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  • Writer's pictureDrew Maglio

The End of Liberal Education: Why Genuine Education is a Process of Re-Orientation of the Soul

Updated: Mar 11

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious such as digging up and mutilating the dead.[1] —C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

I affirm the Medieval Scholastic axiom that “all learning is an assimilation of the knower to the Known,” in addition to the Augustinian notion that true wisdom is loving various forms in the proper order to the correct degree according to their intrinsic merit. To sufficiently (but succinctly) explicate the contention that all liberal and genuine education aims at ordering the human soul to an external reality of which each human being is a part, there are several fundamental questions that must first be explored. First, human beings must be differentiated from other (lower) life forms that occupy the corporeal world of a posteriori experience. After which, a case that liberal education is essential for ‘human flourishing,’ i.e. ‘happiness,’ may be made. But this can only occur in so far as liberal education is defined and delineated. To accomplish this, one must perceive the archetype at which it aims. Then—and only then—may pedagogical methodology be explored.

What is a Human Being?

Aristotle defined man as “the rational animal,” which seems to be a good starting point in our inquiry. By rational, Aristotle meant that man possesses the peculiar and unique mental faculty of reason. What this entails is that while other animals—even higher forms like certain sociable mammals—are driven primarily by instinct (or the passions), man possesses the capacity to deliberate about both means and ends, as it relates to action, inaction, or even the leisurely contemplation of the telos, logos, ethos, or pathos. While Aristotle’s definition of man as the rational animal is by no means complete and is frequently challenged within the so-called ‘Great Tradition’ itself, it seems that one does stand on firm ground differentiating man from beast on the basis of reason, which enables man to rise above his passions and base impulses.

When philosophers first differentiated man from beast primarily on the basis of reason, it was understood that reason was the highest part of the human soul. For Plato, the human soul had three distinct parts, namely the head, chest, and belly, or the mind, the spirit, and appetite respectively. Aristotle, in his De Anima, argued that the soul is essentially the form (or actuality) that animated the body (or potentiality). While there is much debate within the tradition as to what constitutes a human soul, it seems tenable to suggest that whatever its particular parts and delineations, the soul is the essence of the corporeal human form and the animation of each individual human being. From this premise, it is generally surmised that in order for the soul to live in harmony with itself and the external world, it must be ‘well-ordered’ in such a way that it does not contradict itself by having components that are unequally yoked or in opposition to one another. This conundrum is usually formulated as an axiom that within the soul there can be no internal discord—or that impulse must be subjugated to reason, and so on. The process by which this endemic and inherent strife plays out over time in the soul is typically classified as the ‘human condition’; the humbling knowledge of the existence of such a condition of not only wretchedness, but also that of utter ignorance, constitutes a vital aim of liberal education:

Above all it is thus that we can acquire the virtue of humility, and that is a far more precious treasure than all academic progress. From this point of view it is perhaps even more useful to contemplate our stupidity than our sin. Consciousness of sin gives us the feeling that we are evil, and a kind-of pride sometimes finds a place in it. When we force ourselves to fix the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity, a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence. No knowledge is more to be desired. If we can arrive at knowing this truth with all our souls we shall be well established on the right foundation.[2]

And thus, it would seem the path to ‘happiness,’ or ‘blessedness,’ or ‘human flourishing’ is through a re-orienting and re-ordering of the soul upwards towards what actually is, rather than what each individual wishes was. This process of re-orientation of the human soul is best undertaken through a process called liberal education, which is necessarily individual first and foremost in prescription.

What Constitutes a Liberal, or Genuine Education?

Broadly speaking, liberal education is an educational program suitable for study by a free person, aiming at ‘happiness,’ ‘blessedness,’ and ‘human flourishing.’ While this definition is by no means comprehensive or unambiguous, it is an effectual premise by which to proceed in our inquiry. In the context of liberal education, freedom is in essence the so-called ‘free-born mind.’ Freedom in this context could also be defined in a Cartesian or Hegelian manner as a type of self-consciousness endemic to, and characteristic of, the truly thoughtful individual. Inherent in such a conception of freedom, is the notion that the process known as liberal education—which is undertaken via both the senses and mental faculties—leads to both self-knowledge and knowledge of the external world, so that individuals may direct their actions and love towards that which is worthy, as opposed to that which is expedient, useful, or otherwise fleeting and superfluous:

