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Education for an Eternal Kingdom

How Classical Christian Education Can Teach Us What’s Truly Great

“Aeneas sank his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest.
Then all the body slackened in death’s chill,
And with a groan for that indignity
His spirit fled into the gloom below.”

Vergil. Aeneid. XII. 1295 - 1298

“It’s called a whisker,” the esteemed sociologist told me, pointing at a series of PowerPoint slides with dots spattered across the Cartesian plane like a piece of bad modern art. The dots had horizontal lines shot through them. These were whiskers.

It was a beautiful day, several years ago now, and the quieted Notre Dame campus was in the full flush of God’s yearly exhalation. The dead embers of the recently-dormant campus ground were now being whispered into a stunning blaze of colors. And here I was, a senior researcher for a think tank, stuck in a windowless board room staring at dots and whiskers on screens upon screens.

“The whisker is significant,” he went on, “because it tells us the variations of responses for each variable. Therein lies the story!” He was excited. Too excited I thought. To the untrained eye—to my eye, at the time—these slides were like ancient hieroglyphics: amusing to look at, but meaningless. There was no story I could discern. What was unique about the data was that we were not just interested in what kind of jobs graduates had, or how much money they made. Rather, we wanted to know their habits and dispositions, their marital and family status, and how much they gave to charity and served the community.

Driving this research project was a simple question: Did the school sector you attended in your youth shape the kind of man or woman you became? I won't get into the more wonky and technical side of the data procurement that allowed “school sector” to be isolated from other variables (like socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, etc.). But that summer, after the initial migraine had subsided from taking a crash course in statistics and data analysis, the story in the slides slowly started to emerge. And part of the story was that graduates in Canadian Christian schools were not likely to be in positions of cultural influence. They were, broadly speaking, less likely than graduates of other sectors to be politicians, cultural influencers, or even wealthy CEOs of companies. As we sat around with academics, pollsters, sociologists, and statisticians, the question was how we would frame this narrative in the report. Why did it seem that graduates from this sector were not excelling? Why were they not excellent? Why were they not, by all the metrics our survey was meant to track, great?

Excellence. The Greek’s called it arete, a word which later Christians would translate as virtue. Their literature is filled with characters who embody it. When the Greeks were overtaken by Rome, their cultural influence endured and, in many ways, the notion of excellence, or virtue, persisted in Roman literature, which was a main source of educational formation. There was no sociological data, thank heavens, to track how effective this was, but part of a training in excellence required inculcation into a literary and cultural tradition that held excellence on display. Story revealed a greatness worthy of imitation.

During Rome’s imperial phase, a young Roman’s education would inevitably lead to an encounter with Aeneas, survivor of decimated Troy and founder of Roma, the eternal city. The young Roman would learn of the Trojan war by way of the Greek Homeric epics, to be sure, but in addition to The Iliad and The Odyssey, young boys and girls would learn the tales of Aeneas by memorizing vast swaths of Vergil’s Latin epic, The Aeneid.

Commissioned by Caesar Augustus—yes, the same Augustus whose decree of a census would send a lowly carpenter and his pregnant wife off to some nondescript town in the furthest reaches of the empire—the story of Aeneas was meant to be instructive and formative for young Romans. For a well-heeled Roman, not only was Vergil’s account a primer of the most exquisite use of Latin, but it provided an education in theology, philosophy, and history, while also attending to the more practical matters of hospitality and statecraft. The epic provided Romans with a mythology fit for an empire seeking not only dominance, but a new era of peace, a Pax Romana that might put an end to endless war. The epic did not simply tell a story for entertainment but revealed a form of life worthy of admiration and praise, and worthy of imitation. Aeneas, then, was an exemplar of the distinctly Roman ideal for the good life: courageous, eloquent, wise, crafty, industrious, and disciplined.

But above all, Vergil reiterates that Aeneas is pious. Piety for the Romans was not the priggish self-righteousness that the word might connote today. Rather, in Vergil’s sense, pietas was to be duty-bound to something greater than the self, such as the will of the gods or the good of the State. This is Roman excellence.

For this reason, Aeneas spurns (okay: eventually spurns) the sexual wiles of the Carthaginian Queen Dido and the tempting lure to rule alongside her. No matter how much Aeneas might want these things, they are not the role the gods have prescribed for him. He must sacrifice his security and even his bodily pleasures and submit to his God-given task of seeing the new Troy founded. There’s a lot to Aeneas’ Roman piety that a Christian might rightly admire.

But Roman pietas was also justification for merciless cruelty. In the final scene of the epic, Aeneas and Turnus, the prince of the Rutulians, engage in hand-to-hand combat for the fate of the Latin people. Aeneas eventually gains the upper hand and holds his enemy’s life in his hands. Turnus bravely accepts his fate, but not without making one final appeal to Aeneas for mercy to spare his life. Aeneas considers briefly but opts for vengeance and plunges his sword deep into the heart of his enemy. The earth is awash in blood. Troy—that enduring symbol of human ingenuity, power, and strife—rises anew in the form of Rome.

