Revisiting Platonic Education: The Ever Sharable Feast

Revisiting Platonic Education: The Ever Sharable Feast

Colin Redemer, Saint Mary’s College of California

No-one who writes a review of a book of essays by multiple authors gives equal weight to all contributors. Over at Front Porch Republic, Austin Hoffman has sesquipedalianly entitled his review of The Davenant Press’s recent book Reforming Classical EducationAwkward Family Dinner: A Review Of Reforming Classical Education”, and has generously chosen to focus on my chapter titled “On Corrupting the Youth: A Platonic Education.” Justice requires that I repay such an honor in kind by writing at least a few words in response. I fear, however, that the review is confused on a number of points which lead me to think the author may want to offer the essay a closer read.

Hoffman makes a point of quoting from B.B. Warfield, Augustine, A.N. Whitehead, and, extensively, from my own writing. I note that he did not cite Plato. This is appropriate. The review is not really talking about Plato at all. Nor, apparently, is he speaking as a Protestant or an American, and that is more concerning. In a section dealing with the conception of the image of God as a basis for our love of American democracy he writes, “Although our Protestant and American assumptions demand we attempt an education of the masses, reality cries out.” As if reality were such that we should not educate “the masses”!? This is a very troubling assertion from a Classical Christian educator. Let me assure you that both America and Protestantism are real. In fact, Protestantism makes claims to be the realest reckoning with reality available to the human mind and I, for one, believe it to be true. While we are tempted to take as fundamental a certain hierarchical and human judgment about the value of various humans and their relative capacities, God demands we leave the judging to Him. The Reformation’s elevation of the common man instigated the great revolutions in education which we have blessedly not seen the end of. It is an article of faith, no less than one of democracy, that my fellow man is educable. After all, someone managed to educate me. No small miracle, that. We might not think of frontier Calvinism as gushing with love, but I tell you the existence of the McGuffy Readers beg to differ. While my reviewer might be willing to “gladly give up [his] ‘sacred right to vote’ if it meant having wise and just rulers” I am not sure the problem of wisdom and justice have been sufficiently inquired into to convince me that I, or any other human, should follow his lead. To do so does not seem wise.

Hoffman argues that Plato is “a sine qua non of classical education”—but whose classical education and which curriculum? It was not the case for Plato who, as I note in my chapter, argued that philosophy was unsuited for young people. Surely this was also not the case for the American west which, in its expansion, taught extensively from the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, as well as proper writing and arithmetic, but taught little, if any, Plato.[1] Did this not count as classical? Was it not education? Or if he prefers something deep and more ancient then perhaps we should model our education on the ancient Middle Eastern church which had young folks memorize the Psalms and then the New Testament until they were known by heart. Only after completion of this arduous task would the best pupils move on to what was then called a “monastic” education where first the Church Fathers were studied and only then the ancient pagan philosophers.[2] I submit this is a classical education which is truly Christian and truly classical and a better model for the contemporary movement (more on that below).

While Hoffman quotes me, he does so selectively, skipping, as coincidence has it, my longest and most extensively footnoted paragraph.[3] I encourage him, and his readers, to go back and study this paragraph in which I attempt to look, in some detail, into the reception and treatment of philosophy, generally, and Plato in particular throughout church history. The support for teaching children Plato is only on his side if he is selective in the extreme. In my initial essay, I was constrained to write a mere fourteen paragraphs but here, on the internet, I will permit myself some more space. He has cited Augustine to me. Though he does not cite enough. In fact, the very next section after the one he mentions amends the statement he quoted by exhorting his readers to be on guard because philosophy is dangerous! I implore you, Austin, as a teacher of young people, to beware this danger! Because he began with Augustine I will offer here some more bits of Augustine to study.

But, leaving aside the issue of historical knowledge, what about the philosophers themselves, from whom we digressed in order to take up the historical question? In pursuing their studies they seem to have worked with no other aim than to discover how we should shape our lives so as to attain happiness. Why is it, then, that disciples have disagreed with their teachers, and fellow-disciples have disagreed with each other, if not because they sought to do this as mere human beings relying only on the human senses and human reasoning? It is also possible, of course, that they were driven by sheer ambition for glory, each wanting to appear wiser and more acute than the other and not dependent on anyone else’s views but rather to be the initiator of a teaching and a position of his own. At the same time, however, I grant that there were some, or even many, philosophers for whom it was genuine love of truth that led them to break with their teachers or their fellow disciples in order to fight for the truth as they saw it, whether actually true or not. But, even so, what does it matter where or how human wretchedness directs its efforts to attain happiness if divine authority does not lead the way?[4]

I ask, does that sound like a ringing endorsement? But he goes on…

Some philosophers were able to catch a glimpse of the truth amid all the false views they held, and in laborious arguments they attempted to make a persuasive case that God made this world and that he governs it with providential care. They urged the integrity of the virtues, love of country, loyalty in friendships, good works, and everything that pertains to good moral character. [So far so good, don’t blink…] But they had no idea of the end to which all these are to be directed or of how they are to be directed to that end. In our city, however, it was by prophetic–that is, by divine–voice, although speaking through human beings, that these were commended to the people. They were not inculcated by any battle of arguments, and so anyone who came to know them dreaded to disregard what was not mere human ingenuity but were rather the very words of God.[5]

