Hesiod And Classical Catholic Education

The classical Catholic educator is always interested in forming his students in the things of nature so that they might be better disposed for the things of grace. Grace builds on nature and nature is dispositive to grace. It is therefore the task of the wise Catholic school to design a curriculum that achieves a full sustained and extended confrontation between the minds of its students and nature. And when this confrontation has been achieved then might the words of Saint Paul be understood when he says in Romans,

Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. [20] For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

To bring students to grace from nature is, in a nutshell, the whole goal of the classical Catholic educator.

Now, as it turns out, what this means in actual fact is that the school which boasts itself as a place of “classical Catholic learning” will therefore be recognized by the extent to which it attempts to facilitate the inheritance by its students of the patrimony of the Greek mind.

That is to say, every student, by virtue of his membership in Western Civilization,  has an intellectual inheritance bequeathed to him by the ancient Greeks. Or to put it another way,  every student has a rich inheritance of Greek thought about nature in all of its aspects. Or, if you will, a treasure trove of thought and truth about nature, as preeminently grasped and understood by the ancient Greeks, belongs to every student. And it is the obligation of a school to see that each student receives that inheritance. I suppose you might say that the classical Catholic educator is largely just an executor of the ancient Greek estate.

By way of example allow me to illustrate what I mean about the ancient Greeks disposing the mind to grace through their grasp of nature. And in this case let us examine a couple of remarks taken from Hesiod’s poem Works and Days almost at random.

Hesiod begins his work piously invoking the muses of Pieria  “who give glory through song,” and he invites them “to tell of Zeus” and “give him praise.” Now granted that Zeus is actually a pagan god, and putting aside anything that Saint Augustine might say about invoking these pagan gods, I still hold firmly that Hesiod teaches all men, and sets an excellent example, that at the beginning of every significant endeavor (or indeed any endeavor) we ought to begin by invoking God. Piety requires that we first look upwards for help or for inspiration and direction.

For Hesiod knows that it is through God that

“mortal men are famed or un-famed, sung or unsung alike, as great Zeus wills.”

In the next line he attests

For easily he makes strong, and easily he brings the strong man low; easily he humbles the proud and raises the obscure, and easily he straightens the crooked and blasts the proud, — Zeus who thunders aloft and has his dwelling most high.

and who is not reminded of Our Lady when she uttered the truth that Hesiod only saw through a cloud,

He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things.

Proceeding, Hesiod then says an interesting thing. Two kinds of strife, (who are in fact two goddesses) demand homage and honor among mortals.

The first, “harsh Strife” is hateful, because she,

“fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due.”

Hesiod understands the inevitability of suffering war and death in the lives of men. What could explain this unnatural state of affairs? Every generation encounters the same evils, surely there must be a goddess who is honored by this, otherwise we would learn from our mistakes.

Next to the doctrine of original sin and the teaching about its universal contagion, its effects, the punishment due to it, next to a theology that explains original sin as a sufficient cause for explaining all the evil and suffering in this world – next to all this, I say, Hesiod’s explanation isn’t far off from the mark.

But according to Hesiod there is also another goddess, whom we will call “good Strife,” who is good because,

She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbor, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbor vies with his neighbor as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men.

Good Strife impels us to work. She impels us to virtue and order. She impels us towards a wholesome competition with our neighbor, and consequently towards an orderly society.

Hesiod saw great meaning in strife. He saw great value in day-to-day toil. He glimpsed value in suffering and saw strife as a  begetter. Strife gives birth to wealth, goodness, and even justice.

Hesiod reveals, in part,  the wisdom of God when he told Adam,

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken

because (as Hesiod says),

badness can be got easily and in shoals; the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows; long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.

Hesiod says that the road to badness is an easy and smooth one, but the road to goodness is long and steep and rough at first, how faintly we hear the echo of Our Lord when He perfects the comparison of our moral life with a road that leads to a gate,

Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!

Without knowing about the punishment of Adam, Hesiod sees the wisdom of God in designing a world in which we earn our bread by “the sweat of our brows.” Although he attributes this sweat as the work of the goddess of good strife, Hesiod understands something very significant about the nature and dignity of man. The difficulty that we encounter in our daily lives, the work and even suffering that appears to be our lot is ordered to a greater good. And so it is because there is a God who loves us that the means of our livelihood  sometime appear hidden to us; it is because goodness rules the earth that we have to work,

For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; [45] soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste.

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
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2 Responses to Hesiod And Classical Catholic Education

  1. Samster says:

    As Hesiod echoes Scripture, so I think Mr. Langley would not object to my saying that Langley echoes Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Idea of a University (III, 7):

    Anticipations or reminiscences of His glory haunt the mind of the self-sufficient sage, and of the pagan devotee; His writing is upon the wall, whether of the Indian fane, or of the porticoes of Greece. . . . He is with the heathen dramatist in his denunciations of injustice and tyranny, and his auguries of divine vengeance upon crime. Even on the unseemly legends of a popular mythology He casts His shadow, and is dimly discerned in the ode or the epic, as in troubled water or in fantastic dreams. All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful, all that is beneficent, be it great or small, be it perfect or fragmentary, natural as well as supernatural, moral as well as material, comes from Him.

    And for more passages from the ancients related to Scriptures, see this venerable tome published in the century before last, Scripture Parallels in Ancient Classics, or Bible Echoes, by (believe it or not) Craufurd Tait Ramage, LL.D.

  2. Mark Langley says:

    Thank you for those absolutely beautiful lines from Newman!

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