The Sack of Truth: A Fairytale at the Heart of Redemption and Classical Education

Ruth Sawyer’s classic fairytale “A Sack of Truth” saved the lives of my sophomores and redeemed mine. Not only is the title brilliant and amped for discussion, but the tale smacks paradigmatic for classical education. It contains that which is really real and true.

I am now even more convinced of the power of fables and fairy tales to shape one into a right human being—and to truly educate by cultivating wisdom and virtue in the heart.

If you haven’t read the tale, I’ll briefly summarize:  There lives a king in Spain. His daughter is ill. A doctor says only the finest pears in Spain will cure her. The king asks for the finest pears from all over to be brought and the one whose pears heal his daughter will be richly rewarded.

A poor peasant with three sons has a pear tree that produces other-worldly golden pears. He sends his oldest son to the king with a basket of pears. On the road he meets a sad-faced woman carrying a little child who asks him what he has in the basket. Rather than offering the sad woman and child a pear to eat, he snubs her. It is a kind of test. The woman turns his pears into horns. When he arrives to the king with horns, the king throws him into a dungeon.

The second son is sent with a basket. He responds to the needy woman in the same way and fails the test. He is also thrown into the dungeon.

Importantly, when the third son is introduced, this is what is said of him: “No one had ever thought him very clever, only kind and willing and cheerful.” When he meets the sad-faced woman he thinks to himself, “I must not be greedy with those pears. There is the old saying—‘He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year.’” He uncovers the basket and gives a pear to the child.

He shows compassion and therefore passes the test and gets to the king. His pears heal the king’s daughter. The king offers him anything he wants. Again the story says, “he thought of the old saying: ‘gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.’ He asks for the release of his brothers.

The rest of the story involves the sack of truth, but I won’t retell that part here. Essentially, things work out well for the youngest son.

In my class, we discussed much concerning this. Here are some of the questions I raised:

I asked if they were admitted to our very-hard-to-get-into high school because they were clever or because they were kind, willing, and cheerful.  Clever was the obvious answer. I responded that as a result they have been admitted into an institution that desires to create the two older brothers.

Standard education is very interested in what a child can do or how much he or she knows (cleverness), not in who the child is.

I asked if the students’ very full and heavy backpacks were sacks of truth, sacks of knowledge, or sacks of BS :). We concurred that, unfortunately, they were not sacks of truth. And if they decided to call them sacks of knowledge, then through discussion we realized that it would have been better to call them sacks of BS because at least BS knows that it’s BS.

In other words, there’s a big difference between truth and knowledge. And there’s a big difference between knowing and knowledge. Notice that Aristotle said, “All men desire by nature to know.”  He did not say “all men desire by nature, knowledge.”

Why are our schools founded upon gaining knowledge and not on desiring to know?

I asked what the youngest son did when he faced his crises, his moments of temptation.

The students said that he recalled two old sayings: “He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year” and “gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.”

I asked if he looked the sayings up on the internet.

Students: No

I asked if a nearby animal shouted them out.

Students: No

I asked how he knew the old sayings.

Students:  he remembered them.

I asked where he got them:

Students:  in fables and fairy tales.

I asked them what lines will come to them when they find themselves in their moments of high temptation.

Will they be lines from the latest blockbuster movie or video game?

Or maybe, just maybe…

If we read enough of them in the next nine months…

Classic fables and fairy tales.

By which we will fill our sacks of truth.

And save our souls.  And a needy mother and child on the way… and maybe even the king’s daughter.


How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part IV)

Here is: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.

David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi

Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.

However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.

The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.

You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.

All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.

Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.

For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.


The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”

Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.

It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”

I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.

You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.

I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).

Perversion and Ignorance of Classical Education

Every now and then I am tempted to think I know something. When that happens (and it happens less frequently as I age), I have the perfect cure.

Pick up David Hicks Norms and Nobility and start reading.

What typically happens is that some great new insight on which I’ve spent years questing, will be sitting there on the surface of the page, serenely welcoming me and not even laughing at me for taking so long.

I’m doing a close study of this book for the apprenticeship even now and, once again, I am being humbled by the experience.

