The Oracle of Delphi foretold countless fortunes, futures, prophecies, and mysteries over many centuries and is the same ancient fount of wisdom who declared Socrates to be the wisest man in the world. A great sign above the entrance to the Temple at Delphi exhorts all who enter her sacred halls to “know thyself,” for without such knowledge, the Oracle’s prophecies remain enigmatic and undecipherable.
Devoted teachers have faithfully transmitted the Great Western Tradition to countless souls over many generations. For the better part of three millennia, cultivated men knew that true and accurate knowledge of self is necessary for every authentically educated soul. To “know thyself” remains one of the twin ends of the complete man, the other being the attainment of deep and precise knowledge of reality. These two ends allow us to attain rhetorical skills needed to describe reality as it is, not as we wish it to be. The accurate conveyance of reality is a duty to justice and is owed to the other through the proper use of speech.
Modern education has “evolved” into a chimeric form that would be unrecognizable to the great teachers of ages past. The twin goals of knowing self and reality remain perennial and foundational in education, although these noble objectives have suffered tortuously because ill-suited methods are now employed for their attainment.
C.S. Lewis astutely observes in The Abolition of Man that “for wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.” The social planners and “educational experts” who design American public education have arrogated to themselves the authority to redefine both the human person and the nature of reality. The human person has been stripped of moral and divine agency, reduced to a producer/consumer whose carbon footprint, test scores, and employment potential comprise his most important characteristics. Reality itself has been reduced to categories measurable by empirical science. Owing to these two dramatic paradigmatic shifts and exacerbated by a revolt against the objective moral order, the methods for attaining self-knowledge and accurate perception of reality have been radically altered.
How we now understand human nature and reality casts into doubt what we can know. There has been a universal shift away from the traditional sources of understanding—from the objective standard to the subjective self. Chesterton’s sane espousal of tradition, of the “democracy of the dead,” has been replaced by the monarchy of self, which has dissolved into the “dictatorship of relativism” where pathological considerations greedily consume both reason and character. The psychologists and teachers now ask their patients and students to turn to the mirror, to think for themselves and to believe in themselves, in order to understand reality and to obtain self-knowledge. We are no longer educating and healing human souls, we are using techniques to fabricate human “cogs” whose role model is the mirror-gazing Narcissus.
The mirror gazing in modern education is concealed under the camouflage of “critical thinking skills” or “higher order thinking skills.” They sound harmless to the ear untuned to modern pedagogy because they remind us of the age-old method of the dialectic that leads to a cultivated logic and therefore a well-trained mind. Unfortunately, under the Enlightenment mantra “man is the measure of all things,” critical thinking is merely a pretense for promoting self-reference. Students are emptied of the traditional virtues taught by their parents and filled with state-mandated values promoted by agents of change. Looking to themselves means abandoning traditional sources of wisdom under pressure to conform to consensus and “group-think.”
To benefit from an authentic education, an excellent student must be humble. In contemplating his own image, however, the student is asked to cultivate pride instead of humility, and this pride prevents an authentic understanding of self and reality. A similar inversion is applicable to “thinking for ourselves” when we ought to think correctly and “believing in ourselves” when we ought to believe in the truth.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates points out that when death approaches, “that is the hour when men are gifted with prophetic power.” Death brings clarity of mind partly because it draws the curtain on our propensity for self-deceit, to mistake the temporary for the permanent and created things for the Creator.
Socrates goes on to explain to his friends before he is put to death that “hitherto the familiar oracle within me has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a slip or error about anything.” Socrates here makes reference to the conscience, or the “prophecy at his elbow,” that witness of veracity also known as the objective standard of truth, goodness, and beauty. Socrates identifies what we have abandoned when we look into the mirror rather than look to our Creator for the truth about ourselves.
As Socrates continues with deathbed clarity of mind, he mentions that on this day he spoke for the first time when his own words were in alignment with the oracle of truth and it did not oppose him. It is the duty of the educated citizen, in forming his conscience and in acquiring self-knowledge, to wrestle against his lower inclinations and to conform his habits of speech and mind to the objective standard. In contrast, our teachers today encourage us to “conquer nature,” to force objective reality into conformity with our preferences.
Instead of referring to ourselves as the source, we ought to look to the great men and women of ages past who have discovered and articulated the enduring facts about our real human ends. There is a great wealth of works and artifacts left to posterity that reveal our true natures grounded in the cultivation of virtue. Isaac Newton would advise us to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Such is the absurdity of our day that the teachers and psychologists would have us stand on our own diminutive shoulders.
Finally, at the end of the Apology, Socrates asks his friends to help guide his sons. He asks, “O friends, punish and trouble my sons as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything more than about virtue, or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing.”
Socrates’ excellent wish for his sons violently contradicts modern sensibilities. It is now “criminal” to prepare our children for the “good life” by teaching them the truth that man was made for virtue. The ground of virtue is attained by way of the steep, narrow, and difficult path beset with thorns and brambles. Only the hard road leads to the good life. There is no easy way, despite the incessant claims of “experts” to the contrary.
What a shock it would be for our children if we were to heed Socrates’ parenting advice. Ought we not to teach our children to love and cultivate virtue and to seek wisdom as the surest way to know themselves and reality? Sadly, we are mandated to abuse our children by lying to them, telling them they are something special when they are not, to think for themselves when they ought to think correctly, to believe in themselves when they ought to believe in truth, and to look into the mirror when they ought to look to Christ and his saints. This is real abuse and it does real damage to human souls.
Blessed John Paul II reminds us that “God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Our habits of mind and soul ought to correspond with our deepest human desires to know and love truth, goodness and beauty by way of knowing God; and this truth ought to be reflected in the education we provide for our children.
Minerva’s owl flies at dusk, and dusk, like death, ought to bring clarity of mind. Dusk has arrived for the Great Western Tradition. As we strive to know ourselves and objective reality, let us turn away from the mirror and turn our gaze towards the source of truth, Christ our Savior. Let us follow wise Socrates and his good counsel on how to raise our children and reprove them if they do not seek virtue first.
This essay originally appeared at Crisis Magazine and is republished here with permission.
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