Liberal Education & the Preservation of the Political Order

By By Dr. Ronald P. McArthur
founding president of Thomas Aquinas College

 

Xerxes, the great Persian king, prepared in 480 B.C. to invade Greece with the intention of conquering the whole country. After assembling all his forces, he wished to behold them himself. “Accordingly, he traversed the ranks seated in his chariot, and going from nation to nation, made manifold inquiries, while his scribes wrote down the answers; till at last he had passed from end to end of the whole land army, both the horsemen and likewise the foot.” He then exchanged his chariot for a galley and reviewed his fleet. After this, he sent for Damaratus, who had been, through intrigue, deposed from the throne of Sparta, and as a consequence crossed over into Asia, where he was honorably received by Darius, Xerxes’ father. He enabled Xerxes to claim the empire in preference to his elder brother, became the king’s close friend, and accompanied him on his expeditions.

Now Xerxes asked Damaratus, who was a native of one of the strongest Greek cities, whether the Greeks outnumbered as they were, would lift a hand against the Persians. Damaratus answered that they would indeed fight, and that the numbers they faced would make no difference to them, since they had overcome great natural obstacles to found their cities, had become valorous through wisdom and law, and had as a consequence always escaped tyranny. When Xerxes heard this answer he laughed. How, he asked, could the Greeks ever repulse such superior numbers, particularly if they were all alike free and not under one Lord? “If indeed, he said, like our troops, they had a single master, their fear of him might make them courageous beyond their natural bent, or they might be urged by lashes against an enemy which far outnumbered them. But left to their own free choice, assuredly they will act differently.”

But Damaratus went on to assure the king that “...though (the Greeks) be free men, they are not in all respects free; Law is the master whom they own, and this master they fear more than your subjects fear you; and its commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and either to conquer or die.”

Notice the implications in Damaratus’ answer: The Persian empire was ruled by a tyrant, such that his will, at every moment, was the measure of the lives of his subjects. The Greeks, on the other hand, were free, which meant that they were not ruled by the will of a human master. But they did have a master, for in Damaratus’ words, “Law is the master whom they own.” The Greeks were free, and the Persians were not free, because the one people lived by law and the other people did not. But law is the work of reason, and so the Greeks were free because they were governed by reason instead of by force. In fact, the Greek work for city is Polis, and the life of the citizens within their cities was a political life, that is, a life of reason as exemplified by laws. The Persians, by contrast, had no political life because their society was based upon the will of their master. As a consequence they had no concept of the citizen.

Now the rule of reason always leads to an order, for order comes about through the harmonious interplay of parts as they incline towards the same end; so it is with the natural order, based as it is on the Divine Intelligence, and so it is with the political order, which depends upon the reason of man. But where reason is not the rule and measure, there can be, strictly speaking, no order, for the parts are no longer harmoniously related, but rather coerced, towards an imposed end. The Greeks resisted the Persians because they preferred to die rather than to forsake their lives as political animals, that is, as animals who were meant to live within a rational order. To live within this order, and to have a part as citizens in implementing it, they saw as a life of freedom.

But not everything which is called a law allows us, or leads us, to be free. A law, so called, which demanded that we enslave all women, or that we eliminated a whole race, or that we punished poets for thinking, would certainly not lead to freedom for the oppressed; neither would the oppressors be free, for they would destroy themselves — not living, as they should, by the light of reason. The perverse and inhuman consequence of bad statutes are almost the legacy of our times, and the record is clear. From it we learn that only some statutes have a right to be called laws

It comes to this: Positive law, in order to be good and salutary, must be based on the Natural Law, on the laws we discover about our own nature and about the things which perfect it. Now we cannot, in any profound sense, discover these laws in isolation from the study of the universe itself, for we are part of an ordered creation. And since this learning is difficult, and demands a certain preparation of the mind, it is not surprising that God Himself would reveal that law to His chosen race, and not surprising, further, that the natural understanding of the Greeks, as seen but in Plato and Aristotle, was combined with Revelation in the gradual articulation of the moral law and the consequences which flowed from it. Our own remarkable civilization is based upon the natural law, and the basic rights and liberties we take for granted have come from a fusion of the profoundest thinking and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

And now listen to Newman as he describes our civilization:

