Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Light of the Intellect

(I'm picking up my blogging on Charlotte Mason's Way of the Will which I started during the summer. Originally I planned to continue it through the fall and merge into a discussion of habits, but instead I got absorbed in homeschooling details -- fancy that! it seems to happen every fall! So this is an older draft that I'm brushing up and trying to finish -- it might still be a bit rough because I am still thinking some of this through)

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore your eye be single, your whole body shall be full of light. But it your eye be evil, your whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you be darkness, how great is that darkness! (Luke 11:34)

I have been trying to think about how to approach this part of Charlotte Mason's The Way of the Will, which is about the role of education in forming character. It's a tremendously large topic, and one where misunderstandings crop up often. Here are some difficulties:

  • If education is important in forming will, does that mean that an uneducated person can't be virtuous or is somehow basically inferior to an educated person?
  • If we are all broken by sin, can education really be of any help in mending our condition? Isn't this a sort of "works-righteouness?"
  • Related to the others: Can you have a strong will and yet be bad? A strong intellect, and yet be bad?
Briefly, the answers would be No, Yes, No, Sort Of. In other words, you don't have to be educated or even intelligent to live a life of virtue; education is not sufficient for virtue, yet it is important; you can have a strong will and a strong intellect and yet be bad, but only in a provisional way, defining "strength" in a value-free way. The Romans closely correlated "strength" with "virtue" (the etymology is the same "vir" which also evokes "manliness" or a specifically human type of behavior).

Aquinas writes on the question of whether there can be intellectual without moral virtue:

Other intellectual virtues can, but prudence cannot, be without moral virtue. The reason for this is that prudence is the right reason about things to be done (and this, not merely in general, but also in particular); about which things actions are. Now right reason demands principles from which reason proceeds to argue. And when reason argues about particular cases, it needs not only universal but also particular principles.

As to universal principles of action, man is rightly disposed by the natural understanding of principles, whereby he understands that he should do no evil; or again by some practical science. But this is not enough in order that man may reason aright about particular cases. For it happens sometimes that the aforesaid universal principle, known by means of understanding or science, is destroyed in a particular case by a passion: thus to one who is swayed by concupiscence, when he is overcome thereby, the object of his desire seems good, although it is opposed to the universal judgment of his reason.

Consequently, as by the habit of natural understanding or of science, man is made to be rightly disposed in regard to the universal principles of action; so, in order that he be rightly disposed with regard to the particular principles of action, viz. the ends, he needs to be perfected by certain habits, whereby it becomes connatural, as it were, to man to judge aright to the end. This is done by moral virtue: for the virtuous man judges aright of the end of virtue, because "such a man is, such does the end seem to him" (Ethic. iii, 5). Consequently the right reason about things to be done, viz. prudence, requires man to have moral virtue.
So in other words, moral virtue isn't technically necessary for intellectual strength.... you can be Harvard-bound without being Heaven-bound, so to speak, as Newman said. Yet to act rationally (ie with prudence) you need "right reason" which is informed by moral principles. And Aquinas says that if you are living badly, your intellect can be clouded because you don't have proper control over or perspective on your appetites that are contrary to reason.

Our job as parents, anyhow, whether we delegate some of the academic parts to schools or not, is to integrate religious, moral and intellectual formation, as Newman also recommended. Often, intelligent students who are formed without much attention to religious or moral principles are intelligent enough to figure out that something is missing from a purely secular academic training, and thus intelligence seems a futile gift to them, or like a tool to be exploited, or like a completely separate compartment from other things (so that you see some highly trained lawyers and doctors whose religious intelligence is that of a bright 8 year old, frozen in time exactly where their elders left it).... which invariably cheapens it and flattens it out, any way it goes.

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