C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to St. Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation in which he argues for the importance of reading “old books” in order to better understand modern thought and theology. “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.” Indeed, the great minds of Western Civilization have for thousands of years engaged in a “great conversation,” a dialogue, a discussion—from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero down to Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant. The latest addition to The Heights Upper School curriculum, History of Western Thought (HoWT), introduces seniors to the great minds of the West. The course will give them the opportunity to consider the history of the great conversation and, with the hard work of reading old books, enter into it: What did he say? Do I agree? Why?
In the History of Western Thought, starting at the beginning, at least as far as philosophy is concerned, would be to start with the Pre-Socratics—thinkers whose works, although profoundly influential, have come down to us only in fragments: “Fire, it is want and satiety,” is beautiful and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t provide the context and back-and-forth one hopes for in a great conversation. Best to leave the Pre-Socratics to seasoned philosophers.
After that, the dialogue begins in earnest, in Athens. Socrates is presented through the writings of Plato, pondering justice, liberty, knowledge, and the soul. Plato wrote in the form of dialogue, and so beginning with his works has an auxiliary benefit: students learn the ways and means of intellectual discourse. Following Plato, his former student Aristotle treats of the same subjects, but with a more systematic approach. He also lays a foundation for studying the natural world, which is considered essential by the medieval thinkers but which is later discarded by some modern thinkers. Students read Cicero, who treats of the cardinal virtues, friendship, natural law, the inseparability of the good and the useful, and matters that follow from the fact that man is naturally a social being. Since the modern world has defined itself in many ways by means of its rejection or denial of the thoughts of the ancients, this interaction with the ancients is key; a true understanding of modernity requires one first to understand the mind of the ancients.
In no other thinker is the idea of a conversation through the ages seen so clearly as in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas carefully read his predecessors. HoWT students will discover how he distilled and assimilated what he found to be good and true, and gently corrected what he found lacking. This is especially fruitful in the Angelic Doctor’s use of Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Of the five proofs for God’s existence that St. Thomas offers in Summa Theologica, the first is a summary from the culminating argument in Aristotle’s Physics, the second relies upon a very Aristotelian notion of efficient causality, and the last has as its key premise that nature acts for an end, a notion which finds its intellectual moorings in Physics, Book II. And yet St. Thomas did not blindly follow Aristotle in all matters, as he famously disagreed with (and argued against) his idea of the world existing from eternity. But again, the great conversation was seen to continue, with the crowning intellect of the Middle Ages building upon the edifice that was begun by the ancients.
The modern age (or at least, the modern way of thinking) involved a change in the tone of the great conversation. Hints of this change emerged in the medieval period with such figures as William of Ockham. Niccolo Machiavelli and Francis Bacon are further examples of breaking from the classical and medieval world view, although in different ways. It is with Rene Descartes that we see the characteristically modern approach of tearing down the communal edifice, rather than building its spires even higher. Indeed, his most famous passage, wherein he pronounces cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), can be seen as a whole-hearted renunciation of the classical way of thinking; rather than letting nature inform our minds, a new order is announced: we shall let thinking be the cause of existence.
Whereas Descartes’ thoughts were primarily about thinking, Jean-Jacques Rousseau entered the discussion on the topic of man. Like Descartes, he chose to argue against the ancient and classical. Specifically, Rousseau held that man is not really different than the animals. Hence, he had to argue that those things which seem to differentiate man from animal, namely, the act of reason and all things that follow essentially from it, are really no more than a mirage. Rousseau stands in stark contrast to the thoughts of Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle. Here again, the conversation hinges on a disagreement.
It should be said that not all modern minds disagree with the classical ones; students read Newman alongside Hobbes. There are more great minds in Western civilization than those mentioned above. But a good article, like a good play, ought not give away the entirety of its plot in the first act. Something has to be left for the seniors to find out for themselves.
Perhaps the most effective way to enter into dialogue with these great philosophers is by simply reading them. Students are encouraged—at every instance—to engage with the mind behind the text. And by “engage” not only does the student read the texts for factual content, but—in some cases—re-reads what he thinks he understands. The richness of the texts lends itself to a classroom that is primarily conducted by lecture. But, for precisely the same reason, this richness demands systematic seminar discussions about the material.
