Natural Science: God’s Second Book

While not numbered among the seven liberal arts, natural science has long been part of a classical education. At its core, natural science involves observing the world around us as God has created it. Now because we believe that the world is a creation wrought through the Word of God, our understanding of natural science will differ from the secular view, both in what we seek to learn from the world and what we do with our knowledge of it.

The Church has long understood nature to be God’s second book – second, that is, to the Holy Scriptures. While nature does not tell us that God is Triune, or that the Son of God gave his life for us, nature is by no means silent about its great Artificer. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” David sings in Psalm 19, “and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4).

And what is it that nature says? When commenting on the folly of idolatry in Romans 1, Paul notes how the created world testifies to the true and living God – not just to Christians, but to everyone: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” The creation teaches us that there is a God, and that he is powerful, and it even shows us some of his unseen qualities. Let us reflect on a few of the things which we learn from nature.

God’s Eternal Power

One of the first things we learn from nature is God’s eternal power. Reading his second book is and ought to be a humbling experience. Such study leads us to ask: Who has founded such a world? Who stretched out the heavens over us as a tent? Who sets the clouds on high and looses stores of rain and snow and hail? Who carved the great canyons of the earth, and with what arm and graving tool did he do it? Who spread out the seas, and who can plumb their depths? The roots of the mountains and the sources of the deeps are still a mystery to us, yet certain creatures have strength enough to inhabit such realms; how much greater their Maker?

Which of us can look up at a mountain without feeling small? Which of us can weather a storm without feeling powerless? Which of us can turn on enough lamps or light enough fires to drown out the darkness of night? Which of us can escape the heat of summer or the cold of winter? Or does the thermostat make us demigods of our minuscule plots on the earth’s surface? Many prefer the indoors. It’s easy to control things there. It’s easy to feel big there. It’s easy to forget about God there, and pretend to be God there.

But God’s book of nature is never silent. We are creatures ourselves, and there’s no hiding that behind drywall and siding. And so Tertullian wrote in Carthage in the early third century AD, “God will never be hidden, God will never be absent: he will always be perceived, he will always be heard, and he will be seen in whatever manner he wills. God has his witnesses: this entire creation, which we are and in which we live” (Against Marcion, Book I, ch. 10).

Now God’s power may seem an odd starting point for the study of natural science. It sounds more churchy and less sciency. Perhaps I can clarify by defining what science means. The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, and simply means “knowledge.” Natural science, then, means “natural knowledge.” Now the fact that God is the “Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, tells us how we should approach natural science. Science is not something that we manufacture. Science is not man’s way of imposing his will on the world. But because God is Almighty and we are his creatures, therefore science is a gift that he gives and we receive. The study of natural science begins with turning a receptive eye to nature and seeking knowledge from someone greater than we are. The study of natural science begins by taking the world as it is, and not as we want it to be. The study of natural science begins with thanksgiving to the Creator, not with an effort to change the creation.

Orderliness and Providence

The next most obvious thing we might learn from nature is the orderliness of its Designer. The earth revolves on an axis and follows an orbital path. Every day the earth makes a full revolution on its axis – or rather I should say that because every revolution of the earth takes the same amount of time, we can have a standard of measure called “days.” The same can be said of our yearly circumnavigation around the sun. Likewise, the other heavenly bodies stay on their axes and paths, such that outer space resembles a very elegant ballroom graced with very coordinated dancers.

The seasons come and go in predictable cycles. Seeds produce the same kind of plant whence they came, so I can plant a bean and know that I’m going to get a bean plant, and not a dandelion or an oak tree. In this way the second book bears witness to the first: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself upon the earth: and it was so” (Gen. 1:11, emphasis added).

This orderliness shows us God’s providence. We can practice agriculture on the earth: we can plant seeds in the spring, knowing what kind of crop we can expect from them, and we can count on the early rains to water the earth and make it fruitful. We can rest securely, knowing that we’re not going to drift closer to the sun or have a ninety-seven hour day, either of which would wreak havoc on our fields (to say nothing of other catastrophes). We can assume that our crops will be safe from blizzards in the middle of July. We can rely on the maturing of the fruits of the earth, and the cool autumn that invigorates us for harvesting and completes the growth cycle and readies the earth for winter.

We see this same orderliness with animals, and again the second book testifies about the first: “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:25, emphasis added). Animals are made according to their kinds. A bird gives birth to a bird, and not a goldfish. A cow brings forth a calf, and not a lion. Again we see God’s providence in that we can practice animal husbandry.

Darwin’s Imagination

And here also the book of nature stands with the book of Scripture in denouncing evolution. Louis Agassiz was a brilliant natural scientist of the nineteenth century, to whom Charles Darwin sent a copy of his book On the Origin of Species. Agassiz critiqued Darwin’s work, and his critique carries the weight of a man who has actually spent a great deal of time looking at the world as it is, such that he can spot others who speak of the world as they wish it to be.

Agassiz wrote an article in 1874 for the Atlantic Monthly called “Evolution and Permanence of Type,” which still serves as one of the most concise and poignant reproaches of evolutionary doctrine. There are excellent quotes throughout his article; I’ll cite but a few of them:

[Darwin’s] doctrine appealed the more powerfully to the scientific world because he maintained it at first not upon metaphysical ground but upon observation. Indeed it might be said that he treated his subject according to the best scientific methods, had he not frequently overstepped the boundaries of actual knowledge and allowed his imagination to supply the links which science does not furnish….

[T]his book [On the Origin of Species] does but prove the more conclusively what was already known, namely, that all domesticated animals and cultivated plants are traceable to distinct species, and that the domesticated pigeons which furnish so large a portion of the illustration are, notwithstanding their great diversity under special treatment, no exception to this rule. The truth is, our domesticated animals, with all their breeds and varieties, have never been traced back to anything but their own species, nor have artificial varieties, so far as we know, failed to revert to the wild stock when left to themselves….

It is not true that a slight variation among the successive offspring of the same stock, goes on increasing until the difference amounts to a specific distinction. On the contrary, it is a matter of fact that extreme variations finally degenerate or become sterile; like monstrosities they die out, or return to their type.
(read the full article: ‘Evolution and Permanence of Type’)

Here is a natural scientist who actually gets his science (knowledge) from nature. While Darwin did include a great amount of natural science in his book, the links that string the science together into the doctrine of evolution are, as Agassiz says, products of Darwin’s own imagination. Plants and animals are firmly fixed in their kinds, and we praise our Creator for making the world an orderly place. This orderliness allows us to cultivate plants and animals. Indeed, the entire scientific endeavor depends on and assumes order, without which we could learn nothing absolute.

Beauty and Reality

Besides God’s power and orderliness, we also learn from nature that God is beautiful, and that there is such a thing as objective beauty. The Greeks called the world the κόσμος (cosmos), related to the verb κοσμέω (cosmeo), which means “to adorn” (it’s the same word from which we get the English word “cosmetics”). The world is “the adorned place.” It is decorated and beautified, and unlike the Greeks, we can name the God who did the beautifying.

The world’s adornment is objectively beautiful, not merely beautiful subjectively in the eye of the beholder. Who has ever watched a sunset and called it ugly? Who has ever thought fireflies twinkling in the dusk looked repulsive? People flock to islands and mountains and beaches and forests and lakes because these places are beautiful to behold. Going to them is like stepping into a glorious painting in which one can reach out and touch the brushstrokes.

The beauty of the world inspires us to wonder, to stand in awe of God. Man can only manufacture poor spectacles in comparison with the spectacles that God has given us in nature. A single maple leaf changing colors in autumn is a more wonderful sight than anything man can devise, and there’s no substitute for holding the leaf yourself. Man-made spectacles tend to serve false gods – simply consider what happens in stadiums and movie theaters. The Church has long combatted idolatrous spectacles, preferring instead the spectacles of nature, which put us in awe of the one true God.

There is a certain treatise called De Spectaculis (On the Spectacles), attributed to Cyprian of Carthage, who lived early in the third century AD. The treatise argues how unseemly it is for Christians to love the world’s spectacles: the races and games and theatrical productions. We would do well to be as guarded against the world’s entertainment, which is much the same today as it was in the third century.

Toward the conclusion of the treatise the author writes about the true and beautiful spectacle of nature:

The Christian has better spectacles, if he wants them. He has true and profitable pleasures, if he will recognize them. And, to say nothing of the things which cannot yet be contemplated, he has the very beauty of the world, at which he may look and wonder:

He may behold the rising of the sun, its setting back again, as it recalls days and nights by reciprocal interchanges; the sphere of the moon, as it marks out the courses of the times by its waxings and wanings; the choruses of glittering stars, and those that continually flash because of their supreme mobility, their greatest members divided on high through the changes of the whole year; and the days themselves, along with the nights, divided across the lengths of the hours; the balanced mass of the earth with its mountains; and the flowing rivers with their fountains; the outspread seas with their waves and beaches; meanwhile, agreeing equally with the highest harmony and the bonds of concord, the air, spreading out in the midst of all, enlivening all things with its delicacy – now pouring forth rains from its densely gathered clouds, now calling back serenity with restored spaciousness; and in all these places their proper inhabitants: in the air birds, in the waters fish, on the earth man.

These, I say, and other divine works, should be the spectacles for faithful Christians. What theater, built up with human hands, can be compared with these works? Though it be built up with a great heap of stones, the crests of the mountains are loftier; and though the paneled ceilings be resplendent with gold, they will be surpassed by the flashing of the stars. Never will he wonder at human works who has recognized himself as a son of God. He throws himself down from the height of his nobility who can admire anything besides the Lord.
De Spectaculis, §9

Thus natural science makes us become bored and disaffected with our screens and theaters and arenas, and draws us outside to marvel at what is really marvelous. Natural science delights us with genuine beauty, and gives us to admire things made without human hands. Natural science brings us out of our virtual realities, in which perception is filtered through dots-per-inch and sampling rates, in which mind is over matter, in which a man can self-identify as a woman – natural science, I say, brings us out of virtual reality into actual reality, where vision and hearing are unmediated, where matter doesn’t care what our minds think, where a bull is a bull no matter how much he wants to be a milk cow. The real world is a beautiful place, and natural science frees us from our garish fabrications by directing our wonder outside of ourselves toward the mighty and beautiful and true works of God.

Natural Science and the Classroom

From God’s second book we can learn of God’s existence, his power, his orderliness, his beauty, as well as his providence and the true nature of reality. The question now is, how do we study natural science in the classroom? We start by looking at things in the real science classroom: the outdoors. Natural science is about observing nature, receiving knowledge from that observation, and drawing conclusions from that knowledge based on the assumed orderliness and predictability of the world.

But there’s more to the study of natural science than simply glancing at things and pontificating. Learning how to read God’s second book properly means that we also listen to the voices of the great observationists who have come before us, just as when learning how to read letters on a page we seek help from those who know how to do it. And so we pick up some of the writings of Agassiz or Isaac Newton’s Principia, or, going further back, the Geography of Strabo, and even Herodotus’ notes on the weather and terrain of various countries in his Histories.

Through guided observation and through the voices of natural scientists, the teacher instructs students in the art of science. The teacher shows students what to look for, perhaps using pictures and diagrams, more often pointing and saying, “Look!” The teacher trains students to use observational technology, such as binoculars, telescopes, and microscopes, and how to experiment and test hypotheses. All of this teaches the students to discover order in the world. The teacher also continually reminds students what they can and cannot conclude from their observations (a skill sadly lacking in much pop-science, which, like Darwin, misuses both science and imagination).

Godless Science

In secular schools, children are taught about things like the seasons and the water cycle and the circulatory system. But they’re not taught to marvel and wonder at them, because that would mean acknowledging some Designer behind all the orderliness. Instead, teachers lie to their students – or rather engage in Orwellian double-think – by saying that all the orderliness, all the evidence of God, is not designed (to the great confusion of any pupils who actually happen to live in the world), but is in fact the bastard child of some purposeless force called evolution. There is nothing of the existence of a great Architect: his power, his providence, his beauty. Even if the science teacher himself is a Christian, he is forbidden from teaching as if God existed, meaning he is forbidden from teaching science as it is meant to be taught. In the secular science classroom there is simply empowering ourselves and enslaving knowledge in a great effort to recreate the world to our own liking.

