Liberal Education

Welcome to “Liberal Education”

The history, philosophy and theological truths of Western Civilization are at the center of a Liberal Education. Spelled out, here is what that means

Ancient Israel

That which binds us in the West to ancient Israel is our experience of God’s intervention in history. That experience has been lost, except among Evangelical Protestants and orthodox Jews and Catholics. But it is central to who we Americans are today and from whence we came.

The civilization of the West, and American culture is rooted in the encounter of the ancient tribes of Israel with Yahweh and, for us non-Jews, includes a commonly shared morality based in God’s commandments—again, God’s intervention in history. 

Christians may not understand the wonderful sophistication of Jewish tradition as it searches for moral truth, but if we are to sustain Western culture, we must recover that amazement and wonder that these truths are not our creations, but God’s. 

Putting that tradition back into American higher education must involve a recovery of our shared experience of God’s intervention in history. 

That intervention is part of our understanding of ourselves as participants in a defining historical moment of the Hebrew clans when, as reported in Exodus (19:1), Moses ascended the holy mountain of Sinai and experienced the presence of God.  Moses’ experience of Yahweh finds a parallel in an earlier theophany[1] experienced by Abram after his victory in battle with Chedorlaomer. 

The king of Sodom whose kingdom had been saved by Abram offered to reward him for his victory. Abram replied that he had sworn to Yahweh that he would not take even the smallest token of reward for the victory. If he did, the king of Sodom would take credit for the good fortune of Abram when in truth Yahweh was responsible.  That which binds us in the West to ancient Israel is our experience of God’s intervention in history. That experience has been lost, except among Evangelical Protestants and orthodox Jews and Catholics. But it is central to who we Americans are today and from whence we came.

A theophany of Yahweh, which comforted Abram in a moment of great political danger, also shaped the political existence of the Hebrew clans after their escape from Egypt. 

On a holy mountain, Moses experienced the voice of Yahweh which told him: “If you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6). 

The conflicts of Abram and Moses with the dominant political units of the ancient Near East were grounded in theophany which they interpreted as promises: to Abram that his “reward” will be “great” and to Moses the conditional promise that “If you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession ….” 

The promise to Moses is a “Covenant” with a community which is a “possession” of God by virtue of its possession of a new truth about God. 

To be sure, others in the ancient Near East claimed to be the recipient of favors of a god. The Babylonian Nabonidus, for example, had a stela inscribed commemorating his ascendance to power as the reward of the moon-god, Sin.

 “At midnight he (Sin) made me have a dream and said (in the dream) as follows: `Rebuild speedily Ehulhul, the temple of Sin in Harran, and I will hand over to you all the countries.’[2]  

But the theophany of Sin with Nabonidus is distinguishable from the covenant of Yahweh with Abram and Moses because Nabonidus’ god, Sin, was a cosmological divinity, and the mode of cosmological kingship characteristic of the ancient Near East remained intact. 

The Israelite theophany, however, created a new political consciousness. Through their response to the revelation of transcendent Yahweh, the Hebrew clans became a new people in history, a theopolity ordered under fundamental rules emanating from a transcendent, not cosmological, Yahweh. In Exodus 3, Moses encounters the presence of Yahweh, not as an intracosmic divinity, but as transcendent divine reality. From the burning bush Yahweh reveals his name, “I am who I am,” a concept which breaks the cosmological association of the gods with the divine cosmos. 

In Judges 5, also, Yahweh is described not in the mode of an intracosmic divinity, but as divine reality whose presence is manifest in natural phenomena: 

            O Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from  the land of Edom, the earth quaked and the heavens were shaken, while the clouds sent down showers. Mountains trembled in  the presence of the Lord, the One of Sinai, in the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel. (Judges 5:4-5). 

Through their response to this revelation, the Hebrew clans who concluded the covenant with Yahweh became a new people in history. The people of Israel were conscious of their “history” as the record of those moments in which the God of Israel revealed Himself to them by his creative acts. 

 Ask now of the days of old, before your time, ever since God   created man upon the earth; ask from one end of the sky to the other: Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking   from the midst of a fire, as you did and live? Or did any god   venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of   another nation, by testing, by signs and wonders, by war, with  his strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors,  all of which the Lord, your God, did for Egypt before your very   eyes?  (Deut. 4:32-34). 

