The class of 2017 completed their high school education at Mount Royal Academy by composing ten-page essays with documentation and bibliography on a host of topics that originated from their four-year study of the Great Books of Western civilization. Many wrote on a passage inspired by a passage from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength that describes the major character in the novel as a highly educated modern man with a Ph.D. in sociology who lacks even “a rag of noble thought” in his entire education.
Some students who chose this topic contrasted Mark Studdock’s indifference to moral truth with the great Greek philosopher Socrates’ passion for wisdom whose noble thoughts consisted of seeking the truth, loving the truth, defending the truth, and even dying for the truth. Others identified Antigone, a heroic character from Sophocles’ Greek tragedies, as another figure who embodied noble thoughts, a person committed to the moral law written on the conscience and heart, obedience to the natural moral law known by the light of reason, and the eternal, unchanging law of the gods rather than conformity to unjust human law imposed by a tyrannical king who threatened her with death if she buried her brother killed in battle. Yet other students admired the noble thoughts of the Roman Stoic Aeneas, an epic hero who exemplifies all the virtues of noble Romans, a devoted leader and father who served his Trojan people, his family members, and the Roman gods with dedication and a sense of duty which the Romans called pietas—duty before pleasure, a love of the common good above personal pleasure, and a love of justice no matter the cost in trials, sufferings, or sacrifices.
Some students explored the Greek ideal of civilization the called the art of living well (a phrase from Aristotle) to show that a full, abundant life transcends mere work, possessions, power, luxury, or riches. They admired the hospitality, the leisure, and the appreciation for the beautiful in all its forms (music, dance, story, art) that marks the lives of the civilized that balance work and play and that enjoy all of life’s many blessings. Without the value of leisure and its many fruits, man is condemned to live a dehumanized existence limited only to existing or surviving rather than loving life and sharing its blessings with others.
On the other hand, the seniors noticed the decline of the ancient art of living in modern literature in the example Bartleby the scrivener, a character in Melville’s short story by that name who lives to work rather than works to live. Bartleby merely survives but enjoys neither family, friendship, beauty, art, or recreation. Working even on Sundays and living in the office, Bartleby typifies the modern man dehumanized and desensitized by living a life devoid of human relationships and joy. Without emotional, moral, and social nourishment, the soul of Bartleby atrophies and he dies a sad death.
Some students argued that the great minds and noble heroes of antiquity lived according to an honorable moral code and the highest of ideals lacking in the lives of modern characters interested only in prestige and its perquisites: Don Quixote living according to the knightly code of service, truth, justice, chivalry, and courtesy; the Greek hero Odysseus cherishing the family as the center of civilization and undergoing the greatest hardships to return home to be a father, husband, and son ; the Roman hero Aeneas striving for the Roman ideals of ending war and following the natural virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; and Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost aspiring to live in a fallen world with faith, patience, perseverance, and trust in God’s eternal Providence to bring good out of evil, joy out of sorrow, and a Paradise Regained from a fallen world.
A few students wrote on the conflicting visions of the future reflected in ancient and modern literature: the Roman epic glorifying Rome’s achievement for establishing the Golden Age of peace (the Pax Romana) that shut down “the grim gates of war” for about 100 years in Europe; the Greek epic celebrating the art of living well and the centrality of marriage and the home as the essence of creating, preserving, and perpetuating the customs and traditions that create culture and combat barbarism; the Christian epic of Paradise Lost inspiring all who suffer in a tragic, fallen world with the virtues of faith, hope, patience, courage that lead to eternal life and a Paradise Regained through Christ’s redemption of mankind—Christ the second Adam’s humility and Mary the second Eve’s obedience undoing the pride of the first Adam and the disobedience of the first Eve. These visions that lead the mind to a contemplation of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are altogether missing in modernity’s obsession in creating a utopia on earth by science, technology, politics, and the elevation of man to a god.
One student wrote on “The Moral Significance of Sleep” in Shakespeare, the sleep of peace, healing, and rejuvenating that the innocent experience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as opposed to the sleep of restlessness, nightmares, ghosts, and sleepwalking that the guilty suffer in Macbeth. Obeying or disobeying the moral law always has consequences that are manifest in simple, natural ways like sleep that reveals the state of the soul.
In the course of this year and over the span of the past four years, seniors learned that they have received a great inheritance and living tradition in the great writers and books of the past that pass on to students and all who study these works a venerable body of knowledge that amounts to the accumulated wisdom of the human race—a deposit or treasury of truth that is as valuable, timeless, and practical now as it was in the ancient world. There is no excuse for ever saying one is “clueless” in matters of good and evil and right and wrong no matter the state of political correctness or the “dictatorship of relativism” that hovers over modernity. - Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian, Humanities Teacher at Mount Royal Academy