Liberal Education and the Slavery to Passion


I had mentioned before that liberal education is an education that “frees” the student specifically from four types of slavery.  It might be worth mentioning that while liberal education is wonderfully useful in advancing the happiness of a human being, there are other things besides a liberal education that are useful for leading a happy life (e.g. air, water, money).

Nonetheless liberal education enables a student to use these other things properly because it disposes, or rather gives a right disposition to a person’s soul- and it is the rightly disposed soul to which these other lesser goods (e.g. air, water, money) find their proper use. We might also add (just to admit that liberal education does have its own limits) that liberal education does not impart sanctifying grace to a person. Sometimes my students accuse me of teaching that salvation is achieved through a liberal education (nulla salus extra educationem liberalem!) but I guess I have to admit sanctifying grace is actually far more instrumental!

Nonetheless, I will maintain that the person who is liberally educated will be in fact -to that extent – properly disposed towards the reception of sanctifying grace, in so far as a liberal education is directed towards disposing the nature of the person aright (remember “Gratia supponit naturam!” Grace presupposes nature).

Let’s make a few brief comments about the first sort of slavery from which liberal education frees the student. It is the easiest to see and perhaps most obvious of all slaveries (apart from actually being shackled or driven at the end of a whip).

Aristotle makes reference to the first kind of slavery when in the Ethics he says that it is of no use teaching the science of Politics to the young because of the influence of their passions.

“Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. and it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object as passion directs.”

This is an especially easy thing to see in small children who are indeed at the mercy of their emotions. No parent will rely on reason alone to persuade a child to clean his room, or brush his teeth regularly. In the same way, a responsible parent will not rely solely on the force of logic to insure that his children do not indulge in alcohol and tobacco and any other sort of inappropriate behavior. Someone who experiences a strong desire for something is inclined to see with utter clarity the reasons why immediate possession of the desired object is necessary, while at the same time opposing reasons are curiously obfuscated and unintelligible.

Passion has a clever way of making its object the summum bonum at the very moment that the passion for it is felt. If what we desire is the highest good, then it follows that we should have it without delay! It is easy to see that those who are at the mercy of their emotions, or who are in any way disinclined to behave reasonably, will also be disinclined to see the reasons why their behavior is unreasonable!

Parents argue endlessly with their children about the evils of staying out late, smoking, heavy metal music, and all of the objects that move adolescent desire, but the effects of this first sort of slavery on the minds of those who enjoy any of these things powerfully sways their understanding almost to the point where argumentation is totally in vain. One would like to think that kids are just stubborn in this regard and that they can see intellectually why passion should not rule. We must not forget that those who are at the mercy of disordered emotions lack both the equanimity and mental clarity from which correct judgment proceeds.

Slavery to disordered passion does not just affect the mind in regard to learning right moral behavior, but even in purely intellectual matters like the study of Latin or Geometry, students struggle with themselves to gain mastery over their emotional disinclination from the study of such subjects. Learning, like listening, occurs only when one has quieted himself and has the focus to think!

Which, of course, all leads to the next question: “In what does a liberal education consist that it is able to break the slavery to passion?”

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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2 Responses to Liberal Education and the Slavery to Passion

  1. Newton says:

    Looking forward to the continuation of this post – indeed if Liberal education frees from slavery to passion then it surely is a great help to the Christian in living rightly.

    • Mark Langley says:

      Thanks-I have always thought that liberal education is the perfect kind of education for the Christian- “propaedeutic” to the Christian life. I was originally planning on making a few brief comments about the effect of each kind of slavery (passion, fashion, custom and error) on the intellectual life of the student first, and then how liberal education addresses each. But maybe I will scratch that plan and leap right into a continuation of this!

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