For it seems to me that the first ideas which his mind should be made to absorb must be those that regulate his behavior and morals, that teach him to know himself, and to know how to die well and live well. Among the liberal arts, let us start with the one that makes us free. They are all of some service in teaching us how to live and employ our lives, as is everything else to a certain extent . . . Everyone should ask himself this question: ‘Beset as I am by ambition, avarice, temerity, and superstition, and having so many other enemies of life within me, shall I start speculating about the motions of the world?[3]

In this passage, Montaigne implicitly suggests what has already been hinted at throughout this exposition, i.e. that genuine education is necessarily and inherently moral and poses the fundamental questions: “what is the proper function of a human being and how should we live in light of this?” Since man is the only rational animal, the answer to the aforementioned question about adapting means to ends seems to suggest that the proper function of man is a rational life in accordance with the natural order; or to formulate this another way: the proper function of the human being is to first deduce and apprehend—and then actualize via courageous and bold activity—the Universal Principles of Reason. Thus, it would seem the first step towards human flourishing is attaining some degree of wisdom, which Cicero defined as “the knowledge of everything divine and human, and of the causes which regulate them.”[4]

‘Happiness’: What Liberal Education Aims At

It has been asserted that liberal education aims at individual ‘happiness,’ ‘blessedness,’ or ‘human flourishing,’ which Eva Brann conveyed with precision in her lecture on liberal education:

The prime object, its be-all and end-all, is happiness. All else is unintended though hoped for consequence—the less intended, the more likely to eventuate. It is emphatically neither to teach students to think—a patent impossibility—nor to make them “productive citizens”—a dangerous wish until you know what they’ll produce. Much righteous defense of non-vocational education is drivel, and people who have its future at heart should come clean. So once more: the four years conventionally assigned to such education should themselves be gloriously happy—always remembering that true happiness requires the heightening delimitation of occasional agony, confusion, and even despair. In fact, happiness as a “pursuit” is specifically American, an unalienable right (meaning not an anxious chase but a steadily pursued activity)— so says our Declaration, Public Law no. 1. Other ways to put this view of the aim of Liberal Education is that it is not a utility, a means, but is lived for its own sake. So liberal schooling must be a present experience of fulfillment, and the acquisition of the unwearying habit of thoughtful happiness.[5]

Plato, in his Republic, argued that blessedness was achieved first by the proper ordering of the soul in a descending order, where reason (the highest part of the human soul) rules the spirit and appetite: his idea was in essence to subjugate the lower parts of the soul to the higher.[6] This process of ordering oneself was necessary to transcend the shadowy world of sense perception to perceive the thing itself, or form—of which the ‘form of the good’ was the ultimate and eternal essence from which all other forms like beauty, justice, and so on, emanated. Aristotle defined ‘eudaimonia,’ or ‘complete happiness,’ as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” which implies that ‘happiness’ is a process by which virtue—or correct action in accordance with the proper nature of the human being as the rational animal—is actively made manifest in space through time. Implicit in the concept of Aristotelian Happiness is the notion that no matter one’s natural disposition or inclination towards the good, prior habits, or degree of prudence,[7] happiness lies within the power of the deliberative individual, who is responsible for intuiting First Principles before deliberating how to adapt means to universal ends in the particular circumstances that the rational human being occupies, which—in order to be deemed “happy”—must be actualized via conscious and consistent action over the course of a lifetime. Seneca and other Stoics would later argue that happiness consisted in the melding of the private and public life, with the implicit suggestion that reasoned and wise action in the public sphere could only be fueled by leisurely contemplation of what actually is in private. Later Christian neo-Platonists, tended to synthesize the wisdom of the ancients with Christian doctrines and this is perhaps most evident in Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy argued that ‘happiness’ was essentially found by the movement of the soul out of material darkness—which is at the whim of Fortune and happenstance—and into the ethereal light, where it could share in the ‘good,’ which Boethius perceived to be God: the perfect being from which all else emanates and takes it source, whose nature is complete and lacking nothing. Boethius wrote,

