top of page

Pagans or Apostates?



New Oxford Review

March, 2004

He who aims at changing society—-for good or for evil—knows that he should gain control over three things: education, news media, and entertainment. These are the keys that shape a society. 


My concern is education. Great men have al­ways emphasized its crucial importance. To form young minds is to build the future of a society. There is no nobler task, and education begins at home. The mother is the primary educator of her child, for she will spend more time with her babies than the father can, even though his role is also crucial. To educate is to lead, to draw, to guide. The child, inexperienced and unknowing, needs a guiding hand to teach him the elementary rules of human existence. This hand should be both firm and gentle: firm because mor­ally, intellectually, and physically, the child is not yet steady on his legs; gentle because this firmness should be an expression of loving concern for his welfare. Granted that these two qualities are not eas­ily combined, it is typical of great personalities that they manage to unite what, at first sight, are irreconcilable opposites. 


It is commonly said today that "we have fallen back into paganism." This claim is a gross oversim­plification. Granted that man's nature has been wounded by Original Sin, it is definitely not true to claim—as the Calvinists do—that it is totally cor­rupt. We only need tum to the great works of pagan antiquity to see that the best among the pagans were sincere lovers of truth and that their contributions are remarkable, even though they were inevitably in­complete. They did not benefit from Christian revela­tion, but their works prove that there is a natural law inscribed in man's heart, and that men of good will can easily read its dictates. Plato was such a man. 


Plato devoted most of his writings to educa­tion. His two major works, The Republic and The Laws, are dedicated to this all-important topic. This article aims partly at etching the accomplishments of this great pagan. 


Had Plato met Peter Singer, he would have been outraged. To place animals on the level of man would have kindled his ire. Some animals can be trained, that is, forced to do the will of the trainer; one can train a dog to take a few steps on two legs. Children can be trained as far as certain physical activities are concerned, but education addresses children as human beings. In this case, the educator worthy of the name does not impose his will upon his pupils; he guides them to do, in collaboration with them, what they ought to do, so that one day they will freely do it on their own. The knowledge of this "oughtness" will benefit the child: knowing the moral law and living up to its norms is essential to man's true development. 


Animals are trained so that they can serve us or entertain us. Children are educated because they are worth educating. Plato was keenly conscious of the metaphysical dignity of human beings. Raised in a society where beauty played a prominent role, he tells us that the aim of education is to make a mas­terpiece of man. A successful educator will help the child become a true man, that is, a human being in whose soul all of his potentialities have blossomed. 


Education must have a definite aim and pur­pose. The universe is a book that teaches us how we should approach this awesome task. For it is ruled by harmony: according to The Republic, whether we contemplate the firmament, the mysterious suc­cession of the seasons, or the beauty of the world, we are struck by its harmony and order. Man, on the other hand, if left unguided is capable of spreading chaos wherever he goes. Education should there­fore aim at duplicating the harmonious order of the cosmos in the child's soul. 


Moreover, the child possesses both positive and negative qualities which are at war with each other. If vir­tues are overcome by vice, man becomes his own worst enemy. Education should aim at the child's unifica­tion, according to The Republic, but this unification should be "in the good." He should become one. 


Plato was not acquainted with Genesis, and could not know of man's fall from grace. But he knew that there are two horses in man's soul: a rebellious one and an obedient one, and that the charioteer has great difficulty guiding his chariot because of the un­ruliness of the disobedient horse. Four centuries be­fore Christ, Plato saw, with remarkable acuteness, that we are split personalities: perceiving what is good, but tempted by evil. The real educator will help the child to develop his good qualities while uprooting his evil tendencies. If he succeeds in doing so, he will help create a type of human character "that heaven can approve of" (The Republic). Education should teach a child "to make up his mind that he will be one of the followers of God..." (The Laws). To revere God (at times Plato writes "the gods") is not only a must, but also crucial to the welfare of a society. For, Plato tells us, ignorance of the highest caused the ruin of the Dorians. He adds: "That was then, and is still, and always will be the case" (The Laws). 


The gods are best served by teaching children to pursue moral goodness. A key virtue is reverence—reverence toward the gods, toward antiquity, toward the moral law. Reverence, little practiced today, is a keyword in both The Republic and The Laws. Disrespect for it inevitably leads to ruin. 


