Classical Catholic education seeks to draw out from each student an enduring disposition of wonder and love in the hope of making life-long disciples of Christ.
Classical education’s roots are in ancient Rome and Greece, yet its branches and blossoms span more than 2,500 years of history across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and, today, the entire globe. According to a story told by Socrates in the Phaedrus, the ancient Greeks received their inspiration for this type of learning from Egypt. Already at this early date (c. 370 BC) the rough outline of what is now systematized began to emerge: in the Myth of Theuth, Socrates enumerates the arts of language and of number.
The arts of language came to be called the trivium, a Latin word meaning “three ways.” Modern-day language arts are derived from these, yet their ancient articulation follows a sequence which begins with grammar, proceeds to logic, and culminates in rhetoric. From the time of Socrates to the present day the trivium has been complemented by the quadrivium, the sequential study of the “four ways” of the arts of number, namely arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Today the quadrivium has become the “STEM” subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
In classical education, the person in whom the seven ways of the liberal arts converge is liberally educated, educated for freedom.
In ancient Rome classical education begins to be called “liberal” because it was reserved at that time for those who were free, the liberi who were destined to serve the state through leadership. The word “liberal” was thereafter used to describe both the student and the arts studied; hence the phrase “liberal arts.” Whereas a classically educated Roman was destined for state-craft, a classically educated early Christian (like St. Augustine) directed classical liberal learning to soul-craft.
Not every classical school, as St. Augustine observes, dedicates its study of the liberal arts to God. In his Confessions St. Augustine enumerates most of the liberal arts as we have them today, yet he notes that without God they are missing their principle of integration. To the liberal arts St. Augustine thus adds something essential: their origin and end in God, the ultimate Reality:
And what did it profit me, that all the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of vile affections, read by myself, and understood? … For I had my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened; whence my face, with which I discerned the things enlightened, itself was not enlightened. Whatever was written, either on rhetoric, or logic, geometry, music, and arithmetic, by myself without much difficulty or any instructor, I understood, Thou knowest, O Lord my God … yet did I not thence sacrifice to Thee (Confessions, Book IV).
St. Augustine teaches in his Confessions that, without a Christian inspiration, the liberal arts leave students chained to a wall, imprisoned. In painting this picture Augustine alludes to the most famous analogy given by Socrates in the Republic. Socrates there likens the degrees of knowing the really real to the process of being unshackled and freed from imprisonment in a cave. Socrates equates ignorance with vice and knowledge with virtue: being vicious means imprisonment, whereas attainment of virtue is freedom. The Cave Analogy had vast implications for the kind of “freedom” provided by classical education for ancient Greeks and Romans, yet the term “classical liberal arts education” takes on an added significance after the popularization of St. Augustine’s Confessions.
The liberal arts are not fully liberating without our conscious confession that Christ himself is the source and summit of truly freeing learning. To classicism’s pursuit of virtue St. Augustine thus adds the Christian pursuit of holiness. Many throughout history have described classical education as an education “for its own sake” because the ultimate end of the classical Christian liberal arts is the excellence of the person per se, in nature and in grace, especially in reference to our transcendent end, the Beatific Vision.