Though the covenant between God and Hebrew tribes shaped the nation of Israel, a mystery of participation in divine reality also shaped Christian civilization in the West because divine reality cannot be manifest fully in one historical culture. 

There is a tension in the covenant formula between pragmatic political existence and political existence transformed by right relationship to God. Throughout the early history of Israel, Israel’s consciousness of itself as the people of God runs counter to the necessities of pragmatic political existence. 

The need to go to war in order to free themselves from servitude to the Canaanites, reported in Judges 5, for example, becomes, later in the imperial history of Israel, the need to go to war, not for the compelling reasons of a holy war, but because in Spring all kings commence their campaigns (2 Sam. 11:1). 

The idea that there is that which belongs to man, and that which is God’s, shaped the West and our appreciation of the ancient Greeks and the contest between moral conscience and the need for order in Western civilization.

Ancient Greece

             Greek tribes conquer the Greek mainland and islands

            Trojan war and sack of Troy (1194 – 1184) 

            Sparta waged war against the city of Troy/Paris of Troy took Helen                         from her husband, Menelaus, king of Sparta.

            Homer (c. 850 BC)—Iliad & Odyssey

            Hesiod (c. 750 BC)—Theogony & Works and Days

            Solon (594 BC) becomes Archon of Athens (admired by the Founders)         

            Cleisthenes introduces democratic reforms (508/7 BC) 

            Greeks populate colonies throughout the Mediterranean

            “Great Age” of Pericles (c. 495-429 BC)–rules Athens c. 457 BC 

                        Aeschylus (c. 525-455 BC)—Suppliants & Oresteia

                        Euripides (c. 480-406 BC)—Medea & Iphigene in Aulis

                        Thucydides (460 -c. 395 BC)– History of the Peloponnesian War

                        Herodotus (450 -420 BC)—The HIstories 

                        Sophocles (497-406 BC)—Antigone & Oedipus Rex

                        Socrates (469-399 BC) 

                        Xenophon (c. 430-354 BC)– Anabasis, Memorabilia & Apology

Wars & Disorder in Ancient Greece

            Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC)                 

             Sparta prepares to[DB1]  destroy Athens in league with other Greek cities

             Peace of Nicias (421 BC)—six years of peace

            Athens defeated at Syracuse (413 BC)

            Rule of the Four Hundred (411 BC)—overthrow of Athenian democracy 

            Surrender of Athens (404 BC)

            “Thirty Tyrants”:  Pro-Spartan oligarchs govern Athens 

                        Socrates sentenced to death (399 BC)

            Second Athenian League – political union under Athens (378–355 BC)        

                         Plato (c. 428-328 BC)  and  Aristotle (c. 384-322 BC)

The greatest period of ancient Athens is associated with Pericles who, in less than fifteen years between 443 BC and 429 BC, oversaw an eruption of regenerative insights by Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes and the works of historians, Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon.  Not to be overlooked were the philosophers Protagoras, Hippias and the greatest of them all, Socrates.

At the height of the glory of ancient Greece, Hellas was home to some of the greatest inquiring minds in the history of the West.    

            Aeschylus (c. 525-455 BC)

            Sophocles (497-406 BC)

            Pericles (c. 495-429 BC)

            Euripides (c. 480-406 BC)

            Socrates (469-399 BC)

            Thucydides (460-c. 395 BC)

            Herodotus (450-420 BC)

            Xenophon (c. 430-354 BC)

Dramas that touched the soul, comedies that challenged the powerful, and the questioning of Socrates in search of truth, however, could not deter collapse of Athenian social order. And in 399 BC a sentence of death was imposed on Socrates by a democratic regime in Athens

Solon

The ideas of another important statesman of Athens, Solon, was found to be of interest to American colonists. Americans in 1776 and 1781 understood themselves to be performing Solon-like roles as statesmen of an American republic yet to come into existence. 

Solon (594 BC) was a nobleman and leader of his fellow Athenians who reformed Athenian politics by tying the holding of political office to differentiated degrees of property. Thus, Solon gave every citizen a stake in the existing political order.  He cancelled debts and freed Athenians who had been enslaved. The lowest, laboring class, could not hold office, but they were permitted to vote in the Assembly and act as jurors in courts of law. By means of these reforms, Solon sought to instill a sense of duty in all the citizens of Athens and punished those who disengaged from politics with loss of citizenship.

