SummaryWhy should we study the classics and develop noble thoughts? Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian explores the essential role of literature in character formation.
In That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis presents Mark Studdock, the main character, as a highly educated sociologist with distinguished credentials and advanced degrees.
This scholar, however, lacks knowledge of the wisdom of the past, a sense of the moral heritage of Western civilization, and an understanding of natural law:
“It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely ‘Modern’.”
Ignorant of a body of knowledge called the Perennial Philosophy or the Classical-Christian tradition, Mark lacks the resources to make intelligent moral judgments and the habits of mind to understand first principles, final causes, and the logical relationship between causes and effects.
How does a classical education lead the mind to noble thoughts, and why is a modern education—one uninformed by the study of Plato, Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Chaucer, and Shakespeare—unqualified to elevate the mind to virtues such as magnanimity, greatness of soul, honor, self-knowledge, piety, and moral courage?
Reading Plato introduces the student to Socrates, a Greek philosopher who not only desired, sought, and loved the truth, but also suffered and died for it.
Rather than abandon his commitment to the pursuit of wisdom and submit to the judgment of the court of Athens that allowed him to live on condition that he stop teaching philosophy, Socrates accepted his death sentence.
He responded to his friends and accusers that, like a good soldier, he must remain at his post and face death rather than show cowardice and fear death:
“Gentlemen, I am your grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a greater obedience to God than to you; and so long as I draw breath and have any faculties, I shall never stop practicing philosophy and exhorting and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet.”
A noble man is ruled by the highest ideals, such as a love of truth, and does not lower his moral principles to curry favor with unjust rulers.
Studying Homer introduces students to Hector, the noble Trojan hero, who always risks death defending his country and exposing his life in the front ranks in battle after battle with the Greeks.
Even though his wife and mother plead with him not to take a chance in a one-on-one battle with the formidable Achilles, Hector’s sense of honor forbids him from placing his self-preservation before the defense of his family and people.
His mother Hecuba pleads, “Don’t go forth, a champion against him—merciless, brutal man. If he kills you now, how can I ever mourn you on your deathbed?—dear branch in bloom, dear child I brought to birth!”
Hector replies that he cannot live in dishonor or shame or purchase his life at the cost of his integrity:
“I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes.”
Inspired by the ideals of noble manhood to defend his country and his family, Hector illustrates a magnanimous soul that prioritizes those he loves for whom he will sacrifice his life.
Cicero and Plato mention the story of Gyges’ ring as another illustration of noble thought. Finding a magical gold ring, Gyges discovers its power of making him invisible.
Enabled to escape detection by virtue of the ring, Gyges uses its hidden power to do evil and avoid punishment. Cicero writes, “So he exploited the opportunities thus given him. He seduced the queen, and with her help murdered her husband.”
As Cicero explains, a great man governed by noble thoughts—even if in possession of a Gyges’ ring and the power to be visible and invisible at will—does not stoop to the baseness of secrecy to violate moral laws:
“He would not consider that its possession entitled him to do wrong any more than if it did not belong to him. For to act secretly is not what a good man aims at; what he wants to do is to act rightly.”
Classical thought always condemns deceitfulness in all its forms. Cicero explains further, “even if we could conceal our actions from all gods and men, we must do nothing redolent of greed or injustice or lust or intemperance.”
Noble thoughts never stoop to the level of the lowest common denominator or let self-interest rule their decisions or actions.
Sophocles’ great play Antigone depicts a heroine who will not be intimidated by unjust human laws that defy the natural moral law or the eternal law of the gods.
Discovering her brother Polynices dead after fighting in a civil war against King Creon, she feels the love of a sister and hears the voice of conscience urging her to bury her brother despite Creon’s decree that forbids funeral rites for Polynices.
Aware that “The punishment for disobedience is death by stoning,” Antigone nevertheless defies man-made tyrannical law to honor “the holiest laws of heaven.” All human beings by virtue of their dignity, whether friends or enemies, deserve a burial to distinguish them from animals.
Antigone never questions her moral choice: “I know my duty, where true duty lies.” She explains to Creon that an unjust law is no law at all and that all human laws must conform to natural and eternal law: “That order did not come from God. Justice, which dwells with the gods below, knows no such law.”
Noble thoughts transcend mere legality and distinguish between just laws that conform to reason and unjust laws imposed by tyrants that have no basis in morality.
Aeneas, Virgil’s hero in the Roman epic The Aeneid, embodies the noblest thoughts of honorable Romans. He exemplifies a man who honors the Roman gods and cooperates with destiny, accepting the vocation of founding the Roman people and embracing the fatum (fate) decreed for him by the gods.
A leader with a strong sense of duty, Aeneas sacrifices his personal pleasure and private wishes for the common good of his son, for the future happiness of the Trojan people, and for the will of the gods.
Aeneas performs a great work that demands struggle, suffering, obstacles, temptations, and wars as he wanders seven years at sea to reach his new homeland in Italy.
His achievement compares to the extraordinary deeds of Hercules known for his twelve feats—works that make demands of a person’s mind, body, heart, and soul summarized in the Latin word labor, not ordinary work but heroic achievement.
Virgil also praises his hero for his pietas and virtus, piety in the sense of honoring ancestors, parents, and the sacred gods and rendering acts of justice to all people and virtue in the sense of moral courage and honor that upholds obligations and keeps promises.
Noble thoughts, then, inspire a person to strive for the highest moral ideals which for a Roman mean serving family, country, and the gods.
These are some of the noble thoughts that escape Mark Studdock in his modern education. Unaware of Socrates’ love of truth as eternal and unchangeable, Studdock adopts the modern view of truth as subjective and relative.
Unfamiliar with Hector’s sense of honor and uncompromising principles of integrity, Studdock sells his soul to work for an elite circle of radical intellectuals (the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments), who hire him to write propaganda for their organization, articles in newspapers written before the staged events even occur in order to provide the right ideological slant to the story.
Ignorant of Gyges’ ring, Studdock works for an institute notorious for its secrecy and deception as it slyly proposes a “progressive” utopian vision of the future that will create new “bodiless men,” eliminate Nature’s prolific organic life, and make man a god.
The highly educated sociologist has a dulled conscience and little awareness of the ugliness of evil. Uninformed of the natural law, the young aspiring intellectual struggles to grasp the essential difference between the normal and abnormal as he associates with thinkers committed to changing man’s consciousness of right and wrong and natural and unnatural by psychological conditioning and “objectivity training.”
Unschooled in the Roman cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, Studdock makes the worst possible choices for his career and marriage. He becomes wedded to his work and career, fails to give priority to his wife and marriage, and imagines he can find some neutral “middle course” between good and evil.
Without noble thoughts, a knowledge of the wisdom of the past (“the best that has been thought and said,” to quote Matthew Arnold), and the moral traditions of civilized cultures, Studdock suffers indoctrination at the hands of politically correct ideological agendas that are anti-life, anti-family, anti-nature, and anti-God.
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