The liberal arts will not save your soul. You will not mount up on them to heaven as on Jacob’s Ladder of old. They will not make you fully human or complete your nature; your birth has already done that for you. But that does not mean that they are unnecessary or useless. Indeed, they not only teach us things worth knowing, they teach us things worth knowing for a reason: they can serve the purpose of forming a responsible citizenry. And this remains so despite the fact that civic life is not man’s ultimate end. Our lives together in political communities may be transitory, as the communities themselves are. But this does not make them meaningless; becoming disciplined in thoughtfulness—the goal of liberal education at its best—can be a salve (not the only one, but a real one nevertheless) to alleviate our myriad communal pathologies.
The idea that education is salutary not primarily for money-making or the ever more delicate refining of technological prowess but for ensuring a stable and substantial civil life is an old one. For the Greeks during the age of their liberty, liberal studies of some kind were essential for the virtuous citizen; for the Romans under the Empire, they at least served in making a virtuous civil servant. Given that we (by “we” I herein mean “Americans”) live—theoretically, in any case—in a constitutional republic, our need for virtuous citizens is dire. Given that we live—in reality—in the bosom of an imperial power, our need for virtuous civil servants is not insignificant.
It would not be an overstatement, in fact, to say that our need is perhaps as urgent as it has ever been. Education traditionally has not stood alone as a bulwark against barbarism. It used to be supposed, for instance, that the press had a role to play in the project of responsible citizenship (though Kierkegaard already excoriated it for dereliction of duty over a century and a half ago in The Present Age). But it is not unreasonable to say that those days, if they ever existed, are over. It would require of most people over half of their waking hours to verify much of what is reported in the national news media, and they have neither the time nor the inclination for that. The breach of trust between citizens and the insatiable maw of unremitting newsertainment is, on all sides of our political divisions, uncloseable for the foreseeable future. That ship has sailed.
If one cannot hope for an informed citizenry—and the evidence is overwhelming that such a hope is futile—one must hope for something else. Perhaps that is just as well. For it means that, for the time being, we can turn our attention to a different hope. Politely demurring from the politics of outrage, our society’s media-abetted 24-hour revenge therapy, we might repurpose the first two-thirds of Timothy Leary’s slogan—from “turn on, tune in, drop out” to “turn off, tune out, drop out”—and focus instead on the hope for a formed citizenry: formed not in expertise in current events or the labyrinthine intricacies of public policy, but in what Hannah Arendt called in The Human Condition “thinking what we are doing.” For, as Arendt put it, “thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.” The remedy for thoughtlessness is not information; it is thought, thought about what man is, what the good man is, what the good society is, what virtues and vices are, and how to spot the difference. It is here, in relation to a goal that really is practical in the most basic sense of the term (which is to say that it has to do with practice, with human action in the civic sphere), that true education can be of some assistance.
Aristotle, whose influence and importance even now remains undeniable, was one of those who made much of the importance of education for citizenship. In fact, he thought it so important that nothing, as he understood it, was of greater moment for lawmakers. At the beginning of Book 8 of the Politics, he writes:
No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution. The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives. For each government has a peculiar character which originally formed and which continues to preserve it. The character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy; and always the better the character, the better the government.
A good number of readers might bristle at what seems to be a heavy-handed role for government in education. In any case, even if one is not opposed in principle to the involvement of government in education, he nonetheless may be understandably opposed to the involvement of our government in education.
But Aristotle means what he says. Shortly after the passage quoted above, he continues: “Neither must we suppose that anyone of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole.”
A couple of centuries later, Cicero says something similar in the preface to the first book of On the Republic:
For our country did not beget and educate us gratuitously, or without the expectation of receiving our support. She does not afford us so many blessings for nothing, and supply us with a secure refuge for useless idleness and self-indulgence; but rather that she may turn to her own advantage the nobler portion of our genius, heart, and counsel; and give us back for our private service, only what she can spare from her public interests.
