Moral Philosophy—what do you see in the mirror?

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, authors Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain begin the discussion of moral philosophy—the knowledge of man—with a quote from C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. It really helps to anchor the focus of the discussion, so I’m going to share part of it, too.

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique… (C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man)

Do you see the difference? Either man humbly seeks to know and conform himself to reality (which we might understand as that which is fundamentally and absolutely true), or he tries to impose his will on reality and alter it to suit, which is essentially a denial of absolute truth—the opposite of saying “there is truth, and I want to know it.” The first truth we have to establish concerns the nature and purpose of man himself. Clark and Jain contrast moral philosophy with modern social science (things like sociology and psychology) to draw attention to the difference.

Today in social science, man has no fixed nature or end to which he is obliged, and moreover in natural science there is no fixed reality to which he must be fitted. Instead, by his “subduing of reality” each decides upon reality’s nature for himself. Truth is no longer that to which man submits and assents, truth is whatever man declares it to be.

If you want a powerful demonstration of what that looks like in modern thinking, you might want to have a look at this video. The young people shown here are afraid even to affirm the objective truth of feet, inches, and time.

YouTube player

Yes, it’s a little frightening. But it underscores Clark and Jain’s contention that

the central question of moral philosophy is anthropological. What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of man?

The whole time I was reading this section of the book, I had Charlotte Mason’s first and primary principle in the back of my mind: Children are born persons. This is a perfectly true statement on the face of it, and I know what she meant by it, but suppose you expressed that truth to your local rabid atheist-evolutionist? What would it mean to them? I imagine the response would be, “so what?” If you imagine that humans are merely intelligent evolved physical beings, conglomerations of cells animated by electro-chemical impulses, well…so are dogs, cats and horses. What makes “person” better than any other creature?—no, that’s the wrong word (creature implies Creator)—let’s say “being.” How is human existence of any greater significance than that of ducks? If you find such thoughts demoralizing and depressing, well, so do most people, and if they can’t climb out of that pit, their limited options will produce behaviors that look like desperation, because that’s what they reflect. Deep, profound despair is produced by the assumption that one’s life has no meaning or purpose. The classical tradition—even a secular version of it, but much more the Christian classical tradition—at least offers a ladder out of that despair.

My copy of The Liberal Arts Tradition is heavily marked and underlined throughout this section—even the extensive footnotes! I can’t begin to do justice to it in a blog post, and I encourage you to read the book, and take plenty of time with the section on moral philosophy.

Clark and Jain remind us that in the classical tradition, moral philosophy comes late in the program. They also remind us that moral philosophy is practical—not that you can make a career of it, but that it is ultimately about practices—conduct and behavior. You act according to the principles you hold. You can’t tackle these ideas head-on with ten-year-olds, and barely with sixteen-year-olds. The questions that are part of moral philosophy can only be wisely discussed when our students have a foundation of piety and poetic knowledge. Our basic assumptions about man, and what he is, are built up organically through those aspects of education.

We can see clearly how this core of moral philosophy depends on a common life passed down through generations. It is for this reason that the years of foundation in piety, gymnastic, and music would be so critical to properly forming the communal assumptions of students. The culture is as much of a teacher as the curriculum.

Or, to express the idea in Charlotte Mason’s terms: Education is an atmosphere.

The more I read of philosophy and classical thinking, the more I see how Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles are a re-affirmation of absolute truths.  After Clark and Jain establish how critical one’s view of man is, they expound on the Christian classical view of man and his purposes which sets this kind of education apart.

First, Christian moral philosophy holds that man is rational, though not perfectly, and this reason sets him apart from the rest of creation. Second, from Aristotle and Augustine we also see that man was a political or relational being….Man also possesses a will, or a volition, which as those made in God’s image, reflects God’s creative ability.

In that short paragraph meant to help us understand the Christian view of man, we have points that are corollary to three of Charlotte Mason’s principles—“education is the science of relations,” “the way of the will,” and “the way of reason. Reason and Will—of all the aspects of man’s nature that Charlotte Mason might have included in her principles, it’s not an accident that she picked the ones that help to define principle number one: Children are born persons. For many centuries, reason and will have been central to a view of man that includes the recognition that man is created in God’s image.

I’m fascinated by the authors’ suggestions for how to incorporate the right foundation for moral philosophy into the curriculum:

The moral sciences as well as the natural sciences should be re-situated in a more narrative formulation in which dependence on truths from poetic, empirical, and rational thought may be intertwined together into a coherent whole.

It’s another whole discussion about how important narrative is in the way we process material, but I hope you’ll take note of that and come back to it later. For now, I want to show you how much Charlotte Mason was on the same page with the ideas Clark and Jain are sharing.

The necessity incumbent upon us at the moment is to inculcate a knowledge of Letters. Men and their motives, the historical sequence of events, principles for the conduct of life, in fact, practical philosophy, is what the emergencies of the times require us to possess, and to be able to communicate. These things are not to be arrived at by any short cut of economics, eugenics and the like [social sciences!], but are the gathered harvests of many seasons’ sowing of poetry, literature, history. The nation is in sore need of wise men, and these must be made out of educated boys. (Philosophy of Education, p. 313, emphasis mine).

Moral philosophy is never going to appear on anyone’s transcript, I suppose. Whether you consider yourself a Charlotte Mason educator or a classical educator, or both, this part of the classical paradigm is mostly about what we hope for the future. Our efforts for the school years will most be focused on music, poetry, gymnastic, and at some level, the liberal arts. But as educators, we can keep our eyes on the higher goals, and hope that the path will be a little clearer and easier for our students because of it.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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

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