Fiddling While Rome Learns
Philosophy As Wonder, Curiosity, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty
By Josh Brisby, M.Ed.
Here at Memorial Lutheran School we teach Logic as well as Speech and Debate during the middle school or “logic years.” We inspire our students to love wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth, and beauty. These topics all converge in a subject usually reserved for college students: philosophy. However, philosophy certainly has a place in middle school and high school because of the connections between inquiry and wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth and beauty. Philosophy has traditionally been divided into various academic fields. Let’s explore how each field can find its place in the classroom.
The inquiry of metaphysics and ontology inspires us to be curious about the questions “what is real?” and “what is the nature of reality?” Many of us take this for granted. For example, I assume the laptop on which I am typing this article, right now, is a real entity. I can “feel” it and “see” it. Yet, if I assume it is real merely because my senses notice it, then how am I sure I am not hallucinating? Rene Descartes in particular went so far as to doubt everything but concluded that at least he must exist, since he was thinking. “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am” is his popular contribution to thought. Was he right? In exploring questions of being and reality, we can respond to this with a critique as well. Asking our students “why?” gets them to think. I often tell students I am the “why guy.”
The inquiry of epistemology inspires us to wonder about the question “how do we know?” For example, we take for granted that atoms exist. Have you ever seen an atom? We take for granted that Hawaii exists, or that George Washington existed. How do we know that all this is not some grand conspiracy? Of course, that would be pretty over-the-top; but, at the very least it raises the question. Can we have true knowledge simply because someone else has told us? Philosophers ask the question of how knowledge is justified and warranted. Can I have true knowledge if there is a possibility I could be wrong? Or does this knowledge have to be infallible to be real and true? The nature of knowledge is even a topic that some Christian philosophers have sought to address. They usually point to Colossians 2:3, “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Yet of course I would ask them if this passage is really talking of Christ in the sense of epistemology. The Bible is sufficient for knowledge of salvation. But is it sufficient for the rules of chess or a flight operator’s manual, etc.? The question of “how do we know” brings students and teacher alike to curiosity and wonder together.
The inquiry of aesthetics asks “what is beautiful?” You have heard that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is this really true? Does not God have an ultimate standard of Beauty? The philosopher Plato responded to this question with his theory of the forms. Everything is a lesser copy of an ultimate Form, insofar as there are therefore different degrees of “beauty,” with ultimate “beauty” being the “perfect form of beauty.” For Plato, “ugliness” is therefore not a “thing,” but simply a lack of the “form of beauty” on this “chain of being” or a lower rung of the ladder. When discussing “beauty” then philosophy permits us to move beyond opinion and into a substantial discussion with the ancients.
The inquiry of ethics asks the question “what is good”? It also therefore deals with the inverse, what constitutes evil. What are the virtues? What are the vices? Aristotle believed everything could be thought of in terms of excess or deficiency. The in-between, or the “Golden Mean” is how one can find the “good” or the “virtues.” This branch of ethics is called “virtue ethics.” For example in Aristotle’s system, the virtue of “courage” has an excess of “foolhardiness” and a deficiency of “cowardice.” No one would say a man that rushes into battle without weapons or planning is “courageous.” Nor would one say that a man who runs away from battle is “courageous.” But a man who plans and receives counsel and training and weapons before running into battle would be considered courageous. How philosophy intersects with ethics provides for ample discussion on the question of what is “good.”
The field of logic is the study of proper argumentation and how to apply those arguments. What is an “argument”? A formal argument has premises and a conclusion. An informal argument will not be as “polished” as this, but will be an assertion backed up with evidence. We all make arguments every day. Even something as simple as this assertion, “mom, we need to get gas for the car because the needle is on empty,” is an argument. The mother in this example could respond with a counter-argument by saying “no we don’t because the needle is broken.” The son or daughter could respond in turn with another counter-argument in saying “but daddy had the needle fixed so we really do need gas”, etc., until one side finally concedes. Here at Memorial we enjoy this especially in Logic class and in Speech and Debate. Of course, we teach our students to argue respectfully and logically.
There are other fields of study as well, such as cosmology and cosmogony which have to do with the nature and origin of the universe. Here at Memorial we have what we would call a “Christian cosmology” and even a “Lutheran cosmology” in that we affirm that everything in this universe is ultimately about the Cross of Jesus Christ as the center point of all of history.