Now if there’s a Christian student sitting in this classroom who knows that this is all bunk, he still will not escape unscathed. He may still believe that this is all bunk by the end of the class, but nevertheless the whole scientific undertaking has been compromised from the start. He has not learned the proper study of science (as much as he has still received some knowledge, insofar as he has accurately observed nature). Instead he has learned that knowledge is power, and the person with the most power gets to decide how the world works. This perversion of science does nothing more than mimic the ancient serpent, saying, “Ye shall be as gods.”

Learning to Read

So let’s teach our children actual science. Let us observe the world with them and discern God’s existence and power and order and beauty. Let us be content to be creatures instead of aspiring to play God like the rest of the world. Let us use our science, our knowledge, in a way that accords with the Scriptures and serves our neighbors. Let us step outside and read God’s second book.

Painting: Landscape with a Shepherd Playing Flute by Laurent de La Hyre, 1647

“Evolution and Permanence of Type” by Louis Agassiz first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, January, 1874.

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of Tertullian and Cyprian are my own.

The Nature of the Student, Part IV

So far we have heard the modern view of man (part 1) and the Christian view of man (part 2 and part 3), and we’ve seen that these two views are not compatible. What remains is to examine the classical view of man. We’ll get to the key question concerning man’s nature in a short while. But since we’ve heard the modern view and the Christian view of the origin of man, we should begin similarly with the classical view. Therefore, let us ask Hesiod, Apollodorus, Ovid, Aristophanes, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch: what is the origin of man, and is man by nature good or evil?


According to the Greeks and Romans, man can trace his source to the gods, though there’s some cloudiness regarding the exact manner in which man came into existence. Hesiod’s Theogony is one of the oldest documented classical origin myths (700 BC), and partway through he suddenly begins speaking of man as a race without any explanation of whence man came. Not long before the birth of Christ, Apollodorus wrote in his Bibliotheca, “And Prometheus, after forming men from water and earth, also gave them fire” (Bibliotheca, 1.71).

Ovid (born 43 BC) includes a similar account of man’s creation in Book I of his Metamorphoses:

Man was born: whether that crafter of things, the beginning of a better world, made him with divine seed, or the ground, young and recently parted from the lofty sky, yet retained seeds of kindred heaven, which, being mixed with rain waters, the son of Iapetus [i.e. Prometheus] fashioned into the image of the gods who regulate all things. (Metamorphoses, I.78-83)

While in Ovid’s Metamorphoses there’s a rather high view of man, in the older account man seems a mere pawn and afterthought on the stage of the gods.


Thus far the creation of man. Now what of man’s relations with the gods? According to Homer’s Odyssey (which, along with the Iliad, was the equivalent of the Bible to the ancient Greeks), man rebelled against the gods. When Odysseus journeys among the dead in book 11 of the Odyssey, he sees a woman named Iphimedeia, of whom it says:

And she bore two sons, but they were both short-lived,
Godlike Otus and far-famed Ephialtes,
Whom the budding earth brought up by far the tallest
And much the fairest, after glorious Orion.
For at nine years old they were both nine cubits
Broad, and nine fathoms tall;
Who indeed did even threaten against the immortals on Olympus
To raise the battle cry of furious war.
They endeavored to set Ossa upon Olympus, then upon Ossa
Pelion with its quaking leaves, in order that heaven might be scaled.
And they would have accomplished it, if they had reached the measure of hardy youth.
But the son of Zeus, whom fair-haired Leto bore, destroyed
Them both, before the first whiskers under their temples
Bloomed to cover their cheeks with blossoming down.
Odyssey, XI.307-320

The boys purposed to stack two mountains, one atop the other, and so ascend to Mount Olympus, the realm of the gods, and raise war. Apollo nipped that in the bud, and killed the two lads. They perished for their rebellion. Yet did their rebellion affect them alone?

In Plato’s Symposium (Greek for “drinking party”), a man named Aristophanes gives a discourse on man’s original state, and how it changed at this rebellion. Aristophanes rather humorously describes man as originally having four hands and four feet, one head with two faces – in many ways rather like two people joined together. Man could walk on his legs, like we do; or alternatively, using all eight limbs as something like spokes on a wagon wheel, could roll around at great speed. Aristophanes says, “Now fearful was their strength and might, and they had great thoughts, and they attacked the gods” (Symposium, 190b).

As the punishment for man’s insolence, Zeus decided to cut everyone in half, and he assigned Apollo the task of patching up the severed bodies of mankind. The result was the present human form. While we might giggle at Zeus’s threat to halve people again and make them hop about on one leg should they attempt another uprising, we nevertheless see how, according to at least some Greeks, that first rebellion against the gods had drastic consequences for man’s physical nature. After that attempt on Olympus, man was never the same again.

Divine Intervention

Now this isn’t to say that the gods hated mankind. Some gods and goddesses took a particular liking to certain people. If grey-eyed Athena hadn’t felt sympathy for Odysseus, he would still be stuck on an island with the nymph Calypso. And if Athena had withdrawn from Odysseus, Poseidon would have eagerly obliterated the poor sea-tossed man. But Athena did have sympathy, and was a bulwark for Odysseus throughout his journey.

So Close…

In all of this we see how close the classical authors come to the truth in some cases. Now since we have the real truth in the Scriptures concerning God and creation and original sin and our heavenly Father’s steadfast love toward us, we therefore do not hold the classics as reliable sources regarding our origin, nature, standing in the world, or value in the eyes of God.

But the classical authors do have this over modern man: they’ll at least open their eyes and take an honest look at the world. Something made us. We are creatures, not accidents of nature. There is also something wrong with us. We long to be whole; we yearn for a restoration to some former way of things, even if, left to our own devices, we can’t figure out exactly what that former way of things was. There is some being in the universe who is greater and more powerful than we are, to whom we owe our obedience and willing service, of whom we can inquire, and to whom we can pray.

Christians share some ground with the ancient Greeks and Romans (even if we often find ourselves having to correct them). We share some ground because we have dwelt in the same world, which itself testifies to God, as it says in Romans 1:20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

Meanwhile the “advanced” secular humanist has advanced all the way to a Neverland that exists only in pseudo-science and wishful thinking, and that can only be seen on the backs of his eyelids. It turns out, historically speaking, that we’re not the odd ones: believing in a divine creator, worshiping, holding religion as an integral part of what it means to be human. The infantile voices of John Dewey and his ilk find themselves drowned out by the booming chorus of antiquity.

The Nature of Man

But now what of the real question of man’s nature? We’ve heard what Aristophanes said about the changed physical nature of man. But, according to the classical world, is man by nature good or evil?

We have one of the clearest answers to this question in Plato’s Republic. In Book 4, Socrates and Glaucon dialogue about what have come to be known as the cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice). Here follows part of the conversation about temperance, with Socrates doing the bulk of the speaking:

S: Temperance is a sort of order and control over certain pleasures and passions. As they say, ‘He is quite a master of himself,’ I know not in what manner, and other such phrases, by which one picks up its tracks, so to speak. Is it not so?
G: Most certainly.
S: Then is not the phrase ‘master of himself’ absurd? For he who is master of himself would doubtless also be the slave of himself, and the slave the master, for the same man is addressed in all these phrases.
G: Undoubtedly.
S: Rather, this phrase seems to me to want to say that there is in the same man, regarding his soul, a better part and a worse part, and whenever the part that is better by nature is master of the worse part, the phrase ‘master of himself’ expresses this – it is praise indeed! But whenever, by bad upbringing or certain company, the better part, being smaller, is overcome by the magnitude of the worse part, the saying censures this with a rebuke, and also calls the man who is thus disposed a slave of himself and undisciplined.
Republic, 4.430e-431b

Socrates speaks of man much in the same way we speak of regenerate man. There is an internal battle between good and evil, which we recognize as the Holy Spirit warring against our corrupt flesh. Now to be clear, the classical authors were not regenerate men, and there is no “better part” of unregenerate man. Nevertheless, this pagan Socrates rightly recognizes that there is an evil part of man, and that evil part is to be resisted.

Objective Morality

Fundamental to Socrates’ thinking is his belief in objective right and wrong. As Christians, Romans 2:14-15 helps us to understand why pagans still believe in right and wrong:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

The law of God is written on the human heart. Now after the Fall, that writing is blurred in some places and can only be known in its fullness from the divine revelation of the Holy Scriptures. Still, objective morality remains largely intact. While modern man generally tries to silence the voice of conscience as it reads that law on the heart, the ancients generally heeded conscience and the law of God, even if they didn’t realize why they called right right and wrong wrong.

The ancients believed in the objective nature of morality, and they were honest enough to say that acting morally upright did not come naturally, at least not for most. And so Socrates and Glaucon and others conversed about virtues, and how to instill them. Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he expounded the Golden Mean and showed that we can stray from virtue by two extremes. For example, when commenting on courage, or fortitude, Aristotle notes that an excess of fear makes one cowardly, and that an excess of fearlessness makes one rash (III.vii). Aristotle also shows the danger of vice: while we can voluntarily form ourselves in a habit of vice, that doesn’t mean we can voluntarily stop. A man can throw himself into a pit, but he can’t throw himself out (III.v).

Besides the philosophers, the ancient historians also focus on morals, and they wrote their histories with a view of turning their readers away from vice and toward virtue. Herodotus does this very well, although Plutarch’s Lives is the most masterly example of moral history. In the course of history we see that the same vices accompany the downfall of man again and again; whereas men are honored for the same virtues generation after generation.

Now you only care about instilling sound morals if you believe that there’s something in man that you must hinder or correct (or bolster). However, if you believe that man is just right as he is, then all you’ll care about is self-affirmation, and entertainment, and silencing the voice of conscience (and the voices of those who agree with your conscience). Here we see very clearly how the view of man’s nature determines his education.


Well now, what have we learned from all of this reflection on man’s nature? May I put it bluntly? We have learned that the modern approach to education is based on a lie about man’s nature: the lie that man is the result of unguided evolutionary change and is by nature neither good nor evil. This is false and wrong, and Christian parents should think twice about entrusting their children to such liars who will deaden their consciences and teach them to affirm sin.

Man is by nature evil, and it is only by the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ that we are anything other than that. But thanks be to him, he has saved us through his Gospel and given us his Holy Spirit, who fights against the sinful nature. This means that there is a great battle being waged within every Christian, including Christian children.

Our war-torn Christian children need the shield and soothing balm of God’s Word. When our children go to school, they should be like Solomon dwelling securely within the walls of Jerusalem, and not like Uriah forsaken on the front lines and left to die.

Even though they were pagans, and even though, when it comes to religion, they had ugly stick figures compared to the beautiful portrait of Christ in the Holy Scriptures, the ancient Greeks and Romans do have masterpieces on morality and ethics and language that can be of great use to us in raising our children.

So let us give our children God’s Word, and employ a selection of the Greek and Roman classics. Let us give them Christ, and sound instruction in right and wrong. Let us treat them like what they are; let us treat them according to their nature. And let us forsake the lie.

Painting: The School of Athens by Raphael, 1511

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of classical authors are my own.

Thank you to Dr. Christian Kopff for pointing me toward Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, and to Rev. Christian Preus for introducing me to Hesiod’s Theogony.

The Nature of the Student, Part III


In the second part of this series on the nature of the student, we heard how according to the Christian view, ever since his first sin in the Garden of Eden, man is by nature evil. We must all sing:

Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly o’er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell;
My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.
Lutheran Service Book, 556:2

But notice the use of the past tense. This hymn stanza is not the full story. The Lord was not content to sit idly by while the pinnacle of creation – made in the image of God – threw himself headlong into death and hell. And therefore our song continues:

But God had seen my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation,
And mindful of His mercies great,
He planned for my salvation.
He turned to me a father’s heart;
He did not choose the easy part
But gave His dearest treasure.
LSB, 556:3

The heavenly Father’s dearest treasure is his Son, Jesus. Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. And Jesus has died on the cross and risen from the dead for our salvation. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans. 5:6-8).