Solon stood at the height of the history of Athens when the citizens of Athens accepted his noble leadership. But his regime was followed by the tyrant Peisistratus (561 BC), an invasion by Sparta which in turn was followed by the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes (508/7 BC). 

Americans of the 18th century who read Plutarch, Polybius and Thucydides understood the weaknesses of democratic regimes and were committed not to make the same mistakes in America. In addition to Solon, therefore, when 18th century American colonists wanted to understand the weaknesses of types of regimes, they read

Aristotle’s Politics

Book VI of Polybius’ Histories

Plato’s Republic

When the leading men sought understanding of immutable natural law, they turned to an ancient Roman, Marcus Tullius Cicero..

Polybius

In Book VI of Polybius’s Histories confirmation was found of what the Framers of the Constitution in 1787 already knew from their school days. Of the three types of regimes, kingship, aristocracy and democracy, the best was a mixture of all three. ” …it is plain that we must regard as the best constitution that which partakes of all these three elements.” [3]

Polybius further refined this insight by observing that a kingship is only that regime where rule is accepted voluntarily and “directed by an appeal to reason rather than to fear and force.” 

An aristocracy presides where “power is wielded by the justest and wisest men selected on their merits.”

And a democracy is not a regime where everyone has a right to do “whatever they wish or propose” but where the will of the majority is governed by “reverence to the gods, succor of parents, respect to elders” and where “obedience to laws are traditional and habitual….” 

To the first three regimes, kingship, aristocracy and democracy must be added “despotism, oligarchy and mob-rule.”  And Polybius suggested that there is a “regular cycle” or “natural order” of changes or “revolutions” or regimes from Kingship to Aristocracy to Democracy.4

Ancient Rome: Ancient Rome to Birth of Jesus

             Rome unites the Italian peninsula (fourth and third centuries BC)

            Punic Wars (264 BC – 146 BC) –Three Wars between Rome and Carthage

            Rome destroys Carthage (contemporary Tunis) 146 BC          

            Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC)–

The Histories attributes Rome’s success to a “Mixed Constitution”

            Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic               

                        Cato the Elder (234 BC – 149 BC) “Carthago delenda est” 

                        Publius Scipio Africanus, destroyer of Carthage in 146 BC     

                         Cicero (106 BC-43 BC), lawyer, senator and philosopher 

                         Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato The Younger” (95 BC – 46 BC)

                        Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) (106 BC – 48 BC)

                        Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC)

                        Battle of Actium (31 BC) – defeat of Mark Antony      

We who are participants in Western civilization have been shaped by the experience of ancient Israel, ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Many of the Framers of the Constitution had learned Latin and studied the rise and decline of Rome because they knew that the fall of the Roman Empire, like the new American republic they had fashioned, someday would also experience decline. 

Their study of Roman history revealed the aggression of the city of Rome that united the Italian peninsula in the fourth and third centuries BC. Rome then turned to the city of Carthage (contemporary Tunis) and for one hundred and twenty years (between 264 BC and 146 BC) the Romans waged three wars with Carthage. These “Punic Wars” ended with Rome’s destruction of Carthage. 

Polybius

Polybius (c. 200 BC-c. 118 BC), who lived in this period, attributed Rome’s success to a “Mixed Constitution.” That constitution sustained three equal powers so carefully balanced that none “could say whether the constitution on the whole were an aristocracy or democracy or despotism.” [4]  The Consuls, when in Rome and before leaving on military campaigns, hold all administrative authority. If there are matters that the populous must approve, the Consuls convene their gathering to make a decision. The Roman Senate is responsible for finance of infrastructure and in matters involving crimes and major contests between powerful interests, the Senate decides. Except in matters of life or death and peace and war, the populous decides, not the Senate.[5] Military service was compulsory and military experience came to be the bond that held that people of Rome in support of those wielding power.[6] 

The ancient world in which the Roman empire came to rule the world was changing, and the Consuls of Rome responded to challenges from northern European tribes. That explains why Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 BC and supervised construction of a wall and why Julius Caesar was Governor of Gaul. Ultimately the pressure of northern tribes overwhelmed Rome’s defenses and in 410 AD, Alaric and his Goths invaded Rome. Alaric had become a Christian and was seeking a territory where his tribe of Goths could live in peace from invaders.