For one thing, when I do a deep study of a book, I like to get at the structure so I can see the flow of thought. That’s pretty easy with a modern book because it usually sits on the surface of the text, blaring at you that you are where you are.

The whole outline of a book reads like the document map on the side of a Word document with large fonts italicized, bold fonts, bullet points, tables to summarize, etc. etc. At no point is the mind of the reader challenged to engage the text directly and actually think about the relationships among the parts.

I find that frustrating and rather insulting because I know that the effort to organize the text is what of the ways to understand it. However, conventional writers don’t write to be understood, they write to be applied. So they write things that don’t take any thinking, that assume the reader doesn’t want to think, and that can be easily applied without any thinking.

Here’s the challenge with Norms. To identify the structure, you have to compress what the text says. You have to take paragraphs and funnel them down to a single core idea (this, by the way, is a great reading exercise that actually involves thinking and is much more profitable than answering worksheet questions, which almost necessarily focus on trivia and are controlled by the teacher instead of teaching the student higher reading skills).

I find that with Norms and Nobility, the impulse is always to unpack and develop a thought rather than to condense and summarize it. The insights are so profound and come from such a different perspective that I don’t trust myself to summarize them.

Today I spent about 40 minutes on chapter 1, section one. Which is three pages long!

Each page contains a doctoral thesis of analysis. Listen:

The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education by teaching in precept and in example a hereditary aristocratic ideal intended to serve the ambitions of Empire and to preserve the status quo.

I suppose anybody could make this claim after a cursory reading in Dickens or a biography of Carroll or something like that, but with Mr. Hicks, these two sentences express the condensed result of years of reflection of his own on education.

For those of us who yearn to understand classical education he has already, in this first sentence of the first chapter, warned us off a false scent. After all, if we are looking to understand classical education, it only makes sense that we would look to that era when it stood most proudly, just before it was replaced by the evil moderns.

But Mr. Hicks says, “No, your job won’t be that easy. You can’t just bounce back 100 years and imitate what those who share your language did back then. Your going to have to think more deeply than that. You’re going to have to go beyond the surface to the spirit. And that’s never easy.” (This is my supposition of a dialogue with Mr. Hicks, not a quotation from the book.)

So he’s warned us off one false track by telling us about those who perverted classical education. The end of the first page warns us off another false track by noting the opposite error:

By the turn of the century, a growing number of self-proclaimed progressives, desiring to democratize the school and mistaking what went on in Victorian schools with classical education, began to put forward their own theories of education…. Neither ideal types, aprioric truths, nor transcendent human needs figure in the writings of these spokesmen for the progressive movement [he refers specifically to Dewey and James].

Of course, the blank stare these phrases call forth from our own minds indicate that they haven’t figured much in our own thinking either. Ideal types? Aprioric truths?! Transcendent human needs!!?? What have these got to do with education?

Heck, aprioric truths doesn’t even pass the spellcheck!

Mr. Hicks has thrown down the gauntlet. He is going to use terms that we aren’t familiar with. He has to if he is going to talk about classical education. We have all been educated under the progressives, who don’t care about the things that classical educators care about. They don’t use this vocabulary because they don’t want us to think about these things.

So you and I cannot hide behind the excuse of not knowing the terms Hicks uses. If we are going to understand classical education, we are going to have to make the effort required to learn his vocabulary. Because, as he ends page one:

To the extent that the Victorian schoolmaster perverted classical learning and the progressive educator ignored it, our modern schools have suffered.

I would change that third word from the end from schools to students. It seems like every day I meet or hear about a new person, child or adult, who has been victimized by the modern school. It’s not that the teachers don’t care. It’s that they are castrated, crippled, and crazed by administration, systems, and inhumane and subhuman ideas.

Even today a student was admitted to eighth grade in a school I know to be tutored by someone I know because someone else cared enough to see that he was pulled out of a failing school. He struggles with reading and writing apparently, but the first thing his tutor learned is that he is perceptive, intelligent, and determined to succeed.

It is no longer possible to exaggerate the negative moral impact of our schools.

Therefore, we have to be willing to put in the work this renewal requires. Forget the culture; forget schools. People’s well-being (their souls) depends on it.