Jesus’ death saved us from sin, because Jesus took up all our sins from us, bore them in his own body, and crucified them in himself on the cross. Jesus’ death defeated death, because while death laid claim to us sinful mortals, it could not lay claim to the sinless Son of God. Jesus’ death conquered the devil, because by his death Jesus redeemed us from the devil’s kingdom and unraveled all of the devil’s schemes. And Jesus’ resurrection has restored to us the hope of everlasting life.

Simul Iustus et Peccator

This salvation is an excellent gift. Even though we are corrupt flesh, Jesus has had pity on us and redeemed us, and he has promised us a glorious resurrection on the Last Day, in which our bodies will no longer be sinful by nature, but will have once more the native righteousness originally bestowed on man in creation. And yet Jesus has not made us wait until the Last Day for our renewal. Certainly our renewal is not complete until then, but even now Jesus has baptized us with water and the Word, cleansed us, and given us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.

This means that even though we still have a sinful nature that inclines away from God and toward everything contrary to his commandments, we as Christians now also have the Holy Spirit, who fights against our depravity and gives us new desires and impulses: directing us toward Christ, toward good, and away from evil.

The presence of both the sinful nature and the Holy Spirit means that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator, Latin for “simultaneously saint and sinner.” The Christian has two conflicting things within him, as St. Paul comments: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17). The Christian is at war – and it is not primarily a war waged within the world, but a war waged within oneself. The war will cease with the destruction of the sinful nature at death, but until then, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, we fight against our evil passions.

I. Teach the Word of God

What does all of this mean for education? First of all, if we’re educating Christians then one of the chief goals of education is to keep the students Christians. If faith in Christ is what makes one a Christian, and faith comes through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17), then the student must hear the Word of God daily, and hear it pure and unadulterated.

This means that a child should hear the Word of God at home each day with his parents in life and conversation, learn to pray, and have family devotions. This also means that Christian parents should send their Christian children to schools where the teachers complement and reinforce the family devotion to God’s Word. Christian schools should ideally have chapel every day, conducted by a faithful pastor. Teachers in Christian schools should know how the Word of God relates to their areas of expertise, and, in addition to instilling knowledge, should instill a love of God’s Word. Students should expect harmony between the home, the church, and the school: a common worldview (to use a popular term), or, more specifically, a common language, namely the language of the Scriptures.

Now this emphasis on God’s Word does not mean that all children should become pastors or deaconesses. Any vocation is a holy calling when a Christian carries it out. The interest in God’s Word is not for the sake of conferring a marketable skill, but for the sake of the salvation of the students. Again, the Word of God is not the topic of discussion every minute of every day; in fact, chapel, prayer, and catechesis don’t even occupy a majority of the day. The Word of God is rather the common tongue of parents, students, and teachers. The nature of the student as simultaneously saint and sinner means that we give students the Word of God, which alone strengthens the saint, rebukes the sinner, and gives eternal salvation.

II. Teach Virtue and Vice

Second, if the Christian student has within him the Holy Spirit warring against the sinful flesh, then the student should learn to practice virtue and learn to avoid vice. This is not for the sake of earning salvation, but for the sake of living according to God’s will, avoiding God’s displeasure, serving the neighbor, and giving no opportunity to the flesh, lest it enslave us once again to sin.

Virtue is summed up most succinctly in the Ten Commandments. It is a virtue to have the right God. It is a virtue to honor one’s father and mother. It is a virtue to be content with what God has given you (and conversely, a vice to covet what belongs to your neighbor). These virtues are not works of the Law when a Christian does them, as if we only did the right thing because God was cracking a whip or threatening hell. No, when a Christian does these works of virtue, the works are properly speaking fruits of the Spirit.

A document in the Lutheran Confessions called The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord puts it this way:

[W]hen people are born again through the Spirit of God and set free from the law (that is, liberated from its driving powers and driven by the Spirit of Christ), they live according to the unchanging will of God, as comprehended in the law, and do everything, insofar as they are reborn, from a free and merry spirit. (Solid Declaration VI.17)

Christians are glad to do what is right in God’s sight (virtue) and cheerfully avoid whatever displeases him (vice). One might then wonder why we should teach Christian children virtue and vice. There are two main reasons.

a. Instruct the Saint

First, the saint wants to know what God’s will is and live according to it. While we do have the law of God written on our hearts, ever since man’s fall into sin, that image of the law on the heart is not a perfect image. We must receive instruction from God’s objective Word in order to have a complete understanding of his will. Without this instruction in the commandments it becomes all too easy to devise our own works and declare them to be precious virtues in the sight of God, while at the same time neglecting that which he has commanded.

Besides this, the Christian student lives in a world that calls virtue vice and vice virtue. There will be confusion and uncertainty about the right course of action unless we teach the young saint what is truly right and wrong, virtue and vice, pleasing and displeasing to God.

The words of the commandments teach this will of God clearly enough. The saint also finds it useful to hear illustrations of God’s pleasure toward those who do his will. Take, for example, Joseph the son of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, and Joseph resisted her advances. But then Potiphar’s wife said that Joseph had tried to seduce her, and he was thrown in prison on this false accusation. At this point a student might wonder, “Did Joseph do something wrong? Was God displeased with him?” But then we hear how Joseph prospered, even in prison, and then became second in command over all Egypt. We learn that even if we must suffer for righteousness’ sake, nevertheless God is pleased with those who do his will, and he shows us favor even in the midst of suffering, and he will yet vindicate us and change our fortune. The saint needs these illustrations, both for the strengthening of faith and for instruction in virtue.

b. Curb the Sinner

So that’s the first reason why we teach virtue and vice to Christian students, namely, because the saint wants to know his Father’s will. The second reason is because the Christian student is not only a saint, but a sinner. Christians only do the will of God from a free and merry spirit “insofar as they are reborn.” The Solid Declaration puts this very pointedly:

For the old creature, like a stubborn, recalcitrant donkey, is also still a part of them, and it needs to be forced into obedience to Christ not only through the law’s teaching, admonition, compulsion, and threat but also often with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations until the sinful flesh is completely stripped away and people are perfectly renewed in the resurrection. (Solid Declaration VI.24)

Whereas the Christian as a saint does the will of God because, by the Spirit, he wants to, the Christian as a sinner only does the will of God because he has to. He must hear “admonition, compulsion, and threat.” The sinful flesh must hear such things as, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

But like the saint, the sinner learns particularly well through illustration. He might want to misuse God’s name, but when he hears how the Lord ordered the son of Shelomith to be stoned to death for that offense (Leviticus 24:11-16), he will think twice about doing it. The sinful flesh will grudgingly refrain from sin (sometimes) simply because it doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of sin. Therefore, to aid the student in the war against the flesh, we curb the flesh with the fear-striking examples of God judging other sinners.

God also curbs the flesh “with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations.” In other words, if we insist on sinning, God will let us have the consequences. He disciplines us, not seeking our destruction, but seeking to turn us away from evil. So it is with teachers. If words aren’t enough to curb the flesh, then there’s always clapping the erasers, wearing the dunce cap, writing sentences. Modern education sees these things as harmful to the student’s self-esteem, and as a result, not only is there no discipline in the classroom, but the students never learn that the consequences of offending against God are far worse than a slight blow to self-esteem.

Christians don’t care about self-esteem. It’s too close to the great vice of pride. We care about having a gracious God who made us in his image and gave his own divine Son to redeem us. There’s real esteem! Now if the sinful flesh is seeking to turn us away from this gracious God by despising his Word and going its own way, then we hinder it however we rightfully can. If it takes a little public shame, then so be it. Better the flesh be ashamed than be in control.

c. Mind the Simul

Now the teaching of virtue is not only for the saint, and the teaching of vice is not only for the sinner. Not only does the saint want to know what to do to be doing the will of God, but also what to avoid so that he does not grieve his Father. Not only is the sinner compelled by the threat of punishment; he is also enticed by the hope of the earthly reward that accompanies virtue. We can draw a distinction by saying that delight in the law belongs to the saint, and terror of God’s wrath belongs to the sinner. But I want to make it clear that we teach the full teaching of God’s law to the Christian as he is both saint and sinner.

Learning virtue and vice is good for the Christian as he is simul iustus et peccator because hearing God’s law brings to light our sins and our need for Christ, and, thus despairing of ourselves, the Gospel comes along and gives us refuge in Jesus. To put it succinctly, teaching God’s law shows the student his need for a Savior. Therefore, training in virtue and vice also serves the purpose of keeping Christian students Christian, not by making them hope in their works for salvation, but by showing them that their works are a false hope for salvation.

III. Teach Love

So, when teaching Christian students we teach, first, God’s Word, second, virtue and vice; and third, we teach the Christian student how to love and serve his neighbor. The sinful flesh may be incurvatus in se, but as a new creation in Christ the student is turned out from himself. The saint desires to love his neighbor, and so a Christian education makes the Christian student a knowledgeable and skillful servant to those around him. You can read more about love as a goal of education here.

Educate Christian Children according to Their Nature

The Christian view of the Christian student is that he is simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. Educating this Christian according to his nature, we instruct him in God’s Word, teach him virtue and vice, and give him the knowledge and skills necessary to be of service to the world wherever he is needed. This Christian education is far different from modern education, because Christian education has a far different view of the nature of the student when compared to modern education.

We ought to educate our children according to what they are by nature, not according to a lie about man’s nature. Modern education is not for us, nor for any human being. Now the question remains: is classical education any better suited to the student’s nature than modern education? Read The Nature of the Student, Part IV.

Painting: Crucifixion by Peter Gertner, 1537

Hymn quotation: Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice by Martin Luther

Quotes of Solid Declaration are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

The Nature of the Student, Part II

Incurvatus in Se

Is man by nature good or evil? We’ve seen the modern view. While it rejects the idea of being morally good or evil by nature, it nevertheless treats man as if he were naturally good.

Yet consider this: parents and teachers must instruct children to share, but no one ever had to teach them to be selfish. Parents and teachers must make children learn to follow directions, whereas children never needed anyone to teach them to say, “No,” and then do whatever they want instead of what they were told. Parents and teachers must instill in children the consideration of others, but children seem to have been born knowing the perverted maxim, “Look out for number one.” The theological term for this inherent selfishness is incurvatus in se, Latin for, “turned in on yourself.”

This is not how man was made to be. Man has become corrupt. And this leads up to the Christian view of the question, “Is man by nature good or evil?”

Native Righteousness

In the beginning God made man in his image and likeness. Man had a native righteousness. Man was perfect in virtue. Man naturally inclined away from himself, toward God and toward his fellow man. In Paradise Lost, John Milton captures this beautifully as he describes day six of creation, the day on which man was created:

There wanted yet the master work, the end
Of all yet done; a creature who, not prone
And brute as other creatures, but endued
With sanctity of reason, might erect
His stature, and upright, with front serene,
Govern the rest, self-knowing, and from thence
Magnanimous to correspond with heaven;
But grateful to acknowledge whence his good
Descends, thither with heart and voice and eyes
Directed in devotion, to adore
And worship God supreme, who made him chief
Of all his works…
Paradise Lost, VII.505-516

Man has reason, is self-knowing (that is, has consciousness), does not go about on the ground like a beast, but stands upright. These are all facets of being made in the image of God. But being made in the image of God also means that man himself is not God, and so man sought to know the true God and delighted to worship him.

Thus in Paradise Lost, when he recounts the day of his creation, Adam tells how he rose from the ground – “rais’d / By quick instinctive motion up I sprung” – and spoke:

Thou sun, said I, fair light,
And thou enlighten’d earth, so fresh and gay,
Ye hills, and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?
Not of myself; by some great Maker then,
In goodness and in power pre-eminent;
Tell me how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier than I know.
Paradise Lost, VIII.273-282

By nature Adam sought his Creator. Adam also sought one like himself, a fellow human being, a neighbor to love. But among the livestock and the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field no suitable helper was found. The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, took a rib from his side and formed a woman, and brought her to the man. “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). The man loved the woman as his own life – more than his own life. Together they adored God. Each one loved the other. They were by nature selfless. They were by nature good.