God, the ruler of all things, is good. For, since nothing can be thought of better than God, who can doubt that He is the good, other than whom nothing is better . . . we must agree that the most high God is full of the highest and most perfect good. But we have already established that perfect good is true happiness; therefore it follows that true happiness has its dwelling in the most high God . . . Since men become happy by acquiring happiness, and since happiness is divinity itself, it follows that men become happy by acquiring divinity. For as men become just by acquiring integrity, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so they must in a similar way become gods by acquiring divinity. Thus everyone who is happy is a god and, although it is true that God is one by nature, still there may be many gods by participation.[8]

Despite the differences and nuances present in each of these conceptions of ‘happiness’ within the Conversation itself, there does seem to be a common thread, which could be formulated accordingly: “‘happiness’ or the ‘good life’ consists in man first apprehending knowledge of things divine and human—or at least being humbled by realizing the extent of his own ignorance, leading to an acquiescence to the natural order of things—and then applying these principles which have been ascertained in one’s own active life.” Given the paltry extent of human knowledge, such a project is no small task, but rather an immensely difficult one. However, it would seem that the path towards what is commonly called happiness is an unceasing activity (that ought only end with death), with ebbs, flows, digressions, and constant revisions that occur when the seeking individual is presented with new information that challenges previously held notions of reality and one’s place in it. To put it another way: since man is the rational animal endowed with the perceptive and deliberative faculty of reason, to live well is to live reasonably in accordance with the principles of reason, which is the only part of the human soul that may be called god-like or divine. It would seem then, the only way to be truly ‘well-functioning’, ‘happy,’ or ‘blessed’ then, is to properly exercise one’s reason to live in accordance with the true nature of things.

Pedagogy: What is the Best Way to Initiate Fledglings Into the Liberal Tradition?

Since it has now been established that liberal education is necessary for genuine human flourishing and happiness, the discussion must now gravitate towards a discussion of educational methodology and means, i.e. pedagogy. First it should be noted that when discussing education, we are talking about children, rather than adults since children are a malleable potentiality, whereas adults are actualized children and not as suitable for continued development—though there are obviously exceptions to this generalization: “Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity. Since one cannot educate adults, the word “education” has an evil sound in politics.”[9]

It would seem liberal education is a twofold process, where the latter task hinges upon the former: namely, the first requisite for liberal learning is the sparking and fueling of an insatiable curiosity, where bright-eyed youths brimming with anxious excitement wish to learn the secrets of the universe and themselves. Only after this desire for learning and true knowledge has been cultivated, are young initiates ready and apt to absorb the “Great Tradition’ and its Tao—as C.S. Lewis called it in his Abolition of Man.[10] While some may argue that Rousseau overstated and exaggerated his case in Emile—going so far as to suggest that his noble savage and tabula rasa, Emile, should only read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe—there is something to be said for sparking within a young neophyte, a sense of adventure and excitement for life, which could then inspire the youth to take charge of his or her own existence. In this way, Rousseau’s pedagogical project seems to have consisted of a fueling of the spirited element of the soul, which he believed would cultivate in Emile, an insatiable desire for learning, living, and improving:

I want it to make him dizzy; I want him constantly to be busy with his mansion, his goats, his plantations; I want him to learn in detail, not from books but from things, all that must be known in such a situation; I want him to think he is Robinson himself, to see himself dressed in skins, wearing a large cap, carrying a large saber and all the rest of the character’s grotesque equipment, with the exception of the parasol, which he will not need. I want him to worry about the measures to take if this or that were lacking to him; to examine his hero’s conduct; to investigate whether he omitted anything, whether there was nothing to do better; to note Robinson’s failings attentively; and to profit from them so as not to fall into them himself in such a situation. For do not doubt that he is planning to go and set up a similar establishment . . . The child, in a hurry to set up a storehouse for his island, will be more ardent for learning than is the master for teaching. He will want to know all that is useful, and he will want to know only that. You will not need to guide him; you will have only to restrain him.[11]

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis echoes a similar sentiment, namely that his experience as an educator taught him that it is the lack of—and not the excess of—spirit or sentimentality that inhibits genuine education in the pupil:

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head . . . Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.[12]

From these two prescient passages, it seems fair to conclude that the first step towards liberal education is the sparking of the spirited part of the soul, in order to fuel curiosity, creativity, and an insatiable desire for learning. Once this prerequisite is met, the pupil ready for initiation into the liberal tradition.

