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Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” C.S. Lewis’ character Professor Digory Kirke calls to light an increasingly detrimental error concerning education in the modern era. The Great Western Tradition and the permanent ideas about education that flow out of it are grounded in a proper understanding of philosophy that seeks to order and reveal the natural law and the divine law for a proper understanding of reality. The modern schools and those who design them have abandoned real philosophy in a fool’s bargain to gain a moment in exchange for posterity.

Alfred North Whitehead would agree with Professor Kirke’s implied corrective, a return to Plato and a true sense of philosophy. He boldly proclaimed “the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” The declaration is arguably hyperbolic, but perhaps what has passed for philosophy in the universities for the last few centuries trends more towards self-conscious sophistry than the delight of encountering Lady Wisdom, revealing herself most clearly in the integrated whole of truth, goodness, and beauty.

John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his educational masterpiece The Idea of a University, rightly clarifies that “all knowledge forms one whole because its subject matter is one; for the universe is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, or operation from operation, except by mental abstraction.” The schools have lost that hierarchical distinction that separates the tools of learning from objects of study found in the sciences. Newman reminds us that the “sciences are the results of mental abstraction…being the logical record of this or that aspect of the whole subject matter of knowledge.”

The modern sophistical error propagated by the “experts” in the universities who have abandoned the true sense of philosophy is to encourage the scientists to believe that the mental abstractions that make up their “particular craft,” can justifiably be seen as general rules, as opposed to the specific logical conclusions drawn from assumptions they are, and thereby their abstractions erroneously “usurp and occupy the universe.” This is also the habit of the social utopian revolutionaries, who have seemingly perfected the sophistical art of propagating miniscule notions as categorical imperatives. The boundary between mental abstraction and wisdom is obliterated by sophists and this act of violence against philosophy is propagated in the schools.

Newman keenly suggested that Philosophy is the “science of sciences.” Philosophy ought to be the lens through which we order and identify the inherent relationships amongst all the sciences. Newman explains that all the particular sciences “are but aspects of things, they are severally incomplete in their relation to the things themselves, though complete in their own idea and for their own respective purposes; on both accounts they at once need and subserve each other.” This truth about the proper role of philosophy would certainly baffle the architects of the modern university who offer dozens of “equally valuable” but separate majors where philosophy is just one amongst many. Call to mind the role of philosophy in Plato’s Academy and in Aristotle’s lyceum. Philosophy is not one of many options, but the sovereign of the lesser sciences and the servant of Truth.

As Aristotle reminds us, “a small error in the beginning is a huge one in the end.” In 1852, Newman alerts us to the demise of philosophy in the university, where there has been a growing tendency to deny “moral agency” and therefore deny the human soul and to deny “divine agency” and therefore deny the existence of God. The final blow to philosophy from those academicians who attribute all facts to material causes is the deterministic denial of free will. Is an examination of reality possible without the consideration of the human person? Not to mention the Creator? Is there such a thing as a true education that does not strive to cultivate the philosophical tools necessary to see reality in its entirety? A sober look at America’s classrooms today with a reference to Newman’s observations will lend credibility to Aristotle’s dictum.

I am a public school teacher and I assure you, good reader, that we do teach Plato in the schools. Our literature text books are so marvelously inclusive that they contain 350 words dedicated solely to Plato and Aristotle. But the words about the great philosophers are designed to cut them off from the truths and habits of the philosophic mind, which in turn renders them mere weightless shadows to be used by the guardians to manipulate the bound citizenry to assent to certain feminist and egalitarian ideology. Of Plato it is written: “Plato believed that men and women should have an opportunity to get the same education…Plato also felt that women should not be restricted to getting married and making a home. Men and women should be free to pursue or seek the same jobs.” This is a manipulative perversion of Plato that mirrors the schools’ perversion of philosophy to garner assent to error.