Paradise Lost

But then man ate from the tree of which the Lord had commanded him not to eat. At the serpent’s goading man sinned, and corruption followed. This corruption is so deep that by nature we can only recognize it superficially. So fallen are we that we are numb to our fall, like a man who has plunged from a great height, and who lying paralyzed on the bedrock feels but a small fraction of his painful injuries. The Scriptures alone reveal the full depravity of our nature.

The Depth of Our Depravity

Do you want to know thyself? Then listen to David cry out in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). The prophet Jeremiah declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). But Jesus gives the clearest description of our perversity: “That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mk. 7:20-23).

Based on these passages of Scripture (and others like them) the Evangelicals confessed at the time of the Reformation:

That not only is original sin (in human nature) such a complete lack of all good in spiritual, divine matters, but also that at the same time it replaces the lost image of God in the human being with a deep-seated, evil, horrible, bottomless, unfathomable, and indescribable corruption of the entire human nature and of all its powers, particularly of the highest, most important powers of the soul, in mind, heart, and will. Ever since the fall, the human being inherits an inborn evil way of doing things, an internal impurity of the heart, and an evil desire and inclination, so that we all by nature inherit such a heart, mind, and way of thinking from Adam. Following its highest powers and in light of reason, this fallen heart is by nature diametrically opposed to God and his highest commandments. Indeed, it is hostile to God, particularly in regard to divine, spiritual matters”
Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article I, §11

Similarly, when recounting the consequences of man’s original sin, Milton writes:

… innocence, that as a veil
Had shadow’d them from knowing ill, was gone,
Just confidence, and native righteousness,
And honour from about them naked left
To guilty shame…
Paradise Lost, IX.1054-1058

And again:

… nor only tears
Rain’d at their eyes, but high winds worse within
Began to rise, high passions, anger, hate,
Mistrust, suspicion, discord, and shook sore
Their inward state of mind, calm region once
And full of peace, now toss’d and turbulent:
For understanding rul’d not, and the will
Heard not her lore, both in subjection now
To sensual appetite, who from beneath,
Usurping over sov’reign reason, claim’d
Superior sway…
Paradise Lost, IX.1121-1131

In short, man turned away from God. Man turned away from fellow man. Man is incurvatus in se, turned in on himself. Man is a slave to the passions and desires that rage within him.

Original Sin and Education

So is man by nature good or evil? Man was created good, yet by his sin brought deep corruption on all mankind, such that now man is by nature evil. Shall we make the child’s instincts and powers the starting point for all education, as John Dewey would have us? That would be like giving an alcoholic a bottle of vodka and expecting he will use it to serve his neighbor, or giving a serial killer a knife and supposing he will whittle toys for children and make an honest living. Man is by nature evil.

Yet this is not the full Christian answer to the question. Continue reading: The Nature of the Student, Part III.

Painting: Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake, 1795

Quotes of Solid Declaration are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.


The Nature of the Student, Part I

A Diagnostic Question

Is man by nature good or evil? Some might try to give a nuanced answer, “Man is mostly good, with the occasional evil impulse.” Others might say, “Both. Man has good and evil fighting within him.” Still others might object to the question entirely, “Good and evil are social constructs, and therefore man can’t be either one of them by nature.” For this last group we might rephrase the question this way: Can man in good conscience indulge his impulses and desires, with the assumption that if they arise naturally then there can’t be anything wrong with them? Or should a man regard his natural impulses and passions with suspicion, as if they have been corrupted in some way and should more often be met with resistance than indulgence? This is what I mean when I ask, “Is man by nature good or evil?”

The answer to this question has immediate consequences for education. For example, if man is by nature good, then he will naturally incline toward good things and desire good things. The teacher should simply stay out of his way, offer guidance as necessary, and facilitate this good man’s exploration of the world around him and his pursuit of whatever seems good to him. Hindering this good man’s passions and impulses – saying, “Stop taking your pen apart and parse this Latin verb” – would be nothing short of oppressive.

But if man is by nature evil and corrupt, then the teacher is duty bound to exercise discipline in the classroom, instill virtues and show their good fruits, rebuke vices and reveal their harmful consequences, and curb the corrupt passions of the student. In this case the teacher should also dictate what the curriculum is going to be (since the student shouldn’t be creating a curriculum based on his whims), and point the student toward objective texts – good words and thoughts that come to the student from the outside, not the inside. Giving free reign to this corrupt man’s passions and impulses would be like standing idly by while a child walks ever closer to the edge of a cliff, listening apathetically to his terrified screams as he hurtles to his death, and then awarding him a diploma.


This article will have four parts, examining the way that three groups answer the question, “Is man by nature good or evil?” First we’ll examine the modern view of man; second, the Christian view of unregenerate man; third, the Christian view of regenerate man; and fourth, the classical view of man. Each answer suggests a particular approach to education; therefore, when we determine the nature of man, we will thereby also determine the sort of education that man ought to receive. At the same time we will recognize and reject any form of education that is contrary to man’s nature.

The Modern View of Man

So, is man by nature good or evil? What does the modern world have to say? The prevailing view in many fields, including the realm of modern education, is that man is the result of evolution, has no soul, and is neither good nor evil by nature.

There’s an important document from 1933 called the Humanist Manifesto I that summarizes the modern view of man in this way: “First: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. Second: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process. Third: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.”

The Humanist Manifesto II, signed in 1973 by such people as author Isaac Asimov and behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, expanded on the point: “Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the ‘separable soul.’ Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces.”

The Humanist Manifesto III, signed in 2003 by Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, two dozen Nobel Prize winners, and many others, puts it very succinctly and affirms the views expressed in the previous two Manifestos: “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.”

This series of Humanist Manifestos is important for two reasons that relate to the topic at hand. First, the Humanist Manifestos summarize a widely-held modern worldview. And second, Humanist Manifesto I is of particular note because it was signed by none other than John Dewey, sometimes called The Father of Modern Education.

Through his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey reformed education in America. He aligned teaching methods to the tenets of humanism, thereby influencing all who passed through the public schools. And control of such things as schools was the stated goal of humanism: “Thirteenth: Religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control, and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism” (Humanist Manifesto I, emphasis added). Or in other words, humanism, under the guise of “the enhancement of human life,” turned schools into centers that act on and instill a secular humanist worldview.

Man: Amoral and Good?

Thus far we’ve seen the modern view of man, and how it found its way into the schools. But what of the initial question, “Is man by nature good or evil?” While the modern view doesn’t speak of man in terms of inherent morality, nevertheless there is great optimism about man and his capabilities. In the modern view there is no fall into sin or corruption of the way we were made, and therefore man is exactly the way he is “supposed” to be, with the caveat that there is no “Supposer,” and so any implication of divine purpose must be excluded. Man is also the most superior life form that we know of (having abandoned belief in a God or gods), and therefore man is man’s own greatest hope. So in short, even though the modern view rejects such labels as “naturally good” and “naturally evil,” it ends up treating man as if he were naturally good.

John Dewey makes this plain enough in My Pedagogic Creed (1897):

The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. (Article I)

In his later writing, Experience and Education (1938), Dewey contrasts traditional schools with the new progressive schools:

If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles amid the variety of progressive schools now existing. To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal… (pg. X)

In both of these writings Dewey extols “the child’s own instincts,” “his own initiative,” “free activity,” and acquisition of skills as they make “direct vital appeal” to the student. And now after several generations of this approach to education, what can we say about it? Have “the child’s own instincts” been as good as we thought? Has the student’s “own initiative” led to a love of learning that was absent in traditional schools? Or has the student’s own initiative initiated boredom and aversion to learning? Have children felt “direct vital appeal” for the things that they need in life? Or have they felt direct vital appeal for things that don’t matter at all – or worse, things that are harmful to themselves and others?

The Dark Reality of Man’s Nature

Anyone who has ever been a human being can likely guess the answers to these questions, especially those who have had contact with public schools. Our “own instincts” don’t often lead us to desire the good of others, or to love learning what is best for us to know, or to pursue virtue. Our own instincts often lead us to be lazy, selfish, mean, fascinated with gimmicks and bored with real substance. Our own instincts seek immediate pleasure in this present moment with little thought to the future or the consequences. Our own instincts abuse “free activity.” And as for the activities that make “direct vital appeal,” we would be ashamed of them if our own instincts knew how to blush.

In the opening section of The Silver Chair (book six in The Chronicles of Narnia), C. S. Lewis notes the real results of modern educational reform:

It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym. She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was ‘Co-educational,’ a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a ‘mixed’ school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others. All sorts of things, horrid things, went on which at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term; but at this school they weren’t. Or even if they were, the people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favorite than otherwise. (Chapter 1, pgs. 1-2)

Good: What Man Isn’t

So is man by nature good or evil? The modern world rejects the validity of the question; and yet the modern world treats man as if he were by nature good. If the modern world would but open its eyes, and use the power of observation, and examine the empirical evidence that it claims to love so much, perhaps it would see the true nature of man. Perhaps it would see that we are far from good.

Continue reading: The Nature of the Student, Part II

Painting: Mythological Portrait of the Family of Louis XIV by Jean Nocret, 1670.  The artist has depicted the family members as various gods in the Greek pantheon.

The Humanist Manifestos are from the website of the American Humanist Association, tagline,“Good without a God.”

John Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed” is from “School Journal” vol. 54 (January 1897), pgs. 77-80

The Goal of Education Part II: Fides et Charitas

In The Goal of Education Part I we saw the foolishness of Educating for Mammon, that is, bringing up children with the primary goal of turning them into moneymakers. But what is the alternative? Fortunately, as with so many things, we don’t have to invent a solution. Educating for Mammon has long been a problem, and the Church has often addressed it.

Educating for Mammon was a problem in the fourth century when a pastor named John Chrysostom was preaching through the book of Ephesians. He came to Ephesians 6:4, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and here’s part of what he said:

How long are we going to be mere flesh? How long are we going to hunch over the earth? Let all things stand in the second place for us when compared with taking forethought for our children and bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If he learns to be a lover of wisdom from the first, he has acquired riches greater than all riches, and a mightier glory. You will accomplish nothing so great by teaching him a craft, and the outward training through which he will acquire possessions, than if you teach him a craft through which he will despise possessions. If you want to make him rich, do it like that. For the rich man is not he who binds himself with many possessions and surrounds himself with many things, but he who has need of nothing.

Discipline your son in this, teach him this – this is the greatest wealth. Do not seek how you will make him renowned in outward lessons, and make him glorious, but consider how you will teach him to despise the glory that is in this life. Thence he would become more radiant and more glorious. These things are possible both for the poor man and the rich man to do. One does not learn these things from a teacher, nor through craft, but through the divine sayings. Do not seek how he will live a long life here, but how he will live a boundless and endless life there. Give him the great things, not the little things.
(Ephesians, Homily XXI)

Nor was the problem of Educating for Mammon limited to the fourth century. In the sixteenth century Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism:

Nor is it recognized how very necessary it is to devote serious attention to the young. For if we want capable and qualified people for both the civil and the spiritual realms, we really must spare no effort, time, and expense in teaching and educating our children to serve God and the world. We must not think only of amassing money and property for them. God can provide for them and make them rich without our help, as indeed he does daily. But he has given us children and entrusted them to us precisely so that we may raise and govern them according to his will; otherwise, God would have no need of fathers and mothers. Therefore let all people know that it is their chief duty – at the risk of losing divine grace – first to bring up their children in the fear and knowledge of God, and, then, if they are so gifted, also to have them engage in formal study and learn so that they may be of service wherever they are needed.
(Large Catechism, I.170-174)

Fides ad Deum, Charitas ad Vicinum

With one voice Chrysostom and Luther lambaste the practice of Educating for Mammon; they unite also in the remedy. They point us to the two marks of the Christian life: faith and love. Throughout all of Scripture, faith and love characterize God’s people. And each is directed toward someone. Faith is directed toward God; we trust in Him and expect to receive every good thing from Him, which he gives freely for the sake of Christ in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve any of it. Love is directed toward the neighbor; good works are the fruit of faith, and we don’t use these works to earn anything with God, but to serve our fellow man. Put faith and love together, and we have a fine motto to keep us mindful of the goal of Christian education: Fides ad Deum, charitas ad vicinum, “Faith toward God, love toward the neighbor.”