The question now at hand is that once curiosity and a desire for liberal learning has been stoked, how ought this be done? As has been argued, liberal education is the only educational methodology suitable for the ‘free-minded’ individual which aims at ‘happiness,’ ‘blessedness,’ ‘human flourishing,’ and ‘human contentment,’ which seems to be possible in so far as the human individual fulfills his or her proper function by ordering themselves in accordance with the Universal to the extent humanly possible. In essence, the task of liberal education then, is to form and sharpen the faculties of perception and judgment so that the actions our subject undertakes in his or her life accord with the principles of reason and just sentimentality. This is why Eva Brann argued that before the ‘young birds’ could fly on their own, they ought to first bathe in the Great Tradition:

Some human works are best learned by doing. Improving worldly conditions is not among these. A time of receptive learning should precede active intervention; first shape yourself, then society; in particular form views about what makes for human contentment, then interfere judiciously. The necessary acquisition of technical know-how should follow the stocking of the human soul’s treasury with desirable goods.[13]

In her lecture, Dr. Brann offers a disclaimer that liberal education ought to have nothing to do with ideology, whose connotative meaning implies indoctrination, rather than the cultivation of one’s own reason and conscience:

It is an immediate consequence that education should not be preoccupied with current evils and their eradication. That project requires political engagement and usually involves ideology. Ideology, pre-packaged thinking, does not belong in a community of learning: political philosophy, yes; politics, no. The sure test is this: If people get hot under the collar it’s politics; if they become deeply interested, it’s philosophy. The program of a liberal education should concentrate on works of great quality rather than of so-called “relevance,” with its thoughtlessly complicit instrument, “information.” Information is purest relativity; it gains its standing as knowledge relative to a pre-judgment of purpose, and it preempts mentation, dislodging reflection.[14]

C.S. Lewis, echoed a similar sentiment in his Abolition of Man, where he suggested that educators in a program of liberal education ought to have a sense of reverence for the tradition they are propagating, while simultaneously being convicted to ‘raise up’ their pupils:

In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao — a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly.[15]

And thus, it would seem that the best means by which cultivate the mental and spiritual faculties of the liberal learner, is to focus on the so-called ‘Great Books,’ which Eva Brann described as,

“Great” is, once more, a concretely and specifically signifying term for us. These works are above us; we couldn’t write them. They are also for us; their authors meant for us to read them. Moreover, they affect us; they take us out of ourselves and return us to ourselves the better for it. That’s their effect on us. Here’s their nature in themselves: they are inexhaustible. Every reading, after an often semi-stunned first time, reveals subtleties unnoticed before. They are beautiful. It might be a crotchety or a canonical, a stylish or a crooked, a perfect or a blemished beauty, or—that’s a possibility—the ugly beauty of mere sharp intelligence. Great books are original; they go to the beginning of things. Great fictions give the lie to reality; they imagine worlds and figures with more actuality than mere facts possess. While it would be hyperbole to claim that they move the soul more boisterously than do real existences, it is fair to say that they move it more resonantly.[16]

Barriers to the Administration of Liberal Education on a Macroscopic Scale

There are a few caveats to the described prescription of liberal education as the means by which the human individual may attain ‘happiness,’ by aligning his or her soul with reality through the exercise of the acute faculty of reason within the structure and buttress of tradition. As Eva Brann illuminated in her lecture, first among these inhibitions is the fact that liberal education is not necessarily practical or expedient—and further it may only be undertaken if the prerequisites of adequate pecuniary means and time, i.e. leisure, are available: “Liberal education is costly. It requires leisure . . . It requires tutors, the guardians of this learning, to whom their vocation is not only their life but also a living. Consequently the night of a child’s conception should be followed that morning with the first small investment in this guarded leisure activity.”[17]

Furthermore, genuine and liberal education is only suitable for those who are so inclined and capable, as Friedrich Nietzsche implied in his lectures entitled, On the Future of Our Educational Institutions: “No one would strive for education if they knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people actually was, or ever could be.”[18] Following this premise, Nietzsche foresaw two detrimental tendencies in education, i.e. movement towards democratization and over-specialization, both of which threaten the very existence of genuine liberal education. For Nietzsche, the democratization of education could only serve to weaken and cheapen the rigor necessary for the exceptional individual to be deemed truly ‘educated.’ As he explained it, it would seem the exceptional individual would be stampeded by the herd in this new Millian program of ‘education’—aiming at the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number—administered on a mass scale:

