In Real Time: The Temporal Order of the Liberal Arts

We are all temporal creatures. We live in time the way fish live in water or the way trees hug for life with their roots in the soil. But it’s a funny thing about trees that they cling to the sunlit air for life as well. Every farmer and forester knows that trees need sunlight. And with a bit of help from biology class, we learn that they need the carbon-filled air too. That is, trees are as rooted in the high heavens as they are in the lowly earth, but we need a bit of study and experience to see rightly the humble and haughty tree. And seeing the tree in this new light, we return to our modest analogy of you and me compared to tree. Only now we are not simply rooted in time, the way a tree is rooted in the ground; we are also rooted in eternity, as a tree hugs the heavens for dear life.

In Plato’s Phaedo, the first work of philosophy that seniors in History of Western Thought read each year, Socrates explains the human condition somewhat negatively as stuck in time, a soul trapped in the body that “makes use of the body to investigate something” by means of “the senses.”[1] But the soul is thereby “dragged by the body to the things that are never the same, and the soul itself strays and is confused and dizzy, as if it were drunk, insofar as it is in contact with things of this kind.” This bodily, material, composite, and temporal realm of flux Socrates calls the realm of “becoming.”[2] This is where we experience every thing, it is the dirty soil for our roots, to mix our little analogy with Plato’s negativity.

But there is another realm: “When the soul investigates by itself, it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging, and being akin to this, it always stays with it whenever it is by itself and can do so.” This realm we might call, as Plato does elsewhere, the realm of “Being.” We Christians know we are made in God’s image and likeness; the Greeks had an idea that we are, somehow, Zeus’s children, capable of experiencing the sky god of Mount Olympus. Although these Greek myths got it wrong, they point to a real truth about the higher, intellectual aspect of mankind, which branches up into the heavenly realm of Being, where space, time, and body are not constantly subject to change and where we can find true rest. Socrates continues to gush, “[The soul] ceases to stray and remains in the same state as it is in touch with things of the same kind, and its experience then is called wisdom?”[3] The question mark is important here, not simply as a reminder of Socrates’s ironic method of only posing questions. Is this really “wisdom,” to experience the unchanging, intellectual world of heaven, of Being, of God? The activity here may be called philosophizing or contemplation or even, as it is known later, “Platonic ecstasy,” when the intellect considers high and unchanging ideas like, Socrates says, “the Equal” or “the Beautiful itself, the Good itself” or as we might say, God and His angels.

The temptation is to answer, “Yes! That’s wisdom. That’s the highest activity. That’s the very best. That’s, in the end, the Beatific Vision. That’s… heaven! And if Wisdom is the highest virtue, then this is Wisdom!” But to answer this way focuses all our attention on the mighty boughs of the tree, on the great and waving branches, on the vaulting, sunlit, heavenward arc of the tree. To answer this way considers the human person in a heavenly state only and not in his temporal state. To answer this way forgets the humble, hidden roots of our bodily, temporal nature. And what’s more, to answer this way is to leap over the entire Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman tradition of liberal arts education by failing to make a crucial distinction between what is true in the order of Being versus what is true in the order of Becoming. That is, a tree really is rooted in the soil, and not in the air. The heavenly roots in our analogy are themselves an analogy.

It is so important that we at The Heights School never let such beautiful images deceive us. If someone was silly enough to take literally the image of a tree rooted in the heavens, they might try to plant an acorn on Mount Olympus, where the sky is plentiful. If we confuse the contemplative, philosophical Wisdom of our final state in heaven, in the realm of Being, with the practical wisdom that’s proper to this world, the temporal realm of becoming, then we risk turning the liberal arts into a theoretical Mount Olympus. If we attempt to focus too much on high, speculative, intellectual matters, then we will have planted our students on very high but very rocky ground, not unlike those “[o]ther seeds” that “fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil,” and were quickly scorched when the sun rose because they had no root.[4]

An education in the liberal arts must give pride of place to practical wisdom, to navigating the realm of becoming, while resisting the temptation to focus on speculative or contemplative Wisdom, that final rest and joy of the heavenly realm of Being. Even as an excellent liberal arts education recognizes the primacy of Wisdom, it must also keep its focus on developing practical wisdom, lest we encourage each sapling student to reach for the sun in the heavens and grow proud like poor Icarus or foolish Phaethon,[5] thinking in their pride that they can climb so high with so little experience. But it is not Greek myth alone that cautions against this siren song.