The epic ends here, abruptly. How it might have concluded if Vergil had lived a while longer is scholarly speculation. Regardless, the epic, in its current form profoundly shaped the moral imagination of the burgeoning Empire that would rule the Western world with bureaucratic sophistication, awe-inspiring opulence, and an ironclad fist for centuries to come.

“Dad, was Aeneas a good man?” My daughter asked this at dinner the other night. She is in third grade. In their school, they are studying Ancient history and being introduced to some of the earliest stories in cultural memory. They are learning about Genesis and the Old Testament alongside children’s versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Code of Hammurabi, and, yes, The Aeneid. Like the early Greeks and Romans, we too want our children’s imaginations furnished with characters worthy of admiration and imitation.

Our daughter and her brothers attend Oak Hill Academy, a classical Christian school my wife and I helped start here in our hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. There are a few reasons that we and our small-but-growing community are intrigued by the classical Christian model, not least of which is our desire to nurture eight-year-olds capable of even asking such questions. Because one aspect of the classical model of education we love is its desire to intentionally introduce our children to some of the greatest literature and thought in the human tradition.

Image: Calogero Agrò

Now I consider myself fairly well educated. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Education, and two graduate degrees: a Master’s and a Doctorate. However, for none of these degrees was I required to read or even be remotely familiar with The Iliad or The Odyssey; Plato or Socrates or Epicurus; Homer or Hesiod; Aeschylus or Sophocles; Herodotus, Livy, or Eusebius; Vergil or Cicero; not to mention, Jerome, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Dante. The list goes on.

My understanding of this philosophical, religious, aesthetic, and literary tradition was self-taught outside the curriculum expectations of the primary, secondary, and multiple post-secondary schools I attended. There are still many gaps. I am now an Assistant Professor at Redeemer University where I teach portions from such texts in a Core program designed, in part, to introduce students (many for the first time) to the riches that precede them. Unfortunately for most of my students, and even many of my colleagues, such omissions in Canadian education—private, Christian, or otherwise—have been the rule, not the exception. One student at the end of our semester frustratedly asked the question—a question that should burn for anyone who’s discovered late in life what’s been withheld from them—“Why did no one tell us about this inheritance?”

I like this idea of an inheritance, and even the delightful presumption that it’s ours. Indeed, something of value is being gifted to us in such works. Of course, this is not to say the inheritance is beyond question or critique. There are ideas and assumptions that might—and often should—offend and scandalize us. (Whether or not Aeneas is a “good man” still needs an answer, I know!). But the pervasive hermeneutic of suspicion, employed in many institutions of higher learning, has helped to castigate such texts from the curriculum wholesale. On top of this, a utilitarian vision for education and economic crises have often gutted the curriculum of such content in favor of employable hard and soft skills.

But if and when you journey with Dante to the Beatific vision at the end of Paradiso or you hear the comforting music of Lady Philosophy to Boethius as he awaits his untimely death; and if you cringe to hear the wicked wisdom Nicolo Machiavelli bestows on a young Prince or get lost in the deliciously rebellious rhetoric of Milton’s Satan; you must ask yourself: what sort of culture would hold back such riches—even with their flaws—from the next generation? And what might be the consequences of this great withholding?

Education is the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. It really is that simple. And when we eliminate such texts from the culture we pass on, we are all the poorer for it. But more, the child who becomes the adult with little to no sense of the past is uprooted from time, captivated by a pervasive presentism that lends itself to both ennui and shock, malaise and hysteria. Cultivating a healthy knowledge and, dare I say, a reverence of what has come before us, roots us in healthy ways to our place and time, our here and now. With the right education, this inheritance truly can be, and should be, ours. But was Aeneas a good man?

“The good man speaking well.” At the Regents School of Austin, you’ll find these words carved in the beautiful yellow-brown limestone of their Rhetoric building. Regents is a classical Christian school and this phrase, deceptively simple as it seems, is perhaps the best summation of what classical Christian education is after and why it’s so urgently needed today. The telos of classical education is the cultivation of good, virtuous, wise people.

The engraved phrase comes from Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, a thorough compendium of oratorical theory building on Greek thought from Isocrates and Roman predecessors like Cato and, of course, Cicero. For Quintilian, oratory should not be detached from virtue or character. An eloquent person who lacked virtue was monstrous, a clever devil. Or, as the Apostle Paul phrased it to his Corinthian audience: “You might speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but if you have not love, you are just a resounding gong.” But did the Romans really know what it meant to be good?

