That knowledge was intrinsically desirable was something of a given in the minds of the classical thinkers. Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, scolds his fellow Athenians who turn their back on knowledge…

Are you not ashamed that you spend your time acquiring as much money as possible and similarly with reputation and honor, and yet care so little for truth, wisdom and the perfection of your soul?

–Socrates (Plato’s The Apology)

 

Aristotle, similarly, holds the position that knowledge was desirable in and of itself, and refers to wisdom as “our finest element” within his Ethics

We must not listen to those who advise us to ‘think human thoughts since we are human or mortal thoughts since we are mortal’ but must put on immortality as much as possible and strain every nerve to live according to our finest element (wisdom), for while it is small in bulk, its power and honour surpasses all else.

– Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X)

 

Cicero, the famous Roman orator, held up reason as the cornerstone of all virtuous laws…

For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.

–Cicero (De Legibus, Book I )

 

That the ancients held wisdom in such high regard is made all the more significant by the fact that their institutions of higher learning were dramatically different from our modern schools.

Plato’s Academy, often considered the first “university” of the Western world, was more of a meeting of the minds, a place for ancient thinkers to gather, rather than a structured institution with a codified curriculum. The Elatic, Milesian, Epicurean, and Stoic schools of philosophy followed a similar tradition of passing on their teachings through informal gatherings that attracted hungry minds from across the ancient world.

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Aristotle’s Lyceum, notably, begins to come closer to our modern university system. Aristotle held regular classes and even kept lecture notes. But here, again, the goal was acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Securing a B.S. or gaining marketable skills for the workplace was not a consideration for the earliest students of the classical age.

The universities have failed you

Flash forward a few thousand years. A modern student might be forced to admit that attending university is a reaction to societal or parental expectations. “Getting an education” has become the primary goal. Learning to learn might be a happy correlation, but it is no longer the principal aim that it once was.

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New Yorker Cartoon Poster Print by Ariel Molvig at the Condé Nast Collection

Such a state of affairs is, in your editor’s humble opinion, a true shame and one of the ultimate failings of the modern education system. The reason is that I still hold the opinion, originally put forth by the ancients, that a virtuous life is intimately connected to wisdom and understanding.

The idea that a “good life” could only be truly found through a cultivation of wisdom was the belief of the ancient philosophers. The philosopher, the lover of wisdom, was therefore a seeker of what Plato referred to as “The Good” or Aristotle’s eudemonia, “ultimate human flourishing.”

Or as Socrates put it…

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

–Socrates (quoted in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

 

But here, again, we see that the idea that virtue is in anyway related to knowledge, has become absent in the university. This idea is best expressed By Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, philosophy professors from the University of North Texas, who wrote in the New York Times just last January…

“The scientist’s privileged role was to provide the morally neutral knowledge needed to achieve our goals, whether good or evil. This put an end to any notion that there was something uplifting about knowledge. The purification made it no longer sensible to speak of nature, including human nature, in terms of purposes and functions.”

-When Philosophy Lost Its Way (New York Times, January 11th, 2016)

 

Ignorance is optional

A sad state of affairs to say the least!

Our students are racking up mountains of debt, devoting their lives to pursuing an “education” and we have no guarantee that they are learning a thing or becoming better people in the process.

What to do?

Joel Bowman, fortunately, has an answer for us.

Thankfully, we live in an age where ignorance is largely optional. And true learning needn’t beggar you.

If you wish to gain extensive access to coursework from top universities and not pay a cent, there’s a way to do just that. M.I.T. famously offers over 650 online courses…for free.

So whether you wish to enlighten yourself in the field of biology, or nuclear engineering or architecture or linguistics, there’s a way to do just that…

Similarly, there are thousands of brain-busting, mind-bending books and courses on offer at sites like Open Culture, Khan Academy, and Project Gutenberg.

 

Thanks Joel, couldn’t agree more. Although, I would add the caveat that if ignorance is optional, then so is baseness. I think our ancient friends would agree.

So do yourself a favor, dear reader, never let your education get in the way of learning. The classics are a great place to start. Or, you could keep reading Classical Wisdom Weekly.