When the educational revolutionaries deposed the icon of the sciences, true philosophy, the walls of the sacred halls of education were breached by all manner of Trojan horse. The “Dictatorship of Relativatism” ushered in the anti-philosophical ideologies of multiculturalism, egalitarianism, and feminism. And thus was advanced the age of radical individualism embodied in the politics of recognition and propagated by our institutions of learning.

We are in dire need of a recovery of the true sense of philosophy in schools:

that philosophical pattern of mind that motivates our “every striving to know” in the quest to see reality rightly. We must restore philosophy’s true sense of majesty to the arts of clear thinking. We must return philosophy to its proper place in those classrooms that ought to thoroughly investigate the nature of things human and divine in the pursuit of true knowledge.

John Henry Newman was a torch bearer for his age, shining the light of the true philosophy embodied by Plato on a darkening generation. We have a duty to justice by way of our children to pass onto them what was faithfully passed onto us by the true philosophers. The formation of the human mind without a true philosophy is sophistry at best and can only lead to further error. John Milton relates that “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Without restoring Plato and true philosophy to their proper stations, we are certain to continue the descent into darkness when we ought to be striving to encounter the light in an intellectual landscape where the terrain is philosophy regained.

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Published: Jul 30, 2013
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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7 replies to this post
  1. Bah! While Philosophy is the “Science of the Sciences,” it is also the undoing of the same. There must be a distinction made. C.S. Lewis might have spoken less highly of Plato had he known of the latter’s connection to the conspiracy which he mentions in a footnote to the Great Divorce and in the Letters to An American Lady and which he e presents in literary terms in his sci/fi trilogy, making only the mistake of naming one of the real conspirators in the Great Conspiracy which He knew about. Had he delved further he would have found the one he mentioned by name in a work of literature had taken his clues and cues from Plato, via John Ruskin who taught him Plato’s works at Oxford. Cecil Rhodes kept his copy of Plato by his bed and read in it daily, drawing from it the ideas for his British styled government of the world which he sought to attain by his financing of scholarships to that end and which is revealed in his 6th will and testament. Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope laid the whole thing out for everyone to see, and he provided the 6th will and testament at the end of his The Anglo American Establishment. And things are progressing swimmingly as David Rockefeller is able to brag that, “Yes, I am a part of a conspiracy.” One can even download the beliefs and practices of the conspirators from Quigley, and there are many other writers. There is perhaps a quarter of a million books, guesstimating, on this conspiracy which goes back several hundred years, and it is not a Jewish thing either, though some of them are in it. Seems my commie professor at a little Black school in the middle West traced it back to the founding of the city of Venice where capitalism was born 11-1200 years are more before the Protestant Reformation…and that was more than 40 years ago.

    Aristotle seems to have undone the whole shebang by focusing more on the particulars and reasoning from them, and, then, of course, along came theology, the theology of the Christian Faith which, as Alfred North Whitehead the philosopher and mathematician pointed out, was the source for the development of the modern scientific method. That is why you find so many of the Protestants and Puritans involved in the leadership of the beginnings of modern science. Then along came some folks with the audacity to introduce emotion into the scene and others who introduced eschatology of a most nefarious (sp?) that got the church off of its focus on God’s promises to bless the whole earth and take it for His Son for a 1000 generations (not a thousand years, but anywhere from 20,000 – 900,000 years, depending on how long you make the generations. All so God can crack a joke to cheer His poor suffering saints, suffering the horrors of a government using mind altering methods and tortures the bring one to the edge of insanity and leave him or her there. Any way, in Rev. 7:9 God speaks of the number of the redeemed as being a number no one can count. Can it be He? That’s absurd! That’s a joke! He knows every one by name even down to the last item and yet He does want to count the number of the redeemed from a million billion planets. Theology, ‘THE QUEEN OF SCIENCES,” is coming back to reign, because God’s grace is greater than our sins and because where sin reigns unto death so might grace reign unto life.

