Pagan Literature: The Milk of Catholic Liberal Education

For whereas for the time you ought to be masters, you have need to be taught again what are the first elements of the words of God: and you are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. (Hebrews 5:12)

There are some things in scripture which are like “strong meat.” The prologue of Saint John’s Gospel for example, or when Saint Paul says,

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Strong meat indeed. He continues

About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.

Now, I know that in comparison to these passages there are others in scripture which are much easier to understand. These passages are “milk.”

A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you…

A passage much more readily understandable, though still inexhaustible in its depth.

So I can understand that Saint Paul’s use of the meat and milk metaphor is primarily referring to the relative accessibility of various teachings in Scripture. Some teachings are meat and others milk.

But with the “rule of Charity” with which Saint Augustine bids we interpret all Scripture, I would  like to extend the metaphor.

Before doing so we might pause just a little to appreciate Saint Paul’s use of the food metaphor in his teaching. I find this comparison absolutely spot on, compelling, delightful and persuasive. Although I will count myself like the Hebrews whom St. Paul justly rebuked for their slowness and dullness, nonetheless when St Paul talks food I am completely on board-he could not be any clearer!

In other words, to those of us who are not quite ‘there yet’ with respect to our spiritual understanding, to those of us who are not intellectually mature, St Paul says

You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature…

And this brings me to my point.

In comparison to scripture, which in its transcendent wisdom is all meat, even the very best of Greek literature and philosophy might certainly be compared to milk!

Ordinarily, I would prefer to compare the literature of Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides to a fine Bordeaux. Among the pagan authors Homer would be the Chateau Margaux!

The literature of the Greeks is wine in contrast to the tasteless literature of our own contemporaries which could only be compared to water- although I hate to insult water by the comparison. (Would Diet Soda work better?)

Nonetheless the wisdom of man is, comparatively speaking, childish as it stands to the wisdom of God.

A man is called childish compared to God; just as a boy, in comparison to a man. (Heraclitus, DK 79)

And so it seems to me that the wisdom of man found predominantly in Greek literature is aptly compared to milk- the stuff of which children are made.

I don’t mean to disparage the wisdom of man by calling it milk. Every child needs milk and so every intellectual child needs Greek literature.

I don’t know much about milk except that somehow if a child drinks enough of it and for a long time, he will soon be ready for meat and other solid food. Don’t ask me how. Milk is wonderful, there is evidently something incredibly nourishing about it. The point is that the literature of the great pagans stands in just the same way to the developing souls of men as does milk to the bodies of children.

And so, as St Thomas points out,

…it should be noted that sacred doctrine is, as it were, the food of the soul: ‘With the bread of life and understanding she shall feed him’ (Sir. 15:3) and in (24:29): ‘They that eat me shall yet hunger, and they that drink me shall yet thirst.’ Sacred doctrine, therefore, is food and drink, because it nourishes the soul.

Therefore it seems to me that should one wish to dispose himself towards the nourishment of the solid food that is Sacred Doctrine, should one wish to feast on the meat of Holy Scripture, one could do no better than to imbibe at length, and overtime in great quantity, the milk that is pagan Greek literature.

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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