By Nathan Carr
Conversion being a central tenant of the Christian understanding of salvation, Plato’s description of the “repentance” of the darkened eye of the soul leading to its intended ability to later discern the world outside of the cave has the overtones that make for easy employment in the service of the church. The paideia kyriou (“instruction of the Lord”) places Christ as the object of our repentance and restoration of sight, and of our casting off of the blindness of our enslaving sins. The crucial difference between the two conversions, despite their simple comparison, is that of faith. Plato attempts to ground the entirety of his conversion in so-called objective reality, whereas the Christian unashamedly joins this “objective” reality to that of faith. Robert Gregg describes the delicate balance between these two worlds of thought:
“Greek culture is the cooperative and foundational preparation for Christian truth. The Christian paideia supersedes Hellenic wisdom but does not supplant it—fulfills but does not abandon it. Culture, no less than the ‘old man,’ is being made new.”
Try as one may, paideia resists any attempts at shedding its etymological history, even as it comes into its inevitable Christian fulfillment. The inner competition of this evolving word, should one be perceived to exist, does not lie between its Hellenistic import and its Christian fulfillment—both prevail. As Gregg concludes,
“To the view that Christianity infused ‘the sclerotic arteries of Hellenistic tradition with fresh blood’ not all commentators add so judiciously as W. Jaeger the correlate truth that the early church required the language and thought of Greek civilization as the instruments by which it understood itself and found a voice for its proclamation.”
This description of paideia shows Christianity to be the heir of the greatest civilization of its day and the resulting educational force that had both come of it and created it. While Christians were meticulous in sorting out those things worthwhile in the culture around them, they took their cues from the poets as well as from the Scriptures, considering that the former merely served the interests of the latter. Christopher Hall refers to this conditioning as “classical ear-training”; the outcome of a classical education which included the reading of either Virgil or Homer, resulting in one’s increased ability to find the allusions and allegories in Scripture as it shaped Christian paideia through symbols, liturgies, doctrine, and community. Longinus describes how Plato shows the power of imitation and inspiration:
“Plato shows us, if we are willing to listen, that there is another road to greatness besides those already mentioned. What is this road? It is the emulation and imitation of the great prose writers and poets of the past. This, my dear friend, is an aim we should never abandon. Many a man derives inspiration from another spirit in the same way as the Pythian priestess at Delphi, when she approaches the tripod at the place where there is a cleft in the ground, is said to inhale a divine vapor; thus at once she becomes impregnated with divine power and, suddenly inspired, she utters oracles. So from the genius of the ancients’ exhalations flow, as from the sacred clefts, into the minds of those who emulate them, and even those little inclined to inspiration become possessed by the greatness of others.”
If paideia could be described as an educational process, Longinus shows us that it is a process that is rooted not in the mere assimilation or memorization of facts. Paideia constantly eludes modern people with proclivities in their understanding of education toward quantification of data. Paideia, rather, is described using metaphors such as power, impregnation, eloquent emulation, and conversion. Christian thinkers do not merely find such metaphors attractive and workable within their own religious context, but they shape the very way that the apostle Paul presents his gospel to the Gentiles of the Roman world. Paul knew that the Greek educational system was different than all others in the world, for it sought to shape the soul—it contained what Jaeger refers to as an “absolute ideal.” But Paul also observed how Rome undermined its own educational mechanism in paideia, and he took the opportunity to fill up what is lacking with Christian doctrine. He used it for the purpose of the Kingdom, and in so doing, placed it forever in the service of the church. As Douglas Wilson comments:
“By the first century, the inadequacy of the autonomous paideia also had begun to dawn on the pagans themselves. This is one of the reasons that the Christian faith was preached with such success. The autonomous paideia was for the ancients an idol that had failed them. Or, to use a different analogy, it was a house built on sand. The idolatrous assumptions of paganism could not support the weight placed upon them. Christopher Dawson comments: ‘From the time of Plato the Hellenic paideia was a humanism in search of a theology, and the religious traditions of Greek culture were neither deep nor wide enough to provide the answer.’”
To return to Sayers as representative of our present concern, the success of the Christian faith is not as obvious as it once was—the “borrowed capital” of past Christian eras does not last forever:
“The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them [modern educators] to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.
Robert C. Gregg, Consolation Philosophy (Cambridge: The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, Ltd, 1975), 128.
Longinus, De sublimitate.
Werner Jaeger, Paideia (New York: Oxford University, 1969), 3:314.
Douglas Wilson, The Case for Classical Christian Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 108-109.
Cornelius Van Til refers to post-Christian societies as functioning on the “borrowed capital” of Christian truth.
Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 164.