A Complete Privilege

David Foster Wallace, a great essayist and critic himself, once visited Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to try to get at why they were so effective. He pointed out that during the meetings people passed around bromides and platitudes to encourage each other and build each other up. But, he said with evident surprise, it worked.

Or, as he expressed it in his commencement address to the Kenyon 2005 graduating class,

The fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately, for many reasons. For one, I have three children in college now, so each of them is in the company of people who advance in their fields only by discovering something new, or stating something in a new way, and in outsmarting those around them. There is no room in a college paper for the “banal platitude.” As so many college students do, and as Caliban did in Shakespeare’s Tempest, they are probably “learning to curse,” or at least being taught to do so. More surely, they are being taught how to treat others with contempt, especially others who haven’t been to college.

I value the works of the intellect. I love to read Shakespeare as much as I love to do almost anything else. Let me climb one step in Dante’s Purgatorio, not to speak of flying one orbit in the Paradiso, and my mind can feed on the joy for a week.

But I hate when I find myself thinking I have attained something by reading Dante or Shakespeare. The only good of great literature that is sufficient in itself is when it increases the capacity of our souls to love. It has many other goods, but when we place any other of them above the that one only good, the others are corrupted and corrupting. Literary criticism and literature itself – indeed, all the arts, disintegrate when they are severed from love.

And that, my dear reader, is a banal platitude.

May God deliver me from ever doing anything original. May He simply give me eyes to weep when I see what should be wept over.

Like this, which I know you have already seen, but to which I can add nothing:

Well, I guess I can add this:

Education & Moral Development

Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist anything but temptation.” Many, if not all, temptations could be described as the desire for an appropriate thing in an inappropriate way.

Think of it, even the “worst sins” – murder, sexual deviation, etc. – are perversions of things that are good and right in and of themselves. Murder is usually a perversion of justice, adultery and illicit sex is a perversion of love and sexual desire. So, when we are tempted, we are being drawn to counterfeits and, when we succumb, it is generally because we preferred to counterfeit to the real, the knock-off to the original.

In other words, it would be accurate to say that giving in to temptation is rejecting goodness and beauty in favor of what only appears to be good and beautiful. Resisting temptation, then, is largely learning to know goodness and beauty.

But, is it this knowledge enough? Socrates, in his Apology, indicated that if he was guilty of the charges laid against him, he simply needed to know what to do. If he had the right knowledge, he would do rightly. Knowing the good/right would produce good/right action.

Certainly, knowledge of what is good and right, on some level, is necessary but is it enough? Could it rightly be reduced to this, one could make the argument that man’s real problem is that he is poorly educated.

If man is, by nature, sinful, then poor education is not his ultimate problem. And, if evil is more than bad information, then it cannot be cured simply by inserting right information. Both are the case – man is sinful and evil is more than an information problem. Education, as vital as it is, is no messiah.

What Socrates suggested, that knowing the good and right would make man good and right, is insufficient. Granted, this is a wildly simplistic summation of Socrates, but the observation still holds true. The Socratic approach to education, what we would call classical education, taken on its own, does not take into account the nature of man or evil, and is therefore insufficient.

Now, we would certainly agree that the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty are marvelous goals. But, we believe it is a marvelous pursuit because we know, ironically, that those things are good, true, and beautiful. However, the pursuit of those things in a purely classical sense can only proceed so far.

If man is to begin to comprehend what is good, true, and beautiful, he must have an absolute standard guiding his way. He cannot be the standard, yet this seems to be the paradoxical position of non-Christian classical education. No matter how loudly one insists that there are objective standards of goodness, truth, and beauty, man becomes the standard if he is left alone to determine what they are.

Classical education, while stressing the importance of loving goodness, truth, and beauty, falls short because it does not provide definite definition to them. In the Euthryphro dialogue, Socrates shows the difficulty of even defining good and right.

Christian classical education, however, does have definition for these things and the definitions are based on an absolute standard, not one that leaves man to define goodness, truth, and beauty autonomously. While, education is no messiah, it greatly aids moral development if students are pursuing something beyond themselves and their fallen nature.

Left to define or “discover” goodness, truth, and beauty by their own standards, they will always reach it and yet always fall short of the true standards found in the Triune God.  Christian classical education can help students develop a love for what is lovely and avoid the temptation to pursue it by false means.