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Liberal Arts Education in a Free Society

“Pompey now having ordered all things … took his journey homewards…. When he came to Mitylene, he gave the city their freedom … and was present at the contest, there periodically held, of poets…. He was extremely pleased with the theatre itself, and had a model of it taken, intending to erect one in Rome on the same design, but larger and more magnificent. When he came to Rhodes, he attended the lectures of all the philosophers there…. At Athens, also, he showed similar munificence to the philosophers, and gave fifty talents towards the repairing and beautifying of the city…. By all these acts he well hoped to return into Italy in the greatest splendour and glory possible to man, and find his family as desirous to see him as he felt himself to come home to them. But that supernatural agency, whose province and charge it is always to mix some ingredient of evil with the greatest and most glorious goods of fortune, had for some time back been busy in his own household, preparing him a sad welcome. For Mucia during his absence had dishonoured his bed….”

– Plutarch
“The Life of Pompey”

“I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping. And what I’m driving at is that the man is perfectly right.”

– P. G. Wodehouse
“Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest”

Human beings rightly puzzle about why their best-laid plans do not usually come to fruition. Further, perhaps they are still more puzzled when they consider a world–the actual world–in which at least some of their plans do work out well. How can this be? After all, human agency exists in a world in which it can subject at least some non-human things to its own purposes and in which it can persuade some human beings to follow its directions. Some correspondence evidently exists between the human mind and the things that are. Across rivers, gorges, and straits, we do build bridges that do not collapse. When we whistle to our dog, it comes running. We create neither the dog nor our ability to whistle nor the river, but we do invent the bridge. Thought arises from reality, and reality is changed by our thought connected, as it is, to our hands with which we build and to the mouth with which we whistle.

We find, however, an irony in our existence, as the two above-cited passages intimate. The greatest political glory, in the case of the Roman general, is sorely tempered by the failure of moral virtue in his very home. He ended a war; he freed a city; he listened to philosophers; he beautified Athens; he planned a Roman theatre; he loved his family–all recognized characteristics of a liberal and noble man. Yet, from the classic biographer of the ancient world to the great English humorist of the twentieth century, this precarious awareness of our fallible human condition is simply present to educated men and to common folks alike.

What is called “fate,” properly considered, falls under divine providence, wherein all things–even evil, in its own way–work unto the good. Whether our propensity to find a touch of bad midst the most anticipated glories is attributed to a “supernatural agency” with Plutarch or, more amusingly, to the “lead pipe” of “Fate” with Wodehouse or to providence in revelation, we cannot avoid the fact that we must account for a human condition that sees the good suffer and the wicked prosper. Still, this same human condition recognizes oftentimes that the good is indeed good and that evil is, in fact, firmly rejected. Such is our experience.

Freedom As First an Acquired Habit Whereby We Rule Ourselves

The terms liberal education and free society arise out of the same source, out of the classic notion that we can and should first rule ourselves and that such rule is in our personal power. A free society means one composed of those who, in fact, do rule themselves before they talk of ruling others. The rule of others is after the manner of the self-disciplined freedom found in those who are ruled.

The word free in “free society” does not refer to the capacity to do whatever we want, no matter what we want. The classic and pejorative definition of democracy arises from that undisciplined freedom or liberty that overlooks the importance of what it is we choose. Those sons of the Athenian citizens who left their parental homes without a capacity to rule themselves, as Aristotle tells us at the very end of his Ethics, required a political power of coercion to contain their inner disorder so that it would not unjustly injure others. Thus, freedom is first an inner willingness and an acquired habit whereby we rule ourselves. It does not refer to doing whatever we want but to doing what is right, worthy, and noble.

We also need to rule ourselves for some purpose. Pirates, robbers, and rakes are often “disciplined” in their own way to enable them to achieve, with a certain skill, something unworthy of man. Thus, it is possible for us to rule ourselves either for a wicked purpose or for a noble one, knowing quite well the difference between the one and the other. Moreover, it is difficult to see what a noble purpose might be if we are not first properly guided and habituated. This capacity to rule ourselves takes more than mere knowledge; it requires effort, choice, experience, and repetition of acts. The severest penalty for not ruling ourselves consists in nothing less than being unfree, that is, being unable even to see the highest things because we are too busy guiding ourselves to purposes that are unworthy.

All public disorders, and hence all unfreedom and moral slavery, are rooted in personal disorders, in wills, and in choices. Not knowing the important things is mostly a question of not willing to rule ourselves. The first notion of “liberal,” then, is that of ruling ourselves, of knowing what purposes for which we rule ourselves are good and which are not, and of disciplining ourselves in single acts actually to make good choices.

Liberality with Property and How We Stand Toward What We Own

A second meaning of the word liberal has to do with property and how we stand toward what we own. Aristotle called the virtue by which we rule over our material goods “liberality” or “generosity.” Liberality is a surprisingly important virtue as it applies to everyone, rich and poor alike–in the case of the rich, it is called munificence. One of the purposes we can choose as the principle of ruling ourselves, one of the definitions we can give ourselves of our own happiness, is precisely wealth and wealth-getting. We can use wealth wrongly or rightly, but wealth itself is a good. It is worthwhile to create it through one’s knowledge, inventiveness, and labor.

