The reality known as Western civilization has included in preeminent ways authors of rare quality who have contributed mightily to the course of human history and helped shape the purposes, thoughts, and lives of regimes and individuals in profoundly remarkable ways. While such authors have been characterized by unique thoughtfulness on matters of far-reaching importance, one also finds among them differing perspectives which have brought about radically new turns in the evolving destinies of humankind. In authoring what some have called seminal texts, such persons were keenly aware of notions and behaviors that dominated the lives of those amongst whom they lived. Yet, the great authors that we speak of have evidenced in explicit or implicit ways that they saw more deeply and more broadly than most of their contemporaries. In doing so, they often opposed the prevalent thinking of their own times.
In looking back over the passage of time in the West, one can readily see that the authors spoken of above initially emerged in ancient Greece and Rome and eventually came to be referred to as “classical”. The latter term has come to denote a particular historical time period, but also connotes a kind of excellence that is long-lasting and that is close to or at the very heights of human excellence simply. However this be, authors of classical antiquity have properly been associated with extraordinarily revealing and refined poetry, insightfully observant histories, and a rationalism acutely aware of the primacy of reason and the hierarchical order of human virtues. Their range of inquiry brought them to consider nature itself, the natures of particular realities, the make-up and working of the human soul, all matters human and those approaching what is divine. It is surely not accidental then that for many centuries after they had scaled the heights of human authorship many in the West turned and returned to them for enlightenment about life and the world.
With some exceptions, the pinnacles of Greek and Roman philosophy, poetry, and histories occurred roughly between the fifth century B.C. and the first century A.D. From the latter century on, however, Western civilization was to be decisively affected by events and thinking which emanated from what is nowadays referred to as the Middle East. In ways far surpassing the effects of belief in the many gods of Greece and Rome, biblical religion (Judaism and Christianity) came to change the West and the world. In having done so, the authors of one book and those writers who drew their thinking from that book have impacted the course of human existence and touched in perhaps unfathomable depth the hearts and minds of countless human beings – rulers and ruled, wealthy and poor, citizens and subjects, men and women.
Leaving aside for now the history, struggles, and influences of God’s Chosen People, we observe that Christianity’s guiding star was Jesus Christ Himself as presented and reflected upon by those who knew Him and by the Church that He instituted. Additionally, both the Old Testament and the New Testament along with writings emanating from Church Councils and Church Fathers came to give form to a way of living that was new to the world. Then as time passed and Christianity spread, the Christian Church had to make important determinations regarding the education of Christian youth. The choice to be made was whether or not to allow or include philosophy and pagan literature in the education of young Christians. Thanks to Churchmen like St. Basil, St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and several others, the path chosen led to an important rapport as well as lingering tensions between Jerusalem and Athens. While some scholars and thinkers over the years have voiced or intimated concerns or grave reservations over the ultimate subordination of reason to faith, the fact remains that acquaintance with or, better, appreciative dispositions towards Athens were instrumental in the development of Christianity. In this vein and as recently as 1998 in Fides et Ratio, the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church declared that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth…” In so doing, St. John Paul II supplemented or put into a broader context the previous characterization of philosophy as the “handmaid of theology.” Similarly, in his Regensburg Lecture (September 12, 2006), Pope Benedict XVI spoke of a “critically purified Greek heritage” as forming “an integral part of Christian faith.”
Nonetheless, while crucial connections between Christian faith and human reason were sustained over the course of centuries, the relationship was not without challenges. For, as important and as helpful as philosophic reason was to reflections on scriptural teaching and in providing human guidance in areas untouched by biblical Revelation, there was not and could not be absolute assurance that all philosophic minds would accept Revelation or see reason as subordinate to or an ally of religious thought. Philosophic minds who could not assent to Revelation or who deviated from the Church’s understanding of Revelation sometimes proceeded quietly or with considerable reserve. In 1210 and 1270, however, synodal and episcopal condemnations manifested more openly previously existing and ever possible tensions between faith and reason. But even in the face of recurring conflicts, a sometimes wary but fruitful coexistence between faith and reason continued.
Matters changed radically, however, in the early 16th century. For reasons that go beyond the scope of this statement, Niccolo Machiavelli took it upon himself to wage a deliberate war of destruction against the religion that had come to dominate a good portion of the civilized world. At the same time, too, he voiced in sometimes thinly veiled fashion major opposition to and rejection of much of classical thinking. For the Florentine, it was imperative that a new mode of living and a new order of things go into effect and he did his best to call the world’s attention to a new promised land. Thus, over the course of ensuing centuries, key ones of his objectives have taken effect as much of the world made its way towards a secular mindset and orientation. While not agreeing with all of Machiavelli’s views and recommendations, a number of philosophers came to join themselves in a variety of ways to important ones of his objectives. In doing so, some softened Machiavelli’s harshness and made course corrections. In the end, he and those who drew much from his thinking contributed greatly to the inauguration of a new era in human history: modernity. The latter has been characterized by startlingly new notions, seismic political and technological changes, and claims of previously unanticipated human progress. — It remains, however, that we who live in the midst of this new era of human living have good reasons to ponder the far-reaching implications set in motion by what has happened and is still happening.
Why it matters
In all of the above regards, it is not nearly enough to go about our workaday lives, ride the current wave of technological wizardry, and ingratiate superficial curiosities and pleasures through daily “kicks” of information, gossip, and messaging. — For those persons desirous of a broader and deeper awareness of our true situation, our most important responsibilities, and the authentic measures of human dignity, an education which introduces us to the centuries-old roots of present-day life as well as to the insights, arguments, and claims of our political, poetic, philosophic, and spiritual forbears is of crucial importance. It is so because an education principally focused upon the necessary and appropriately satisfying rewards of professional employment and conventions cannot speak to our deeper selves, cannot touch those dimensions of the human soul which lie in wait for a deeper wonder and a sharp-sighted clarity that goes to the heart of things. It is only fair to say, of course, that our times do accord us much in the way of opportunities, conveniences, health, and longevity. But an education that unveils to us the extraordinary reaches of human and religious aspirations enhances our humanity in ways that exceed what is merely necessary, useful, and of limited range.
Additionally – and most importantly – conflicts and differing perspectives among authors who purport to teach humankind originate and point to contemporary confusion about the purposes or ends of human life itself. Thus, an education that brings into relief this confusion and the permanent importance of getting our priorities in order is an education that is worthwhile in itself, amplifies inquiry, and can come to guide our most profound needs. At the same time, an education steeped in the great books is an education that introduces us to humanity’s recurring questions and to the most thoughtful answers of history’s most intelligent and serious statesmen, historians, scientists, poets, philosophers, and theologians. More particularly, what such an education can do is to unearth or shed light upon alternative understandings of ultimate ends and ways of life as articulated in the greatest classical, Christian, and modern authors. In a variety of fashions, we who live in the 21st century – knowingly or unknowingly — have been touched or affected by more than a few such authors and carry within us concomitant tensions. And while such tensions may not keep us awake at night, they nonetheless invite (or compel) us to seek a proper ordering of the ends and inclinations that have made their way into our souls and to seek as well for the true bases of such an ordering.