Please read and meditate on this book if you are an educator or know anybody who wants to be educated.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part 2)

Click here to see Part 1

To understand how to cultivate wisdom, we need to understand what wisdom is. Now, any number of definitions are available, but I want to look at this from the practical angle.

In other words, if we’re going to think about “how” to do something, we need to think of it as the end of actions. If it can’t be seen that way, then there is no how to.

For example, if redness is simply a state of being and there is no way to become or make something red, we’d be wasting our time trying to think about how to become red.

Looked at from this angle, there are three ways to look at wisdom that all mean the same thing but are worth expressing in three different ways.

First, wisdom is the knowledge of causes.

Second, wisdom is the ability to order and to judge.

Third, wisdom is the ability to perceive the nature of things so as to know how to appropriately relate to them.

These definitions help us see that there are different kinds of wisdom.

There is what I call, for lack of a better term, mechanical wisdom, which is characterized by great precision and regularity. It is guided by the principle of effectiveness and its end is utility. The standard of excellence for this form of genuine wisdom is usefulness.

Then there is artistic wisdom, which is less precise and therefore requires more judgment. It is guided by the principle of propriety and its end is creative human production. The standard of excellence is the beautiful.

Next comes ethical wisdom, which is even less precise and requires even more judgment. It is also guided by the principle of propriety, but its end is human action itself. The standard against which human action is measured by this wisdom is virtue.

Even higher comes philosophical wisdom, which is amazingly imprecise though its foundations remain absolute. It is the knowledge of first causes or principles. It requires astounding judgment. Philosophical wisdom is guided by the principle of truthfulness and its end is knowledge of truth; therefore it is measured by the standard of the truth.

The highest wisdom of all is theological wisdom, which becomes knowledge of the unknowable. It is the knowledge of Him who transcends knowledge. No judgment can reach this knowledge and all other forms of wisdom are subject to it. The standard by which it is measured is, if there can be one for here I am speculating far beyond my capacity, the harmony of the useful, the beautiful, the virtuous, and the true.

If that is what wisdom is and if these are the kinds of wisdom, the next question becomes, “how do we get it?”

More on that in my next post!

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Part 1)

Andrew Pudewa honored me with an invitation to his IEW Symposium on writing a few weeks ago and what a blessing it was. Keep your eyes open for a July 2012 repeat of this wonderful conference.

One of the things he asked me to address was the question, “How can we cultivate wisdom through writing?” During this talk I got a little carried away on one or two points, so I didn’t say everything I hoped to and I also offended at least one person in the audience enough for her to get up and leave.

Nevertheless, I think IEW will be including this talk in a DVD or CD set in the not too distant future and I did make some discoveries along the way that I’d like to share with you.

Naturalistic materialism has come to dominate modern thought, which eliminates the soul from consideration. Thus when we try to define education, we find ourselves either confused or reduced.

In the old days, prior to the triumph of naturalism, education had to do with wisdom and virtue. Now it is necessarily utilitarian. Here’s why: Wisdom and virtue are qualities of the soul in which the will is guided by reason rather than appetite.

To the naturalist, there is no soul to be guided or formed, only a highly complex chemical structure called the brain. There is no will to be guided by a reason that also doesn’t exist.

In the old days, at least in its ideals, the goal of education was twofold: discipline the will to virtue and cultivate the reason to wisdom.

The way we understand the reason is determined by the paradigm with which we approach it. If I am a naturalist, I will think of the reason as the ability to calculate my advantage and make adaptations accordingly. Thus, I will build education on that presupposition.

If I actively believe in the Divine Image and apply that belief to my thoughts, I will think of the reason as that faculty that perceives the law of God written in our essence and that, from that preconscious perception, produces the impulses and activities that give rise to language, creativity, knowledge, membership in communities, and the other things that make us human.

In such a context, the education I provide will not be a matter of learning processes by which I can adapt to or overcome the environment. Instead it will cultivate the virtues that lead to every human excellence.

The reason and the will will be cultivated and the appetites controlled.

Conventional education does exactly the reverse.

How then can we cultivate wisdom? More on that in my next post.

