Let's Choose Socrates

Mr. Gow is a freelance writer of Arlington Heights, Illinois.

There are no lost causes, T.S. Eliot observed, because there are no gained causes. In other words, each rising generation must fight the good fight for venerable causes, for there are no permanent victories in this world.


T.S. Eliot spent much of his life championing such "lost" causes as "the idea of a Christian society," one permeated with the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman; the recognition of "the permanent things"—those qualities of mind and character that distinguish the civilized man from the barbarian; the acknowledgment of the intimate connection between religion and literature; the recognition of what Unamuno termed "the tragic sense of life"—the awareness that human beings, tainted by the pernicious effects of original sin, shall never become as gods; and the idea of a genuinely liberal education.


By a "genuinely liberal education" Eliot meant the kind of education that cultivates our minds and characters, the kind that communicates ethical normality and transmits the accumulated wisdom of the past, the kind that helps a person develop the moral and intellectual refinement needed to distinguish between truth and error, right and wrong, the noble and the base.


To accomplish these aims, we must, according to Eliot, examine and reflect upon the accumulated wisdom of the past—in particular, the classical, Judaic and Christian patrimony—and the works of such men of humane letters as Virgil, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante and Shakespeare, whose works retain enduring value because they deal with the perennial problems of the human condition, and because they deal with man as he is and as he can and should be.


If, for example, one is seeking to discover the meaning of love, what modern books can compare with George Eliot’s Silas Marner or William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or I Corinthians 13 of St. Paul? If one is interested in the nature of justice, what can compare with the writings of Plato and Aquinas on the subject? If one wants to understand better the intense demands and conflicts of the human spirit, are there many modern books that can compare with the works of Dante and Dostoyevsky?


To be sure, many modern "educators" disagree with T.S. Eliot’s emphasis on the study of the moral and intellectual giants of our civilization, and in sharp contrast to the poet’s view, urge that education should be "relevant," whatever "relevant education" means. When one glances through college catalogues nowadays, one comes to the warranted conclusion that "relevant education" means the introduction into the curriculum of such electives as "Methodology of Teaching Techniques," "Human Communications," "Group Dynamics," "Learning by Doing," and "How to Win Friends and Influence People," courses which, it is entirely plausible to assume, will not result in the cultivation of minds and characters.


One struggles vainly to discover why educators apparently believe that the quantity of such electives is even more important than the quality of courses already offered, such as English, American History, and Mathematics. One also finds it difficult to understand why proponents of "relevant education" apparently believe that the writings of Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, for example, contain more wisdom than the works of Dante, Aquinas and Shakespeare.


Perhaps, though, we should not be too surprised by what has been happening in our institutions of learning, where professors have neglected the cultivation of right reason and the ethical basis of education, and thus have lost the power to arouse the moral imagination and a decent respect for the accumulated wisdom of the past and the traditions of civility. Many modern educators, it seems, have lost sight of what should be the aim of education—that is, the cultivation of wisdom and virtue; and since this is so, it is natural that many schools have given in to the spirit of the age and its demand for "relevance."


In this connection, one is reminded of one of British novelist Evelyn Waugh’s most interesting characters, Scott-King, a classics professor. Returning to his school after a tour of modern post-war Europe, Scott-King encounters the headmaster, who asks him to teach some intellectually fashionablecourses. The study of the classics, contends the headmaster, is no longer considered "relevant."


"I’m a ‘Greats’ man myself," the headmaster observes. "I deplore it as much as you do. But what can we do? Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete’ man anymore. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them can you?"


"Oh yes," Scott-King replies, "I can and do." For "it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."


Unhappily, the Scott-Kings and T.S. Eliots of this world are fighting for a worthy but apparently lost cause. But no great cause is ever truly lost. And besides, if one must "lose," it is preferable that one "lose" with Socrates than "win" with, say, Abbie Hoffman.