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The Classical World

This is a talk presented by DR RYAN MESSMORE at the Faith and Freedom Conference at St Augustine’s Classical Christian College, Perth.


WHEN I was in graduate school studying theology and ethics, I learned a lot about the intersection of two worlds: the classical world and the early Christian world.

I took ancient languages like Latin and Hellenistic Greek, read the works of Aristotle, Cicero and Homer, and studied concepts like virtue and the nature of the polis (or city state). The more I learned about the classical world in particular, the more I sensed within me a conflict of emotions. I deeply appreciated and wanted to recover certain aspects of this time period.

However, there were other aspects that I was happy to leave in the past. (When I thought about the ownership of slaves or the limited role of women in the public square, or when I learned about the limited opportunity for economic mobility or the promotion of revenge rather than forgiveness of enemies, I must confess that I felt glad that Western civilisation has moved on and changed.)

We do not want to return whole cloth to the classical world – as if that were even possible; but, at the same time, there are several things about the classical world that I believe are very worthwhile trying to recover. The classical approach to education is one of them.

While we were in graduate school, my wife and I sensed a call to lead a classical Christian residential learning community. That call has guided us each step of our subsequent journey, even bringing us to Australia to lead Campion College – the only liberal arts college in the country.

 I would argue that there is something we might call “the classical mind” – by which I mean a classical way of seeing the world – a particular focus or outlook. At the core of this mindset is a very important concept: the notion of telos (or goal, end, or purpose). A classical mind is focused “on purpose”, and this focus has implications for the topic of today’s conference: freedom.


In modern times, freedom has become synonymous with the absence of limitations; people today think of freedom as the license-to-do-anything-you-choose-without-restrictions. This is primarily “freedom from” – that is, when we talk about freedom, we usually speak of freedom from this or freedom from that.

The classical mind, in contrast, understood freedom as the ability to achieve our purposed good as human beings. In other words, the idea of freedom presupposes a good in reference to which we can be helped or hindered in pursuing. This is not merely a freedom from, but also a freedom for.

To understand the crucial role that telos plays in the concept of freedom, consider this question: If I am entangled in a cage or a net suspended from a tree branch, am I free? The typical modern individual would likely answer “no” straight away. The classical individual, however, might want to ask a prior question: “free in reference to what?”

In the classical mind, freedom means being able to achieve a good. What if the good in question is a piece of fish that I want to eat at the foot of the tree? In that case, the net is preventing me from achieving that good; the net, in fact, is an obstacle to my freedom, which is to say, my ability to eat the fish.

But what if the good in question is life itself, and what if, at the foot of the tree, is a pool of hungry piranha who want to eat me? In that case, the net is freeing me – it is helping me to achieve the good of staying alive.

The important point is that the concept of freedom presupposes a purposed good. We have to understand what that good is in order to know what will help or hinder us in achieving it – to know what is truly freeing and truly enslaving.

All this leads to the question: what is the true good of human beings? For what purpose were humans created? What does it mean to be human? (This question is essential for schools to ask and to help students answer; to be classically educated you have to explore what it means to be human.)

What it Means to be Human

In Ancient Greece and Rome, humans were understood to be, among other things, rational, communicating, political, social creatures.

As rational beings, humans are endowed with the potential to think critically and to reason, which is to say we have the power to observe, memorise, and make connections; to process data; to make sense out of patterns; to understand abstract concepts; and to discern plots and motifs.

As communicating beings, humans possess the ability to use words and numbers to share abstract ideas, persuade others, and delight with beauty. As political beings, humans are able to participate in community and deliberate and contribute to the common good of communities. As social beings, humans are made for relationships.

An important contribution from the Christian world is the understanding that humans are social/relational beings because they are made in the image of a triune God, and, furthermore, humans are fundamentally lovers – individuals and communities are identified and shaped by what they love and give themselves for.

In short, for both the classical and Christian mind, humans were created with a goal, a telos: to realise the fullness of the possibilities within us – to develop the virtues – which lead to human flourishing. This potential includes the ability to think, communicate, solve problems, make sound moral judgments, and understand the world around us. In other words, the pursuit of freedom today – i.e. the ability to achieve the human good – is fostered by good education.

My wife and I wanted to find this sort of education for our kids, and we found it in the classical model.

Challenges Posed by Modern Western Education

For centuries in the West, the meaning of education involved achieving the full potential of human beings made in God’s image. In other words, the purpose or telos of education was to become a certain kind a person – a member of a certain kind of community.

Sadly, this classical mindset has changed.

We no longer live in a culture that practises belief in a purposeful Creator. Our society no longer acknowledges a human telos and therefore has become ignorant about true virtue and confused about true freedom. And, given that we reject a telos for human nature, the modern world can no longer hope to educate “on purpose”.

This is especially the case at the tertiary level with which I am most familiar. If you ask what the purpose of a university education is today, the answer would likely be offered in utilitarian terms. In modern-day Australia, the purpose of education is largely thought to be about enabling students to gain employment. This is education narrowed to mere job training.

