The Catholic Classical Vision pt. 8: A Complete Beginning for Philosophy and Theology

This series outlines the purpose, structure, curricular content, and communal origins of a Catholic classical education, for the sake of establishing a School dedicated to such an education in the Diocese of Wichita (Kansas). It discusses both the general principles of Catholic classical education as well as some particular points regarding that School. We begin by explaining the purpose and educational vision of the School, then consider the reasons for the order and structure of its curriculum, before discussing each class in the curriculum. Lastly, we describe the community required to achieve the goals of Catholic classical education.

The liberal arts are meant to lead to the cultivation of the other intellectual virtues corresponding to the disciplines of human and divine knowledge—philosophy and theology broadly conceived. This stage of classical education thereby still retains its order to the contemplation of God. This distinguishes it from classical education conceived according to the vision of a misconceived humanism, or contemporary philosophies of education that limit themselves to college and career readiness or the production of well-formed citizens. Nonetheless, in virtue of the order flowing from its higher end, Catholic classical education can non-competitively incorporate these other ends into its own vision. The curriculum still teaches students about the dignity of the human person and prepares them for participation in economic and political society.

Gozzoli, The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas (detail)

Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, the intellectual virtue that most perfects the human mind in the natural order. This is not philosophy in an academic sense, or an abstract consideration of hypothetical concept-games, but philosophy as it was for Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Boethius, or St. Thomas Aquinas, namely, the unified knowledge of creation in light of its Creator. In what follows, this fuller meaning will be explained.

Philosophy is traditionally divided into two parts: speculative (or theoretical) philosophy and practical (or moral) philosophy. The first studies truth for its own sake, while the second studies truth for the sake of acting well. 

Speculative philosophy is in turn divided into three parts: mathematics, natural philosophy, and metaphysics. Mathematics as a part of philosophy is to be distinguished from the arts of the Quadrivium. The former is a deeper study of mathematical truths for their own sake, rising from the technical skills of the liberal arts to the pure theory of the mathematician.[1] The Quadrivium is also preparatory for natural philosophy. This inquiry, which the ancients and medievals called “natural science,” is the knowledge of the natural world for its own sake. It includes what we think of as science today—biology, chemistry, physics, etc.—but contains much more by beginning with our immediate and common experience of things before asking the detailed questions of the modern disciplines. One ponders questions such as “What does it mean for something to be alive?” or “Why does a beaver want to chew down trees and make a dam?”[2] Knowledge of creation is sought first because it leads one to and prepares one for knowledge of the Creator. Such knowledge of God takes place in metaphysics or natural theology, which contemplates creation in light of its Creator. It is the last part of philosophy to be learned. 

Practical philosophy presupposes many of the truths taught by natural philosophy and metaphysics, and itself has distinct parts. It includes the study of ethics or moral philosophy—how man should act—and political philosophy—how he should live in community to achieve the common good. While young students lack the experience to fully understand moral and political philosophy, many of its topics and subjects can be included in the history and literature classes. There, concrete examples of political ideas in history or dramatic portrayals of virtuous and vicious characters are more readily seen and understood.

The work of Catholic classical education is completed by theology, which seeks knowledge of God insofar as He has revealed Himself to man.[3] Theology, or sacred wisdom, is at once both the highest intellectual virtue as well as the highest practical virtue.[4] Theology, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is sacra doctrina, holy teaching, which strives to know God through revelation (for example, in His nature as Trinity in unity). As the culmination of Catholic classical education, theology is ordered beyond itself, beyond the end of this life. It is surpassed in Heaven, where we will have fullness of life forever, for we will see God as He is (1 Cor. 13:12).

Philosophy is best studied when older. Nonetheless, the education of younger students ought to be ordered towards the various parts of philosophy and the complementary disciplines that prepare for it. Students ought to take such philosophical first steps—wondering about the natural world, man, and creation’s order to the Creator—to begin the cultivation of intellectual virtue. Likewise, the rigorous study of theology is somewhat beyond the capacity of the young, but preparations for it can be made. Catholic classical education from kindergarten up through high school cannot perfect their education at the highest level, but it can and ought to provide students with as complete a beginning as possible. As the ancients said, “Well begun, half done.”[5] These will be noted when discussing the different classes of the curriculum in the next section.

[1] Mathematics as a liberal art and as a theoretical pursuit are both taught in the School’s mathematics courses.

[2] For a helpful literary analogy of how natural philosophy—and metaphysics even more so—is to be distinguished from our modern natural sciences, see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. While traveling, they meet a man, Ramandu, who says he is a “retired star.” Eustace replies, “In our world, . . . a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” The star responds, “Even in your world, . . . that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

[3] In the order of the curriculum itself, theology is subsequent to religion class (prayers, catechism, Church history, and the like).

[4] See St. Thomas, ST, Ia, q. 1, a. 4.

[5] See Plato, The Laws, 753e: “For the beginning is called half of the whole work in the proverbs, and all praise beginning well on each occasion. But it seems to me that it is more than the half and no one has ever praised it enough when it has come to be well.”

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