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Understanding Christian Education

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This is a reprint of a popular article published in 2012.
The Classical Curriculum of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) established “Scholastic Philosophy” in the 13th century.

If you’re a parent, you are responsible for providing your children with a sound Christian education. Obviously, that includes a sound faith formation program, but what about everything else? Look, for example, at the painting featured with ths article. It is titled “Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics”, and was painted in 1490 and today adorns a Catholic chapel in Rome. Christians today would be unable to interpret the painting or identify the characters and their significance. It is foreign to us because the modern Christian mind has been divorced from the historic Christian mind. Who are the women seated beside St. Thomas? Who are the men standing before him, or the man under his feet? Why would the artist go through the effort of creating such an image? Why would this image be on display in a Catholic church? We should know the answers to these questions. Cicero said, “He who does not know what happened before he was born remains forever a child.” We need to grow up as Christians and learn our history so that we can make right decisions in life and avoid wandering around like children. After all, we have children depending on our guidance. Wise people don’t live by trial and error, but by deliberation and forethought.

The women in the painting represent the system of education that led St. Thomas to his “triumph over the heretics”. They are his counselors and teachers. They are Grammar, Astronomy, Philosophy and Theology and they represent the classical liberal arts education that St. Thomas received and taught. Grammar signifies the classical Trivium, Astronomy the classical Quadrivium, Philosophy and Theology the higher arts. If you’ve been around the CLAA for long, that should be familiar to you. Before St. Thomas are the world’s philosophers who were relatively virtuous men, but their errors kept men from the freedom and happiness that Wisdom is supposed to bring to men and therefore they needed to be cast down by the Truth. These heretics include Arius, Sabellius, Apoollonarius, Manes and Averroes–whom most modern Christians have never even heard of, despite having graduated from Christian schools and colleges–even seminaries. Their teachings are symbolized by theie books, which have been scattered on the ground before St. Thomas. The classical liberal arts, and their champion St. Thomas Aquinas, have triumphed over the heretics. This painting should have a great influence on what we are studying as adults and what our children are learning in school. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Therefore, let me help you understand.

It goes without saying that at the heart of formal Christian education throughout history has been the study of the art of Reasoning. The students’ first lessons in Grammar were designed to prepare them to study of the art of Reasoning, which was taught systematically by Aristotle. The students’ last lessons in Philosophy and Thelogy were only possible because of their previous mastery of the arts of Grammar and Reasoning. The literary and oratorical mastery of history’s great minds was not owed to natural talents alone, but a common training in the art of Rhetoric, which again assumes a mastery of Grammar and Reasoning. Education wasn’t a mess of confusion and opinions, book shopping and curriculum design–it was a single simple system of studies available only to those who could afford the time and were willing to invest the effort of climbing the ascent through the classical liberal arts.

A brief walk through the history of education will eliminate much of the confusion and allow you to make an intelligent and confident decision for your children’s education. When you’re finished, you should know six names and why they are important: (1) Zeno, (2) Aristotle, (3) Porphyry, (4) Averroes, (5) St. Thomas Aquinas and (6) Francis Bacon. These are the six important road markers of the history of philosophical education.

The history of the philosophical education begins with the Stoic philosopher Zeno, who lived in the 5th century before Christ, and whom we believe to have been the founder of what we now call the Socratic method or philosophical questioning. In ancient history it was called erotesis, from the Greek word erotao, which means “I ask”. The Stoics believed that Philosophy was the study of the art of Reasoning.

Socrates is, of course, history’s most famous philosopher, but he did not develop the art of reasoning as much as he used it. Socrates showed us what the “erotetic” method could do when diligently used, but he left it for his students to study exactly how the art could be taught to men. It was the success of Socrates that drove men to figure out exactly how he did what he did.

The students of Socrates, Euclid and Antisthenes, along with other Stoics, continued to develop Zeno’s system, and sketched out what we know today as the three operations of the mind:

  • Simple Understanding, which produces Terms
  • Affirmations and Denials, which produce Propositions
  • Reasoning, which produces Syllogisms

Aristotle, however, was the alpha and omega of the art of Reasoning, its founder and its finisher. He inherited the work of his predecessors, which had really provided men with some of the basic parts of the art of Reasoning, but nothing of the art itself. It was Aristotle who discovered how the machine should be arranged and it was Aristotle who built the machine and it was Aristotle who then put the machine to use. For this reason we can relate the whole art of Reasoning to the person of Aristotle. For this reason, he has been honored through history with the title of “The Philosopher”.

Aristotle taught six separate subjects which formed a complete study of the art of Reasoning. in history, this was titled Organon, which means “the instrument” or “the method”, but to Aristotle it was six different subjects, all of which were interrelated. It’s important to compare this view of the art of Reasoning to that of the Stoics mentioned above. Aristotle did not teach that the study of Reason was Philosophy, but that it was the instrument by which Philosophy was studied. Philosophy was Logic applied to life, by which we understand the natural world (Physics), morality (Ethics) and the supernatural world (Metaphysics) as well. The organized knowledge of these subjects, the philosophical “sciences”, was Wisdom and, therefore, the goal of Philosophy. The liberal arts were the methods by which the sciences were to be discovered and taught.

Aristotle’s system can be understood as follows, with his book titles in parentheses:

  • Simple Understanding (Categories)
  • Affirmations and Denials (On Interpretation)
  • Reasoning and the Syllogism (Prior Analytics)
  • Dialectical Syllogisms (Topics)
  • Demonstrative Syllogisms (Posterior Analytics)
  • Sophistical Syllogisms (Sophistical Elenchii)

By the grace of God, we can hold in our hands today the six books which were taught by Aristotle and preserved by his disciples 2400 years ago. However, this does not mean that these works have been studied for 2400 years. Aristotle’s writings have been lost or neglected at different times in history, sometimes for many centuries. History’s most famous wise men, however, found a way to get a hold of them.