In the most ancient writings of sacred scripture, we see in leadership education an emphasis not on intellectual pursuits, but on what might best be called practical wisdom. King Solomon, writing to young would-be leaders at court, pronounces, “The wise [sapiens] in heart shall be called prudent: and he that is sweet in words, shall attain to greater things.”[6] Here in Proverbs is the Old Testament’s first direct treatment of education. It emphasizes the practical nature of education: “To know wisdom [sapientiam], and instruction [disciplinam]: To understand the words of prudence: and to receive the instruction of doctrine, justice, and judgment, and equity: To give subtlety to little ones, to the young man knowledge and understanding. A wise man shall hear, and shall be wiser: and he that understandeth shall possess governments.”[7] Wisdom and discipline, knowledge and understanding, for the purpose of allowing the “little ones” to see more subtly, so that they might have access to “the words of prudence” and the “doctrine[s]” and “justice” that will allow “young men” to “be wiser” and “possess governments [gubernacula].” This inspired Old Testament account of education has a decidedly practical end in mind, namely prudent and excellent living of the highest natural sort. And that highest natural sort means becoming a leader, a pilot, a helmsman of the ship of state, or, in the Latin, gubernator, a governor of the common good.[8] Little wonder, then, that some of us have taken to translating the liberal arts, the artes liberales, as the arts of liberty, namely those arts designed for free, self-governing people.

Like King Solomon and the Holy Spirit in Proverbs, the ancient Greek attitude toward the goal of education had a similarly practical and moral bent as well. Consider again Plato’s Socrates in the Phaedo. In this truly subtle dialogue, Socrates defines philosophy in very practical and prudential terms as a preparation for death.[9] That the one aim of philosophy is, Socrates says, a “practice,” particularly a “practice for dying and death,” is of special interest to a liberal arts school like The Heights for the simple reason that the liberal arts are directed toward philosophy and theology. Naturally speaking, the statesman-playwright-philosopher Seneca explains this philosophical goal of the arts of liberty: “Hence you see why ‘liberal studies’ are so called: it is because they are studies worthy of a free-born gentleman. But there is only one really liberal study – that which gives man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled.”[10] All the liberal arts – and we should add the humanities as well – are designed for philosophy and theology, but not as a collection of information, nor as bundles of scientific fact, nor as a speculative intellectual pursuit, nor again as primarily a study of metaphysical Being. Rather, like the emphasis in Proverbs, philosophy, in this Greco-Roman understanding, is geared toward a practical excellence, the virtues and habits required by the student in order to die well, and thus, first, to be fully alive.

So if the liberal arts are directed to philosophy and theology, and if these two higher sciences are best thought of as the guides and practices to living and dying well, then the liberal arts and sciences are slanted toward the arts, or rather, the art of living well.[11] The liberal arts are first and foremost a training for the practice of virtue, which must include contemplation of the proper end of life and knowledge of the world around us, but which must be prudent enough to keep the focus on self-government and the common good, on steering the ship to port, with one eye on the stars, one on the horizon, and always the hand upon the tiller. Accordingly, the education of a student in these arts and sciences aims at the perfection of that student, achieved through the practice of repeated virtuous acts. As the humble old Baltimore Catechism asked, “What do we mean by the ‘end of man’? By the ‘end of man’ we mean the purpose for which he was created: to know, love, and serve God.”[12] We are meant to know, love, and serve. To know is a third of the equation, with love, which is an act,[13] and service, another act, completing the triad. That’s a very practical, active, and moral account of our end. The aim and goal of liberal arts education was never simply to equip a student with knowledge; the aim has always been to ensure that prudently selected arts and sciences are acquired in such a way as to prepare the student for virtue, and now, in the new age of Christ’s grace, for Christian holiness.[14]

Such high ideals for education can seem beyond the study of, say, photosynthesis in biology class or which vocabulary list for English, Latin, Spanish, or Greek a teacher might use. “Is it reasonable,” we might ask, “to concern ourselves with a student’s immortal soul even when simply imparting how to craft a valid syllogism in logic or how to solve for x in algebra? Aren’t these studies amoral or neutral? Don’t popes, saints, and pagan sages say that the liberal arts only prepare a student for moral virtue?[15] Can’t we lay off the moral law for a bit, since these studies are building up intellectual virtue, not moral virtue?”[16] These objections, common in an era of moral relativism, fail to understand the nature of the human person’s governing virtue, which directs a person’s whole life, moment to moment.  That virtue is prudence.