Faith toward God

Let’s examine these two marks of the Christian in more detail. First faith. Faith is not something that we can manufacture within ourselves. Rather, it is something God works in us by his Word; as it says in Romans 10:17, “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Thus Chrysostom returns to the language of Ephesians 6:4 again and again, “bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” meaning, teach them the Word of God, the “divine sayings,” as Chrysostom puts it. Luther likewise tells parents to teach their children God’s Word, saying that if they do not bring up their children in the fear and knowledge of God they risk losing divine grace, because this is the chief duty of parents.

Education should have faith as one of its goals. Education should treat a child like he has a soul, and not like mere flesh hunched over the earth. Education should delight in Christ, and the redemption that He has accomplished, and the words that He has spoken.

Love toward the Neighbor

Flowing from faith, the second mark of the Christian is love. Only one who has received the love of Christ can properly love his neighbor. Apart from Christ’s love we cannot love others. We can hate them, we can use them for our own ends, we can behave decently to avoid punishments, we can feel compelled by the general morality of those around us – but of ourselves we cannot love anyone else. Like faith, love is a gift of God. And indeed, wherever there is faith, there is love, just as wherever there is fire there is light and heat.

Education should include instruction in God’s Commandments and Christian morals. But more fundamental than teaching children to behave rightly, is the Christian attitude that we do not live to ourselves but to others. An education that teaches children to look to their own wants and needs is no education for a Christian. But when love is a goal of education, then the student learns to say, “How can I be of service to those around me? Teach me things so that I can better care for my neighbors.”

Chrysostom and Luther both stress that children should learn useful knowledge and skills – not useful for earning Mammon, but useful for the neighbor. So Luther said that the purpose of giving children a formal education is “so that they may be of service wherever they are needed.” Chrysostom comments at length, showing what a wonderful gift a Christian is to the world:

Thus the more he is renowned in this life, so much the more is this discipline necessary for him. For should he be brought up in palaces, there are many heathens and ‘philosophers’ and those puffed up with the present glory, just like some place that has been filled with dropsical people. Of some such sort are all the palaces: all are puffed up and inflamed, and those who are not are zealous to become so. Think, then, how great your son is, going in there like the best physician: entering with the instruments that are able to reduce the inflammation of each, and approaching each one and conversing, and making the sick body healthy, applying the medicines from the Scriptures and pouring out the words of philosophy…

And if you want to know, he will be a more serviceable man even in the world itself. For all will revere him because of those words when they see him in the fire, though not being burned nor desiring power. And at that very time he will be ready for it – when he does not desire it – and he will be still more revered by the king, for such a man will not be able to escape his notice. For among many healthy people, the healthy man will escape notice. But among many sick people, when one is healthy, the report will be spread quickly, and into the royal ears, and he will set him over many nations. Therefore, knowing these things, bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
(Ephesians, Homily XXI)

The True Goal

What is the goal of education? Not the acquisition of Mammon. The goal of education is Fides ad Deum, Charitas ad Vicinum, faith toward God, love toward the neighbor. Or as Chrysostom very nicely sums it up: Χριστιανὸν αὐτὸν ποίησον: Make him a Christian.

Painting: Christ Blessing the Children, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1545-1550

Quotes of Large Catechism are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of Chrysostom are my own.

The Goal of Education Part I: Educating for Mammon?

To the Point

What is the goal of education? Or another way of putting it, What is the touchstone by which we know that the education of a child was successful? The common standard for judging an education is the ability to make money: Can the educated child get a job and make a living? Now perhaps this is a selfless goal on the part of parents; they want a good life for their child. This goal can have selfish motives, “I want him self-sustaining so that he’ll move out,” or really selfish, “I want him to be able to take care of me.” And yet even when the goal of educating for the sake of money is selfless on the parents’ part, this goal has two flaws. First, it treats the child as if he has no soul, as if this body and life are all there is. And second, it pretends that it’s acceptable, and even good, to live for oneself, to amass a pile of Mammon and be satisfied.

In order to understand the flaws with Educating for Mammon we must have a proper opinion of Mammon, and also rightly understand the chief characteristics of the Christian life.

Mammon, the Terrible Master

So first, what is Mammon, and how should we regard it? Mammon is the sum total of money and possessions that exceeds what we need for our daily bread. Rather than trusting that God will provide for all our needs of body and soul as he has promised, much more often we trust Mammon for security. Martin Luther comments on this in his Large Catechism when discussing the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods”:

There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god – mammon by name, that is, money and property – on which they set their whole heart. This is the most common idol on earth. Those who have money and property feel secure, happy, and fearless, as if they were sitting in the midst of paradise. On the other hand, those who have nothing doubt and despair as if they knew of no god at all. We will find very few who are cheerful, who do not fret and complain, if they do not have mammon. This desire for wealth clings and sticks to our nature all the way to the grave.
(Large Catechism, I.5-9)

And Luther is merely expounding what Jesus himself had to say on the topic: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Lk. 12:15), and, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24).

The Apostle Paul also comments on Mammon when writing to Timothy: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

From this common testimony we have a very clear Christian perspective: while we acknowledge our need for daily bread, we hold Mammon in great suspicion as a potential idol. Owning Mammon is not in itself a sin, so long as we own it and it doesn’t own us. And that latter possibility is a very real danger. Mammon may take the form of inanimate objects, but Jesus speaks of it as a prospective master with a will of its own that speaks imperiously and makes demands and forcibly compels.

Mammon, the Fallen Angel

John Milton captures this living and willful nature of Mammon very well in his epic poem Paradise Lost. Toward the end of Book I, the demons, having somewhat recovered from the initial shock of being thrown into hell, and spurred on by a rousing speech from Satan, prepare to build their evil city Pandemonium:

…Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell
From heaven: for even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent; admiring more
The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else, enjoy’d
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack’d the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother earth
For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Open’d into the hill a spacious wound,
and digg’d out ribs of gold. (Let none admire
That riches grow in hell; that soil may best
Deserve the precious bane.)…
(Book I.678-692)

After the demons have completed the city, they all assemble in the spacious hall in secret conclave. Satan sits on a throne, gives a brief speech, then opens the floor to debate concerning their best course of action. Moloch speaks first, then Belial. Third, Mammon gives his advice: War will result in defeat. Even if God is gracious and receives the demons back to their former posts (on pledge of their obedience), Mammon cannot abide the thought of singing “warbled hymns” and “forc’d hallelujahs.” Let us not war, nor return to subjection, “but rather seek Our own good from ourselves, and from our own Love to ourselves; though in this vast recess, Free, and to none accountable; preferring Hard liberty before the easy yoke Of servile pomp…” (II.252-257).

Mammon deludes himself into thinking that God’s creatures can be independent of God, autonomous, self-sufficient. He teaches all who will listen to him to think this way: to look to their own hands instead of God’s, to live from themselves and to themselves, to prefer a selfish life in hell over a creaturely life in heaven. He points to the burning ground, just as he now points to earth, and says, “This desert soil Wants not her hidden lustre, gems, and gold; Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?” (II.270-273). The demons didn’t take Mammon’s advice, but human ears are easily persuaded to his blasphemous words.

Mammon, the Fool

Is Educating for Mammon starting to sound foolish, and even dangerous? I really hope it is. And what’s the alternative? Continue reading: The Goal of Education Part II.

Painting: Croesus and Solon by Johann Georg Platzer, 1704-1761

Quotes of Large Catechism are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

History: Wells of Wisdom

History and Geography in Classical Education

If a classical education consists of the seven liberal arts and includes the classical languages, one might wonder: what about history and geography? May we simply tack on subjects as we see fit, or must we limit ourselves to the arts?

Neither. First, adding subjects to a classical education is rather like the trend of families adding extracurricular on top of extracurricular until no one enjoys any of them and the members of the family hardly know each other, like so many dissociated roommates who can’t remember what it’s like to think or breathe. In an effort to create well-rounded children (whatever that means), we end up with hamsters who only know life on the wheel. There’s something to be said for doing a few things, doing them well, and enjoying them. This is the attitude that permeates classical education.

But second, the liberal arts are not in the least bit limiting. They’re the liberal arts – the arts of the free person. Certainly there’s a place for history and geography: this is part of the content of the Trivium (as are the classical languages). Recall that the three arts of the Trivium are Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Yet all three of these are taught and learned by examples. Students must hear what good grammar, logic, and rhetoric sound like, and this means drinking deeply from the cup of classical literature.

Now this may sound odd, but some of the best pieces of classical literature are histories. And the reason this might sound odd is because, generally speaking, history class calls to mind the tedious business of memorizing names, dates, and places (likely connected by some event, I think), voiding them onto an exam, and then turning to a completely different and seemingly unrelated set of names, dates, and places. Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria! Fourteen ninety two! Christopher Columbus! America! Native Americans! What do I remember? Facts. And what do those facts mean? I don’t know. No one ever taught me.

What Is the Purpose of History?

This leads to the question: what is the purpose of History? This is as broad as asking, “What is the purpose of life?” And both questions assume that there is some overarching purpose: that there’s not only the historiographer (the writer of histories), but also an Historiokrator – a Lord of History. Now if this is correct, then truthfully written histories will teach us something about history’s Lord. What sorts of actions does the Historiokrator reward? Which does he punish? What sorts of traits or behaviors should we consider virtues? Which are vices? Or, most basically, what is right and what is wrong?

Now one could assume that there is no Lord of History. In that case it’s up to mankind to define right and wrong, whether corporately or individually, provided the plebs or partisans think it’s right to believe in right and wrong. But this is a tricky position to maintain. How does one explain why every proud ruler in the history of the world has been humbled before dying (or met a very wretched end)? How does one explain why those who live by the sword die by the sword? Why do societies that pervert marriage (the union of one man and one woman, permanent and exclusive) always suffer societal collapse? One can believe there’s no such thing as objective right and wrong. One can believe there’s no Historiokrator. One can also believe that the sky is green and grass is blue, as long as one is willing to blind oneself to the facts.

The classical historians held that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong. They did not worship the one true God; nevertheless, the sole fact that they saw themselves as subjects to a moral law that held true for everyone the world over meant that they could rightly interpret the course of human events – insofar as their understanding of the moral law coincided with God’s Law. And even when the ancient historians diverge from a proper understanding of right and wrong, they still report the facts with eloquence, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, and to improve our rhetoric while we’re at it.

Isocrates and Tacitus

But the ancients can tell you themselves how they regard the purpose of History. Isocrates was a famous Athenian orator who wrote to Nicocles, the young king of Salamis, in the early fourth century BC. Isocrates advised Nicocles what he should do in order to be a good king and live up to that high office. Part of Isocrates’ advice was this: “Consider the things that take place and befall both common folk and kings, for should you be mindful of what has been, the better you will plan for what will be” (Isocrates, To Nicocles, 2.35). Or in other words: Pay attention to the outcomes of past deeds. Take them to heart, and do your deeds according to the outcome you desire.

In the early part of the second century AD Tacitus wrote his Annals of Rome. When commenting on some of the actions of the Senate he slips in a wonderful note about the purpose of his writing: “I have by no means taken upon myself to relate decisions except those remarkable for honorable conduct or for notorious shame, because I regard as the principal duty of histories that virtues should not be unspoken, and that against crooked words and deeds should stand the fear of posterity and infamy” (Tacitus, Annals, 3.65). And so Tacitus extols virtue and condemns vice in the course of relating events. Indeed, this is his purpose: to read the past as a moral catechism.

Story Time with Herodotus

But even better than listening to the ancients talk about history is listening to the ancients relate history. We turn to Herodotus, sometimes called the Father of History. Herodotus’ Histories document the rise of the Persian Empire and the war between the Persians and the Greeks. But he’s not spewing propaganda – “Go Greeks!” Rather, he’s teaching mankind by way of a broad sample of mankind’s collected experiences.

