Erasmus, Ideas, and the Soul

It is scarcely possible even to hope that all men should be good; but it is not hard to pick out from so many thousands of them one or two who stand out in virtue and wisdom, through whom in a short while a great many others could be made good.

And later:

The examples set by famous men vividly inspire a noble youth’s imagination, but the ideas with which it is imbued are of much the greatest importance, for they are the source from which the whole character of his life develops.

Erasmus: The Birth and Upbringing of a Christian Prince

In the second quotation, Erasmus brings together the idea and the type in a manner we shouldn’t overlook. Consider the power he gives to the idea, whereas the examples of famous men will only “inspire a noble youth’s imagination.”

I say “only” deliberately. It is a great thing so to fire the imagination, and the well-being of a society depends on it. But it isn’t enough.

According to Erasmus, the ideas “are the source from which the whole character of his life develops.”

The classical tradition is the tradition of  the idea. Classical educators believe that the formation of the soul (virtue) is the purpose of education and that the soul is formed by ideas. Education is not ultimately about doing and acting (i.e. power) but about being and knowing.

But then modern thinkers, formed by post-classical educations, think that if you are talking about ideas you must be talking about something theoretical and abstract. Nothing could be more obstinately opposed to reality. Indeed, that supposition is rooted in a false view of reality as something external to us, unknowable by us, separate from us; yet something to which we are bound to adapt.

Modern thought is barbaric and uncivilized, and it would be good if we would get off our scientific pedestal long enought to acknowledge that not technology civilizes us, but right relations. And we are relationally challenged at every level.

One Response

  1. Said well with clarity…thanks, Andrew.

    Reminds me of two quotes from Werner Jaeger’s Paideia.

    “Education is the process by which a community preserves and transmits its physical and intellectual character.”

    “The ancients were persuaded that education [is]… NOT a formal art or an abstract theory distinct from the objective historical structure of a nation’s spiritual life.”

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