This duplicity in human beings is also mani­fested by a tendency to confuse appearance with real­ity. The awesome task of the educator is to teach his pupil to distinguish between the two, and then to tum to "true reality" (The Republic). What it is, indepen­dently of whether or not it is acknowledged to exist. 


In The Republic Plato tells us that men are liv­ing in a dark den where all that they can perceive is shadows of reality projected on a wall. Inevitably, the "prisoners" will believe that these shadows are the real world. One of them (a true philosopher) man­ages to escape from the dark cave, and penetrates into the true world, whose brightness at first blinds him. For this reason, he believes he is worse off than before. But slowly his eyesight becomes accustomed to the light, and he discovers that, up to then, he has lived in illusions. Because of man's spiritual eyesight being weak, the sun—in all its brightness—will be per­ceived last, even though it is the source of light. 


Then the philosopher chooses to go back to the den to share his joyful discovery with his fellow prison­ers. But alas, when he tries to open their eyes, they want to kill him (a clear reference to the fate of Socrates). Plato knew that men tend to prefer darkness to light. This painful discovery explains why the work of education is so difficult. Yet, Plato does not give up. 


It is irrational, indeed, to prefer darkness to light. For light is lovable; darkness is not. This perverse atti­tude must be corrected. Once again, it is the task of the educator to guide the child to hate what he ought to hate, and to love what he ought to love (The Laws). It is hard to formulate a better educational program. Though Plato was "a pagan," these few words include what we should all be aiming at: to love what deserves to be loved. Why is the task of the educator so diffi­cult? Plato saw, with a sagaciousness that we can only marvel at, that there are obstacles coming from in­side us as well as outside us; their alliance renders the educator's task extremely difficult. What are these enemies of the soul? To ignore their existence is to expose oneself to a certain defeat. 


One of the great temptations to which all of us are exposed is pleasure. This is so obvious that shal­low thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham see the crav­ing of pleasure and the rejection of pain as the linch­pins of ethics! Some will openly declare that if one cannot do what one pleases, "life is not worth living." The educator should aim at liberating the child from the fascination of pleasure. Why is it, Plato asks, that an athlete is willing to undergo a severe training that calls for effort, fatigue, and pain in order to gain an earthly award, but is unwilling to make similar efforts to achieve the greatest victory: the victory over plea­sure? This is one of the great aims of education. 


But pleasure is not the only enemy lying in wait to ruin the efforts of the educator. We all know that the child (and not only the child) assumes that he needs neither help nor guidance. His immaturity (and ma­turity does not come with wisdom teeth) is such that he believes he knows better. The story of Pinocchio is so endearing because it is so true. The child will have many unpleasant experiences (such as burning him­self) in order to discover that he was mistaken. Some are willing to learn from their mistakes; some never do and ruin their lives. Arrogance becomes particularly dangerous at the age of puberty, when adolescents believe that they know everything (The Laws). They disdain their elders for being old, presuming that be­ing younger makes them wiser. The problem is com­pounded by the fact that when the adolescent fails, he promptly puts the fault on others. Today, this disease has reached such proportions that tua culpa has re­placed the mea culpa of yore.


Numerous also are the obstacles "from outside." Inevitably, the child will observe the conduct of the people he lives with. In the fourth century B.C., Plato laments the practice of "free love" (The Laws), which undermines the structure of family life. Shameless­ness among old men was rampant. The child will hear time and again that "might is right," and that moral laws are taboos that should be thrown overboard. Over twenty-four centuries later, we are exposed to the very same intellectual temptations. We too hear that "falsehood and deceit can be legitimate at time" (The Laws); we too are exposed to "novelties in dancing and music" (The Republic), the rhythm of which is an incentive to shameful passions. In both The Republic and The Laws, Plato warns us of the danger of musical compositions which are "expressive of mean­ness, insolence and frenzy," the very opposite of the harmony at which education should aim. Immoral arts join forces and destroy man's sense of reverence, which Plato rightly considers to be a key to ethics. The educator should inculcate in his pupils a "rever­ence for tradition." This reverence must be duplicated in the educator himself, who in educating gives the final touch to his own education. What he is as a person will leave as deep a mark upon his students as what he says, if not deeper. 


The child should, from an early age, be exposed to true beauty. Once he has acquired sensitivity for its noble message, he will instinctively reject defect and ugliness in art and nature. "Such deformities will disgust him" (The Republic). 