A Lovely Afternoon Walk with Socrates and Phaedrus (Via my new Boeing Time-Traveling Vessel)

David Wright

Recently I had the fortuitous opportunity to travel back to the fifth century B.C. and take a lovely spring walk with Socrates and Phaedrus, just outside the walls of Athens. Coincidentally, Phaedrus had just arrived from a long morning walk and talk with Lysias when the door of my Boeing time vessel hemorrhaged open from a rather skittery landing.

I recognized Phaedrus immediately from the wry look of love on his handsome Athenian face. He couldn’t stop smiling and repeating lines from a speech about love. And you can always tell when someone is in love or talking about love because it is at the heart of reality.

Surprisingly, he paid little attention to my time-craft or my explanation of how I’d journeyed from the future. The speech and the idea were the logos of his entire essence; so much so that very little could distract him.

I greatly admired this—for my current cultural epoch is one of distraction; it is almost anti-speech and anti-idea. Furthermore, this was such a blessing, for I wished to be hardly noticed. I merely wanted to meander with them and take part in their discussion—the one that Plato recorded in his Phaedrus dialogue—without disturbing the moment because of my clothes or language. It all played out quite nicely.

My how green and rustic it was on the outskirts of Athens! Absolutely lovely. The insects whistling and the plantlife breathing fostered not only contemplation but also eloquence. For who would want to disturb such harmony with imprecise words? For nature speaks its own high language with perfect propriety.

Fortunately (actually once-in-a-lifetime-lucky), Phaedrus and I ran into Socrates sauntering near the west gate looking confused. It was really quite funny; he was extremely deep in thought and mumbling to himself—and having difficulty deciding whether to head toward the city center or toward the country. We quite easily convinced him to join us for a country stroll. And of course I had a small mp3 recorder. Our conversation proceeded as follows:

SOC: What were you doing there? Lysias was entertaining you with his eloquence, I suppose?

PHA: You shall hear, if you can spare the time to go with us. Oh, by the way, this is David, he’s from quite a ways away, though I’m not sure where. He’s very cordial and interested in discussion.

DAV: The pleasure is all mine. So nice to meet you. I hope you can spare the time to come with us.

SOC: Spare the time! Don’t you realize that to me an account of what passed between Phaedrus and Lysias is, to use Pindar’s phrase, ‘a matter which takes precedence even over business’?

PHA: Come along then.

SOC: Your story please.

PHA: Well, Socrates, what I have to tell you is very much in your line, for the subject on which we were engaged was love – after a fashion. Lysias has written as speech designed to win the favor of someone who is not in love with him. That is the clever thing about it; he makes out that an admirer who is not in love is to be preferred to one who is.

SOC: Noble fellow! I desire to hear your account of the speech.

DAV: I’d love to as well.

PHA: I’m an amateur. How can I reproduce such a perfect speech?

SOC: Don’t be coy. I know you’ve been out here walking and repeating the speech so much you have it memorized! That’s why you’re outside the city walls. Now you’ve met another man who likewise has a near disease-like passion for speeches. So get on with it!

DAV: Your fidelity to speeches is remarkable, as is your commitment to memorization and recitation, two canons of rhetorical discourse sorely lacking in my culture.

PHA: Let’s sit on the pretty grass in the shade below this tree. A gentle breeze is blowing.

SOC: Lead us on.

PHA: Tell me, guys, isn’t there a story that Boreas abducted Oreithyia from somewhere here on the banks of the Ilissus?

SOC: No, it was some quarter of a mile downstream, where one crosses to the temple of Agra; an altar to Boreas marks the spot, I believe.

PHA: But seriously, Socrates, do you believe this legend?

SOC: The pundits rejected it, so if I rejected it I’d be in good company. In that case I should rationalize the legend by explaining that the north wind blew Oreithyia down the neighboring rocks when she was playing with Pharmaceia, and that her dying in this way was the origin of the legend that she was abducted by Boreas.

But though I find such explanations very attractive, Phaedrus and David, they are too ingenious and laboured, it seems to me, and I don’t altogether envy the man who devotes himself to this sort of work, if only because, when he has finished with Oreithyia, he must go on to put the Hippocentaurs into proper shape and after them the Chimaera.

In fact he finds himself overwhelmed by a host of Gorgons and Pegasuses and other such monsters, whose numbers create no less a problem than their grotesqueness, and a skeptic who proposes to force each of them into a plausible shape with the aid of a sort of rough ingenuity will need a great deal of leisure.