So some are better than others and Augustine considered the Platonists best. But even the best philosophers fail to see the true end–GOD–the One to whom all virtue and goodness is directed as an origin and an end. Therefore, we need the Bible. Advocating students learn Scripture and tax prep is not offering a low vision of man or of Scripture. It is rather to admit of the superior wisdom of the Word of God and not to fall into the trap of worshiping the philosophers. Tax prep or the other aspects of training are merely necessary for life in the body and the world; there is a rumor going around that many philosophy majors wish they learned accounting; meanwhile, few accounting majors are unemployed. Further while Plato might be the best of the philosophers, his school is not spared from being particularly singled out by Augustine.

[T]he Platonists, who are deservedly the most renowned of all the philosophers, because they were able to see that the human soul, even though it is immortal and rational or intellectual, can only be happy by participation in the light of the God by whom both it and the world were made. Thus they deny that anyone will attain what all human beings desire–that is, the life of happiness–unless he clings with all the purity of a chaste love to the one supreme good which is the immutable God. But even these philosophers–either because they gave in to popular error and folly or because, as the Apostle says, they became futile in their thinking (Rom 1:21)–thought, or wanted others to think, that we should worship many gods. As a result, some of them went so far as to hold that the divine honors of rites and sacrifices should even be offered to demons.[6]

Is demon worship the end that classical Christian education ought to direct young people towards?! I exaggerate, but only slightly. If secular education can be faulted because it tempts the young to self-worship or mammon-worship, why oughtn’t other systems suffer similar faults if in other directions? Do we really think we understand Plato better than Augustine or is it possible that Hoffman misunderstood Augustine, misunderstood Plato, and misunderstood me? Whenever Augustine writes about philosophy or philosophers, Plato or Platonists, he is never far from warning his readers about the vanity and the pride to which such things tempt humans. He is never far from exhorting his reader to consider that there is nothing of value in the philosopher’s writings which cannot be found in Scripture, and the possibility I am begging classical Christian educators is to consider that he meant it.

Too often, far too often, Christians run to Plato or to other worldly ways to compensate for a felt sense of intellectual and cultural inferiority. For this there is no need. I can show another way. There is a secret fire invisible to the wandering wizards of the earth, but clear to anyone willing to listen.

I did not suggest we ban Plato. I rather suggested that Plato is not suitable for children. This is a sentiment Augustine shares with me, and one with which even Plato would have agreed. Teaching philosophy to under 30 year olds was verboten to Plato. He wanted children’s education to focus on mathematics, music, and gymnastics. Ironically, taking his advice would get us closer to a classical education than inserting him into the curriculum would. As Christians though, we must add to his suggestion close study of God’s own Word. My practical proposal, therefore, would be to return to having students memorize and discuss vast quantities of the Bible. All of the wisdom literature by the age of fourteen, perhaps. “This sounds impossible. How do we get the children, who we can barely get off their devices, to memorize let alone read!” I can hear headmasters throughout the Church howl in dogged rage. Well, God in Scripture has given us the way forward, He has laid the feast of wisdom for us in His Word and has welcomed us to the banquet. If those he initially invited chose not to come then we must go out into the classical schools and into the private schools and into the homeschools and compel them to come in, to feast.

Times are approaching and, indeed, are already here when the moderate and sensible rapprochement with the ways of this world will no longer do for us. The Kingdom of Heaven is moving forward forcefully and forceful men, men who know the force of the Word, are laying hold of it. If the gates of hell will not prevail against the community of the Word, then surely we can trust that Word in the face of the times. We should suspect that there are many cultured men and women in hell. But God’s Word is the Word of life, and He came to save the world. He loves the world. We cannot understand what an impact our educational efforts would have fifty years hence if we started from the assumption that the Bible is actually the most important and intelligent— and only divine— book ever written and began training our children in a way that reflects our seriousness about that position.[7]

Our schools need to recognize, and teach in light of, the passingness of the current world. That passingness has always been evident when viewed eschatologically, but in the light of COVID and the other technical and demographic disruptions on the horizon it is true in a much nearer sense. I have written about the disruptive conditions of modern life in various other forums, most recently in my chapter in Protestant Social Teaching, and also in an article titled “The Act of Love that Preserves All Other Acts of Love” in Mere Orthodoxy. But also in other forums. Even if I am wrong and a changing of the times is not so near, it is always prudent to prepare and act in light of the eschaton. Other eras of the Church had to guide their people through dramatic changes. Saint Augustine himself watched the collapse of the greatest Empire that ever existed. Only hubris would counsel us that such a cataclysm which happened once can not happen again. Hubris makes promises that hubris cannot keep.