Let’s listen to one of his stories, shall we? Ah, but which one? Shall I recount how Cyrus, king of Persia, became angry at the Gyndes River and divided it into 360 streams? Shall I tell of the little coffin that the servant would take around to the dinner guests after supper in Egypt? Shall I speak of Cambyses, who became enraged with the Ethiopians and forthrightly led the army to journey to that country without making any provision for his troops? Or what about Polycrates, who threw a gold ring into the sea and later received it back in the belly of a fish? Or the Psylli, who made war upon the south-wind? What about the time the Athenians fined the dramatist Phrynicus for staging the Capture of Miletus? Or perhaps something that relates to Scripture. Shall I tell you how Cyrus captured the city of Babylon? Or how Sennacherib invaded Egypt? Or shall I give the Egyptian account of Pharaoh Neco’s war with King Josiah, followed by the Battle of Carchemish?

So many stories from which to choose! But I must pick one. Let’s hear about the time King Cyrus of Persia captured the city of Sardis. Sardis was the capital of Lydia, and Croesus was its king (of “rich as Croesus” fame). Croesus had gone to war with the Persians because of an oracle he had been given, which said that if he attacked the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire. And in the end he did destroy a mighty empire by attacking the Persians, just not the one he was hoping to destroy.

The armies of Croesus and Cyrus clashed in a district of Cappadocia called Pteria. Croesus was outnumbered, and though he survived the day’s battle he decided to withdraw to Sardis, take some time to find allies, and resume the war in the spring.

But Cyrus guessed at Croesus’ plan, and decided to pursue his troops back to Sardis and engage them again before they could regroup. There was a second battle on the plains before Sardis, and though the Lydians fought valiantly they were forced to retreat into the city. “Thus the siege began.”

Sieges are a miserable business. The besiegers cut off the flow of food and water into the city, and prevent communication from leaving the city. Then they wait, and wait, and wait until either the city surrenders or they have opportunity to mount a decent attack. Meanwhile the besieged ration food and water and try to sneak a messenger out so that he can go get their allies. The besieged have the advantage of being at home, and the high ground of the walls from which to attack, and the hope that the sojourning enemy will run out of provisions first and have to leave. The scene thus being set, we’ll leave the rest of the story to Herodotus:

“Now Sardis was taken in this way: After Croesus was besieged for fourteen days, Cyrus sent horsemen throughout his army and promised to give a reward to the first man who scaled the wall. After this the army tried without success. Then, once the others had stopped, a Mardian man named Hyroeades attempted to climb up by a certain part of the acropolis where no one had posted a guard. For no one was fearful about that place, thinking it could never be taken; for there the acropolis is sheer and impregnable. And it was the only place where Meles, the former king of Sardis, had not carried around the lion that his concubine had borne, the Telmessians having determined that after carrying the lion around the wall Sardis would be unconquerable. But when Meles carried it around the rest of the wall where the acropolis could be assailed he disregarded this place as it was impregnable and sheer. It is the part of the city that faces Tmolus. Now this Hyroeades, who was a Mardian, having seen the day before a certain man of the Lydians at this place of the acropolis descending after a helmet that had rolled down and picking it up, considered this and took it to heart. Then he himself also climbed up, and after him others of the Persians began climbing. And when many had ascended in this way then Sardis was taken, and the whole town plundered.”

And those are the facts surrounding Cyrus’ capture of Sardis. Ah, but those are more than just facts, aren’t they? Are the Lydians the only ones who are blind to their weakness, who have false security and overconfidence? The story asks: Are you like the Lydians? The moral of the story is very much like the point that St. Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 10:2, “So let he who thinks he stands watch lest he fall.”

Now history like this can be uncomfortable. It makes you take a look at yourself and the society around you, and sometimes you won’t like what you find. But the result of studying history in such a way is a useful introspection that takes the place of our inherent narcissism. History is a trove of wisdom, and its gifts are all good for you. So unless being a better person scares you, there’s nothing to fear.

Geography: The Places Where History Happened

Notice also how naturally the study of geography follows the study of classical history. Where is Lydia? How big was that kingdom? Was Sardis centrally located in it? Which direction is Persia from Lydia? How big was Cyrus’ kingdom? Where is Pteria, or Cappadocia? What is the terrain like around Sardis? What makes something an acropolis? One can’t read more than a page or two of a classical history without feeling a strong desire to look at a map.

And then when this sort of student of history looks at a map he actually retains geography, because the places have stories that accompany them. This is how we learn geography in everyday life. If I’m new to an area I don’t sit down and try to memorize where everything is at in town. Instead I’ll visit different establishments and things will happen at them. I will remember those happenings as stories. Then when my friend says, “Hey, do you want to go to Blue’s Diner for lunch?” and I say, “What diner?” my friend can say, “You know? The place where we sat outside and I dropped the ketchup bottle on the cement and it shattered.” And then I know, “Oh, the one over on 2nd Street by the courthouse!”

Look at these two maps. One gives a broad view showing where Asia Minor is located on the globe; the other pinpoints Lydia (which was in Asia Minor), Sardis, and Cappadocia:

Now you know where Sardis was, and you know a story that happened there. Strange as it may seem, even if you had never heard of Sardis before, you very well may be able to find Sardis on a map for the rest of your life – because as human beings when we think of geography we want a story to go with it. We remember geography as The Places Where History Happened.

Multiculturalism: History’s Archnemesis

How does modern education’s approach to history differ from the classical approach to history? First of all, modern education has no “history” class. It has been renamed “Social Studies,” and has a far different purpose and approach. Social Studies divides the world into cultural units. Each cultural unit receives a bit of time: the Egyptians, the Middle East, Japan, Native Americans. However, the units remain largely disconnected from each other, and bare facts receive much more emphasis than morals. Social Studies leaves the student wondering, “Why does someone think I need to know this, and how does it all fit together?” And since the student never receives a big picture that brings the whole world together, he’s eager to clear his mind of the dusty old facts. Frankly, who can blame him?

And yet modern education does have an overarching goal to its Social Studies. The goal is Multiculturalism. Now this word gets thrown around quite a bit, so I suppose I should define the word before using it any more. A dictionary is going to prove useless at this point. A dictionary will tell you that multiculturalism merely means “of or relating to different ethnic groups.” If that’s all it means then Herodotus is more “multicultural” than even the most progressive school.

But that’s not what the word means in modern education. In modern education Multiculturalism means highlighting the unique differences in various cultures and then as a blanket statement saying, “Good for them.” These Egyptians built pyramids and worship Ra. Good for them! These Middle Easterners speak Arabic and are Muslim. Good for them! These people over here had a Shaman. These people believed everyone goes to the same place when they die. These people thought eternal life meant living on in the memory of others. Good for them! These people had multiple husbands. These people held their spouses in common. These people were led by matriarchs. These people had the women do the hunting and the men do the gathering. Good for them!

Multiculturalism fixates particularly on religion and traditional morality (especially as regards sexuality), and espouses, “The only truth is that there is no truth. What’s true for these people is true for them, and what’s true for these people is true for them. Neither has the right to say: This must be true for everyone.”

Except Multiculturalism cheats on itself. It holds the premise, “No one can say: This must be true for everyone,” but in so doing it’s saying, “This must be true for everyone.” Multiculturalism cries, “Tolerance!” and demands it of everyone, yet refuses to exercise even a modicum of tolerance itself. Multiculturalism cries, “Diversity!” and will require students to memorize the five pillars of Islam, but will lynch anyone who thinks the class should also memorize the Ten Commandments.

And so Multiculturalism grabs whatever historical anecdotes fit the progressive agendas of the day, marshals them in support of tolerance and diversity, and silences anyone who so much as whispers anything contrary. To the student, Social Studies may seem like a string of boring facts. Yet history is still being used as a moral catechism, only piecemeal, and with no regard for the outcomes of practices, merely that the practices were.

I’ll note briefly that because Social Studies uses history merely for facts or anecdotes, geography need play no great part. The anecdotes might as well be History That Happened Nowhere. And if geography is taught (as a separate and unrelated class, of course), then the student will study the Places Where Nothing Happened.

And what is the final result of this pseudo-history called Social Studies? In the end Social Studies bestows a vague and perhaps fearful sense of “live and let live,” in which case Multiculturalism has done its work.

The Historical Use of History

I could waste great amounts of ink and expound the harmful effects of Multiculturalism even further. But honestly the best way to defeat evil is to call it a liar to its face and then occupy oneself with something good. So… Multiculturalism, you lie! And now let me sum up Herodotus’ approach to history, which will hopefully come as a breath of fresh air after all the nonsense of Multiculturalism.

Herodotus writes a world history, and not only shows how various nations and peoples functioned among themselves, but documents how they interacted with one another. He is himself a Greek, but does not limit his history to the Greeks, or even to peoples with whom the Greeks had direct dealings. Reading his work one gets the sense that he was simply fascinated with human cultures and customs, their uniqueness and variety, and was eager to learn and report as many of them as he could. He was a philanthropist in the truest sense of the word: a lover of man.

Yet Herodotus does not approve of every practice of every nation, but judges by a standard of right and wrong. He will grant that everyone prefers his homeland’s way of doing things; nevertheless this preference doesn’t make everything right. He is tolerant in the truest sense of the word: enduring that which he knows to be wrong, and recording it, and, out of love for justice and for future generations, recording the wretched end with which wrongdoing meets.

Herodotus doesn’t present only one side of a story when he’s heard two, and when accounts of causes differ he offers all he knows, leaving judgment to the reader. Herodotus tries to base his accounts on the testimony of a nation’s best, preferring eyewitnesses, and understanding that people lie to preserve national pride or the reputation of their gods, yet generally trusting people who would know better than him, and not giving himself over to speculation. He shows by example what a fine time history and humility can have with each other.

And the most significant point: Herodotus does not ultimately show how different nations are from each other, but for all the superficial differences in culture and practice human nature remains a common human nature, given to hubris, envy, anger, ambition, passions, impatience, greed, cowardice, revenge, madness, pride, and rashness. And both our common human experience and the annals of history show how harmful these are.

For Herodotus, as for all the classical historians, history does not merely impart information, but allows us to learn from the mistakes of others, and sit at the feet of wise fathers, and answer questions of right and wrong, and have a rollicking good time while we’re at it. So why not have some fun and open a classical history book? Why not study it with some friends, or begin a little school where the study of ancient history hasn’t become ancient history? You’ll be glad you did.

Painting: An Architectural Capriccio of the Roman Forum with Philosophers and Soldiers among Ancient Ruins…, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, c. 1745-1750

Translations are my own

The Classical Languages: A Tale of Two Cities

Olympia and Bluffton

If there’s one thing that makes classical education “classical,” it is the study of the classical languages: Greek and Latin. Classical education also involves reading the famous literature written in those languages, and studying the times when those authors lived. But a classical education is made classical with the classical languages. Maintaining the Trivium and the Quadrivium without teaching the classical languages can still prove very beneficial, don’t get me wrong. But a liberal arts education loses something when Greek and Latin are wanting. Unfortunately, that “something” can be difficult to identify; nevertheless, I’ll try my best to put my finger on it.

I can give four good reasons why students should study Greek and Latin. Someone more learned could likely come up with several more. I’ll give my four reasons as a comparison of two cities, the English city and the Greek and Latin city; let’s call them Bluffton and Olympia, respectively.

Olympia is easier to navigate, has clearer skies, serves better food, and boasts nobler citizens.

Easier Navigation

First, Olympia is easier to navigate, because Greek and Latin are inflected languages. This is in contrast to English, which is an analytic language. In analytic languages meaning depends greatly on word order. Take, for example, the simple sentence, Theagenes threw the javelin. If I change the subject and the object then we have, The javelin threw Theagenes, which – while good for a laugh – no longer communicates what I was trying to say. Or consider this arrangement: The javelin Theagenes threw. Is it saying something about a certain javelin that Theagenes threw? Is it saying that a javelin named Theagenes threw something? Is it saying that Theagenes threw the javelin? Using some common sense we could probably narrow it down to this last one, but I think I’ve sufficiently illustrated what an imprecise language English can be.