Now I have no time for such work, and the reason is, my friend, that I’ve not yet succeeded in obeying the Delphic injunction to ‘know myself’, and it seems to me absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still ignorant about my own nature. So I let these things alone and acquiesce in the popular attitude towards them; I make myself rather than them the object of my investigations, and I try to discover whether I am a more complicated and puffed-up sort of animal than Typho or whether I am a gentler and simpler creature, endowed by heaven with a nature altogether less typhonic.

DAV: I’m sorry, but I just have to comment here. Socrates, you have said several salient points. First, you mention that the pundits reject the myth, and that rejecting it is the popular thing to do.

In fact, they de-miracle-ize the legend don’t they?  Or as you say, they “rationalize” the legend by saying that a north wind blew Oreithyia down or else she fell from the Areopagus. But as you rightly say, these kinds of explanations are attractive but too ingenious and labored.

The slope of skepticism is a slippery one. Once a person begins this sort of cutting and trimming to fit his rational and empirical expectations and assumptions, he must continue to force all other phenomena into this machine—as you say, to put the centaurs and chimaera into proper shape.

This machine, by the way, becomes the dominant machine in about nineteen centuries, during a period called the Enlightenment. And once the machine is created, it can’t stop growing—it seems to feed itself.

You wouldn’t believe how indomitable the machine becomes in my century, entirely ruling the universities and the socio-political culture. Each successive generation since the Enlightenment has added a mechanism to the machine—a monistic gear, a materialist ball joint, an empiricist lever—and of course the fuel for the machine is an uncritical belief in technological progress.

And I love how you connect this to knowing oneself. The creation of this machine comes at the expense of the Delphic injunction. To ‘know thyself’ is vital; for man himself is the centaur and the Chimeara, a multi-faceted complexity who, ironically, defies and contradicts the very machine we have created.

To focus on the mystery of man and his soul is to watch the machine disintegrate. Your commitment to contemplating your own nature, Socrates, is in fact the greatest gift you will give mankind. For you and your commitment to the examined life is actually one of the few beacons, along with Christ the coming Messiah, that save philosophy.

Yes, you actually save it from the tyranny of negating systems such as sophistry, skepticism, nihilism, and many others. Indeed, true philosophy is rarely practiced in my era, and it’s almost nonexistent in schools, universities, and philosophy departments.

Unfortunately, because you are a point of light and a kind of savior, you will have to suffer for this. But I’m only telling you because I have a feeling you already know…

PHA: This is the place to rest and discuss.

SOC: Indeed a lovely spot for a rest. The plane is very tall and spreading, and agnus-castus splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the air with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane; how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. The figures and other offerings show that the place is sacred to Achelous and some of the nymphs. I choose to lie down. Now read the speech of Lysias to me.

PHA: Why a lover not in love is preferable to lover who is in love. First, lovers repent the kindnesses they have shown when their passion abates, but for those not in love, there never comes a time for such regret. They behave generously, not under constraint, deliberately calculating their own interests.

Relieved from the disadvantages that being in love brings, nothing remains for them but to do cheerfully whatever they think will give their partners pleasure.

Second, lovers are apt to value any new love who comes along more than the old.

Third, lovers admit that they are mad, not sane; they know that they are not in their right minds but cannot help themselves. How then can one expect that designs formed in such a condition will meet their approval when they come to their senses?

Fourth, if you choose the best from among your lovers, you will have few to choose from, but if you look for the one who suits you best in the world at large, you will have a wide field of choice, and so a much better chance of finding one worthy of your friendship.

The fifth point concerns reputation. Lovers are easily offended by on another and incur worse reputations than non-lovers.

Sixth, lovers are more prone to quarrels and jealousy than non-lovers.

Seventh, with lovers, physical attraction precedes knowledge of character or circumstances, so it is uncertain whether they will want to remain friends when their passion has cooled. But for those not in love, who were friends before they formed a liaison, are in no danger of finding their friendship diminished as a result of the satisfaction they have enjoyed.

Eighth, lovers approve words and actions that are far from excellent and praise things which do not deserve the name pleasant—passion impairs their judgment.

