety, Gymnastic, Music, Arts (those seven liberal arts I’ve been writing about), and then we come to the second P—Philosophy!

I find myself very, very interested in this part of the discussion. I’ve long been familiar with the medieval concept that the Trivium and Quadrivium arts were “paths” to Philosophy or Theology, but I haven’t really explored all that is meant by that. Neither do Clark and Jain, but they have some extremely interesting points to make.

As one should do, they admit that the word philosophy has acquired a bad reputation, but then they take the matter back to the classical roots of the word to restore its proper meaning.

The word philosophy is made up of the words “love” and “wisdom.” Philosophy marries together the idea of truth—objective truth that can be known—and emotional joy and rapture. Dispassion and passion. Education should be about finding out truths, yes, but it’s meant to be more than just head knowledge—heart attitude counts.

One of the central features of Plato’s vision for education was the belief in a transcendent reality, one that can really be known and that at some level is intimately bound up in our knowledge of everything else.

(And I’m reminded that this is what Charlotte Mason wanted for all learners.)

Human understanding, to speak like Plato, is about the harmony of  one’s soul with the reality and the application of one’s reason to the nature of the universe.

I think there is more than a hint of “education is the science of relations” in this, and in fact, Charlotte Mason calls attention to this relational nature of Plato’s ideas. (Home Education, p. 185)

But what really interested me in this discussion was the fact that the medieval thinkers modified Plato’s ideas about philosophy to reflect the Christian truth of God as the Creator of mankind in his own image and of the whole universe. They divided philosophy (love of wisdom!) into three types which reflect the three-fold nature of reality.

First, the reality of God and all eternal truth is divine philosophy. Next, the reality of man—“both in his being and his relationships”—is moral philosophy. Finally, the nature of the reality that we find in the created universe, large and small, is natural philosophy. Aristotle hinted at these distinctions, but it was really the medieval thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas, who anchored philosophy to Christian truth. I’m not sure if  you have ever heard of these three categories of philosophy. They weren’t part of my formal education in any way, as such. But Clark and Jain tell us that they were in use clear into the nineteenth century, and so it is not surprising that they line up with Charlotte Mason’s ideas about relationships and knowledge.

She says there are three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, and names them—“knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe.” Do you see how those line up with divine philosophy, moral philosophy, and natural philosophy? She built her whole curriculum around these ideas, although for children the relationships are still at the “poetic” or “musical” level.

First and chiefest is the knowledge of God, to be got at most directly through the Bible; then comes the knowledge of man, to be got through history, literature, art, civics, ethics, biography, the drama, and languages; and lastly, so much knowledge of the universe as shall explain to some extent the phenomena we are familiar with and give a naming acquaintance at any rate with birds and flowers, stars and stones; nor can this knowledge of the universe be carried far in any direction without the ordering of mathematics. (Philosophy of Education, p. 254)

By making “education is the science of relations” one of her core principles, she kept the emphasis on learning to love and enjoy all these areas of knowledge—the beginning, we might say, of wisdom. Charlotte Mason had no hesitation in saying so, and notice her use of that benighted word, philosophy.

Now what is wisdom, philosophy? Is it not the recognition of relations? First, we have to understand relations of time and space and matter, the natural philosophy which made up so much of the wisdom of Solomon; then, by slow degrees, and more and more, we learn that moral philosophy which determines our relations of love and justice and duty to each other: later, perhaps, we investigate the profound and puzzling subject of the inter-relations of our own most composite being, mental philosophy. And in all these and beyond all these we apprehend, slowly and feebly, the highest relation of all, the relation to God, which we call religion. In this science of the relations of things consists what we call wisdom. (Parents and Children, p. 258-59)

Clark and Jain describe the Sophists who plagued Socrates and Plato. Unlike Plato, they did not believe in knowable truth, and assumed that truth was relative, and the most persuasive speakers were clever enough to convince others to accept their positions. It all sounds horrifyingly familiar, which explains why the authors tell us:

In light of the similarity of Socrates’s day to our own cultural moment in the early twenty-first century, it seems we could use another Socrates or Plato crying out against the Sophists. That is to the suggest we could use the revival of a tradition that stands for the significance of a transcendent and knowable reality.

It won’t come as a surprise to serious students of Charlotte Mason to recognize that she was just such a voice in her own time. She explicitly draws attention to divine laws and absolute truths and warns about the danger and fallacy of imagining that everyone can have their own “lights” or truths.

[Parents see that] authority works by principles and not by rules, and as they themselves are the deputy authorities set over every household, it becomes them to consider the divine method of government. They should discern the signs of the times too; the tendency is to think that a man can only act according to his ‘lights,’ and, therefore, that it is right for him to do that which is right in his own eyes; in other words, that every man is his own final authority in questions of right and wrong. It is extremely important that parents should keep in view, and counteract if need be, this tendency of the day. (School Education, p. 127)

There is truth, and we can know it. That simple premise of the classical tradition is profound. I’m going to end with a quote from chapter 12 of Consider This, simply because it reflects how strongly I feel about this.

“There is nothing quaint, nostalgic or old-fashioned about a desire to educate in the classical tradition. It is a radical thing to do. We do nothing less than demand that chaos resolve itself into order simply by saying, ‘There is truth, and I want to know it.’ ”

(Brandy at Afterthoughts made some of the same observations that I did—even quoting one of the same passages!)

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.

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