While an analytic language like English relies on word order to determine meaning, inflected languages (like Greek and Latin) have a different way of arranging words into meaningful sentences. I suppose the easiest way to introduce an inflected language is to point out the remnants of inflection that we have in English. See if you can identify what’s wrong with the following sentences: ‘Theagenes threw him javelin into the air over he head. The javelin fell back down on his.’

The pronouns are wrong! It should read, ‘his javelin,’ ‘his head,’ and ‘down on him.’ Thus we see in English that the masculine singular pronoun is inflected, meaning it changes its ending based on its role in the sentence: ‘he’ is the subject, ‘his’ shows possession, ‘him’ indicates direct object and pairs with prepositions (e.g. ‘to him,’ ‘from him,’ ‘through him’).

In inflected languages every noun, pronoun, and adjective works this way. They have separate endings for subject, possessive, indirect object, direct object. One almost cannot be imprecise without being flat out wrong.

An Example

Consider this sentence from Cicero’s De Divinatione: Quod enim munus rei publicae adferre maius meliusve possumus quam si docemus atque erudimus iuventutem? Here’s a word-for-word translation that keeps the word order: What for gift thing public bring greater better or can we than if we teach and instruct youth? If we read that sentence a couple of times we might get the gist of it, though as the translation stands we can hardly call it communication.

I’ll go through Cicero’s sentence word by word and demonstrate how the mind works through an inflected language. I glance at the first few words: Quod enim munus. Enim means ‘for,’ and is used in continuing and explaining a prior statement. Enim is also what’s called ‘post positive,’ meaning that even though it sets the tone for the sentence, it appears as the second or sometimes third word. In English, then, it would make sense to translate ‘for’ as the first word. While English has some words that can function as post positives (see the placement of the word ‘then’ in the previous sentence), the word ‘for’ is not one of them.

Next I see that Quod is a relative pronoun – ‘who, which, what.’ It is neuter in gender (nouns, pronouns, etc. in Latin can be masculine, feminine, or neuter). It is singular in number. It is in either the nominative or accusative case, and therefore I know that the ‘what’ is either going to be the subject of the verb or the direct object.

Since the relative pronoun Quod must refer to a noun, I go looking for a neuter, singular, nominative/accusative noun. And there’s munus! Munus can refer to a position, office, or duty. It can also mean ‘gift.’

But I need to figure out what role this munus plays in the sentence, and that means I need to find the verb. Possumus! There it is. Possumus is first person plural, present tense, from the verb possum, ‘be able.’ Here it means ‘we are able’ or ‘we can.’ This leads to the question ‘able to… do what?’ We need an infinitive: to read? to sing? to sculpt? There’s adferre, which means ‘to bring’ or ‘to offer.’ Now if ‘we’ is the subject then munus can’t be. It must be the direct object. I can begin translating, ‘For what gift can we offer…’

Next I notice that maius and meliusve are both neuter, singular, and nominative/accusative (I’ve narrowed it down to accusative, the direct object). Maius and melius are both comparative adjectives and describe the noun munus. The –ve on the end of melius is called ‘enclitic,’ meaning it sticks on the end of the word, but will get translated in English as if it comes before the word. Maius means ‘greater,’ melius means ‘better,’ and –ve means ‘or.’ Cicero writes about a gift that is ‘greater or better.’ I fit this into my translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer…’

Offer to what, or to whom? There’s rei publicae. Rei is a noun that means ‘thing’ or ‘matter.’ Publicae is an adjective that means ‘public.’ Rei and publicae are both feminine, singular, and in the dative case (which marks indirect object, or in this sentence the beneficiary of the gift). The translation ‘public thing’ doesn’t make much sense, but I note that the two Latin words together give us the English word ‘republic.’ I add this to the translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic…’ (Latin has neither the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘a, an,’ and therefore we can supply them where needed in translation).

Now we come to the second part of the sentence. Quam translates in a comparative sense, especially given that we had comparative adjectives in the first part. I’ll translate it ‘than.’ Si usually means ‘if,’ though here with quam I’ll translate it ‘than that.’

I look at docemus atque erudimus. Atque is easy: it means ‘and.’ Docemus and erudimus are both first person, plural, present tense from the verbs doceo and erudio. Docemus means ‘we teach,’ Erudimus means ‘we instruct.’ So: ‘…than that we teach and instruct…’ Iuventutem. This is a feminine noun, singular, and accusative, from iuventus. It’s the direct object of the verbs. It’s also the word from which we get the English ‘juvenile,’ and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that in Latin the word means ‘youth.’

And now I can understand the whole sentence, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic than that we teach and instruct the youth?’ Once someone is proficient in Latin or Greek he can fly through this whole process rather quickly and naturally.

The Roads of Bluffton and Olympia

You see how hard the mind must strain to read a language as foreign and inflected as Latin. It gets even more fun with Greek when there’s an entirely different alphabet. These languages form the mind, and we might think of it like designing a roads system for a city.

The roads system in the English city of Bluffton is the work of several different contractors: Sir Anglo Saxon, Monsieur French, a Germanic gentleman. The contractors did not collaborate. Each did his work having inherited one thing from his predecessor and handing on something more or less altered to his successor – when there weren’t two different contractors trying to do the work at the same time.

English had been an inflected language. Through the years reliance on word order has mostly replaced case endings, though, as noted, we still have inflected pronouns. English usually conjugates verbs by adding words to the beginning of the verb rather than changing the ending of the verb itself, e.g. I walked, you walked, he walked, we walked, you walked, they walked. Yet in the present tense we get, I walk, you walk, he walks. And good luck telling if ‘you’ means ‘you’ singular or ‘y’all’ plural.

The centuries of construction and reform have left the Bluffton roads system with a good deal of internal inconsistency, which in turn offers great opportunity for confusion. Randomly a lane becomes right-turn-only, some streets suddenly strike a dead end, the roads angle and curve and meander about – so much concrete and so difficult to get where I want to go! Theagenes used to go with his friends to the stadiums with the javelins in order to throw them. Whether he threw the javelins, the stadiums, or his friends, no one knows.

Olympia has a far better roads system. The case endings form an elegant series of parallel north-south streets. The verb declensions form a complementary set of east-west streets. The intersections follow orderly syntax. Overall the roads of Olympia are predictable and consistent. As foreign as they may seem they are simpler to navigate because they make sense as a cohesive whole.

The student’s understanding of language – and I don’t mean a specific language, but the very essence of language – the student’s understanding of language will become more and more precise and orderly the longer he spends navigating the streets of Olympia. Or in other words, the Greek and Latin languages form the mind of the student in their image: they are straightforward to navigate, and they train the mind to navigate language in a straightforward manner. They are orderly and precise and they train the mind to be orderly and precise. This formative benefit of Greek and Latin is their chief benefit.

Clearer Skies

The second advantage of Olympia over Bluffton is that Olympia has clearer skies, that is, a more lucid vocabulary. I’m going to list a few English words. As you look at each ask yourself, ‘How would I define this word if someone asked me to do so?’ 1) Reconciliation, 2) Ostentatious, 3) Metamorphosis, 4) Catastrophe.

In Olympia this is an easy business:

1) Reconciliation, from the Latin verb conciliare, which means ‘to bring together.’ The prefix re– means ‘back, again.’ Put the prefix on the verb, and reconciliation means ‘bringing back together.’

2) Ostentatious, again Latin, from the verb tendo, which means ‘stretch,’ plus the preposition ob, ‘in front of.’ Put them together and you have ‘stretching in front of,’ or more simply, ‘displaying.’ An ostentatious person is showy, stretching and craning (sometimes literally) to get within sight of others.

3) Metamorphosis, this time from Greek: the preposition μετά (meta) ‘change,’ plus the noun μορφή (morphe) ‘shape, form.’ Hence metamorphosis means ‘a change in form.’ The Greek verb μεταμορφόομαι (metamorphoomai) comes up in Matthew at the Transfiguration of Jesus. (Interestingly ‘transfiguration’ is the same combination of ‘change’ + ‘form,’ except from Latin instead of Greek).

4) Catastrophe, which we know means something bad that happens. In the Greek, catastrophe comes from the preposition κατά (kata) ‘down, against,’ plus στροφή (strophe) ‘turning,’ hence a ‘turning against,’ or a ‘downturn.’

This practice of analyzing English words according to their original language roots is called etymology. Most dictionaries include a brief etymology of each word. If you want to have some real fun go to The benefit of knowing Greek and Latin is that etymology becomes second nature. One sees an abstract word and can put some form to it by recalling Greek and Latin roots. These roots give concrete imagery to otherwise unclear words (consider again ‘ostentatious’). Therefore Olympia has this advantage over Bluffton: there are fewer clouds and clearer skies.

Better Food

The third benefit of Olympia is that the city serves better food. There is a great feast: the best literature that has ever been written. This feast is not consumed with the mouth, but with the eyes and ears and mind and heart. Nor is this feast gone once it has been consumed. Contrast this with most of our modern English literature (if we can call it that): electronically delivered, only ever half-digested, written with the assumption that it will quickly be forgotten and replaced with more salty, sugary, deep-fried mind-fat. Not so with classical literature. Reading Homer’s Odyssey once is like eating a salad at a seventy-five course meal. This literature is meant to be read, and re-read, then read again, without ever being exhausted.

Allow me to list some of the types and names of dishes served daily in Olympia. Broadly speaking, this is the best political, philosophical, moral, historical, poetical, theatrical, and all around beautiful literature the world has ever known. More specifically, here are Aesop’s Fables and Plutarch’s Lives, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Herodotus’ Histories and Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Aeschylus’ Orestia Trilogy. And here are the accounts of the Holy Gospel, and the Epistles of St. Paul, a wonderfully nuanced board: in many ways simple compared with classical Greek literature, yet with such depth and flavor that they are always new, like freshly baked bread. And this list doesn’t represent a tenth of the hearty fare of Olympia.

The food is rich, and vastly different from the pseudo-romantic, emotionally-manipulative, and sex-crazed word salad that characterizes our day. At first we might not know what to do with the literature of Olympia. “What? Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited how many years for her husband to return from the war, she has a house full of eager suitors, and she doesn’t take up with any of them?” But then we realize that Olympia doesn’t know what to do with us. “Seriously? ‘Follow your heart’? ‘Live, laugh, love’? These are the great philosophical and ethical teachings of your day? What about duty, friendship, self-sacrifice, good, evil, right, wrong, the depravity of man, mastering the appetites, contemplating the afterlife, and the million other things that human beings were made to learn about and ponder?” So yes, the food is rich, it fills to the full, and Cicero is ordering for you. But most of us could use just such a mind-diet.

Nobler Citizens

Finally, Olympia has an extraordinarily illustrious populace, nearly the greatest of any city that ever was, second only to that of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (and many are citizens of that city too). The citizenry have all learned at least something of the classical languages, many have mastered them, and they are all well-versed in classical literature. Olympia has such people as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, Martin Luther, John Milton, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton.

They are all part of the same community and conversation. They reference great classical works and expect everyone else to know what they’re talking about. They have inherited a rich tradition, been formed by it, and have added to it. Some call this the Great Conversation: great for its temporal length, great for its subject matter, great for its esteemed participants.

In this conversation it seems that every deep question has received thorough treatment, every hard matter concerning human nature and relations has been asked and debated. Much has been answered, much remains a mystery. But you can bring up anything you like, so long as you come with an open mind and leave the thought police of your day outside the city gates. The population of Olympia is wise, not politically correct.

Olympia, or Atlantis?

So there stands Olympia with her orderly roads, clear skies, delicious food, and noble citizens. Participating in the life of this city forms one’s mind, clarifies thought, and sharpens expression. This mental formation is Olympia’s chief benefit, though also the most difficult thing to prove by argument.