The interactions between the students, especially the critical defense of one’s own position on a reading and the ability to understand a classmate’s perspective before judging it, are the highlight of the seminar discussions. Even students who are not as participatory in one discussion become more engaged over time. Conversely, the student who is perhaps more animated and spirited about his own position will often experience a moderating effect on his ability to assess and articulate his stance. The course is intended to gradually develop and refine each student’s ability to think critically while defending his position against differing interpretations. Students are encouraged to write in a HoWT journal throughout each week’s assigned reading, as a goal to orient the mind toward a bent that is increasingly reflective.
Students are led individually, and the class collectively, to see the outlines of what it means to be liberally educated. Ideally, they begin to see the relationship, as Aristotle observed repeatedly, between the part and the whole, to see how the themes of the HoWT course become the context in which their entire education to this point has occurred. Indeed they should understand their “education” in a new light. Students learn how to make their way through a difficult passage, how to provide evidence for an argument, or even how to argue respectfully against a position with which they could not disagree more—these are all signs of a disciplined and healthy mind. A mind that is awake to the possibilities and duties of a man, a Heights man, toward spiritual and temporal realities.
The History of Western Thought is a liberal arts course proper to free men: noble and valuable, liberating to the student (helping to free him from slavery to opinion and false persuasion), and useful in aiding a free man in making of himself a gift to his community. At The Heights, the liberal arts curriculum is an ongoing conversation with the students. In the Valley, Mr. Toad, Almanzo Wilder, and Bilbo Baggins, among others, introduce our youngest students to a drama with many characters—each asserting things about man along the way. Up the hill in the Middle School, Shakespeare and Homer enter the conversation. In the main building’s tower, Euclid, Aquinas, Dante, Hawthorne, Lincoln, and others join them. At each step, the boy is never just a listener. The culminating HoWT course provides training in close reading of challenging texts, public speaking, debate, and writing, skills the student has been practicing in everdeepening ways. These scholarly skills are some of those powers proper to man—the rational and loving animal. As the great historian of Western thought, John Henry Cardinal Newman, reminds us in The Idea of a University, the knowledge studied in liberal arts courses is a good before it is a power. True. Still, these are powers proper to the husbands and fathers, the citizens and statesmen they will be called to be. The irony of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, so frequently recited in the lower school, can be expressed here in a positive form: these young men—theirs is to reason why, not just to do and die. Man reaches out toward knowing by nature.
HoWT is not a class in morality; nevertheless, combined with their theology course, it introduces seniors to the two master sciences—philosophy and theology—and gives them further opportunity to grow in fortitude, order, cheerfulness, justice, and other virtues with a sporting spirit about the adventure. These young scholars are ready for this next level of the great conversation. The course provides an individual and collective experience not unlike their junior trip. Even though the students are not all cyclists or mountaineers, each one was for that one week of the trip. So here, they are not all to be philosophers, but they become student-philosophers for a year, exercising their growing powers of scholarship.
The class also includes all the drama of those endeavors we are accustomed to on a festival day—in bard competitions and in the games on the field. Clan festivals, by design, help us to understand the liberal arts and their relationship to true leisure. To make a poem one’s own by memorizing it; then to become another by becoming the speaker of that poem, the character in that moment; then to stand before classmates or even the whole school to deliver it for the good of his clan—not for a grade, not for himself, but
for his teammates, and to deliver it well, to delight the audience—that is an experience filled with opportunities to grow in courage and selflessness, even as one grows in the knowledge of his powers as a man—powers of reason and speech—creative powers to discover the rhythm and rhyme in the everyday and draw it forward so that the everyday can be received as the heroic verse it really is.
HoWT is both a play and a wrestling match that requires preparation and concentrated effort. Think of Odysseus or of Plato himself: like them, the HoWT student will be grappling with thoughts, images, and other thinkers from the past, with fellow students, with his teacher and, often, himself. Why? To grow in strength—to grow in academic excellence. To come to know things more and more as they are, and less and less as they merely seem to be. HoWT is not simply a course in virtue. And yet virtue is an end we seek in the course, as it is an end we seek in The Heights curriculum. The work, the fortitude, the charity involved in the arduous study of the texts and the dedicated writing of the journal, and the patient listening to one’s peers and teacher can be the opportunity for great growth in character and knowledge.
The study of Western thought, while new as a course at The Heights, is an ordinary task for a young scholar. Perhaps it seems extraordinary in a culture that can forget man’s nature and his relationship to the liberal arts. But the Christian truth reveals a spirit of adoption, of sonship and thoughtful service, not slavery and mindless drudgery. The History of Western Thought rests upon the assumption that the liberally educated free man is far more ready to be of service to God, family, country, and all mankind.