No, the subject line of this newsletter is not a joke. It’s a bit odd, though, I admit. Classical liberal arts education, after all, focuses on the unchanging, permanent things. So how could the need for it be urgent? It’s like saying that which is timeless has become timely.
As we continue to reel from the horrific news coming out of El Paso and Dayton this past weekend, we’ve received an unwelcomed reminder of the sheer nihilism that frames so many mass, random shootings.
The shooters, often, murder people they do not know. The shooters, themselves, never expect to survive. Theirs are suicidal efforts because, apparently, they find no sufficient reason to live.
I will not here offer an argument regarding the causes for the rise in mass, random shootings. Rather, I will simply point out that the nihilism revealed by these shootings is not unlike the nihilism one finds woven throughout much of modern education and echoing in our halls of learning.
FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN QUESTIONS
Modern minds are so intoxicated with cultural relativism and theories of multiculturalism that many people assume either that there are no fundamental human questions, no fundamental moral questions, or, if there are, that there is not and cannot be any objectively true or right answers.
The modern prejudice in favor of moral relativism—often held by those who have never given the subject much thought, yet remain dogmatically certain that there is no objective moral truth—evinces just how much the modern American mind has forgotten the basic insights offered by classical liberal education.
Contrary to what many professional educators today believe and teach, there are fundamental human questions, fundamental moral questions, and the answers are in no way affected, influenced, or dependent upon the skin color, gender, sexual preferences, or perspectives of the person who considers those questions deeply.
LEARNING TO LOOK UP
In Book 1 of his Nicomachean Ethics (readers can cliock the link for public domain version of the text), Aristotle observed that every human activity, every human skill, and every human choice aims at some good, or some purpose, higher than itself.
The shipbuilder, for example, builds ships not merely to have a ship, but to sail across the waters. The maker of saddles serves the higher purpose of riding a horse, which in turn serves the higher purpose of cavalry in times of war, which in turn serves the higher purpose of victory.
And even victory in war, as important as that is, is not the highest good.
You, the reader, likely set an alarm some mornings. Why? Do you do this merely to experience an alarm ringing in your ear at some early hour? Of course not.
You choose to set the alarm so that you can get to work or school on time. And getting to work or school on time—so that you can do well at those tasks—is a higher good, a higher purpose, than the alarm ringing.
The alarm is a means to an end, and means serve the end, not vice versa. The end is higher than the means. The end is the purpose. We know this because we often sacrifice means if they do not achieve the end, but we never sacrifice an end for the means.
You, for example, might ditch your alarm clock if it isn’t effective at waking you up and it doesn’t achieve the good of getting you to work or school on time. But you’d never quit your job or drop out of school for the sake of keeping and continuing to use your ineffective alarm clock.
Those of us who are familiar with classical liberal arts education understand what it means to view the world vertically, to look up, to see the reality that activities and skills and choices serve goods and purposes that are higher than the activities, skills, and choices themselves.
A USER’S GUIDE FOR HUMAN LIFE
These observations raise the question: Is there a highest good at which all human actions and choices aim? Is there purpose?
These are fundamental human questions that cut across all boundaries of time and space and culture. These are questions for all thinking human beings. And they point to other fundamental questions: What is the right way to live? How can I be happy? What is the good life?
Classical liberal arts education helps people to understand and to answer these questions. More: It helps those who are willing not only to know how to be happy by living well, but to do it, to become a happy person who is patient, peaceful, and appreciative, to approach the challenges of life fortified by the virtues that must be cultivated by practice.
Classical liberal arts education is, in short, a user’s guide for how human beings should live their lives. And from the near-constant bad news these days, there appears to be a great need for just such a user’s guide.
The good news is that it does not need to be invented. That user’s guide on how to live a good human life already exists in the form of classical liberal education, which is the subject of Episode 44 of the Speakeasy Today podcast.