In the discussion of prudence, alas, there is much imprudence. As scholar Rémi Brague puts it, prudence has an “ambiguous status… between the eternal and the temporal,” which “makes it the object of much controversy.”[17] Prudence involves intellectual and moral virtue. Connecting the roots of the tree and its branches, it is truly the trunk of many treasures, full of rings, collected over many years of study and experience. Prudence engages intellectual and moral powers not well understood. This is not the place to enter into the mystical nature, for instance, of noûs, the intellect and its special ability to grasp the proper course of action. Nor is it the proper place to discuss the mysteriously important role of conscience, what John Henry Newman called “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” a “prophet in its informations,” and even “a monarch” of sorts.[18] But it is enough here to mention that the strange brew of intellectual and moral “informations,” this numinous experience of free choice preceded by prudent deliberation, is not often seen for what it is, namely the great triumph of God’s finest earthly creation: a man, fully alive, employing intellectual and moral virtue, choosing the good, choosing God, in perfect preparation for his death, which he knows is the gateway to new life with his creator.

Again, it is rightly said that contemplative, philosophical wisdom, or speculative reasoning, is greater than practical wisdom or prudence. The object of speculative reason, namely God, is higher and greater than the object of prudence, namely the deliberation of the human good. But while this statement about the hierarchy of contemplative and practical wisdoms is true, it does not speak to this triumph of mankind’s temporal duty under the moral law and under that “prophet” and “monarch” called conscience. Many miss this important distinction. The universal doctor St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “the act itself of the speculative reason, in so far as it is voluntary, is a matter of choice and counsel as to its exercise; and consequently comes under the direction of prudence.”[19] That is, with respect to the person fulfilling his purpose, his end, even contemplative wisdom and speculative reason, and thus the sciences, come under the direction of practical wisdom or prudence, because a person must choose the right time and the right way to engage the intellectual virtues, speculative reason, scientific knowledge, and even contemplation of God. Knowledge and contemplation are higher in dignity, but the moral duty, the moral law, right action and conscience – these are sovereign in the earthly, temporal realm. So, the intellectual virtues, the studies of various bodies of knowledge, must be ruled by prudence.

Without this moral bent to studies, be they liberal arts, high order metaphysics, or upper level theology, the intellect’s passions can run wild. And the vice of curiosity, combined with the beguiling truth that one is studying high and noble things, can lead a scholar, a student, and even a school far from virtuous, prudent study. Seneca wisely perceived this danger: “Out of this time, so short and swift, that carries us away in its flight, of what avail is it to spend the greater part on useless things? Besides,” he adds, “our minds are accustomed to entertain rather than to cure themselves, to make an aesthetic pleasure out of philosophy, when philosophy should be a remedy.”[20] Like the lotus-eaters of Homer’s Odyssey, or like ruminant cows that must chew their cud again and again rather than swallow it once, there is a desire in us to study – not to mention teach – whatever we want. But to do so, to study whatever noble thing we might like, is really to repeat the old folly: “vivo ut volo,” “I now live as I wish.”[21] The line is uttered in Thomas More’s Utopia (another required Heights reading) by the traveling scholar Raphael Hythloday. Though he knows a great deal of Greek learning (and less, it is noted, of the more practical Roman letters),[22] Hythloday utters this willful non sequitur in objection to More’s suggestion that he apply his great learning to the service of the common good by entering royal service. Raphael’s “vivo ut volo” is adapted from a passage in Cicero’s On Duties (yet another required Heights text). In speaking of people who seek the quiet life of neither too much pleasure nor too much pain, Cicero observes:

But there have been many and still are many who, while pursuing that calm of soul of which I speak, have withdrawn from civic duty and taken refuge in retirement. Among such have been found the most famous and by far the noblest [nobilissimi] philosophers and certain other serious [severi] and disagreeable [graves] men who could not endure the conduct of either the people or their leaders; some of them, too, lived in the country and found their pleasure in the management of their private estates. Such men have had the same aim as kings – to suffer no want, to be subject to no authority, to enjoy their liberty, that is, in essence, to live just as they please.[23]

Indeed, intellectual pursuits can be a kind of way of disconnecting from one’s duties and seeking one’s own comfort and safety under the guise of nobility and a love of freedom. But if our study is not rooted in prudence, in charitable duty, and in the moral law, in the humble, practical soil of our temporal existence – then it is mere curiosity and no study at all.