The fact that we need some material goods to live at all is simply a fact. Moreover, we ought not give away what is not ours. Private property is, in general, the best way to own and care for material possessions. Furthermore, we reveal our souls to others by how we stand in relation to our own wealth, however great or small it may be, by how we use it.

Society and personal relationships ought, then, to be a complexus of exchanges of justice and liberality, of things owed and of things freely given and freely received whereby we see the good of others and respond to it with our goods. To a society wherein everything is provided by public ownership and distribution–wherein nothing can be liberally given and only “rights” exist–we prefer one wherein most things are taken care of by ourselves, by our own virtues, and by our own property.

Knowing Things for Their Own Sakes

A third meaning of the word liberal–its most profound meaning–has to do with knowing, that is, knowing things for their own sakes. The Scriptures say that it is the truth that will make us free, but we do not “make” truth. Rather, we acknowledge it, affirming of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not, as Plato said. We live in a time that is antagonistic to truth, that thinks the truth is what makes us unfree. Our society is enslaved by a freedom that does not acknowledge the truth that frees it. The false notion of freedom is that we will not be bound by anything that is, including our own being. We must, it is said, transcend all order or reality that we do not cause. We lust after a kind of diabolic freedom that binds us to nothing but ourselves.

The free man in his actions is what Aristotle called, “a cause of himself.” But this does not mean that such a free man made the things that are. He is free when he knows. The very purpose of his mind is to become what he is not. His freedom consists in his capacity to know what is without being distracted by urgings of use, pleasure, or power. Our highest power or faculty is to know the truth of things. No society or individual can be safe if it does not possess those who are free to pursue the truth apart from political or economic coercion or opinion.

The political order and the economic order exist to make this freedom possible; they are not themselves the highest things and can, in fact, be its greatest hindrances. Civil and political liberties are themselves means, not ends. Even institutions designed to foster truth in freedom can become corrupt or misguided. Universities, media, religious institutions, or other voluntary societies can impose conditions that make the freedom to know the truth dangerous or difficult.

Properly speaking, liberal education includes all three forms of freedom: first, the freedom that comes when we rule ourselves, that is, when we rule for a proper good the tendencies we are given in nature; second, the freedom that comes when we use our goods and property liberally and generously for human purpose, including our own independence and dignity; and, third, the freedom to know the truth, to have the time and space in which we can know and see things for their own sakes, when we are not deflected by our own desires or by utilitarian, pleasurable, or political purposes.

Self-Rule Is at the Heart of Civil Order

Oftentimes we talk as if education alone will make us free or as if it is the principal element in our freedom. In a famous debate between Aristotle and Plato, it was Aristotle who pointed out that the possession or definition of knowledge does not assure us of the possession or exercise of virtue. On the other hand, virtue, even if we acquire it, is not itself its own reward but is always directed to something beyond itself. Ultimately, it is directed to the truth of being in which our happiness exists.

Liberal education in a free society always needs first to be seen in the light of virtue, of the will to rule ourselves for a worthy purpose. We are not free if we simply do whatever we want to do, whatever it is. Doing precisely whatever we want is indeed a form of slavery to our own desires or passions. Freedom in democracies often does tend to an uncontrolled notion of freedom wherein any claim that our wants or our purposes be limited or directed, even by ourselves, is looked upon as contrary to freedom.

Plato is famous for pointing out the relation between the order or disorder of our souls and the order or disorder of our societies. Machiavelli is rather infamous for the contrary idea that we must allow the prince to do either good or evil for him to be successful, that we must lower our sights because we cannot expect men to be virtuous. Rousseau instructed us that virtue and vice are products not of our wills or habits but of society and its institutions. Virtue results not of our own efforts to rule ourselves but of some institution that takes rule out of the self and places it in external law or will.

Liberal education agrees with Plato that self-rule is at the heart of civil order. It rejects Machiavelli’s indifference to the distinction of good and evil and fears Rousseau’s placing of virtue and vice in the hands of the state and its defining and coercive powers. Saint Thomas said that, as a practical rule, we should not expect more virtue than can be found in the generality of men in any society. Still, he thought we need to know what virtue is, even when we do not practice it. The role of liberal education in a free society is precisely to keep these three ideas of freedom alive among us: that we can rule ourselves; that we can be generous with our property; and that we can know the truth that alone makes us free and is the purpose for which we seek to know at all.

The Essential Purpose of Liberal Education

That there is some evil mixed with the most glorious deeds, that when our lives are particularly “braced in general,” we are likely to be “lead piped”–these are experiences common to our kind, the knowledge and meaning of which are essential to our physical and spiritual well-being.

The liberal education that does not have a proper appreciation of moral evil and of the likelihood of accident in our lot ill-prepares us for our world. But the essential purpose of liberal education is precisely to enable us to be free to rule, to give, and to know–to rule ourselves, to give out of our abundance to others, and to know what is the truth of things, the truth of human things and, insofar as we can, of divine things.