Ninth, those not in love have an eye more to future advantage than to present pleasure, thereby laying the foundation of lasting affection.

Tenth, if you are possessed by the notion that firm friendship is impossible unless one is in love, then we should have little regard for our sons, fathers, and mothers.

And the eleventh and final point is that it is not the most insistent suitor that one should favor, such as a desperate lover, but one best able to make a return.

Well, what do you think of my speech, Socrates and David, isn’t it a wonderful piece of work, especially the diction?

SOC: More than wonderful. Divine. I concentrated on you and saw how what you were reading put you in a glow. I followed your example and joined in the ecstasy, you inspired man.

PHA: Do you think this is a laughing matter?

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

DAV: I’m having trouble taking you seriously, too, Socrates.

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

PHA & DAV: No.

SOC: Well, approving of the speech’s matter is one thing, and its style another. If you want to approve of the former, it is you who must take the responsibility. I can only admire its style, the clarity, shapeliness, and precision with which every phrase is turned. The matter I don’t suppose even Lysias himself could think satisfactory.

DAV: This ought to be good.

SOC: It seems to me, Phaedrus and David, that he has said the same things two or three times over, either because he couldn’t find sufficient matter to produce variety or from sheer lack of interest in the subject. The speech struck me as youthful exhibitionism; an attempt to demonstrate how he could say the same thing in two or three different ways.

PHA: Nonsense, Socrates. If the speech has one merit above all others, it is that no single aspect of the subject worth mentioning has been omitted; no one could improve on it in either fullness or quality.

DAV: I have a feeling Socrates may be able to improve on it.

SOC: Wise women and men of old have written on the subject more soundly.

PHA: Who are they?
SOC: Either lovely Sappho or wise Anacreon or some prose writers. And I can compose a better speech because I, in my ignorance, have been filled with external inspiration, like a jar from a spring.

DAV: Your acknowledgment of those who have come before is both humbling and vital to the great conversation. Nothing is new under the sun. We all absorb and build from those who have come before. I am excited for your speech.

SOC: Come, shrill Muses, help me in my tale. In every discussion, there is only one way of beginning in order to come to a sound conclusion—that is to know what one is discussing.

DAV: You must mean the crucial topic of Definition in the canon of Invention.

SOC: Right. Most people are unaware that they are ignorant of the essential nature of their subject. Believing that they know it, they do not begin their discussion by agreeing about their use of terms, so as they proceed they fall into self-contradictions and misunderstandings.

Do not let us make the same mistake. The subject we are discussing is whether the friendship of a lover or non-lover is preferable. Let us begin by agreeing upon a definition of the nature and power of love and keep this before our eyes as we debate whether love does good or harm.

Love is a kind of desire. But we know that one does not have to be in love to desire what is beautiful.

In each of us there are two ruling and impelling principles whose guidance we follow: a desire for pleasure, which is innate; and an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence.

Sometimes these two are in agreement within us and sometimes at variance. The conviction which impels us toward excellence is rational, and the power by which it masters us we call self-control; the desire which drags us toward pleasure is irrational and when it gets the upper hand in us its dominion is called excess.

The conclusion to which all this is leading is obvious. When the irrational desire that prevails over the conviction which aims at right is directed at the pleasure derived from beauty, and in the case of physical beauty powerfully reinforced by the appetites which are akin to it, so that it emerges victorious, it takes its name from the very power with which it is endowed and is called eros or passionate love.

Now, let me summarize Lysias’s speech. The man who is under pleasure and a slave to pleasure will inevitably try to derive the greatest pleasure possible from the object of his passion. Hence, he will wish for his object to be inferior in all ways— in intelligence, in physical appearance and bearing, in possession of wealth, in number of friends and family members—so he can ensure total dependence from the object.

There is no kindness in the friendship of a lover; its object is the satisfaction of an appetite, like the appetite for food. One who is in love is faithless, morose, jealous, and disagreeable, and will do harm to one’s estate,  harm to one’s physical health, and harm above all to one’s spiritual development, of which nothing is or ever will be more precious in the sight of God and man. There, my speech is over.