Philosophy has a significant place in the classroom at a classical Lutheran school. Here at Memorial, it is taught in ways that inspire love of wisdom, and of wonder and curiosity. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are found in Christ and in His Word and in His creation. He is true Wisdom. Equipped with this Wisdom by faith, our faculty and students stand ready to venture into areas of philosophy inclined to wonder as they think and live in the world.
The Necessity of Recognizing Beauty in Our Modern Society
In researching classical education and in my pursuit to better understand “beauty” within our modern society, I found some information which helped to shed light on what we are teaching at Memorial Lutheran School. In Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by Stephen R. Turley, he writes the following commentary regarding his book:
“In his masterful work The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis observed how modern education was changing our conception of what it means to be human. By cutting off students from the transcendent values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, modern schools ceased cultivating virtue in students and instead communicated a mechanistic vision of the world that viewed students as products to be engineered. Lewis believed that in seeking to control nature, modern “conditioners” would also seek to control humans and remake them according to the preference of the conditioners, since any appeal to Truth, Goodness, or Beauty had been rejected. Lewis argued that we must recover these transcendent values in order to prevent the dehumanizing tendency in modern education and renew the cultivation of virtue.”
In our current society, everything is subjective and no one is wrong. Everyone should “live their truth”. In classical Lutheran education, we heartily disagree. There is one truth. It is God’s truth. There is goodness, which is informed by scripture, molded by catechesis, and measured by morality. There is beauty, and God’s creation shows us daily how to understand and recognize that which is beautiful.
Our current culture and public education system are heavily dependent upon technology and sometimes lacking in true human connection. Although cell phones, GPS, and computers have enhanced our lives, they have also made us less able or willing to think for ourselves. For example, I have been terrible at road directions for as long as I can remember, with many a time (prior to GPS) driving back to the same spot or driving in the absolute opposite direction. However, I at least kept a map handy, and tried to learn where I was going and notate the landmarks around me. Nowadays, the GPS tells me where to drive and how quickly, in minutes, I will arrive at my destination. It is a technology that has improved my daily life but doesn’t help me to improve my internal navigation skills.
A lot of us have lost our interest in reading real books because of our self-imposed overly busy lives and the very short blurbs of information available to us online. Since we all have more time on our hands right now, consider instead the Great Books Covid-19 Challenge at https://veritaspress.com/blog/the-great-books-covid-19-challenge. Many of these books actually can hold our interest, if we let them. They are even available online, which allows technology to improve a different kind of internal navigation skill.
We all know that the most recent generation of children has never known a world without internet. My eighteen-year-old son lamented the possibility that a storm might take out the internet, and I explained to him that it didn’t really bother me that much since I could always read a book.
For that matter, it’s always nice to stop and really focus and actively listen to the people around you. We are so distracted as a society. I request most things to be emailed or texted to me so that I don’t forget. There’s no doubt that the impact of modern society and technology is wide-reaching, pervasive, and sometimes very negative.
When I think about beauty and what it means, two primary things come to mind. First and foremost is the beauty of God’s creation around us. It is awe-inspiring to see the many colors, patterns, and features of the natural world. Second, I think about the beauty of human interaction, such as witnessing someone’s kindness and mercy towards others. We have a lot of opportunities to see the beauty of humanity in the midst of the coronavirus overload. We are all forced to slow down and “smell the roses” right now due to the “stay home, work safe” order in place in Houston. Although it might be tempting to be overwhelmed and stressed by the only thing the news wants to cover right now, this is also an occasion for us to see the beauty around us in nature and in fellow humanity.
I remember seeing a tv program a few years ago that explained some of the elements of human attraction, and the takeaway was that people are drawn to human symmetry and proportion. I would absolutely agree that humans value the beauty of symmetry, and I would venture to say that it doesn’t stop with human attraction to the opposite sex. We are also moved by the beauty of architecture and art, color and form, and the element of surprise.
I live in a part of town where my drive in to work passes through some areas which have quite a bit of trash. My nine-year-old and I were at the stoplight last week, and he noticed the simple beauty of the flowers alongside the litter. An appreciation of beauty in today’s modern society sometimes requires us to see past the shell and recognize the surprises within the greater landscape.
The beauty of human interaction can be seen everywhere if you slow down and intentionally observe all the wonderful examples of people looking out for each other during this worldwide pandemic. Despite all that preceded Covid-19, at our core and because we are created by God, we care for each other deeply and sometimes selflessly. Jesus is the ultimate example of this love. Here at Memorial, we hope that you had a beautiful Easter weekend, and we are all looking forward to seeing each other back at school soon.
Tiffanie Conchola, Early Childhood Director