This same desire to live and to study as one wishes can affect curricula as well. The willy-nilly justification of noble subjects, texts, or arts is often cloaked in very high-minded language about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. There is a great deal of erroneous language of this sort in classical and liberal arts education that refuses to subject curricular studies to the questions that prudence demands of us at The Heights: what sort of man is best? And what sort of education would that best man require? And what of that education can be offered to students through their senior year here? How do we equip them to be the best, to be fully alive? It would be a dodge to answer that there are all sorts of best men. While that’s true in one sense, it is false in other ways. For instance, when we honor those who do the greatest good, we do so not out of human respect, but out of a recognition of greater excellence. That is why we honor especially great statesmen, for the peace and justice they bring to the common good; great warriors, for the safety and sacrifice they provide; our parents, for doing more than just taking care of themselves but also raising us at great personal cost. We honor pastors, apostles, and saints – all who lovingly take on responsibility, make heroic sacrifices, and live the virtues, the moral law, to prudent perfection, every jot and tittle. That is, the best man is he who has all the virtues, and those virtues tend to make one a responsible leader of some kind. That means the curriculum should be ordered to that information which will aid in the acquisition of virtue, both natural and theological. Such an education will, in a very practical way, involve leadership education. The Heights has what we might call a Christian humanistic measure for determining liberal arts curricula, for educating virtuous men, who are, as Proverbs puts it, “practically wise governors.” In other words, we aim to educate virtuous leaders.

Consider in light of this measure the following case. Suppose an enthusiastic parent or energetic teacher desires that The Heights teach a required course about mushrooms. Let’s suppose further that the proposed teacher for the course spent no small amount of time studying the mushrooms of the Eurasian Steppe. This enthusiast might say, “This course on Eurasian mushrooms would be such a great addition to The Heights. What do you say, Headmaster de Vicente?” No doubt, our headmaster would be kind, and he’d want to hear more about why the enthusiast wants this course required and not any number of other courses. The enthusiast replies, “I know a great deal about these Eurasian mushrooms, and I know I can really bring this subject alive for the boys. They will certainly share in my enthusiasm, I’m sure.” No doubt, our headmaster would agree, knowing the teacher to be a fun guy, but he may also ask whether this topic is fitting for a liberal arts curriculum. “Oh yes,” gushes the enthusiast, “it is completely in accord with our curriculum’s focus on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Think about it! The mushrooms are real, and all of reality, everything that is, is Good. The facts about these mushrooms will be faithfully reported, so everything in the course will be True as well! And look, Mr. de Vicente! Just look at these Beautiful toadstools, with all their amazing powers of biological life, with their spiritual and literary dimensions, turning the dead matter of the Eurasian grasslands into beautiful and bespeckled fungi! The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. What more could you ask for?” Clearly, the criterion for curriculum is governed not by knowledge per se, because there are a near-infinite number of things we might attempt to study and know. Rather, the criterion for The Heights School’s curriculum is prudence. The prudence of our students would not be substantially enhanced by learning the arcana of Eurasian mycology, so it would be unwise to require such a course.

But ruling out absurdities is easy. Nobody is going to question the headmaster’s wisdom if he decides against a required course in sand crane mating dances or nixes a proposed elective in the slang of eighteenth century soldiering. (“Sign up today for Cuss Like a Red Coat 301!!”) On the contrary, it’s in deciding the close calls that the real difficulty resides. To make prudent decisions about what students need for truly prudent living requires specificity, discernment, and, well, real practical wisdom. To that end, we may benefit from the educational prudence of one of history’s most practically wise men, Sir and Saint Thomas More, the poet, statesman, martyr, father of his children, father of his country and, I would argue, grandfather of our country as well.