  2. I concur with the major premises of the article; the loss of a true sense of objective reality due to the modernist dismissal of the relevance of traditional western philosophy, the denial of the centrality of natural law in any consideration of ethical norms, and the absolute outrage engendered by any attempt to reintroduce any reference to the divine into public discourse particularly concerning the natural sciences.
    I would suggest one step further back to the bedrock foundation of scholasticism; to resolve the current drift into unrestrained relativism and materialistic, mechanistic determinism; Theology should be restored to it’s proper place as queen of the sciences and philosophy her handmaiden. All other scientific endeavor should be grounded in a thorough understanding of the inescapable theological and philosophical underpinnings of all of reality,

  3. Mr. Zeoli,
    Thank you for your astute and excellent comment. I agree with you completely and as you must know, Newman deals with the proper place of theology at the beginning of The Idea of a University with two chapters dealing with the bearing of theology on Knowledge and the bearing of knowledge on theology. I had been thinking of theology throughout the composition of this essay, but I limited my focus to a criticism of the role of philosophy for several reasons. I don’t know how familiar you are with the public schools, but so bankrupt are they that philosophy is most assuredly unwelcomed there, and much less is the welcoming of theology. But a return to philosophy might have been a stopgap measure to restore at least some sanity to the teaching profession.
    Quite right, theology is the queen of the sciences and philosophy is her handmaid and to restore them to their proper places is absolutely necessary if we are going to speak of the well ordered life.

  4. Excellent article, Steven. In Plato’s Republic, students are not allowed to study philosophy per se until after having studied mathematics for many years (and also music and astronomy). I think one reason is because young minds are often not ready to understand why philosophy matters so much; also, they are naturally inclined to argue and debate for debate’s sake — like cubs wrestling — more with the purpose of developing critical skills than for reaching any solid conclusions. My concern is that if young people are given, say, Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Ethics to read, they will latch onto wrong interpretations, and these will be long-lasting and difficult to change. I didn’t begin reading Plato until I was 50, and couldn’t imagine having gained much by starting earlier. What *did* prepare me for philosophy in my youth, however, was a solid Catholic education. Once I began studying Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism, all the ideas there leapt out as familiar. Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy became mutually illuminating.

  5. Thank you John, you bring up excellent points, and when a student learns about certain things is a very important topic today, for example, to teach kindergartners applied linguistics and algebra instead of Aesop is foolishness hard to top. I was hoping to imply by my article that the foundations that undergird the schools might be philosophical and the standard for the professor ought to be that he is in possession of a philosophic habit of mind. I myself use ideas from Plato and Aristotle in my 6th grade class, but I wouldn’t expect them to read such books. It is us teachers that ought to apply the philosophic mind to how we conduct ourselves in the classroom.

    Newman said that there are two major considerations concerning learning: “requisite knowledge and cultivated faculties; but, of the two, the latter is by far the chief. A man of well improved faculties has the command of another’s knowledge. A man without them, has not the command of his own.” Ought not the object of our schooling to be cultivating the faculties? And leave the requisite knowledge to experience and specialization training? It is a matter of first and second things, as C.S. Lewis explained, when we put second things first we lose both first and second things. Our schools prove this because they are solely about requisite knowledge and what do we do? We forget, we lose both first and second things. But one who cultivates his faculties has an excellent memory because the requisite knowledge has a meaningful framework in which to reside.

    Certainly school age children should cultivate and master the intransitive arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric, followed by the mathematical arts. And though I am inclined to agree with you and Plato about when to teach philosophy, I think the precise timing is still an open debate.

  6. Sir, you share an intellectually challenging perspective. I’m not certain that Humanity is prepared to absorb much, if any of this content. I sincerely hope a considerable portion of the population will be able to grasp much of it. After all, the Educators of today continue to struggle with Bullies and have yet to discover the best way to culturally integrate the Races. It is my sincere hope that children will come to understand how Racism has its roots in the very nature of Humankind, and that slavery was not invented by the White man. I mean, the American educational system has been so perverted by liberalism there is little hope that the few in our educational system with an ounce of common sense will ever be heard. Today’s youth have little hope of ever receiving more than thorough brainwashing.

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