Cicero

For educated American colonists who looked to Rome for ideas, historical knowledge and legal theory, the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC-43 BC) were important aspects of their understanding.  

Natural law scholar, Walter Nicgorski, writes that Cicero’s thought and very phrases reached to America’s founding generations . Thomas Jefferson explicitly names Cicero as one of a handful of major figures who contributed to a tradition ‘of public right’ that informed his draft of the Declaration of Independence and shaped American understandings of ‘the common sense’ basis for the right of revolution.

Cicero’s On Duties, highly regarded and influential throughout much of Western history, was regularly present in the libraries of early America. John Adams and James Wilson were notable in the founding period for recalling Cicero and his teaching on the principles of nature and eternal reason.’[7]

De Natura Deorum, De Officiis, De Re Publica and De Legibus and Cicero’s “disputations” are just a few of Cicero’s works that were read by those in colonial America fortunate to have a classical education. 

At the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton), John Witherspoon instructed

James Madison in the ancient philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. At William and Mary in Virginia, William Small, a scientist and medical doctor, instructed Thomas Jefferson in the works of John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume. George Washington, lacking a classical education, sought the instruction of George Mason.

The works of Cicero offered these men a practical philosophy that resolved questions that concerned men of the Enlightenment. Here are some key concepts:

            ●the importance of piety, reverence and religion

            ●man is endowed with reason (ratio)

            ●reason is pervasive in all nature and is divine

            ●we have innate ideas impressed on us before we were born

            ●virtue cannot exist without reason and reason exists in man

            ●there is divine providence

            ●laws unite human beings with the gods

            ●the same virtue may be found in man and god

            ●what is right has been established by nature

            ●there is right by nature

            ●law rules the whole cosmos

            ●there are just wars

            ●nature’s laws govern the affairs of man

Cicero answered questions that the Framers of the Constitution of the United States had about religion, the existence of God, God’s Providence, and that the laws of men can be distinguished from “natural law.”  The Framers understood that there is “Justice,” and that what is “right” is not founded in the will of the powerful, nor is it a matter of opinion.

Christianity

Christianity, which emerged from ancient Israel, reinforces these principles and became a universal religion.  In 380 AD, Christianity became the state religion of ancient Rome. That decision, by Constantine the Great (272-337 AD), preserved the best of ancient Roman and Greek concepts of order while subtly directing that order to conform to the Christian Gospels. 

The journey to public acceptance of Christianity, however, was preceded by persecutions. St. Peter and St. Paul both were executed and, during the reign of Nero (died 85 AD), Christians were persecuted in public forums. Emperor Diocletian (284 AD) renewed persecution of Christians and St. Augustine, writing even as late as 410 AD when Goths had invaded Rome, was compelled to defend Christianity from the complaint of Romans that this invasion was punishment for making Christianity the state religion. 

Old religions die hard, and the gods of the cosmos, what Christians called “pagan” gods, were still held in respect by Romans even though Christianity was the official state religion.

This transition from a “pagan” to a Christian order happened long ago, however, and the history of that period five hundred years, called “First Europe,” is seldom taught in American undergraduate college programs.

During that period monastic orders affirmed Christianity as the faith of believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For followers of Jesus, and Jews living in Roman Palestrina when Jesus was alive, the times were rife with predictions of a Messiah. 

Significantly, Jesus was born in Bethlehem which was prophesied by Micah as the place where a ruler of Israel would be born. Three Magi visited the infant Jesus because they, too, were awaiting the arrival of a new king. The Gospels tell us that, as an adult, Jesus went to visit John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus. 

John baptized Jesus who then retired into the wilderness where Satan attempted to divert him from obedience to God. Jesus worked miracles that amazed his disciples and was even seen walking on the Sea of Galilee. Though Jesus did not encourage claims that he was the long-awaited Messiah, he came into conflict with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jewish religious factions of the time.

Welcomed by the residents of Jerusalem in what is now celebrated as “Palm Sunday,” Jesus was seized and brought before the High Priest of the Sanhedrin–a Jewish Court. Convicted of blasphemy, Jesus was taken to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who passed a sentence of death.

