Hospitality to Truth

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This is an Altum essay. 

The history of classical education, beginning with its inception in ancient Greece, has been characterised by a generous hospitality to truth, no matter its origin. Plato acknowledged that much of Greek wisdom was borrowed from the Egyptians. Aristotle travelled across the world with Alexander the Great, gathering knowledge as he went. Romans such as Virgil, Horace, and Cicero openly imitated and appropriated the riches of Greek thought, as did the Jews during the hellenistic period leading up to and including the time of Christ. Cultural influence also went the other way: Egypt was hellenized, the Greeks adopted Roman law, and both Greece and Rome eventually took to their bosom the Jewish Tanakh as Christian scripture. 

Early Christians wholeheartedly embraced this same wilful eclecticism and generous hospitality. St Justin the Martyr famously declared that the Word of God was like a seed that had been spread not in one place and time only, but across fertile fields in every time and place, leaving traces of genuine reason and wisdom wherever this “rational seed” (spermatikos logos) had taken root. Clement of Alexandria, the most brilliant and erudite of the early post-Apostolic Christian writers, wrote of Christian theology as the “true philosophy” that freely borrowed from each of the great pagan philosophical schools without slavishly adhering to the doctrines of any one of them. And St Basil the Great, in his “Letter to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature” tells his proteges to “be like the bee,” seeking truth and beauty wherever it may be found, as the honey bee gathers nectar from the most beautiful, fragrant flowers of every field and hedgerow.

As I have written in a previous essay, the term “classical” is broader in scope than many people both within and without the classical education movement often seem to realize. A classical education should be concerned with what is classicus, that is, of the first class, the greatest excellence. It is not inherently limited to the civilizations of Western Europe, nor by any particular time period. Educators may choose to focus on the heritage of a particular part of the world, but this is a pragmatic and contextual choice, not an essential one. In fact, I would argue that a classical school, even a Christian classical school, would be well advised to teach as its central language Latin in North and South America and western Europe, Greek in eastern Europe, Ge’ez in Africa, Arabic in the Middle East, Sanskrit in India, classical Chinese in China, and so forth. 

Christian classical educators may at this point want to point to Christ as the key to all knowledge and and to Mary as the sedes sapientiae, the seat of wisdom. If this is true, it provides an even greater motivation to look beyond the borders of western European civilization. If Christ is the Divine Logos, “without whom was not anything made that was made” (John 1.3), should we not expect to find, as St Justin teaches, the spermatikos logos manifested as real goodness, truth, and beauty spread throughout the various cultures of the world? This is the same One, after all, who reveals himself through the heavens, visible to all (Ps. 19) and indeed through all of creation at every moment. Should we not expect to find Magi invisibly wandering toward Bethlehem from every human habitation, clothed in every kind of garment, speaking with every strange tongue? 

Although it may seem strange or heretical to those who believe that classical education is inextricably tied to the Western tradition, the hospitality to truth that I am describing here is in no way novel within the actual history of the Western Christian tradition itself. To mention but one example, it was from its encounter with the Islamic world over several centuries that Latin Christendom received the lute and courtly love poetry (and thus the whole troubadour tradition that culminated in Dante’s Divine Comedy); the pointed arch (which became the central aesthetic motif of gothic architecture); and much of its knowledge of Greek science and philosophy (which thus made possible the grand synthesis of faith and knowledge in Thomas Aquinas). 

There is a temptation for classical educators to take a “circle the wagons” stance towards ideas perceived to be outside the bounds of western culture or the classical movement itself. As a reaction to the intellectual and cultural poverty of much of the secularized education system, the modern classical movement began with a reactive stance: we don’t want to be like those people. This was understandable in its context, but that merely reactive stance is an immature one that must be outgrown for the movement to thrive as more than a temporary weapon in the culture wars. 

Reaction alone can never lead to truth — only understanding, open inquiry, and intellectual hospitality to truth’s pilgrim course through all of human history can lead to a form of education rooted in transcendent values. To say otherwise is, paradoxically, to embrace a form of relativism (as Jacob Andrews argues very well) by denying both the human spirit’s natural yearning for God and creation’s ability to mediate divine truth to human reason. To insist on hard cultural boundaries for what can be considered a classical education turns the classical ideal from a perennial to a merely provincial one. 

Author John Carr, after attending the Graduate Institute at St John’s College, taught humanities, Greek, and Latin for several years in classical schools.  He recently left a homestead in the Green Mountains of Vermont to travel full-time with his family while homeschooling. 

Note: Guest bloggers share their own thoughts as classical educators and learners and do not represent or Classical Academic Press. If you are interested in writing guest blog content, please contact us with your name, connection to classical education, and ideas for a blog post.

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