Expansion is one of the favorite national-economic dogmas of the day. As much education as possible—leading to the greatest possible happiness . . . Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain . . . From this point of view, education essentially means acquiring the discernment that keeps a person ‘up to date’ . . . This perspective . . . gives rise to a great, even monstrous danger: that at some point the masses will jump over the middle step and run straight after earthly happiness. This is what people today call the ‘social question.’ In other words, it may seem to these masses that education for the greatest number of people is merely a means to the earthly happiness of the few, and nothing more. Striving for ‘universal education’ weakens education so much that it can no longer bestow any privileges or be worthy of any respect at all. The most universal education of all is barbarism, is it not?[19]

Another impediment to liberal learning and genuine education that aims at wisdom is the advent of academic specialization, which began in earnest in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Because naturalistic materialism became the dominant (if unspoken) cosmology of the post-Enlightenment intelligentsia, the phenomenon of specialization arose in response to the heightened importance placed on naturalism’s accompanying radically empirical epistemology. And thus, the world of education migrated from a focus on the liberal arts to scientific research, but Nietzsche saw this development as problematic and antithetical to genuine knowledge and understanding:

The current system reduces scholars to being mere slaves of academic disciplines, making it . . . increasingly unlikely for any scholar to turn out truly educated.Academic study now is spread across such a large area now that anyone with real but unexceptional talents and academic ambitions will devote himself to a narrowly specialized subfield, remaining totally unconcerned with everything else. As a result, even if he stands above the vulgar masses within his subfield, he belongs with them in everything else—in everything important. A scholar with such a rarefied specialty is like a factory worker who spends his entire life doing nothing but making one single screw . . . There have been centuries when it was self-evident that scholars were ‘educated’ and the educated were scholars . . . In practical terms, the academic division of labor is doing just what religions sometimes try to do: diminish education, even destroy it . . . We are already at the point where the scientist or academic as such has nothing to say about any serious general question, especially the deepest philosophical problems.[20]

From the aforementioned passages, it seems clear that since liberal education is about absorbing the great traditions of the past in order to form one’s own faculty of judgment, aiming at the end of living well, liberal education must be sufficiently broad rather than specialized. And further, liberal education ought to be democratic in so far as it is meritocratic: while liberal education should be made available to those who are apt and inclined, it must be protected by guardians of the Tradition itself, so that it may be preserved rather than debased and dispersed. I would argue it is indubitable that Nietzsche’s prophetic musings have continued to exacerbate and intensify in the nearly 150 years since he gave his lectures on education—which makes it quite difficult to explain the necessity and gravity of liberal education to a largely disinterested and ignorant world. And yet for the sake of the world, it is my hope that liberal education be restored to its lofty throne, if only so the illusive but exceptional human being who arises every now again may have the educational means to truly flourish.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 77.

[2] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2021), 109.

[3] Michel de Montaigne, Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), 65.

[4] Cicero, On Duties, ed. M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 64.

[5] Eva Brann, “Liberal Education,” 3.

[6] While reason ought to rule the chest (spirit) and belly (appetite) in the Platonic Tri-partite Soul, the lesser parts of the soul do serve particular purposes if they operate under the tutelage—and in accordance with—reason.

[7] In Aristotelian ethics, prudence is the supreme faculty of moral judgement and is considered the chief moral virtue which is able to adapt abstract general principles to particular circumstances.

[8] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard H. Green (Englewood, NJ: Macmillan/Library of Liberal Arts, 1962), 62-63.

[9] Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education,” (1954), 3.

[10] C.S. Lewis used the term ‘Tao’ to signify the universal, objective, and absolute abstract moral principles that order and undergird the world of phenomenon of which human beings have direct experience. Another way to express the ‘Tao’ is as the ‘Universal Laws of Nature,’ or ‘Natural Law.’ His idea was that there was a loosely organized, general, and abstract set of principles and ideas that transcended particular circumstances and were—in that sense—universal.

[11] Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Book 3” in Emile, 185.

[12] Lewis, 13-14.

[13] Brann, 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lewis, 60-61.

[16] Brann, 13-14.

[17] Ibid., 3.

[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education Lectures: On the Future of Our Educational Institutionss, 14.

[19] Ibid., 15.

[20] Ibid., 16.


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