The crucifixion of Jesus might have been the end of this history, but the Gospels report that Jesus rose from the dead and walked with his disciples, taking food with them. Some persons who had not known him in life encountered the risen Christ–St. Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus is one example.[8] Christians believe that they, too, encounter a living Christ. 

We call their experiences “mystic.”

Jesus taught that God’s kingdom was at hand and preached with urgency that we should follow God’s commandments. God’s kingdom, however, was not of this world. Many of the first Christians expected Christ to come again very soon and prepared for his Second Coming. 

What Christians call the “Old Testament” tells us that God had made a covenant with Israel, but Jesus preached an exacting New Covenant. Christ taught, for example, that we should turn the other cheek and love our enemies, be chaste and avoid temptation and spoke of marriage as an insoluble bond. Today we read the Sermon on the Mount and Christians recite a prayer that Jesus taught called “The Lord’s Prayer.” 

So too did masses of peoples of the ancient world who were attracted to the teachings of Jesus. 

Jesus’ concern for the humble and poor of spirit explains why he attracted believers, but also, Jesus’ claim that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world became universal. St. Paul, known as “Saul” before his encounter with the resurrected Christ, was instrumental in bringing the Gospel message to non-Jews. 

Saul, a Roman citizen, was a zealous persecutor of Christians until Christ came to him on travel to Damascus. So powerful was this experience that Saul fell to the ground. A voice speaking in Hebrew said, “Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” Christ explained that he chose him to lead men to be sanctified by faith.

Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles–non-Jews. 

If you are a believing Christian, reading Paul’s letters to Christians in Asia Minor will resonate with your own “mystic” experience.  But, you do not have to be a Christian to understand our very human love of life and the appeal of the Christian promise of eternal life. 

That teaching of Christianity was affirmed by the Pharisees who also believed in a last judgment and in a resurrection. Christ’s resurrection may be seen also as an affirmation of the idea of Greek philosophy that man should aspire to be deathless and teaches us how to live a virtuous life.

Try to imagine how these words were heard by the citizens of the cities that St. Paul visited, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and many others. 

How does the thought of a Last Judgment and your own personal resurrection affect you?

The early Church preserved the Gospels through “Councils,” the first being the Council of Nicea (325 AD) that affirmed a common confession. Christians recite the Nicene Creed and affirm that God is one, yet three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

The Fathers of the Church sustained early Christianity through their vigorous “apologetics.”  But the most influential of the Fathers of the Church is St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Hippo is a port city in what today is known as Annaba in Algeria.

St. Augustine’s massive City of God is a defense of Christians against Romans who blamed them for the fall of Rome and a critical work that defines the limits of state power. Augustine writes about:

            ●His sinful life before conversion to Christianity;

            ●His attraction to Manichean religion.

            ●The City of God–a community of all persons who love God.

            ●The City of Man–the material world governed by appetite and dominated by lust for domination.

            ●Original Sin–the desire to make man the center of the universe.

            ●The “elect”–those saved by God, thus recognizing that not all will be saved.

            ●The state–has a place–a necessary evil–in sustaining social order but is not the way to salvation

●Progress–the way to salvation taken by faithful Pilgrims; progress is spiritual    not material.

            ●Evil–turning away from God.

By the end of the 5th century AD, “barbarian” tribes ruled all of Italy, but even as the Roman Empire fell, a new order we call “Christendom” arose and led the successors to St. Peter, the Bishops of Rome, to eke out a spiritual space independent from the new political order of Monarchy.


[1] A theophany is an experience of God’s presence.

[2] James B. Pritchard, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 562. 

[3] The Histories of Polybius. Book Six. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, trans. (In parentheses Publications Greek Series, Cambridge, Ontario, 2002), p. 350. Online at http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/polybius_six.pdf. 4 Ibid., p. 355.

[4] The Histories of Polybius. Book Six, p. 357.

[5] Ibid., p. 358.

[6] Ibid., p. 361.

[7] Walter Nicgorski, ” CICERO and the NATURAL LAW,” The Witherspoon Institute, 2011, http://www.nlnrac.org/classical/cicero.

[8] Galatians 1:11-16.


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