How right Plato was when he wrote that there is "no desire in man to be made good" (The Laws). The child will try to sabotage any effort on the part of the educator to chisel his soul. Plato warns us that there is wickedness in the human heart, which makes man unwilling to listen to the truth. As a matter of fact, man tends to "prefer himself to truth" (The Laws). 


The most disastrous temptation to which we are exposed is atheism, which Plato tells us was ram­pant in Athens in the fourth century B.C. He knew that some men view religion as "a cooking up of words and... make believe" (The Laws). This aberra­tion was deeply upsetting to Plato. "Who can avoid hating and abhorring the men who are and have been the cause of this argument?" (The Laws). Nev­ertheless, he advocates "persuasion" rather than brutal strength. He also recommends prayer to the gods for their assistance. 


What we have said suffices to show that man, when sincerely loving truth, can acquire deep in­sights about the nature of the universe, and is po­tentially open to the supernatural. St. Augustine praises Plato as the greatest Greek thinker. He knew that Socrates was not a Christian, for very obvious reasons, but would have agreed with Kierkegaard who wrote that he was “certain that Socrates had now become one." I dare say it also applies to Plato. 


This brief sketch now brings us, by comparison, to the present and to the way education has evolved. Most Americans assume that John Dewey deserves to be crowned as the greatest educator of our time. If one is to judge the greatness of a person by his influ­ence and success, this judgment seems to be justi­fied. He certainly is "famous." But the praise of men is rarely an objective judgment: there is an abyss be­tween being famous and being great. The two can match, but unfortunately such is not always the case. 


What are the main contributions Dewey has made to education, whose fruits we are reaping to­day? Being an atheist and materialist, this modem "giant" approaches education from a viewpoint com­pletely opposed to that of Plato. He is a hard-boiled relativist, and rejects ab ovo any claim that there are objective values that should be recognized by every­one and taught to all pupils. According to Dewey, ev­ery child is unique, and each one has different needs that must be recognized and nurtured. To have a core curriculum implicitly denies these differences. The obvious consequence is that "the curriculum must be based on the child's individual needs, interests, and abilities" (And Madly Teach by Mortimer Smith). This makes as much sense as asking a toddler what he wants to eat for lunch. Chesterton, endowed with a merciless common sense, reminds us that every edu­cator worthy of the name must authoritatively open to the child the great truths that have been handed down by tradition. 


If the child should not be taught anything which does not interest him personally, he will prac­tically be taught nothing: just as men are not par­ticularly anxious to be made good, neither are they particularly anxious to learn. The child as the judge of the curriculum will certainly throw out most sub­jects. Once again, it is Chesterton who wittily re­marks that no child is born with a craving to learn Greek accents. Yet, it is a pursuit which is so enrich­ing that it will open his horizons and benefit him for the rest of his life. Children (and not only children) believe that the purpose and meaning of life is to enjoy themselves; they do not want to work. Most people view work as punishment, and everyone tries to escape its unpleasant demands. This sort of ap­proach will certainly not prepare men for a life that is full of duties that are not always to their taste. 


But according to the discoveries of modem pedagogues, every child should be given free rein to express his personality; the less he is controlled, the better it will be for his development. 


Such educational principles inevitably give birth to small tyrants who assume that they are en­titled to do their own will, and will fight any obstacle in their path that militates against their right to "pursue happiness." Plato knew that "if he be insuf­ficiently or ill educated, he is the most savage of earthly creatures" (The Laws), adding that, "the boy is the most unmanageable." 


Had he known of Dewey's teachings, Plato would not have been surprised by the Columbine massacre. Is it any wonder that many products of such education should perpetrate the horrors one hears about in our schools—and universities? Should we be surprised that brutality, crimes, immorality, and cheating are rampant? If the pur­pose of life is to follow one's wishes—to have a good time and make money—teachers are right in being increasingly afraid to enter their classrooms. Morally speaking, the results of this type of educa­tion are disastrous. Intellectually, they are no better. Granted, most young people master computers and the Internet, but how many college graduates are capable of holding an intelligent conversation, of writing an elegant letter, of spelling correctly, and having an intellectual horizon transcending what they read in popular magazines? Still less surprising is that they prove incapable of any serious commit­ment: the breakdown of marriages is an inevitable consequence of this type of education. As long as one's "partner" gives one satisfaction, the agreement will hold. As soon as someone else promises to give one greater "self-fulfillment," it comes to an end­, a simple end, because in point of fact there never was any meaningful commitment. 


