Xenophon’s Praise of Socrates

Would that some would speak thus of me:

Socrates was so useful in all circumstances and in all ways, that any observer gifted with ordinary perception can see that nothing was more useful than the companionship of Socrates, and time spent with him in any place and in any circumstances. The very recollection of him in absence brought no small good to his constant companions and followers; for even in his light moods they gained no less from his society than when he was serious.

~Xenophon, Memorabilia Book IV.


Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.

Why Study History? Part IIId: History Helps in Moral Formation

Note: This is the seventh post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous three posts I argued that history provides the early content of thought, the only means by which the student may understand themselves in their current society, and it teaches universal principles of human nature. We now come to the last function of history in education: Moral Formation.

230px-Tacitus01This function, Tacitus calls “history’s highest function:” “My purpose is not to relate at length every motion, but only such as were conspicuous for excellence or notorious for infamy. This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be commemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds” (548). In reading about those who have come before them, students are shaped by the example of great people and cautioned by those of ill-repute. Perhaps the most striking example of this in ancient literature is Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. According to Plutarch, the reading or studying of history affects the one studying. That is, there is no distancing the subject from the material. Necessarily, we are affected by what we study, and the studying of peoples and events of the past forms the student. Says Plutarch,

But virtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. … Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is no sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice, and influences the mind and character not by a mere imitation which we look at, but by the statement of the fact creates a moral purpose which we form. (Lives, 122)

That one cannot help but be affected by the study of history is further evidenced by Plutarch who claims that while he wrote The Lives for the sake of others, he was himself greatly affected by their study: “I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life” (195). In a like manner, Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography or history of a single individual, is written partially with this view of the function of history in mind:

Physician of my soul, make me see clearly how it profits me to do this. You have forgiven my past sins and drawn a veil over them, and in this way you have given me happiness in yourself, changing my life by faith and your sacrament. But when others read of those past sins of mine, or hear about them, their hearts are stirred so that they no longer lie listless in despair, crying “I cannot.” Instead their hearts are roused by the love of your mercy and the joy of your grace, by which each one of us, weak though he be, is made strong, since by it he is made conscious of his own weakness. And the good are glad to hear of the past sins of others who are now free of them. They are glad, not because those sins are evil, but because what was evil is now evil no more. (90-91)

From this brief survey, the place of history in education is fourfold: (1) to enable one to learn and think generally, (2) to understand ourselves and our present condition, (3) to plan for the future, and (4) to form the student morally by example and cautionary tale.

What will be shown next is that these four essential roles of history have not been enough to save it from certain philosophical shifts in education from displacement in the modern curriculum.

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge
Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs and Disciplines
Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles

Why Study History? Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles

Note: This is the Sixth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous two posts I argued that history provides the early content of thought and the only means by which the student may understand themselves in their current society.

The third function of History in education is that History functions to discover and teach the universal principles of human nature that enables the student to plan for the future. “Consider the past,” says Marcus Aurelius, “[that] thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now” (Meditations, 267). Similarly argues Gibbon, “History…undertakes to record the transactions of the past, for the instruction of future ages”(Decline and Fall, 211). That is, because human nature is everywhere and always the same, the student of history may learn from the achievements and failures of previous generations. Machiavelli, in giving advice for the preservation of the state, makes continual reference to historical precedents to justify his claims. Granted, Machiavelli sees the lesson of history that the prince ought to be willing to do evil in order to preserve the state. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s principle is sound: to plan for the future, learn from the past.

220px-James_MadisonLikewise, in considering the nature and form that the U.S. Constitution should take, Madison and others made a thorough study of constitutions of the past, noting what worked, what did not work, and why. In defending the Constitution during the debate over ratification, the Federalist essays of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (like Machiavelli), make continual reference to historical precedent to justify why the Constitution took the shape it did, and why it was superior to all previous forms. These historical considerations were made because, says John Jay, “We may profit by their experience without paying the price which it cost them” (Federalist No. 5, 37). Planning for the future without consulting the past is foolish at best and disastrous at worst. Thus Santayana’s oft quoted maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge
Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs and Disciplines

Happy Birthday to Wendell Berry!

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~Wendell Berry (1934 – )