Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator: hardly a household name. But I’d like to submit that this man is an unknown giant of history — a veritable historical heavyweight who ranks among St. Augustine in influence. That influence, however, was almost entirely indirect.
So what justification can I possibly offer for the importance of this minor 6th century scholar? Simple, he recorded, codified, preserved, and recommended the system of education in which every subsequent great author of the Western world would have been steeped: the Liberal Arts. To be educated in Christendom meant an education in the Liberal Arts. If we want to recover an authentically Catholic education, this is where we should look.
Let me take a step back and explain. The Liberal Arts are criminally misunderstood in our day. The term is often associated with literature (not a Liberal Art), philosophy (also not a Liberal Art), the humanities (which subjects are human?), or perhaps the study of a little bit of everything (not entirely wrong), or in its worst meaning, useless or worthless subjects: jargon-riddled gender ideology or banal pop-culture studies (definitely not the Liberal Arts).
In fact, the Liberal Arts are specific, objective, and not particularly artistic. They are, in order: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric (comprising the Trivium, or the first component) along with Mathematics, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music (comprising the Quadrivium, or the second level of education). Why Music along with the others? Because Music is number in time (Astronomy being number in space). Beginning with the ancient pagans, passing through dark-age scholars like Cassiodorus, and into the middle-ages, these subjects grounded students in a right interpretation of the cosmos. They are the studies, arts, for free men, the libera. And they are what you studied before moving on to natural philosophy (science), law, medicine, philosophy, or theology; that is, the Liberal Arts provided one’s general education.
But what does this have to do with Christianity? As Gui Freitas notes
, God’s simplicity prevents us from saying that he has
certain qualities, as if accidentally; rather he is
certain qualities. God is not true, as if he could possess a part of the higher reality called “truth”. Rather, God is the font of truth—truth itself.
The Liberal Arts are not merely a random grab-bag of truths, a pick-your-own-adventure of topics to be learned; rather, they are training in thinking truly. They are coherently, not just individually, true. The progression in the Trivium, from the vocabulary and basic rules of Grammar, to the field of Logic which reveals order by reason, to Rhetoric which concerns persuasion and beauty, assumes coherent truth. As they are general studies, they assume that certain things are always going to be the case. All P are Q. It may sound like a stretch, but this habit of thought—of believing in persistent truth—points us to the font of truth: to God.
The attempt to revive this tradition of the Liberal Arts usually goes by the name of “Classical” education. But too often I hear parents and even “classical” educators speak as if “Classical” education is one option among many. This is to fundamentally misunderstand what Classical education is. It is not Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic with some Latin vocab words thrown in. It is more than that. It is not simply a quaint educational option for Catholic Christians in the modern world; it is the education which helped to producecCatholicism and the modern world. It was the midwife of great minds. It taught St. Thomas Aquinas his dialectic, St. Augustine his rhetoric, and Shakespeare his Latin grammar (Shakespeare plays with English sentence structure as if it were Latin). Even the scholars who would eventually come to reject it in part or in whole--Francis Bacon, for instance--were educated within the tradition they destroyed. And virtually every great Catholic intellectual since the dark ages owes some of his or her own thoughts to this source.
So during this Catholic Schools’ Week, I recommend to you a style of education that is not merely nominally Catholic (i.e., a school modelled after every other public school, but with a Saint’s name on the sign) but one that is essentially Catholic: a Catholic, classical education. In no way does this tradition mean ignoring new discoveries, accomplishments, or areas of knowledge. You can have microscopes and computer labs at a Classical school. It is, after all, a living tradition. Recall Chesterton’s definition of tradition: it is the democracy of the dead. Sure, the new guy should get a vote; but so, too, should all the old ones.
The belief that the world itself is imbued with truth is not really in vogue with our culture of self-creation. It is oddly rare to teach grammar-school students actual grammar, or middle-schoolers logical syllogisms, or to give St. Augustine to high-schoolers with a “Tolle lege!” You might get some strange looks at an education conference when you suggest that the measurable outcome by which you evaluate students is human flourishing. Classical education is certainly against the mainstream, but as Chesterton once wrote, only a living thing can swim against the tide.