Thursday, December 15, 2011
The Spoils of Egypt: A Justification for Pagan Literature in Christian Education
The speculations of history's most influential thinkers are rife with dubious claims and assertions. Plato, the great philosopher of Athens, taught the existence of a spiritual reality far better and more real than the physical realm. Later, an optimistic Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that men living apart from government and authority act peacefully on account of their innate goodness. He roots bad behavior in the inequality perpetuated by civil society. Later, German political and social philosopher Karl Marx declared that religion is an “opiate of the masses.” Christianity not only disagrees with Marx's assertion, but ought to oppose Plato's and Rousseau's views just as vigorously. Yet, classical pedagogy uses the writings of these very men to train young minds, causing many parents to doubt the worth of ancient models for the training of Christian students. Concerned parents wonder if they are risking the faith of their students by placing them under teachers who will require them to read Plato's Republic, or The Communist Manifesto. Nevertheless, even the Christian student has much to gain from studying the ideas of pagans, humanists and atheists. Just as the Children of Israel took with them the spoils of Egypt, so too can the Christian student plunder the riches of the City of Man as he passes through on his way to the City of God.
Christian parents should support the study of Plato or Marx for the sake of honoring the truth. The Psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein (Ps. 24:1).” God has made all things and thus, there is nothing that is not His. When the Lord speaks, it is true. What the Lord promises, He will accomplish. Thus, when God creates the universe according to certain principles or truths, those principles are truth, even in the case of claims made by pagan or atheistic thinkers. Philosophy and science are both disciplines that rely on the exercise of human reason as applied to nature. Thus, whenever an atheist philosopher or Christian scientist makes an accurate discovery, he is merely identifying the truth of reality already placed there by its Creator. Thus, Plato and Aristotle are able to discern and communicate God's truth, as it is revealed in Nature. The truth in Nature is no less true because it does not come from Scripture, and Scripture itself verifies that nature reveals God's truth: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims His handiwork (Ps. 19:1).” The Psalmist understood that nature reveals God's truth, and thus Christian parents should encourage their students to learn it.
The treasury of classic literature and philosophy stands to benefit any who avail themselves of its wisdom. The Christian student finds the ancient Greek philosophers beneficial to his education in the four Cardinal Virtues. Plato and Aristotle lauded many traits that they perceived made men good. When practiced, these things produced virtue, or excellence, in the man, and virtue leads to lasting happiness. While the Christian may take issue with the claim that man, of his own efforts, can make himself good, the virtues themselves indicate that Plato and Aristotle were nevertheless perceiving some truth about reality. They correctly understood that material possessions and sensual experiences do not make one happy. Instead, they asserted that only through being good could one become happy. Becoming good depends on knowing and practicing Prudence, Justice, Courage and Temperance. Prudence is the chief of these virtues, because it requires man to know and understand the principles that uphold realty, and then to act in light of them. All other virtues flow from this right understanding of a situation and from right action in light of that understanding. Justice, for example, is the giving to each man what he is due. This requires man to know what he is due, and to act in a way that gives not only him his due but others their due. Courage is acting in light of what ought to be feared. One must understand that some things are worse than death or suffering and be willing to sacrifice them. Finally, temperance requires one to act with moderation. The temperate man exercises self-control in light of discerning what is appropriate. Plato and Aristotle's insights make them invaluable to the student of the virtues that the Holy Scriptures teach.
Scripture affirms the wisdom of the Greeks concerning these virtues. For example, in Proverbs, Solomon admonishes the reader with this: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).” Solomon understands the value of wisdom, and that it is rooted, or finds its beginning, in the fear of the Lord. While Plato may have missed this essential truth, that he and Aristotle nevertheless grasped the importance of prudence is a credit to God's glory as revealed in Nature. Justice is also lauded in Scripture through the giving of the Law. Implicit in the Ten Commandments is the idea that a man ought to give to all whatever they are due. God is due the man's exclusive worship. Parents are due their children's respect and honor. No man is due another man's wife or property. The Scriptures esteem courage, seen in the exhortation to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous (Josh. 1:9).” His courage is rooted in God's faithfulness, and so he knows that the fear of God is far more important than fearing his enemies. Finally, the Apostle Paul admonishes self-control, or temperance, in 1 Timothy 3:2, when he lists it as a qualification for elders. While Aristotle and Plato's views on virtue are certainly far from perfect or without error, they demonstrate truths they derive from nature through reason that are also clearly taught in Scripture, making them not worldly truth, but God's truth.
The Biblical truths identified by the pagan philosophers in Nature is testimony to the value of God-given rational faculties. Reason is common to all men, and sets him apart from the beasts. Exercising reason in the investigation of Nature results in a plethora of scientific, philosophical and moral insights about man and the universe. Just as the gold and silver of the Egyptians were valuable to the Children of Israel as they left for the Promise land, so too do the riches of Nature benefit the Christian as he journeys through the City of Man onward to the City of God. The truth of God is so evident that sinful pagans can sometimes take a partial glimpse of its glory. Since the Christian is a lover of truth and all that God has done, the Christian student ought to be a friend of any truths about reality that an Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes or Karl Marx can identify.