Education, classically understood, is about the formation of the soul by cultivating virtue and wisdom. In our last post, we saw that in pursuit of virtue we ought to exercise our affections like muscles, training and stretching ourselves to grow a greater capacity to appreciate and delight in works of excellence.
Augustine said that the character of the soul is assessed not by what a man knows, but by what he loves, because you can know the right thing to do, but if you don’t love the good more than you love what you’re being tempted by, you’ll stray from goodness every time.
Related to this understanding of virtue is Thomas Aquinas’ articulation of one of the key goals of education as the ability to “order things rightly.”
But in order to order things rightly, you must know their relative worth, and in order to know the relative worth of things, you must know their true or ultimate worth. As Aquinas also pointed out, you cannot say that anything is “better” or “worse” unless you have some ultimate standard that gives meaning to those terms. Something is “better” if it approximates whatever good you are relating it to better than the thing which is “worse.” — Martin Cothran
This principle refers to what is often known as the transcendentals—Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. That is the idea that there are transcendent, (meaning outside or beyond human experience and limits), objective, absolute standards of truth, goodness, and beauty. And so a common definition of education in the classical education world is “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.”
This brings us, then, to wisdom.
Wisdom teaches you “not only the distinction between the true and the false, but how to tell the more important truths from the less important ones; not only the difference between the good and the bad, but how to distinguish between the more important goods and the less important ones; not only the difference between the beautiful and the ugly, but how to determine the difference between the more and the less beautiful.” — Martin Cothran
Allow me to use King Solomon as a paradigm for this discussion. The modern utilitarian would find Solomon foolish because he chose wisdom over wealth. When Solomon became king of Israel, God told him to ask what he would of God and God would grant it. Solomon asked for wisdom, and an understanding heart, to discern between good and evil so that he could govern God’s people justly. The Scriptures say that it pleased God that Solomon asked for this, and God blessed him because of it. Solomon in his many writings extols the virtue of seeking wisdom, of prizing understanding and discernment.
In the introduction to Solomon’s Proverbs, where he states the purpose of his writing, he says, “to know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing… to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance… The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, wisdom and instruction fools despise.”
Notice that one of the marks of wisdom is to value the pursuit of wisdom. Solomon returns to this theme throughout his writings, and I’d like to draw a few applications from this in the next post.
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