In his letter to his children’s tutor, William Gonell, More offers deeply learned counsel and direction for the education of his children in the liberal arts. More first offers a proximate or practical goal of “learning joined with virtue,” calling it greater than “all the treasures of kings.”[24] Only then does he expand the end of education to wisdom (sapientia), saying, “wisdom… depends on the intimate conscience of what is right.”[25] More only offers the end, Wisdom, with a caution that reaching that goal “depends” completely on “the intimate conscience,” which means a well-instructed and well-developed conscience that one listens to as a virtuous habit and that has something informative to say. He soon restates the matter: “put virtue in the first place, learning in the second, and in their studies to esteem most whatever may teach them piety towards God, charity to all, and Christian humility in themselves.”[26]

But then More adds a deft and subtle appeal to the Church fathers, and as a compliment to him, I would like to follow suit, by stepping out of the way myself and sharing with you the as-yet unpublished work (here reproduced with permission) of one of my own intellectual fathers and a good friend, Dr. John Boyle, a Thomist from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a senior fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies, where I also am a fellow. Here is his account of More’s brilliant and prudent limitation of the goals of liberal arts to recognize our temporal and our fallen nature. It’s very scholarly, but you’ve made it this far. Why quit? Dr. Boyle first quotes More’s Letter to Gonell: “From [the saintly Church fathers, namely and especially Augustine and Jerome], they will learn in particular what goal they should set for their studies, and the whole fruit of their endeavors should consist in the testimony of God and good conscience. Thus they will be inwardly calm and at peace and neither stirred by praise of flatterers nor stung by the follies of unlearned mockers of learning.” On this passage, Dr. Boyle comments at length, and with his comments I will conclude this essay, which I hope provides some scope for what The Heights might do, in time, for the next fifty years of Crescite!

The word for goal is scopus. This is a transliteration of the Greek scopos and as such is, according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, unknown to classical Latin. It is not, however, unknown to Christian Latin. In the first of his Collationes, John Cassian makes much of scopos.[27] The Collationes were a staple of western monastic and religious life and thought. We know from the Dialogue of Comfort that More knows Cassian; but it should come as no surprise as Cassian is simply everywhere. Cassian distinguishes scopos, for which he gives a Latin translation of destinatio, from telos, for which he gives the Latin finis. The two are carefully distinguished by Cassian. They are both goals, as it were, the scopos being ordered to telos. In the first Collatio, Abba Moses addresses the goal and life of the monk. The goal, the telos, is heaven. How is the monk to get there? One could list prayer, fasting, meditation on Scripture, but these all serve a further goal: purity of heart. Purity of heart is the scopos. If the monk wants to get to heaven, he must have purity of heart. In order to achieve that he must undertake monastic discipline. The scopos of purity of heart gives unity and explains all the various activities of the monk such that the monk is able to achieve his ultimate goal of heaven. He might actually do all the discipline and fail to gain heaven if he is not seeking purity of heart. Cassian gives secular examples as well: everything a farmer does (clearing the field, tilling the soil, planting the seeds) is ordered to producing crops. If he loses sight of the crops he will fail as a farmer. The crops are the scopos; but the farmer has a goal to which the production of crops is ordered, which is to support his life. As is clear in the dialog of the first Collatio, figuring out the telos is relatively easy; it is figuring out the scopos that is difficult. One can see the goal, but how to order everything to get to that goal is hard.

More says that from the Fathers, his children “will learn in particular what goal they should set for their studies.” Notably the verb is destinare and the noun is scopum, precisely Cassian’s pairing. His children will learn the goal they are to set and secondly to confirm every fruit of their labor in two things: in witness to God (in teste Deo) and in a good conscience. What the translator renders as “good conscience” is a repetition of conscientia recti already introduced as the foundation of wisdom. In other words, the learning has as its scopos giving witness to God (recalling the earlier goal of piety towards God) and in right judgment of what to do. The goal of this liberal learning is to establish clear knowledge of how a Christian should act. With this, his children will have internal calm – rest – such that they will not be moved by the words of men whether of praise or detraction.

More’s use of scopus, in the light of John Cassian, raises a question: what is the telos, the finis, the ultimate end. More never states this directly; he does not speak of finis in the letter. If his children’s tutor, William Gonell, knows of Cassian, More need not say more; even if Gonell does not know Cassian, More does not need to say more. The telos is the same for his children as for monks: the kingdom of heaven. It is hard to imagine More having a tutor for his children that did not understand that. The telos is easy; the scopos is hard. More has articulated the scopos of education, that to which everything is to be ordered, and in so doing has reminded Gonell that this goal of education is not itself the end, but rather a means to that end. What is at stake in the education of his children is no less what is at stake in the formation of monks in the desert: eternal life. More has brought his argument to a remarkable conclusion.