Our situation might not be that dramatic–yet–but at the human level it might be coming close. Imagine the families who have had their children’s lives utterly disrupted by the first wave of bio-medical-securitization and its intrusion into their education. Add on to this the surveillance of those same children by corporate and government entities hoping not for their good, but to learn in ever subtler languages the way to manipulate them for profit and power. Add into this the rapid decline in birthrates, the rise in obesity, the decline in state capacity— if we cannot hold off the Taliban in the province of Afghanistan what makes us so sure we are going to be able to prevent a more profound internal collapse?

Schools that recognize the signs of the times need to be much more radical. Current “classical schools” mirror Conservatism Inc.’s nostalgia for the Great Books tradition of the 1950s, but this is neither Christian enough nor American enough. It is not even classical. Schools should be preparing students for conversion and conquest. Where are the schools that teach students to evangelize like Paul, to conquer like Constantine, to pastor wisely like Augustine, to rule justly like Louis IX, and to divide the truth like Shenoute the Great? To do this requires we train ourselves to submit to nothing more nor less than the truth of God as found in Scripture.

To accomplish some of the above may require the necessary addition of subjects beyond the Bible. Exercise and music and math for the young ones I have already allowed. But once the students are sufficiently aged, then vocational training so they can sustain a life, history to inspire them with the deeds of greatness, rhetoric so they can win some for Christ, hunting and advanced topography in preparation for great journeys, the laws of Church and State so they can rule and be ruled in turn, and finally, for those who are so called, philosophy and, perhaps, some Plato. But note that this is not recommended for the young and neither is it necessary for all. They are adjuncts to the curriculum which is offered to the world of learning as supplements which aid us in returning to the Word of life and aid us in guarding the community of that Word from error until the very end of time. This is the advanced collegiate level study for specialists, and when they go on to advanced study our students will be the envy of their secular peers.

Children need to be Bible maxing. They need to be conversant in Koine Greek and biblical Hebrew. They need to be memorizing Scripture so it is lodged deep within to be drawn from at a moment’s notice, so it informs the structures of their mind, so they can resist the attempted psycho-formational processes of the coming self-imposed dark age. Returning to deep reading and memorization is a reclamation of both the ancient traditions of the Church and the venerable traditions of the American frontier. If we are to move into the future with the confidence of a coherent community we must choose to live a certain way.

Mr. Hoffman, on the other hand, wants to teach philosophy to children.

I am glad to see that Hoffman agrees with me on one thing: the necessity that we disagree with Plato.​​ If I could have one more suggestion it would be that he retitle his piece, “Extended Family Dinner: Revisiting A Platonic Education.” Titles are important and instruct the reader as to the nature of the essay. With this new title our essays can be shareable. The “Awkwardness” (from the original title) need not intrude upon the care of the body which is the feast. I trust that Austin will live up to his namesake and see the sense in this.

The study of Plato is important for some select Christians who are going to continue the battle against philosophy as a rival practice to the right worship of God as found in His Church. It is not, however, ultimately, a competitive endeavor. The battle was over before it started. God has won. In Scripture, and only in Scripture, we have all that we could want of philosophy and, indeed, all that we hope to find when we turn to Plato. I take this to be the meaning of Matthew 11:28 “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” itself a passage in which Jesus quotes from the Wisdom of Sirach Chapters 24 and 51, proving my point. He is speaking here as wisdom in the flesh. Much like in Matthew 19, Jesus does not cite His source. This is because with Him, uniquely, citation works the other way around and all truths find their origin. Wisdom is found in Jesus, who speaks to us through His Word, it flows from Him as from a fountain out into all the great watersheds of wisdom. We owe it to students to introduce them to the source. But we should not tempt young people for whom the certainty of faith has not taken root. Passing on this tradition of Christian wisdom is necessary, and, when it is happening well, it will be noticed.

Colin Redemer (Ph.D. candidate, University of Aberdeen) is Vice-President of the Davenant Institute and the Provost of Davenant Hall, Poetry Editor and podcast co-host for Ad Fontes, as well as a professor at St. Mary’s College, California. He also regularly lectures in Philosophy at Davenant Hall, including ongoing cycles in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Follow him on Twitter @REDEMTHETIMES.

  1. Philip Christensen. “McGuffey’s Oxford (Ohio) Shakespeare.” Journal of American Studies 43, no. 1 (2009): 101–115.

  2. Jack Tannous. Making of the Medieval Middle East. Princeton University Press, (2018). 185-188.

  3. Always check the footnotes with care.

  4. Augustine. City of God, Bk xviii.41. trans William Babcock.

  5. Ibid

  6. Augustine. City of God, Bk X.1. trans Marcus Dods.

  7. Dallas Willard came close to this in his The Divine Conspiracy when he posited that we often consider Jesus good but rarely do we consider Him wise let alone smart. I would like to expand that argument to the Word of God which our ancestors cherished like life itself. Which it is.


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10 Years

Colin Redemer reflects on The Davenant Institute's 10 years of building a future for the digital era.

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