Dewey spent his life writing and speaking about "education." In fact, this is one thing he knows noth­ing about. He reminds one of Freud, whose whole life was dedicated to the study of sex, and who—to cite Dietrich von Hildebrand—had not even mastered his ABC’s. The gist of Dewey's thought is that there is no need for educating a child; he educates himself by following the bend of his wishes and ten­dencies. Should schools be abolished? No, they are there to help train a child to make money, to suc­ceed. Training replaces educating. In this Dewey is perfectly consistent: being an animal, all we can do is to help train him. 


This critique should not be interpreted as a de­nial that some of Dewey's contributions could be valuable if interpreted by a wise mind. Plato was right when he wrote that even in the worst of au­thors there can be something to the point (Phaedrus). We do not deny that fields such as com­puter sciences, industrial hygiene, community health, home decorating, embalming, etc., have some interest. One thing is certain: they are much more likely to bring money than to teach an objec­tive philosophy, which goes very much against the “Spirit of the Times”. 


The abyss separating Plato from Dewey is their antithetical conception of man: does man have a na­ture clearly distinguishing him from animals, or is he just another animal that happens to have a more de­veloped brain? Plato opts for the former, Dewey the latter. One can legitimately ask: has our "wisdom" kept pace with our scientific development? Compared to modem accomplishments, the Greeks were dwarfs. But when it comes to the science of living (wisdom),  we are the midgets, and would do well to acknowl­edge that our ancestors, who could not fly to the moon, knew better than we how to live. 


Dewey's educational system reminds one of a skiff without oars, tossed about by the waves, and always on the brink of disaster. 


This leads me to the title of my article: "Pagans or Apostates?" It makes sense to speak of paganism in the sense of a pre-Christian world that had not re­ceived the blessing of Divine Revelation, and was in­evitably blind to certain values. One can also refer to certain practices of paganism that fully deserve to be called abominable. But the best among the pagans were open to the light, and made contributions that keep their full value. This is why I have expounded  some key ideas of the thinker l personally consider the greatest mind that pagan antiquity has produced. 


But there is an abyss between not knowing the light and rejecting it. The latter case applies to many in our society: having received the plenitude of re­vealed truth, they do not find it palatable. This is why the world in which we live is threatened by dis­solution. It has betrayed the unique heritage that it has received. Being an apostate is much worse than being a pagan. The pagans were ante lucem (before the light) Today, some leading educators try to extinguish what is left of the light of the Gospel. 


But there is a note of hope. Many committed Catholics, fully aware of the damage done in schools, have started a “counter-revolution.” There is a growing number of parents who homeschool their children (some 380,000 families in the United States), and more and more “real” Catholic schools are emerging to replace those that have betrayed their mission to teach the faith in all its integrity. And I hear constantly about new grammar schools, high schools, colleges, and universities that are proud to fly the Catholic flag and to teach their students to appreciate the gift of their faith. 


But these schools do not limit themselves to teaching the faith. (After all, Catholic schools and universities are not seminaries.) They aim at educating the mind and heart of those confided to their care. The humanities, languages, arts, and sciences have their legitimate place in the curriculum. But, authentic Catholic educators know that an intellectual formation worthy of the name also calls for a moral formation. Such schools offer constant occasions to form the character of students. They should be taught that honesty is an essential virtue, not only in business and human relationships, but also in one’s intellectual work. Plagiarism (not an infrequent sin) is widespread; cheating on tests and exams has reached epidemic proportions. Brutality is common. We all know that in secular colleges, students take drugs, enjoy getting drunk on the weekends (if they show such restraint during the week), can be cruel and brutal toward those they do not like—usually because of prejudices. 


What a splendid task to guide students to see the beauty of honesty, kindness, and generosity and that the reward is peace. How crucial it is to show that most intellectual errors have been perpetrated by thinkers who “preferred themselves to truth.” The most disastrous errors have been produced by “famous” minds. 


There is not a word of Plato’s educational theories that we cannot fully endorse. But as admirable as Plato’s recommendations are, he could never have suspected that man is made in God’s image and likeness, and that the meaning of human life is to serve God on this earth—hoping to join Him forever in Heaven. 

bottom of page