[1] Trans. G. M. A. Grude, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2002), §79c.

[2] §71e.

[3] §79d.

[4] Matthew 13:5-6 (RSV).

[5] Icarus, son of Daedalus, disregarded his father’s warnings and flew with wax wings high in the sky and thus too close to the sun, which melted the wax, plunging Icarus to his death. Phaethon, son of the sun-god Helios, begged for his father’s chariot that pulled the sun across the sky, but when he got his wish, he could not control the high-spirited horses. The chariot flew too close to the earth and burned the African grasslands into the Sahara desert. Like Icarus, Phaethon did not survive the ordeal.

[6] Proverbs 16:21.

[7] Proverbs 1:2-5.

[8] Compare to Aristotle’s Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1984), 1282b14ff: “Since in all the sciences and arts the end is some good, it is the greatest and primary good in that which is the most authoritative of all; this is the political capacity. The political good is justice, and this is the common advantage.”

[9] Plato, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube: “I’m afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”

[10] Seneca, Epistles LaXXXVII.2, Loeb ed., 349.

[11] That living well is, in a real sense, an art or the highest art, is not a mere equivocation on the term “Art.” See Cicero’s lengthy account of propriety in Book 1 of his On Duties.

[12] Baltimore Catechism (Third Plenary Council, 1891), Q.126, which is, technically, the first question of the third Catechism under the heading, “Man’s End.”

[13] Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas puts it in quite active terms when he repeats twice the phrase “Charity is friendship” in II.II.Q27, which is titled, “The principle act of charity, which is to love” (emphasis added).

[14] Christ’s Incarnation changed everything. His taking flesh ennobled tremendously the realm of becoming, the realm of body and time. Accordingly, the Incarnation has enormous implications for liberal arts education, especially the importance of the arts (history, poetry, drama, music, visual arts), which no longer suffer from the negative account of the arts as mere imitations, second to reality. Once Christ became man, image and art now bear a newly confident dignity because God himself saw fit in His perfection to communicate the highest things in the humblest, sensible forms. The image of God in the God-man’s fleshly crucifixion, death, and resurrection is a perfection, thus image and body both are given Christian confidence to transfer faithfully to us the truth – even the highest truths. As Chaucer argued in his “Second Nun’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales, if Christ did not “disdain… His Son in blood and flesh to clothe and wind,” then we need not fear the imperfections of words and images, which transmit truth, despite their weakness (lines 41-42 from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson [Boston: Houghton, 1987]).

That said, nothing of fundamental laws of human nature, and thus liberal arts education, has changed. Rather, these laws have been fulfilled. As Christ assures us, “Amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt 5:18). This famous stress on the law becomes a preface to his very next words admonishing teachers: “He therefore that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But he that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Our Lord asks the teacher to consider first his own deeds, setting an example for his students of how to be, how to act, how to live, before opening his own mouth to give a teaching. And the Lord also makes clear that the law that teachers must both “do and teach” is quite detailed, having a variety of jots and tittles not to be forgotten. Indeed, commenting on this passage, St. Augustine tells us that Christ is here speaking in “a double sense” because “to fulfill the Law” we must do so “either by adding something which it had not, or by doing what it commands” (Augustine, On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, chapter 8). The magnanimous Christian teacher, one who would wish to be “called great in the kingdom of heaven,” must concern himself first and foremost with the practice of the moral law, with how “to do” or live out even the “least commandments,” and secondarily with the articulation of this law. The truly great teacher both lives and models the truth for his students and then eloquently communicates that law as well. In the temporal order, Christ emphasizes firstly a practice and secondly a teaching, in the first place, a praxis and in the second, a doxa.

Christ’s own Incarnation may be the most striking example of this law. Christ’s own incarnate life points to a certain priority of practical education, a doing first, enfleshed and embodied, in time. The patron of The Heights School described it this way: “That was the way Jesus lived for thirty years, as ‘the son of the carpenter.’ There followed three years of public life, spent among the crowds” (St. Josemaría Escrivá, Christ is Passing By, Chapter 2, point 14). Jesus Christ chose first “to do,” to practice the art of living and the manual arts and crafts of His foster-father St. Joseph, and then “to teach,” or in this case preach. And finally, in a perfect synthesis of both “to do” and “to teach,” we learn from His most eloquent and active preaching, by His own true image – the Veronica, or true icon – of God’s love for His creation, namely His crucifixion, death, and resurrection. The Incarnate Christ’s teaching, in its perfection, is a doing. Praxis precedes doxa in time, and in time, it accompanies, perfects, and, in the end, supersedes it. And we enfleshed humans, with the same human flesh as our own Incarnate Lord, are educated in time.

