I’m getting excited. In my very slow reading through The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, I’m approaching the end of the classical period and entering the early church phase.
Philo straddles the gap in a particular way. He is not Roman, though he lives in Alexandria as a contemporary to Jesus. He is, rather, an educated and politically-influential Jew – a scribe, we might call him. Perhaps he was a Pharisee, perhaps a Saducee, but he was a Jew with social clout.
Also, his use of Scripture is rather shocking.
In his extended (and very stretched) metaphor of education leading to virtue (the classical paradigm), Sarah – Abraham’s wife – is virtue while Hagar – the handmaid – is learning, knowledge, education. We come to fruitful knowledge of virtue only after a fruitful knowledge of “the encyclical branches of instruction.”
The metaphor doesn’t work, really, because we know – due to New Testament revelation – that Sarah & Hagar were meant to represent something, and it wasn’t education or virtue. Also, virtue doesn’t disbelieve God’s promise and come up with strategies of her own, and God gives the child of promise despite interference, not because of it and only after it.
So, his metaphor is bizarre and doesn’t hold water, but even that in itself gives insight to Jesus’ frustration with the scribes and synagogues – and perhaps explains the people’s astonishment at Jesus’ teaching from Scripture. No wonder it was nothing like their scribes and teachers!
Though his method for illustrating his point undermines it, his point is valid: We learn in order ultimately to become virtuous. Virtue is the fruit of education – not mere understanding, not economic advantage, not checking the boxes society expects.
As David Hicks puts it in Norms & Nobility:
The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and to act in accordance with what one knows.
Philo was saying the same thing when he wrote:
The encyclical branches of instruction are placed in front of virtue for they are the road which conducts to her.
Virtue – acting rightly – is the goal. And the best path to her is not a cloistered life nor a sticker chart: > Perhaps we shall become known to the queenly virtues by means of their subjects and handmaids.
The acquisition of all the preliminary branches of education is wholly necessary [to attain virtue].
We learn in order to bear fruit, not simply in order to know.
And the corollary is true:
In order to bear fruit, we must learn and know.
My Book Bag
- Thought-provoking: haven’t replaced this category yet, though all the books following have been thought-provoking
- Novel on the nightstand: Kirsten Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
- Kindle app: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Audio: A History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer & City of God by Augustine