By In Books, Culture

The Not So Clean Sea Breeze of the Centuries

There is a glorious reformation happening right now in education called Classical and Christian Education. As a teacher in a Classical and Christian school, I am thankful to be a part of this important work. But at the same time, I see temptations that the movement is prone to. One of those dangers is what I would call reverse chronological snobbery. C.S. Lewis (whom I will talk about in a moment) coined the term chronological snobbery and he used it to talk about the fallacious argument which claims that something from an earlier time (e.g. philosophy, literature, etc) is inherently worse than that of the present, simply because it is from the past. There is also an inverse version of this fallacy (some would call it by the same name) which would claim that something from the past (e.g. philosophy, literature, etc) is inherently better than that of the present, simple because it is from the past. Both claims are incredibly dangerous but it is this second error that is particularly tempting to Classical and Christian schools. This error is tempting because the movement has purposefully shifted its gaze back to the past and is trying to bring the best of the past forward. The difficulty lies then in recovering the best of the past without bringing the worst along with it.

In a wonderful essay by C.S. Lewis “On Reading Old Books,” he argues that we need to read old books because they can help us correct mistakes in the thinking of the modern era. We can see things more clearly in older thinkers because they are further away from us. One of the difficulties of our age is that we live in it. It is like we are standing in a forest and trying to see which parts of the forest are good and which parts are dead and dying. Inside the forest, we can see individual trees but it is almost impossible to see large sections of the forest. But if we were out of the forest and looking at it from a distance, it becomes much easier. Distance gives us perspective.

At one point in the essay, Lewis offers a poetic argument for reading these old works: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”[1] This is a wonderful and persuasive image that he employs but it is incredibly easy to overemphasize the palliative nature of these old works. The sea breeze of the centuries is not always so clean.

Lewis himself acknowledges this fact in the next sentence: “Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.”[2] This is an important point. The ancient writers and thinkers made mistakes just like we do. Men of every age are mistaken and sinful in different ways. This is especially true of the ancient pagans.

However I take issue with what Lewis says next: “They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”[3] At the time of Lewis writing this essay, it might have been the case that these errors were “open and palpable” but things have changed since then and we now live in a ruined western culture that has forgotten much of the conversation of the past. So a hundred years ago the errors of the ancients might have been easy to spot but that is no longer the case. As we look to the past, we need to be careful that we are not bringing in the dross with the gold.

The temptation especially for those in Classical and Christian Education is to downplay or ignore the evils and sins of the past. This temptation can be seen in how we talk about Socrates, Plato and other Greek writers. One litmus test would be to ask: when was the last time you heard someone talk about Socrates as a pedophile? Oh, it is mentioned here and there in hushed tones, but never really addressed. We are usually too busy talking about a story he tells about a cave. But are we being honest with students and parents if we ignore these things?

Now I am not saying we should only focus on the evil of these men but we need to be careful that we situate them in their proper context. While some of them were relatively good given the age in which they lived, we should not ignore their issues. But saying that most of them were homosexuals or pedophiles doesn’t really address the issue. The key issue is that they were not holy pagans. And we shouldn’t come to them that way. They, like the rest of the evil men of that age, needed the gospel’s light.

Many of us in the Classical and Christian Education movement are trying to recover something that we did not receive and so we must be careful to evaluate the past in the light of Scripture. Athanasius rightly says in his Contra Gentes “And, strange to say, even Plato, the sage admired among the Greeks, with all his vaunted understanding about God, goes down with Socrates to Peiræus to worship Artemis, a figment of man’s art.”[4] The ancient pagans were still pagans all the way down to the ground. This means you can’t educate using the classical model if you don’t also have the Christian model in hand. This is especially true as you read and study the classical world. It was not neutral. It was hard-core paganism at its finest. And you will get roasted alive by Hades if you underestimate it.

[1] pg. 4 On the Incarnation, Introduction by C.S. Lewis

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Athanasius, Contra Gentes, 10, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2801.htm accessed, Sept 19, 2017

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