DAV:  So you agree with Lysias? I detect a strong level of irony in your speech, Socrates. For one, it seems too “ingenious and labored,” to use your words about the pundits from earlier. It seems you’ve made an effort to trim love of its wings to fit it into a physical and rational box. I’d like to hear a speech from you in favor of love and being in love.

PHA: I also expect to hear just such a speech. For some reason, I don’t feel like you’re showing all of your cards…

SOC: OK, I confess, that even while I was speaking some time ago I felt a certain uneasiness; I was afraid that I might be ‘purchasing honor with men at the price of offending the gods’. Now I see where I went wrong.

PHA & DAV: Where?

SOC: Our speeches were dreadful, guys, dreadful—both the speech of Lysias and the speech you made me utter. They were silly and more than a little blasphemous. What could be worse than that?

DAV: Even the speeches themselves lacked love. What you are about to say is what I came here to hear. Let it fly!

[The rest of our conversation on that lovely spring day outside of Athens will be revealed in a subsequent post.]

A Review? More of an Homage.

The new year begins for our Apprenticeship on Monday and because of a late cancellation we have one difficult to fill seat remaining. While I would invite you to pray that the seat fills, that is not the real purpose of this post, which is to comment on David Hicks book Norms and Nobility.

I would like to say I discovered this book, but the truth is that it was forced upon me. When, in 1994, I began to research in earnest the meaning of classical education, I entered the term into the computer of the Concordia University library.

The title Norms and Nobility came up, but the description seemed so unpromising and my interests were so directed to what was done in the ancient world as opposed to what we ought to do now that I ignored it.

I tried another phrase, perhaps classical learning. One book: Norms and Nobility.

Yet another. One book.

No matter how I tried to phrase my search, even “classical education in the ancient world,” or “classical learning among the Greeks,” or “classical education as understood by Plato in 385 BC and not including anything David Hicks has to say about it,” every time I hit that enter key, one book came up.

It was as if the computer was possessed.

Finally, I let out a sigh, sagged my shoulders a little, and wrote the code.

I walked over to the shelf where the computer insisted this book was waiting for me and there it sat, all by itself, in a coarse blue hardback cover.

Norms and Nobility.

I sluggishly pulled it forward, so sluggishly that it dropped to the floor, where I started kicking it out of the aisle toward a nearby table. Arriving at the table, I grudgingly, perhaps even bitterly, bent over to pick it up, grabbing a corner in complete disregarding indifference to the well-being of the spine.

At this point, my appetites were much more interested in food than in Nobility and Norms or whatever, so I yawned a bit, stretched a bit more, and left the library to seek the life found hidden in a Snickers bar.

Feeling a bit better, I strolled back up the three flights of stairs and returned to my table.

The book was gone.

I didn’t care much about the Noble Norms or whatever, but I was pretty irritated about the inconvenience its disappearance caused me. I had a paper to write, dang it, and this was the only book the stoopid modernized library computer could find for me.

So I went back a little peavishly to the shelf from which I had pulled it earlier.

It wasn’t there either.

My peave was no longer little. Now I was downright upset. What a waste of my precious sacred time this book was proving to be.

So I went to the libariarians desk, which I could scarcely approach without thinking of that terrifying scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Jimmy Stewart is looking for Donna Reed only to learn from Clarence that, God have mercy, “She’s in the LIBRARY!” and I cautiously approached this poor forlorn creature and demanded of her where my book had gone.

She said it was back on the shelf, “Were you still needing it?”

No, I put it on my table because I’m such a Noble Norm. I didn’t say it, and therefore it is not in quotes, but I wanted to.

What I did say was, “No, it’s not, I just looked there, it’s not there.”

“Yes, it is, I just put it there,” she said. 

I was already married, so I couldn’t continue to flirt with her.  “I just checked,” I said, one last time, in my most savagely polite voice.

She huffed a bit and lifted her delicate frame resolutely from her librarian’s chair behind her librarian’s desk and puffed her way past me like a wisp of smoke and walked over to the wrong aisle.

“That’s the wrong aisle,” I tossed before her tread.

“No it’s not,” she repudiated.

She stepped down the aisle and pulled out the very same book I had dropped on the floor earlier and let it drop on the floor and walked back to her desk without another word.

