We are the heirs to Great Ideas, Great Books, and a Great Conversation committed to understanding the story of humanity. The challenge for those living in the largely democratic West is to maintain the idea that a society committed to freedom is a society committed to the value of the liberal arts…
It may seem peculiar that modern Westerners have placed their faith in democracy as the best reflection of freedom and human dignity. Scriptural imagery suggests that God’s intended system of hierarchy and governance is that of a monarchy. Humanity came into the Garden as individuals under a king—God—and we ended up living in a city with everyone under the king of kings—Christ. However, all of man’s attempts to achieve the temporal equivalent of the Heavenly Kingdom pale in comparison to the City of God. If this is the fate of humanity, then perhaps democracy is the least egregious way for men to live together.
Humans are indeed political animals; therefore, the desire to live in society is innate. In Book II of The Republic, Socrates explains the reason behind the establishment of a City:
A State, I said, arises, as I conceive, out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. Can any other origin of a State be imagined?… Then as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another; and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habitation the body of inhabitants is termed a State.
What better way to train and educate citizens to this end than through the liberal arts? By nature the liberal arts are focused on the higher principle of freedom over servility. No matter what form of government one lives under, the liberal arts instruct the individual in freedom of thought, debate, and conversation. This has become increasingly necessary in the Modern Age as democracy continues to face challenges of ever-expanding definitions of law, citizenship, and liberty.
In the attempt to keep a right relationship between institutions and citizens, wisdom must be a primary concern. The liberal arts allow for a diverse conversation across different ages and periods of Western history. This conversation includes, but is not limited to, sacred texts. The combination of sacred and secular sources exists in the liberal arts and prepares the individual for the reality of living in a pluralistic society. Proverbs 4:4 says to “Keep my commandments and live.” Knowledge regarding the law of God is the basis for social relationships, and the law is found within the commandments: “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light” (6:23). It is also important to know the ways of man (which can be made clear, 16:2), and to comprehend God’s intention as to how people should live with one another requires a faithful commitment to wisdom grounded in Scripture (19:21) and the human canon. The individual has a direct responsibility to reflect the values of the community. The key component necessary to fulfill the challenge of Proverbs is wisdom: “Wisdom is the principal thing” (4:7). The education of the individual in the pursuit of wisdom yields a virtuous and discerning society.
The democratic West, both ancient and modern, has been committed to the observance of an educated society. At the very least, the conversation between the two periods establishes a sense of virtue in keeping with the tenets of a free society. Montesquieu, in The Spirit of the Laws, tells us: “The fear of despotic governments naturally arises of itself amidst threats and punishments; honour of monarchies is favoured by the passions; and favours them in its turn; but virtue is a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful.” A liberal arts education prepares individuals for the long road to virtue. From Euripides in The Suppliants to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, freedom is defended best through educated citizens given the opportunity to exercise wisdom and discernment.
The liberal arts tend to nurture free thought. They provide an education that mimics the desire for a democracy of diverse voices and ideas. A liberal arts education provides opportunities for students to receive instruction from Ancient Greeks, British monarchists, American federalists, and, yes, even French philosophers. Despite the culture, race, gender, or political climate, there is much to learn from the virtues and flaws of previous subjects of study. The liberal arts incorporate theory, quantitative analysis, scientific empiricism, and religious metaphysics. Without a liberal canon a society cannot fulfill the hope of those who came before. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”*
Euripides, Thucydides, Aristotle, and Plato expressed different views regarding philosophy, politics, and history, but they shared a belief in the vitality of an educated society. Euripides in The Suppliants, argues that the people must have the ability to form true judgments in order rightly to direct the State. Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War teaches that political freedom is something that extends to ordinary life, and he warns that those in free societies should not be imitators of neighboring, unfree States. A proper liberal arts education reflects the Aristotelian purpose of education—the instruction of the rich man’s and poor man’s sons in like manner. By bridging the divisions of class in this way, a liberal arts education can repair other divisions in a pluralistic society. The tyranny of the majority, Plato cautions, should not be allowed to destroy a free society. “Such was the good order which the multitude were willing to observe,” Plato observes in Book III of Laws, they would never have dared to give judgment by noisy cries.”
This calls to mind a recent incident at Middlebury College. The conservative social scientist Charles Murray was asked to speak about his controversial views on race and social welfare programs. He was met by hostile student protestors, the event was shut down, and a Middlebury professor was injured in the aftermath. What the students at Middlebury failed to recognize is that the ability to disagree is central to the foundation of a free, democratic society. To silence free speech is to destroy the heart of democracy. The formation of “safe spaces” to avoid controversial issues, unpopular ideas, or opposing perspectives wounds both democracy and the spirit of a liberal arts university. As Mill points out in On Liberty, even one voice of dissension must be allowed to be heard in a free society.
Modern theorists like Mill shared with the ancients a belief in the value of a liberal education in furthering political life. Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that “the writings and discourse of those that from them have received all their learning in the politics, is not the liberty of particular men, but the liberty of the Commonwealth: which is the same with that which every man then should have, if there were no civil laws nor Commonwealth at all.”
Of course, the liberal arts are not a panacea. The perfect society does not exist; utopias may as well be pipe dreams, and humanity cannot mimic the natural monarchy of God’s kingdom. However, the liberal arts do possess what Milton, in Areopagitica, referred to as a “potency of life”: “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”
We are the heirs to Great Ideas, Great Books, and a Great Conversation committed to understanding the story of humanity—politically, socially, economically, philosophically, imaginatively, and spiritually. The challenge for those living in the largely democratic West is to maintain the idea that a society committed to freedom is a society committed to the value of the liberal arts.
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*C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), p. 202.