I want to suggest that there’s a problem with viewing the purpose of education solely in that utilitarian way. Don’t get me wrong, useful knowledge is a good and noble pursuit, but a purely utilitarian mindset leads to an incomplete education, a narrowed-down education.

Subjects that aren’t seen to produce immediate benefits in the commercial marketplace are slowly pushed to the fringes of the university and stigmatised as curious, irrelevant hobbies. And the subjects that are offered are presented with little attention to how they relate to the other fields a student might be studying.

Many students thus miss out on an education in the unity of God’s creation. They are not trained to understand or appreciate the unity of knowledge. As one cultural commentator has noted: “Modern secular education is failing … because it has no moral, social or intellectual centre. There is no set of ideas or attitudes that permeates all parts of the curriculum. The curriculum is not, in fact, a ‘course of study’ at all but a meaningless hodgepodge of subjects.”

(That was a quote from Neil Postman, and I’d say that on this point, Postman delivers!)

Sadly, on most Australian university campuses today, the only thing shared by the various schools and their faculties is a parking lot.

Furthermore, a strictly utilitarian approach to education tends to ignore entire dimensions of the human person – such as the spiritual dimension. Therefore, education merely as job training is not true to who we were created to be as human beings. And it is not even true to what employers say they want in an employee; nor is it true to the realities of the current job market, where graduates can expect to change jobs once every five years (but they have only been trained in one particular field of knowledge!).

In short, education as mere job training traps students. It traps them in a single career track; it traps them in ignorance and inactivity; it traps them in the trends and fashions of their day; and students become enslaved to their personal passions and desires.

We need to recover the classical understanding of education.

Classical Education

Classical education entails using classical skills to study classical content so as to achieve classical goals of education.

By classical skills I mean the ancient trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. These are the tools of learning that students must master before they apply them to “subjects”. Learning grammar entails observation and memory of the basic building blocks of any discipline; logic (or dialectic) has to do with connecting ideas and building sound arguments; and rhetoric focuses on writing and speaking in a persuasive way.

These foundational skills are important for being able to enter any field and learn how to succeed there. As Dorothy Sayers argued, “Is it not the great defect of our education today that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects’, we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning.”

Wendell Berry made a similar point more recently by writing, “The proper subject for a school is how to speak and write well, not how to be a ‘public speaker’ or a ‘broadcaster’ or a ‘creative writer’ or a ‘technical writer’ or a journalist or a practitioner of ‘business English’. If one can speak and write well, then, given the need, one can make a speech or write an article or a story or a business letter. If one cannot speak or write well, then the tricks of a trade will be no help.”

In classical education, the classical skills of grammar, logic and rhetoric are employed to study classical content. Here I mean the best that has been thought and written by humans in Western civilisation, especially works expressing the ideas that make us human (which is where we get the academic term “the humanities”).

A classical education focuses on the great books that have shaped the western intellectual tradition, with a particular emphasis on language and history. At Campion College, this content is comprised of “core” subjects in history, literature, theology and philosophy, with subjects also offered in Latin, science and maths.

This content is studied for the purpose of achieving classical goals. As I’ve noted, the goal of education in modern-day Australia has been narrowed down to mere job training. But in the classical mind, education was meant to accomplish much more.

As we’ve already noted, a good education should cultivate the ability to learn more, and it should enable participation in what Mortimor Addler calls the “great conversation” of Western heritage.  Furthermore, it should develop with students the ability to reason critically and to exercise wisdom.

As Albert Einstein said, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”

Even more than this, though, a good education should form a certain kind of person who can lead a certain kind of life. “The most important fact about the subject of education is that there is no such thing,” quipped G. K. Chesterton. “Education is not a subject, and it does not deal in subjects. It is instead the transfer of a way of life.”

Likewise, C. S. Lewis wrote, “The purpose of education is to produce the good man and the good citizen. … The ‘good man’ here means the man of good taste and good feeling, the interesting and interested man. … Vocational training, on the other hand, aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician, a good scavenger, or a good surgeon. You see at once that education is essentially for freemen and vocational training for slaves.”

In other words, a school that trains students in classical skills to study classical content for classical purposes doesn’t trap students in a single career track. Rather, it prepares them to enter any field they choose and be able to learn what’s necessary for success. Such a school doesn’t trap students in ignorance but teaches them how to think.

It doesn’t trap students in trends and fashions of the day but helps them to understand the influence of their surrounding context and community. It doesn’t enslave students to their own passions and urges but helps them to order their desires toward the true and the good and the beautiful.

You’ll be able to see why this approach to education is referred to as “liberal” arts. I like to say that Campion College is in the business of liberation – of setting people free to flourish as children of God.

Which City?

Finally, in a classical mind, schools or academies are understood as communities of learning that are shaped by and serve a larger society. Good education should train citizens of that society in the virtues. But what is considered a virtue depends heavily upon the nature of the society that we seek to serve. Education for the City of God will and should look somewhat different from education for the City of Man.

We need to recover an appreciation for what the classical world understood about education: it is training in citizenship. The deeper question is: of what city?

This article was first published in News Weekly.


Dr Ryan Messmore is president of Campion College, Sydney.

Written by: Staff writers
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