Man is a social being and can hardly exist without society, and in matter of fact societies have ever existed all over the habitable earth. The greater part of these associations have been political or religious, and have been comparatively limited in extent, and temporary. They have been formed and dissolved by the force of accidents or by inevitable circumstances; and, when we have enumerated them one by one, we have made of them all that can be made. But there is one remarkable association which attracts the attention of the philosopher, not political or religious, or at least only partially and not essentially such, which begins in the earliest times and grew with each succeeding age, till it reached its complete development, and then continued on, vigorous and unwearied, and which still remains as definite and as firm as ever it was. Its bond is a common civilization; and, though there are other civilizations in the world, as there are other societies, yet this civilization, together with the society which is its creation and its home, is so distinctive and luminous in its character, so imperial in its extent, so imposing in its duration, and so utterly without rival upon the face of the earth, that the association may fitly assume to itself the title of “Human Society”, and its civilization the abstract term “Civilization.”

Notice his point: Our civilization, he says, is not a civilization, but civilization itself. Hence, our fortunes are in some way fortunes of the human race — our triumphs its triumphs, and our failures its failures. Whenever, true to our deepest principles, we maintain the right and the good, we become a standard for the rest, but whenever we lapse into irrationality and barbarism, we become their stumbling block.

Lest all this be swept aside as merely the rhetoric of the day, or as the wishful thinking of those who are out of touch with the realities of life, I turn to the Declaration of Independence, which, as a matter of fact is, along with the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, a fundamental document of our own great country:

… We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, …

All men, if I understand rightly, are in the same species of animal, a species superior of the other animals, and they are possessed of Rights, granted by their Creator, and inscribed in their nature, antecedent to any government. In fact, governments, when they are legitimate, exist to secure these rights. All the human laws we make, all the conventions we establish, all the juridical procedures which are instituted to maintain justice, — all these things are good to the extent that they are based upon the Natural Law. Nature is the guide, and the human edifice must bow to her. Our Declaration, in so far as it means these things, stands squarely upon the whole tradition of our Civilization, or using Newman, upon the whole tradition of Civilization itself.

But how are we to guarantee, as we govern ourselves, that we are today in the good?; that our counsels are today wise?; that our courts are today just?; that we are, in fact maintaining rather than destroying the public order? Our guide should be this: Since civilization itself is the result of cultivated reason, and since the cultivation of the reason is the result of an education, we should look to the kind of education which produced the intelligence capable of understanding, articulating, and serving our political order, and then see that such education is maintained in our own time. And we as Americans should perhaps above all understand this, for our own country was established by popular consent, with a definite view of government as it was understood by a remarkable group of men. We depend for all our blessings upon their understanding, their wisdom, and their foresight, which in turn, were the result of their education, even granting their natural genius. Our question, then, comes down to this: How were Madison and Hamilton and Jay, and Jefferson and Franklin educated? Or put it another way: Were they educated in the same way as are the hordes of our young in our colleges and universities today? Were they trained for specific jobs?, kept from ever seeing the wisdom of the past?, turned against the natural order, and hence against their own civilization? Were their minds deadened and corrupted by a narrow utilitarianism?

You can guess, from the way I asked the questions, what my answer must be; but I hasten to add that it is not my answer, for the record stands transparently clear. Our Founding Fathers were liberally educated — that is, educated for the life of liberty and service, a life which is proper for the citizen of a Republic.

Let me pursue a part of that record by looking at the education of the writers of The Federalist Papers. Hamilton and Jay attended Kings College, now Columbia, while Madison attended the College of New Jersey, now Princeton. They studied, while there, the various arts and sciences which cultivated the intellect, and they partook of a required curriculum. They did not study with the usual textbooks; rather, they read and studied the original sources and the greatest commentaries on them. They were made to acquire a certain mastery of their materials, and they were made to think about the things they studied. They were further made to take part in serious disputations before they could graduate. They were actively engaged as disputants in questions such as these: “Whether All Men By The Law Of Nature Are Free?”, and “Whether A Man Ought To Go To War Without Being Persuaded Of The Justice Of His Cause?”

Their curricula, in short, were relatively simple, and even confined, by our standards, but the aim of their schools, both of them small and religious, was to educate their students for a life of enlightened service, while encouraging at the same time the life of the intelligence as such. Madison went on, after his bachelor’s degree, to gain a master’s degree in theology and Hebrew. Jay also gained a master’s degree with a thesis on “The Usefulness Of The Passions”, and after a distinguished career which included a time as Chief Justice of the United States, spent his retirement studying and writing on the Biblical Prophecies. He was, in fact, the President of the American Biblical Association.

