Speaking well is part of living well. – Charlemagne on education


If the goal of education is virtue, why bother studying science or spelling or rhetoric? Why not just hunker down and do character lessons and call it a day?

Our idea of virtue is too shallow. We see our moral sense unconnected to our knowledge or even to our ability to communicate. But they are not unconnected. They should all – and do all – feed each other when submitted to God.

The selection I’m highlighting today from The Great Tradition is penned by Charlemagne, but is included in the Alcuin chapter. In this short letter, Charlemagne is urging the adoption of Alcuin’s education reforms in the monasteries.

His urging should also nudge us.

How we live and how we speak are related.

[pullquote align=”center”]care should be taken that there shall be not only a regular manner of life and one conformable to holy religion, but also the study of letters, each to teach and learn them according to his ability and divine assistance.


Charlemagne admonishes the monks to devote themselves to learning and not only to charity and prayer – because the learning glorifies God as well.

[pullquote align=”center”]those who seek to please God by living aright should also not neglect to please him by right speaking.


Sure, it’s more important to do good than to know a lot or speak well, but we don’t have to make that choice, actually. We can – and should – have both. Because, it turns out, the two are not actually unconnected.

[pullquote align=”center”]Although right doing be preferable to right speaking, yet must the knowledge of what is right precede right action.


The very next sentence, then, is Charlemagne admonishing his monks to begin with the end in mind:

[pullquote align=”center”]Everyone, therefore, should strive to understand what it is he would fain accomplish.


I think we have all experienced or seen a misunderstanding or confusion that arises out of a slip of the tongue. Our childish ears hear words other than a song or verse actually says, and it misleads us or confuses us for years.

Charlemagne saw this on a bigger scale. He says that in letters he receives from the monasteries, wishing him well and telling him that they are praying for him, the sentiments – though just and right – are expressed with such “uncouth language” that they are either difficult to understand or do not actually say what the writer intended them to say.

And if the writer cannot express himself clearly, it is an indication that he is not thinking clearly. Clear writing requires clear thinking. Virtuous living requires clear thinking. So virtue and communication are closely linked. Our ability to articulate a thought is evidence of our comprehension of the thought.

[pullquote align=”center”]If skill to write rightly were thus lacking, so too would be the power of rightly comprehending the sacred Scriptures be far less than was fitting.


Besides this, the inability to articulate clearly can lead to our unintentionally leading others astray. Education is needful because understanding comes through learning and thinking, not simply acts of service and prayer. And that learning and thinking will improve our service and prayer, edifying others and guarding us from error.

[pullquote align=”center”]We all know that though verbal errors be dangerous, errors of the understanding are yet more so. We exhort you, therefore, not only not to neglect the study of letters, but to apply yourselves thereto with perseverance and with that humility which is well pleasing to God.


[pullquote align=”center”]It is our wish that you may be what it behooves the soldiers of the Church to be – religious in heart, learned in discourse, pure in act, eloquent in speech; so that all who approach your house…may be edified in beholding you, and instructed in hearing you discourse or chant, and may return home rendering thanks to God most high.


Can you share a time where clear or confused speaking affected understanding?

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  1. THANK YOU!!!!!!!! This is so insightful. I always had thought that Getting Good at Something That You’re Called To Get Good At was not unrelated to the pursuit of virtue and wisdom, and so happy to hear that Charlemagne was not in the “heaven, not Harvard” camp either!! Thanks for a great post yet again. I so appreciate your work.

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