The world used to be full of trustworthy people who could vouch for the great benefits of studying the classical languages. But those eloquent voices have faded. Parents and teachers used to urge at least Latin on their children in the same way they made them eat their vegetables: “It’s good for you.” And the parents and teachers were right. I could extol Greek and Latin until my breath would blow no longer, but the fact remains: no argument can convince someone to take up the classical languages. And that’s because, as with any city, you can never realize how wonderful it is until you go there and see it for yourself. The benefits of Greek and Latin are only grasped when those benefits are yours.

One generation used to pass down the classical languages to the next, knowing children and grandchildren would thank them later. Yet Olympia has become the lost city of Atlantis. How do we recover this city? Learn the classical languages. Walk up and down the conjugations and go back and forth along the declensions. Breathe the clean air and bask in the clear daylight. Nourish your mind with ancient nectar. Pull up a stool and rub elbows with giants. Study Greek and Latin. Become a citizen. And bring your children with you.


The book “Climbing Parnassus” by Tracy Lee Simmons was a great inspiration for this article, particularly his emphasis on the formative value of the classical languages. You can learn more about the book and purchase it at this link: Climbing Parnassus. I highly recommend it.

Painting: “Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens” by Leo von Klenze, 1846

The Quadrivium: Harmonies of the World

The Numerical Arts

The Trivium and Quadrivium together make the seven liberal arts. We’ve looked briefly at the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Let us take a glance at the Quadrivium.

The four arts of the Quadrivium are Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. At first this may seem an odd group. We’re more used to seeing something like Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus. But the Quadrivium does make sense. A man named Boethius (480-524 AD) put it in these terms: Arithmetic is number. Geometry is number in space. Music is number in time. Astronomy is number in space and time. “Well, I understand Arithmetic and Geometry,” someone might say. “But Music and Astronomy? Those are hobbies. How do those latter two prepare a child for a STEM career?” I should explain what math has become and what it used to be.

The Modern Mathematician

If we were to personify the current view of math, we might picture a tall, awkward, and straggly young man. He has slicked hair, a white button down shirt, a pocket protector. His skin is pasty white for want of sun. Under fluorescent lights in a room with no windows at a cold metal desk he calculates. Or rather, a computer calculates. He minds the computer and ponders its calculations. The bridge will fail at a load of eighty tons. The curvature of the plane fuselage is less conducive to flight and more conducive to fiery death. Change the frequency of the radio receiver, unless you want to hear the neighbor’s baby crying over the monitor. The mathematician works with the numbers and finds the solutions. He goes home with some sense of satisfaction in his work – sometimes – but will be very happy if he doesn’t have to think about numbers again until he clocks in the next day. It’s also worth noting that this mathematician does not believe in God. He holds that scientists, using numbers in some fabulous way, have disproven the existence of anything more almighty than the mathematician.

Now this man is a useful man. We want him, or at least we want what he does. But this little caricature identifies four problems with the current state of math. First, in large part math has been removed from the human mind and relegated to computers. Second, math has become limited to the realm of work. Third, math has been brought inside and locked in a sterile room, with the result that we think of numbers as something manufactured by man. And fourth, math has been set in false opposition to a Creator.


Allow me to introduce the four arts of the Quadrivium and paint a different picture of the mathematician. First comes Arithmetic. Arithmetic is the foundation of the Quadrivium, just as Grammar is the foundation of the Trivium. In Arithmetic the student learns to equate numbers with symbols, learns how to count, learns how to add, subtract, multiply, divide. There is much rote memorization: addition tables, multiplication tables, order of operations. It doesn’t take long and Arithmetic can be put to good use. One can count back change, balance a checkbook, calculate cost per ounce and determine which bottle of ketchup gives the better bargain. This is Arithmetic at work.

But Arithmetic also likes to play. “How high can you count?” one of my daughters asked me. “Why, I can count so high,” I replied, “that I could spend the whole rest of my life counting!” Now how did I know that? From experience? No, but because counting is orderly and predictable and follows a set pattern. One could learn to count to a centillion in a fraction of the time it would actually take to do so. And because numbers follow patterns they can be extraordinarily fun.

Consider, for example, the Fibonacci sequence. Can you identify the pattern to these numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144? Each number is the sum of the two previous numbers in the sequence. How many numbers must there be in the sequence in order to pass one million? How can one calculate that without writing out the whole sequence? Do prime numbers come up in the sequence with any predictable regularity? Do odd numbers or even numbers occur more frequently? Why? You see that Arithmetic captivates the mind in a way that can hardly be called work.


On to Geometry! As noted, Geometry takes the numbers from Arithmetic and puts them in space: plotting points in two dimensions on a graph, calculating the surface area or volume of a three-dimensional object, figuring the acreage of a field. Geometry proves itself useful, as did its younger sibling Arithmetic. Say you’re building a garden, 4’ x 8’ x 1’. How many 8’ lengths of 2×6 lumber do you need to construct the walls? You must square the sides as you put them together. How can you use the Pythagorean Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) to ensure that the corners form right angles? How many cubic feet of soil do you need in order to fill your garden? Or how many gallons of paint do you need to cover the walls of your living room? Or how many gallons of water will it take to fill your swimming pool? Beyond these household applications, Geometry also gives us the architect, the engineer, the packaging specialist, and many other useful vocations.

But why should Geometry limit itself to mere utility when it can also give enjoyment and wonder? Geometry points out the fractal patterns of snowflakes, the order of spots on a leopard’s coat, the scales on fish, the pleasing repetition of the veins and edges of leaves. And try this: Pick up a pineapple. Look at the pattern of the patches on it. Start at the top of the pineapple and trace a curve of patches down and to the right until you get to the bottom. You could go all the way around the pineapple like this and count the number of curves that sweep down and to the right until you arrive back at where you started. And you know what? More often than not the number of curves will be a number from the Fibonacci sequence! You might do it again, tracing the curves down and to the left all the way around the pineapple. The number of those curves is also likely to be a number from the Fibonacci sequence.

You can do the same thing with pinecones, or artichokes. Suddenly the student of Geometry realizes that the Fibonacci sequence isn’t a pattern invented by man as a mathematical curiosity – it is built into the world! Man might be smart enough to notice it, but someone more intelligent made it. Far from being a cold science invented by man in a laboratory, Geometry is an art observed in and learned from the harmonious order of nature.


We continue with Music. Now if an education is merely about learning skills that make money, then many would exclude Music. Very few people make money from it, and those who make the most money from it don’t even understand it. But what if, in addition to the rather simple goal of preparing people for STEM careers, the Quadrivium has a loftier goal? What if the purpose of the Quadrivium is to show the order of the world, to delight mankind with numbers and inspire him to wonder? What if, rather than manufacturing hunched mathematicians and placing them at desks in dim rooms, the Quadrivium purposes to bring its disciples outside, orient their faces toward the heavens, and place on their lips doxologies to the Most High? If that should be the case, then Music and Astronomy are not useless appendages or electives, take them or leave them. Rather, Music and Astronomy are the higher arts that take aim not at money, but at teaching human creatures to love their created-ness.

Music hardly ever goes to work, and when she does she hardly considers it work. She loves to play, and we retain this in our language of Music. We don’t “work” instruments, like scientists in a lab. We play instruments, and in our playing we testify that there is much more to life than money and a job. There’s beauty and delight. But don’t get the wrong idea about Music. She doesn’t play in a chaotic way, like a careless child crashing around the den. She plays in an orderly manner. It’s more fun that way.

Consider a piano. From C to C there are 13 keys, 8 white keys and 5 black keys. The black keys come in sets of 2 or 3, and between the back keys are either 1 or 2 white keys. If you start on C and count up 8 keys (with C as the first key), that’s called a 5th. If you start on C and count 5 keys, that’s a 3rd. If you count 13 keys that’s an octave, from the Latin word octo, 8. Have you noticed the pattern yet? The layout of a piano keyboard can be explained by ratios of numbers from the Fibonacci sequence! These ratios also explain the Circle of Fifths: if you multiply a frequency by 3/2 you get the respective 5th. While much of the Quadrivium shows the beautiful order of the world to the eyes, Music shows that beautiful order to the ears.


Now we come to the highest art of the Quadrivium: Astronomy. Astronomy pulls us from our man-made dwellings and brings us outside into a dwelling made by no man. Astronomy puts a gentle and strong hand under our chins and lifts up our heads. Astronomy turns us from marveling at the work of our hands to marveling at the works of another.

In a way Astronomy makes us uncomfortable. It is supposed to. We tend to think we’re really something. We’re given to puffing ourselves up, whether by worshiping what we’ve made or letting others inflate us with vainglory. Astronomy shows where you really stand in the cosmos. There is a God who perfectly orchestrates the movements of Jupiter and Saturn. What can you do that compares with that?

The Lord questioned Job, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on earth?” (Job 38:31-33). Astronomy asks you the same questions. And we must answer with Job, “Behold, I am of small account” (Job 40:4).

The greatest astronomers have been Christians, perhaps because they’re not afraid to face the grandeur of God or their own smallness. They know from the Scriptures that while we are of no account by ourselves, we have been made in the image of God and the Son of God has shown us such favor that he died for us. The Christian, therefore, does not have to hide from Almighty God, but is free to marvel at the work of his hands.

This marveling is awfully fun, too. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630 AD) is a good example. In his book Harmonies of the World he shows how geometric shapes inscribed in one another come close to the spatial arrangement of planetary orbits. He observes that one can represent the paths of the heavenly bodies with numerical ratios (the fact that the ratio 3/2 factors heavily in this really shouldn’t surprise us by this point).

Kepler also takes the ratios of the planets and converts them to musical ratios. He then uses musical notation to write out the harmonies that the planets “sing”: Saturn and Jupiter sing bass, Mars sings tenor, Earth and Venus sing alto, Mercury sings soprano. He portrays the heavens as a choir singing four-part harmony in praise of their Creator.

In doing this Kepler is not projecting man’s music into the heavens. It’s rather the opposite. Kepler writes:

Accordingly, you won’t wonder any more that a very excellent order of sounds or pitches in a musical system or scale has been set up by men, since you see that they are doing nothing else in this business except to play the apes [i.e. imitators] of God the Creator and to act out, as it were, a certain drama of the ordination of the celestial movements (Harmonies of the World, Chapter 5).

The Classical Mathematician

Having covered the four arts of the Quadrivium, let us conclude with this question: what kind of mathematician does the Quadrivium make? First of all, the Quadrivium makes all of its students mathematicians, and for no other reason than the pure joy of numbers. If some go on to make money with these numbers, fine, but the Quadrivium is not concerned about forming money-makers.

The Quadrivium forms a person who is so conversant in the language of numbers that he can figure even complex equations without the aid of a calculator. The Quadrivium forms a person who finds so much wonder and fun in the numbers and ratios and harmonies of the world that he can’t think of it as work. The Quadrivium forms a person who understands that numbers are received from the created world, and are not manufactured by men in their closets. Most importantly the Quadrivium forms a person who understands the whole universe in mathematical terms, and rather than misusing his knowledge to explain God away, he breaks forth in high doxology.

The mathematician formed by the Quadrivium may still be tall, awkward, and straggly. He may still have slicked hair, a white button down shirt, and a pocket protector. He certainly still uses his knowledge of numbers in service to others. But his sleeves are rolled up, his skin knows the light of the sun, his face inclines toward the heavens, and he praises God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

Great is our Lord and great His virtue and of His wisdom there is no number: praise Him, ye heavens, praise Him, ye sun, moon, and planets, use every sense for perceiving, every tongue for declaring your Creator. Praise Him, ye celestial harmonies, praise Him, ye judges of the harmonies uncovered…: and thou my soul, praise the Lord thy Creator, as long as I shall be: for out of Him and through Him and in Him are all things, both the sensible and the intelligible; for both those whereof we are utterly ignorant and those which we know are the least part of them; because there is still more beyond. To Him be praise, honour, and glory, world without end. Amen. (Harmonies of the World, Chapter 10).

Harmonies of the World by Johannes Kepler, 1619
Translated by Charles Glenn Wallis, 1939

Woodcut: The Seventh Day of Creation by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872
Image provided courtesy of the Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.