Whose Classical Education? Which Canon War?

Recently, Nathan Ristuccia wrote an article in this journal responding to debates around calls to diversify the canon in classical Christian education (a debate well summarized elsewhere by Matthew Freeman). In his article, Ristuccia proposes four substantive “combat rules”:

  1. Excellence as the standard;
  2. The irrelevance of influence;
  3. New texts must be classical;
  4. Propose what to add and what to drop.

First, I welcome the recognition of constraints on substance and not on procedure only: in debate, Christians too often restrict themselves simply to the rules of “playing nice” rather than getting down to the brass tracks of criteria for agreement or disagreement. The acknowledgement of substance takes us a step away from many conservative Christians’ usual, often self-defeating, way of engagement. Second, I also largely agree with the four rules proposed. I would, however, draw out some implications of these rules and qualify some of the rules.

Classical for Whom?

In Rule 3, that new texts to be added to the curriculum must be classical, it seems to me that Ristuccia argues for cultural specificity in classical curriculum: “There is,” he says, “no Classical Christian education apart from the classical tradition: the lineage of thinkers, artists, and statesmen who drew upon Greco-Roman and Hebrew cultures alike.” Upon these grounds, Ristuccia believes, one would exclude even such masterworks as the poetry of the Islamic scholar and mystic Rumi, because “neither Christianity nor the Greeks and Romans shaped” its author. In an American classical school, Rumi is indeed to be excluded (except perhaps for comparison on courtly love), but Ristuccia’s reasoning for this exclusion is not quite right. Rumi, after all, also drew upon Hellenistic culture, and even upon Christian Hellenistic culture. As Bashar Ahmad Dar pointed out about Rumi’s Masnavi in 1959, in a foreword to Khalifa Abdul Hakim’s book The Metaphysics of Rumi: A Critical and Historical Sketch,

In it we find the cultural tradition of Muslims in all its manifold aspects. We meet here the flower of Hellenistic thought, as influenced and moulded by the pre-Greek thought-currents of Babylonia and Egypt, of Judaism and Zoroastrianism. The scholastic philosopher of Philo, the illuminative mysticism of Plotinus and his followers, the Hellenistic interpretation of Christianity, the mystic experiences of a host of Christian and Gnostic hermits are all found here beautifully woven into the texture of a system of thought which is from beginning to end purely Islamic.

The reason for excluding Rumi, then, is not that he does not draw upon a tradition of Hellenistic culture, nor even that he does not draw upon ancient Hebrew culture, since he does both; rather, the reason is that Rumi wrote within the tradition of another, quite different civilization from America’s.

For something to be considered classical, it must be classical within the context of a particular civilization, and for a particular culture within that civilization. Writing as a Chinese for whom English is a third language in order of acquisition, I immediately compare the needs of classical Christian education for Americans and classical Christian education for Chinese. It is, I think, quite clear that a Chinese classical Christian education will not exclude the ethics of Confucius and Mencius any more than it will exclude the (vernacular or classical) Chinese language itself, or any more than an American classical Christian education will exclude Cicero’s reflections on what it means to be a good man or to build a strong and just commonwealth. There is no more need for classical Christian education to be uniform between countries than for other traditions of the Church to be one in all countries, as the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion say: “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.” What is necessary is that they uphold one faith in one God, whose word in nature and Scripture is one, despite a diversity of human witnesses; and also that they vary according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners. One size cannot fit all, but every part of the Church is in its own way to confess faith in the one God of all.

When we recognize that classical Christian education must have civilizational boundaries, we recognize that it is fitted for some particular people, not for all peoples in the world. Even within a civilization, cultural affinity matters. Within the Christian culture that Americans often call Western civilization, there is warrant in America for a somewhat Anglocentric version of the Europæan classical curriculum. For the Anglo-Saxon peoples or the commonwealths historically dominated by those peoples, there is warrant for having students read more French authors than Russian authors, for example. This is because, for English and then American culture, the Arthurian romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion and the allegorical Roman de la Rose matter a great deal more than The Tale of Igor’s Campaign; later, Molière and Racine are more central than Dostoevsky. There is, we may say, a national component to book selection within a civilization.

Influence Not Wholly Irrelevant

For this reason, I think we must also nuance Ristuccia’s Rule 2, “the irrelevance of influence.” If we must speak and teach from a tradition, then influence cannot be altogether irrelevant.

Clifford Humphrey, writing on the ends of “mere classical” schools, notes that people in classical education diverge on the meaning of the term education, on whether the tradition as generally received is trustworthy. My view, and probably the view of most readers here, is that the tradition of Latin Christendom generally is trustworthy, even more so than (say) the Chinese tradition. If the tradition under consideration is indeed trustworthy, then reception, and therefore influence, is not in fact wholly irrelevant. If the received tradition is “a trustworthy guide for laying out what texts are truly good,” then finding the good texts has much to do with reading the authors with whom the main authors engaged, all the way back to ancient times.

We might still identify major wrong turns in (say) the period that late moderns call “the Enlightenment,” and therefore favor the Cambridge Platonists, Samuel von Pufendorf, and Joseph Butler over Hobbes, Locke, and Hume; but even to identify a tradition’s wrong turn is to take for granted that the tradition has been largely right before then. In this understanding of education, Humphrey says, the purpose of education is “the passing down of a patrimony, a received inheritance of knowledge of heroes, language, and ideas—concepts of what is good and bad, ugly and beautiful.” And a patrimony, of course, comes from a pater, a father, and a patria, a fatherland, even if both father and fatherland come to be ours by adoption. We need not adopt all the biases of our forebears, but we are bound by the Fifth Commandment to honor them and sympathetically understand their judgements, even when those judgements are not true and righteous altogether.

When we consider such a text as Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, a learned Christian psychology once translated into Latin for the whole Continent to read, and noted for its eloquence, our conceptions of its excellence and worthiness to be taught as a canonical text should by no means be independent of the judgements of Dryden, Lamb, Coleridge, and others, if judgment be a thing we are to learn from our classical books. Central to classical education is that, while not abdicating the duty of judgment ourselves, we seek the counsel of the wise. Though Thomas Browne may fall out of fashion, as it has in the past, the testimony of other worthy authors is evidence of his writings’ worth. Ristuccia is right that a text’s being en vogue or passé is of no moment, whether the vogue be of our own day or of a Europe recovering from the Thirty Years’ War, but tradition and experience teach us that the right kind of influence is not to be discounted.

Lue-Yee Tsang, a classical teacher and a recent Master of Theological Studies from Wycliffe College, Toronto, worships at Holy Trinity Fairfax, Virginia, and also writes at The North American Anglican.

*Image Credit: Pexels


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