When read through post-fascist lenses, specters of totalitarianism loom large in these passages. And in fact my neighbor, a German immigrant, was told something similar when a schoolgirl in Nuremberg: “Tell your parents you don’t belong to them. You belong to the state.” The man who told her this was Adolf Hitler. He exhorted the children to this effect as he passed out candy to the class. The prima facie likeness between what I have quoted from the ancient world and the 20th century may shock. It should.
What can we say about it? This at least: part of the reason that ancient philosophers think and talk in the way that Aristotle and Cicero do is because of the extremely high—or, rather, ultimate—importance they give to life in the polis or commonwealth. One recalls that Aristotle famously claims in Politics 1 that “he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.” Those who are (merely) human, then, find their fulfillment in political society. It is no coincidence that Cicero, in his eschatological “Dream of Scipio” at the close of On the Republic, where the dialogue’s somnolent main character receives a vision of the afterlife, makes eternal bliss in the Milky Way the abode of great statesmen.
This kind of thinking, which can easily transform itself to ideology, a working definition of which is “the systematic erasure of thinking,” was put to an end by the rise of Christianity, as detailed by Charles Norris Cochrane in his brilliant book Christianity and Classical Culture. Actually, that is not quite right: it wasn’t put to an end so much as relativized by the introduction of an end for man beyond the vicissitudes of temporal political communities in a way that Cicero could not have fathomed. If your soul is to be saved, it is not going to happen through paideia in poetry, music, and gymnastics. In many respects, Nazism was in fact a grand gesture of make-believe, the pretense that this relativization had not occurred. In contrast to ancient political theory, fascism was only manqué-politics, paganism with eyes closed and ears plugged. The earnest, if at times wrongheaded, thinking of Aristotle and Cicero was replaced by the ideological stomping of jackboots.
But the surface similarity between what Aristotle and Cicero say and the story my neighbor told me ought not to prevent us from retrieving what was good and useful in the ancients. We can say with more confidence than they that the polis is relative, its justice proximate. Well and good. But we can also say that the polis is still significant, and therefore the ancients may have something to teach us yet. What can we gather from statements such as those of Aristotle and Cicero above? Here are a few possibilities: that we, while each an individual, are not merely individuals; that we are not born for ourselves but exist with and for others; that the claim that others have upon us is not a matter in which we can cordially refuse because we have a subscription to Netflix. So much, far from being out of accord with the Christian revolution, is quite harmonious with it.
All of these assertions, however, require thought to unpack, and thinking with the great minds of the past is one way to do this. This is so not because they give us the answers, but because they give us the questions, and help us as we search for the answers. These answers will not be found on cable news. Cable news exists to keep us shouting at each other long enough to become fatigued so that we will then carry on our entertainment by other means. The search described above requires calm and repose; it requires the opposite of what advertising wants to sell you. It requires meditation on thinkers like Aristotle, Cicero, and many others. Its end is to help you to be a good citizen. Its end is to help you be a good neighbor. This is what liberal education, when it is functioning as it should, is for.
John Adams seems to have understood something of this, that is, the relation between learning and civic virtue. He wrote to his son, John Quincy Adams, as follows:
In Company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, you will learn Wisdom and Virtue. You will see them represented, with all the Charms which Language and Imagination can exhibit, and Vice and Folly painted in all their Deformity and Horror. You will ever remember that all the End of study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.—This will ever be the Sum total of the Advice of your affectionate Father, John Adams.
“A good man and a useful citizen.” It is conceivable, I suppose, that one might do better than the advice Adams gives here. But it is indisputable that one could do much, much worse. Ceteris paribus, Adams provides a good working model for what we should want from education. Liberal learning will not save your soul. But it will help to make our inevitably social and political life more tolerable. It will not immanentize the eschaton. But it may forestall our base and animal urge to devour one another in what, for Augustine of Hippo, was the saeculum, the “time between.” And that is not nothing.
E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.