When Christianity overtook paganism as the dominant religion of the Roman empire, it might not surprise us that the education of Antiquity became problematic for the early Church. Some Christians even advocated that the writings of folks like Vergil and Quintilian should be discarded in favor of the gospels and Pauline epistles and early Church Fathers. But Augustine, a North African Bishop from the 4th century, advocated a more nuanced and charitable approach to the very good accomplishments of the God-denying pagans he, at least, cherished from his education.

These works, he believed, prepared his heart for the good news of Christ. For Augustine, the inarguable goods of the pagan classical world, then, should be considered like the Egyptian gold the Israelites used to adorn their temple. While the Egyptians wrongfully used it in false worship, the gold was gold, nonetheless. It might be still be used in service to the living God. The trick was learning how to look and see, listen and hear what is true, good, and beautiful and knowing that any such things come only from God, their source.

Remarkably, Augustine advocated for this charitable approach to the founding literature of Rome as the idea of Rome was starting to crumble, and the ever-precarious Pax Romana was coming to a violent end. With the sacking of Rome, Augustine knew first-hand how temporal the eternal city really was. To Augustine, Rome was not what Vergil or Augustus or any of the Romans educated in that particular tradition imagined it to be. Despite all its goodness, Rome—and Aeneas its founder—embodied the libido dominandi, the lust for domination. For Augustine and the early Christian church, Rome epitomized the City of Man that waged eternal war against the City of Heaven. It was a Roman cross that held a dying Christ. It was Romans, Matthew’s gospel records, who laughed and mocked, tortured and killed the son of God. The final thrust of Aeneas’ sword is the endgame of Roman pietas. The dying breath of Christ is the endgame of Christian pietas.

As the leaves turned and the data report on graduate outcomes neared completion, it became increasingly apparent that our late-modern world had shared assumptions about what made a graduate great. And even a Christian think tank was not immune from imbibing some of these default cultural assumptions. There was a tacit picture of what success looked like: marriage, family, piety, to be sure, but we also wanted (even if we were afraid to say it), status, influence, power, celebrity. We live in the Pax Americana, the long, dubious, precarious peace of the postwar world. And in this world the aspirations we have—or have for our children—are shaped and misshaped by the culture and its false gods. When we long for greatness, even with the best of intentions, do we know what we are longing for?

The twentieth century witnessed the libido dominandi potently in the Third Reich. Nazi Germany was really only one more manifestation of the new Rome and Adolf Hitler—talk about eloquent devils— the strong arm of a new Aeneas sent to usher in the imperial might of a new empire for a new Germany. But nothing is new. In the chaos of the second world war and displaced by German occupation, the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil reflected on what the rise of Nazi Germany and the collapse of the French meant. In The Need for Roots, Weil argued in 1943—with no clear end or victory in sight—that the terror of the Germans and the easy destruction of the French were related phenomena. Both sides, she argued, lacked the proper moorings of a moral education. Both French and German youth had grown indifferent to, and even unashamedly supportive of, power-hungry demagogues.

How, she wondered in 1943 before the war’s end, could the West survive if an entire population—Christian and otherwise—truly believed Hitler, in all his vicious might was not just a good man, but a great man who could, in turn, make a nation great? Weil argued there was only one solution, and it had to do with education: “The only punishment capable of punishing Hitler, and deterring little boys thirsting for greatness in coming centuries from following his example, is such a total transformation of the meaning attached to greatness that he should thereby be excluded from it.”

Weil wanted an education that would help her generation survive the war. Today, we still need this education to help us survive our peace. And a classical Christian education must never lose the accent on its second modifier. As a Christian education it is not merely about introducing our children to the human tradition, but guiding them through it by the illuminating truth of God’s revealed Word. Such an education aspires to cultivating a good person by offering a vision of goodness—of greatness—that turns the hellbent logic of the City of Man on its head. When Christ came to usher in His Kingdom, he entered a world dominated by Rome. Like Augustus, Christ too desired an eternal kingdom and a lasting peace. But He ushered it in as a weak child, a friend of outcasts, living in a remote corner of the world. After ministering for several years, He gave himself up to be betrayed by His people and, finally, was crushed under the yoke of Rome’s pious might.

Was Aeneas a good man? Do we see ourselves in him? While there is much that is admirable in Aeneas, he must be turned inside out first. We, as natural born children of the City of Man, must also be turned around, converted, transformed. We must be set on another way. And that is what Christ came to do, to turn Roma inside out and show the way of Amor, of love. If our children, through their education, can encounter such greatness, desire it, praise, admire, imitate it: then they are ready to live in the City of Man as citizens of the City of God.

Doug Sikkema
Writer & Professor

Doug is Assistant Professor of English and the Core Program at Redeemer University, Research Fellow in Education with Cardus, editor with Front Porch Republic & Board Chair of Oak Hill Academy

Ekstasis is a publication and community that seeks to revive the Christian imagination by publishing work that slants toward the triumphant and glorious aspects of life in Christ, framed through the arts and literature.

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