[15] Pope Pius XII, Miranda Prorsus, 34; Thomas More Source Book, “Letter to Oxford University”, p. 207, line 30 and n2; Seneca, Epistles, LXXXVIII.20/Loeb ed., 360: “Non quia dare virtutem possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant.”

[16] A common misreading of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of University can lead to this conclusion. That misreading stems, in part, from general ignorance of Cicero’s influence on Newman. Cicero’s account of the refinement of the intellect bears directly upon moral choice. This teaching, expanded upon at great length in Cicero’s On Duties, particularly in Book I and especially in the discussion of the fitting or appropriate, argues the essentially artistic sensibility of the intellectual virtues that must be in place for a proper moral discernment of the prudent choice, which must, like artistic choices, be fitting and appropriate. In reviewing Newman’s discussion of intellectual virtue, readers too often forget the connection of prudence to both moral and intellectual virtue. Following Cicero, Newman calls a lack of intellectual development a “moral disability.” Contrary to popular impressions of his account of intellectual training, he says that its purpose is not “the manners and habits of gentlemen,” but rather “the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years” (ed. Martin J. Svaglic, [Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982], xlii). Newman is quietly speaking of an education designed to foster prudence, the good judgment about the relative value of all things for the sake of avoiding prejudice, intemperance, and the unrefined stupidity that results in the moral “evil which is forced upon us in every railway carriage, in every coffee room” (xliii). For Newman, because we are creatures in time, intellectual training quickly informs moral virtue. Like Cicero, Newman understands that while intellectual and moral virtue are theoretically distinct, in time – in reality – intellectual training will inform moral virtue through prudence, the virtue that is both intellectual and moral.

[17] Rémi Brague, “Prudence, prévoyance, providence” in Communio, XXII, 6 (1997). The English translation is his own.

[18] “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” §5.

[19] Summa Theologiae, II.II.Q47.A2.

[20] Seneca, Epistles 117 §32-33.

[21] Thomas More, Complete Works, Vol. 4, ed. Edward Surtz and J. H. Hexter (New Haven: Yale UP, 1965), 56–57.

[22] Ibid., 49-51.

[23] Cicero, On Duties, trans. Walter Miller, Loeb Ed. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1913), 1.§69-70. I have translated the terms differently from Miller at those points where I include the bracketed Latin. The matching phrase to that of Utopia is the closing one: “sic vivere, ut velis.”

[24] For All Seasons: Selected Letters of Thomas More, Letter 20, 80, ed. Stephen Smith (New York: Scepter, 2012).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. 81.

[27] Michael Petschenig, Johannis Cassiani Conlationes XXIII (Vienna: Apud C. Geroldi Filium Bibliopolam Academiae, 1886), vol. 13 of the Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, First Collatio, chapters 2-5, 8-12. English translation, John Cassian, The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 41-44, see the brief note on scopos on 69.

Matt Mehan

About the author:

Matt Mehan


Matthew Mehan began teaching at The Heights in 2000. He currently teaches History of Western Thought and the new Sophomore U.S. History and American Literature “AmeriCore.” Matthew is also the director of the Jackson Scholars senior thesis program. Matthew also served as Director of Admissions from 2003 to 2006, before leaving for graduate work. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Dallas and the valedictorian of his class, he holds a B.A. in politics, an M.A. in English, and he earned a Ph.D. in Literature for his dissertation on Shakespeare, Thomas More, and the education of leading citizens.Matthew is also a fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies, and he has been named The Worsham Teaching Fellow of Hillsdale College’s Washington DC Allan P. Kirby, Jr., Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a reader at the Folger Library. Matthew has been awarded the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellowship as well as two fellowships from the Earhart Foundation. Matthew has worked as an editor for both academic and popular publications. Matt's recently published illustrated book of poetry, Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, is available for purchase on Amazon. His wonderful wife Molly and he have seven children.