Aristotle’s works were scarcely studied after his death as the Romans devoted more attention to the art of Rhetoric. Those Romans who were fond of the Stoic philosophy, like Cicero, obviously were familiar with the teachings of Aristotle. The clear focus, however, was on oratory and delivery during the Roman era and they were more practically and less philosophically-oriented than the Greeks.

In the 6th century, the great Christian Boethius translated Aristotle’s logical works into Latin, bringing some of the writings of the Philosopher to the Europeans. However, it was among Arabian schools that the study of Aristotle most significantly revived and taught by the famous Muslim philosopher Averroes in the 12th century. Averroes was an Arabian, but it must be remembers that Arabian influence was heavy as far north as Spain at that time and therefore the teaching of the Arabian schools, and Averroes in particular, influenced Christian Europe significantly.

The work of restoring and perfecting the teaching of the Philosopher fell to the Church’s “Angelic Doctor”, St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. It was St. Thomas who established the true interpretation and use of Aristotle’s teaching and pointed out the errors of Averroes. In the end a union was established between the true philosophical teaching of Aristotle and the true theological teaching of the Catholic Church. St. Thomas brought Faith and Reason into harmony forever and thus brought the study of philosophy to perfection. The school of Christian philosophy which was established around St. Thomas is known as Scholasticism.

Unfortunately, individual Scholastics didn’t share the graces of St. Thomas and they did not maintain his caution in teaching philosophy. Many embraced the errors of Averroes and brought Scholasticism into reproach. In the 17th century, the Renaissance and Reformation were little more than misguided rebellions against errors of bad Scholastics. These men threw the baby out with the bathwater and unraveled the careful teaching St. Thomas had established. The bad Scholastics were really a straw man used by anti-Catholics to attack all of Catholicism.

In the early 1600s, the anti-Catholic Francis Bacon published the “New Organon”, which proposed the scientific method as the true means of seeking truth. This, like the Reformation, was an unbalanced reaction to errors of a few bad Scholastics who insisted that Logic was to be the only method used for investigating truth–even when the things examined could be demonstrated by perception alone. Aristotle never taught this exaggerated notion of the role of Logic, nor did St. Thomas, yet it was used as a caricature of Scholasticism and Catholicism as well. Bacon established replaced Averroes’ view of a division of Religion and Philosophy with a three-part system of Religion, Philosophy and Experimental Science. To Averroes, the Philosopers were the enlightened few who had access to the truth. To Bacon, it was the Scientists. He saw the Church as a system of superstition that enslaved people through its mysteries. He saw Scholastic philosophers as proponents of error who reasoned validly from false first principles. He saw Scientists as those who would re-start human learning from scratch and establish every fact by scientific investigation. We see the effects of this notion today in the growth of atheism–whether in creed or merely in practice.

Today, most schools blindly follow the teaching of the Scientists. Their programs of study are centered around mathematics and experimental sciences. The formal study of Reasoning has no place in the curriculum and this reveals plainly which school of thought they belong to. It can hardly be justified among Catholic Christians that their educational program follows the historical rejection of St. Thomas by anti-Catholics of the Renaissance and Reformation. Though schools make efforts to add religion classes to the curriculum, they are not teaching a historically or philosophically Catholic course of studies and this is the fundamental reason for the decline of Catholic education in the modern era. The outside of the cup may be clean, but the inside is full of stuff that shouldn’t be there. The necessity of Scholastic teaching has been reaffirmed throughout modern history by the Church and most emphatically by Pope St. Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Domini Gregis, which is well worth reading. There, the Holy Father said:

“We will and ordain that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences…And let it be clearly understood above all things that the scholastic philosophy We prescribe is that which the Angelic Doctor has bequeathed to us…Upon this philosophical foundation the theological edifice is to be solidly raised“

In reference to the failures in modern schools, Pope Leo XII said,

“If you carefully search for the cause of those errors you will find that it lies in the fact that in these days when the natural sciences absorb so much study, the more severe and lofty studies have been proportionately neglected – some of them have almost passed into oblivion, some of them are pursued in a half-hearted or superficial way, and, sad to say, now that they are fallen from their old estate, they have been disfigured by perverse doctrines and monstrous errors.”

That’s pretty clear, but it has been ignored, largely because the people leading the schools don’t know what these wise men are talking about, having never studied these arts themselves. Students in Catholic schools are in no way being prepared for the study of scholastic philosophy, but are receiving the modern program of study recommended not by St. Thomas but by Francis Bacon.

In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, all we are doing is restoring the teaching of St. Thomas. We do not deny the value of modern experimental science–and neither did Aristotle or St. Thomas. We simply limit it to studies of what may be perceived in a reproducible way for the service of Philosophy. Science should not be an end in itself, and certainly should not be used to criticize Church teaching in areas to which experimental sciences do not apply. As our program develops, you will see a balanced Christian study program restored that avoids the errors of the Baconists, the Protestants, the Averroists and the Neoplatonists. We will be teaching Philosophy and Theology according to the true doctrine of St. Thomas beginning in Grammar I and continuing through our highest Theology courses, restoring true Scholasticism. Today, we are pleased to announce the next step in his process, the opening of the CLAA’s Classical Reasoning program which, no surprise, will teach Aristotle’s system of Reasoning–the same system St. Thomas taught. 

Therefore, as concerns choosing an educational program for your children, and all of the parts of that program, there is really one simple question: Does it prepare children for scholastic philosophy or not? The CLAA certainly does–from the first lesson of Grammar I and throughout every course in its entire program.

God bless,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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