And you know, I’m sure, that Franklin was a great Newtonian physicist and that Jefferson had many intellectual interests beyond politics.

While I have only touched upon the education of three of our Founding Fathers, I could speak in the same way about many more. My point is that while we cannot explain by their education the native genius of these great men, we can explain by it their contribution to our country, for their education was at once the best education for citizenship in a republic, and the best preparation for the life of intelligence, a life for the sake of which the life of politics goes on.

And now I propose two main arguments, one addressed to us because we are men, and the other because we are Catholics. I say first that the education we have been talking about — that is, liberal education — was a contributing cause of the founding of our country, and that without this kind of education there would never have been the understanding which was necessary to establish it; if that is true, there is no reason to think we can preserve our country and the civilization of which it is a part, without that kind of education. For, the preservation of order and law demands a never ending consideration of our principles, and a constant awareness of their application to the problems which arise out of new discoveries, new knowledge, changing patterns of life, technology and the like. But we cannot consider all these things, demanding as it does the understanding of complex relationships, without being able to read, to discuss, and to think; nor can we do it without understanding the principles and methods of the various sciences. Since it is precisely this kind of understanding which liberal education gives us, it is indispensable for a civilized order.

There is, however, above and beyond this important reason another one which is more important still, and which we Catholics, almost alone, can appreciate. Consider again that political order depends upon law, that positive law depends upon the natural law, and that the natural law depends upon human nature, which itself depends upon God. And consider, further, that the truths about all these things should be best taught, best understood, and best elaborated within the Church; that in fact it is precisely the greatest Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, who teaches the most profoundly about law in all its parts. So much is this true that whatever is good in the American understanding of Natural Law, whatever is conducive within the American mind to the maintenance of the political order, is found more fully elaborated in the Catholic tradition, and it is there found without the superficiality and errors with which it is mixed in the writing of the Founding Fathers.

So one of the great tasks in our own time is to maintain that Catholic tradition of learning, or more properly, to recover it and keep it alive until better times; without that tradition all that is good in America, all that we as Americans most prize, is left without foundation. So we as Catholics have two great reasons for preserving liberal education — one as citizens of the Republic and the other as members of our Holy Religion, upon whom the future of our race so greatly depends.

All that I have been saying has been part of the reason for the existence of Thomas Aquinas College. We are dedicated to genuine education, and we exist for the good of our students, and through them, for the good of our Church and our country. We read and study the great classics, the great works, and we become able to use our minds well in the various sciences and disciplines. While we are not experts in the sciences, we are yet able to deal intelligently with all of them; and we are prepared for the rest of our lives to become wiser and better as we become older. And since our school is Catholic, our students are educated in the great theological tradition of the Church — principally through the writings of Augustine and Aquinas — which tradition is the buttress of civilization as it has come to be, and which must be the foundation for any just and humane order.

Our curriculum is similar to the curricula of Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and Yale as they were in the 18th century, though we study the significant works of the 19th and 20th centuries. We see no reason to ‘keep up with the times,’ for those who have done so in any age become constantly dated as their ‘times’ change.

We are as a consequence, the guarantors of our political life, and we point in the direction of the future, for we are not obscurantists studying dead works of the past, but seekers after wisdom with the greatest minds of all time as our contemporaries. And we make bold to say that ours is the only hopeful direction we can take, for it is impossible to hold out any hope at all if we are unwilling to cultivate the mind. A sign of our credentials is that we don’t hate the Church, we don’t hate the country, and we don’t hate our civilization. (Much of that hatred by the way, comes from those woefully ignorant of our heritage, and they are ignorant because there has not been enough of our kind of education, and what there has been of it is fast disappearing.)

We are, most of us, like Jonah, who, you remember, was told by the Lord to preach the word to the city of Ninive. But wishing to escape his mission he fled to Joppe, where he found a ship leaving for Tharsis. But the Lord sent a storm, and the mariners, discovering his infidelity, threw him overboard to save their ship. You all know the story from there; he was in the belly of a whale for three days, after which he ended up preaching in Ninive.

We too are reluctant to follow the Lord promptly, but happily we have ventured forth — some of us teachers, some of us businessmen, some of us housewives, some of us helpers in various ways — and the College exists, blessed by God and desiring to go on with its work.