Anaxagoras on Liberal Education

“Other things have a part of everything, but mind is unlimited and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing, but is itself alone by itself….”

Anaxagoras, the great pre-Socratic philosopher who, Aristotle says, was like a sober man among drunkards was the first great philosopher of the mind. l don’t mean to extrapolate on his great fragment on the mind here but mean only to bring out a “plug” for liberal education that is easily deduced from his comment about the infinitude of the mind.

He said the mind is “unlimited.” The mind is infinite. The mind is boundless.

We ask “what does he mean? Is the mind unlimited in quantity? Is the mind unlimited in extension?”

Or “is the mind unlimited in it ability to consider and know all things to some degree?”

Well,  I suppose one can readily tell by the careful wording of this last question that this author believes that Anaxagoras was clearly speaking of the infinity of the mind in this sense.

The mind is indeed infinite in its ability to know all things. Be careful to note that we do not say that the mind is actually infinite. Certainly God’s mind is. But the human mind does appear to be in fact unlimited, or infinite in its ability to know.

One example of this is the fact that we are able to know universals. As Duane Berquist points out,

But the universal can be said of an unlimited multitude of singulars or particulars. The universal man, for example, can always be said of another man. It is not limited to any number of men. It contains in ability an unlimited multitude of men. Likewise, the universal triangle is not limited to any number of triangles. and the universal number can be said of two, three, four and so on-of that unlimited multitude of numbers. Number contains an infinity of species of number in ability.

 An outward sign of the infinitude of the human mind is the hand. Again Berquist,

Because man has an unlimited knowing power, his mind or reason, he needs a hand whereby he can make and use countless tools to make endless kinds of things.

So the point here is that the human mind is infinite, in a way, and Anaxagoras was among the first who saw this infinity way back between 510 and 428 BC!

But you are asking “what does any of this have to do with liberal education?”

Ahhhhhhhhh… excellent question, and I am thrilled that you asked because Anaxagoras’ point has everything to do with liberal education!

You see, it turns out that it is only a liberal education that respects this fact about the human mind. Of all the various kinds of mental acrobatics out there that take the name of “education” or “training” or whatever, it is only a liberal education that addresses the mind for what it is- infinite in capacity.

Is it clear now? specialization by its very name implies a course of studies that limits the mind to some specific area of knowledge. But a liberal education is specifically the education that is undertaken for the very reason that it proposes knowledge of all things as it end. And guess what- there appears to be a veritable infinitude of things to know!

Yet liberal education says to its suitor “follow me. Love me. For I will teach you all things!”

The human mind is alone among things in our experience which is capable of the sort of infinity about which I have been speaking. The human mind is capable of knowing everything to some extent (even God!). The human mind is even capable of building and “knowing”  worlds of knowledge that contain only fictional things like Hobbits and Dwarves and Elves. Nothing on the earth but the human mind is capable of this – all else is marked by limitations. Everything else is finite. Every other creature (angels excepted) are designed with various sorts of finitude.

And so Man should strive to be what he is by nature – and Anaxagoras was the first to see that by nature the mind of man is infinite in the way that we have carefully explained.

Now what would you say about an education that treats man as if he did not have a mind capable of this infinitude? What would you say if a man was to willingly defy the unlimited nature of his God-given mind, and was to, willingly and knowingly, force his mind into some narrow field of study- and forever deprive his mind of the sort of knowledge that truly respect the mind’s own special character?

There are such men that do this – and I think it is a crying shame!

Might there be a time to specialize? Might there be a time when a person ought to focus on a narrow field of knowledge? Sure! Certainly!

But certainly not before each person has demonstrated the sort of respect to his own mind that it is owed.

I would think that everyone would have a moral responsibility to honor the gift of the mind that God gave to each one of us. I would think that we would have a moral responsibility to treat our own mind (as responsible stewards) according to its own nature. I would think that if someone did not treat his own mind according to its nature…

then he would be guilty of abusing his own mind.

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.
This entry was posted in classical education, education, Liberal Arts, liberal education works, truth for its own sake and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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