“Dang,” I thought. She was right. So I kicked the book back toward the table, picked it up by its scruffy ears, and tossed it back on the table.

This time I opened it and began reading. At the beginning, which is terribly unusual for me.

“Ten years ago I wrote the book you are about to read,” said the Preface to the 1990 edition, and I thought, “What is this, some kind of David Copperfield plup? And what makes him so sure I’m going to read this book anyway?”

I forced myself onward, but I can’t say I really became interested until I got to the fourth paragraph where he wrote:

This is not a book about ancient education. it is about an ancient ideal expressed as “classical education” against which the modern school is weighed and found wanting.”

Now, I had grown up in this modern school and we had had a very uneasy relationship. I liked most of my teachers, enjoyed going to school for the most part, and learned a bit here and there. But I knew from around 7th grade on that it was a fraud for two reasons.

One, because on occasion they would herd the hundreds of us into the cafeteria where we would be given standardized surveys that asked us about things that were none of their business and we couldn’t help but laugh at the patheticness of their open manipulation of our minds.

Two, because twice between grades 7 and 9 the teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools went on strike. This put me in an interesting bind. I had been told repeatedly how important education was. I had always been told repeatedly how important I (you know, the future and all that) was. Occasionally, teachers and principles even tried to tell us they cared about us.

Well, I was a kid, I couldn’t work these things out. To me, the message was: either school doesn’t matteror we don’t care about you.

I concluded both, though I always had individual teachers with whom I enjoyed conversing.

But I got Hicks point. The modern school is wanting.

One thing I have always loved is learning. That is why I’ve never respected systems schooling. It’s too hard to learn in such a setting.

So when I read

The tacher, not the curriculum, needs to be the focus of reform. The greatest value of the curriculum proposed in this book, I now believe, is that it sustains and nurtures teachers as practioners of the art of learning while discouraging non-learners from entering the profession.

I thought maybe this Hicks guy might have something to say after all.

By 1994 I was just about old enough to figure out that the really important questions don’t have easy answers and that the answers they have have to be adapted to circumstances. So I was touched when Hicks spoke of The Rector of Justin as a novel that raises “the sort of questions that possess a wisdom apart from answers.”

I was beginning to sense that this Mr. Hicks was almost as insightful as I was.

Then he started talking knowingly about Polybius and Livy, Montaigne and St. Augustine. He was able to critique in a sentence the flaws in the thinking of men like Hegel, Comte, Marx, Darwin, and Freud (some of whom I had heard of!).

Every now and then he’d throw out a wise metaphor, like

Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago, drawing from springs too deep for taint the strength to turn our cultural retreat into advance.

and I’d have to admit Mr. Hicks was worth listening to.

I couldn’t put the book down, but everything he said demanded so much reflection.

Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language adn of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry. The inqiry dictates the form of instruction and establishes the moral framework for thought adn action.

Before long I realized that I had hardly smelled, much less tasted the inner life and soul, the living truth and penetrating beauty, the soul-transforming goodness of what classical education could be.

Soon my spirit was soaring into worlds of virtue and truth, straining to see the tyrannizing image of the ideal man and how a child can be equpped to see or blinded to the vision of this ideal, meditating on the place of the sciences and what can be learned through the senses, rearranging my mind and the ideas that furnished it to attempt to grasp a way of thinking that had room for both truth and Socratic instruction, dwelling on the possibility that a Mozart is born in every neighborhood, and seeing that in fact, only the Christian tradition can fulfil the potential of education (which is to produce a human being).

It wasn’t long before this vision of Nobility in education had brought me to the point of metanoia, of repentence and turning around, and I realized that the computer had pushed me in the direction of a book that itself belonged in the great conversation.

This morning, I picked up Mr. Hicks book again, reading for the apprenticeship, where we use it as a text book. I felt like a child again. Or maybe a patient just having been through surgery, when the bandages are taken off the eyes. It is still too bright for me. I still can’t see it all.

But how beautiful it is; how true; how good.

I have made it my mission to ensure that every possible human being reads this book. At CiRCE we have sold hundreds of copies at a steep discount to the market price because it needs to be read. It needs to be digested. It needs to absorbed.

It needs to be done.

Norms and Nobility is the best and most important book written on education since CS Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943.