Virtue and Classical Education: A Commencement Address to a Graduating Class

Once Albert Einstein was traveling on a train from Princeton. When the conductor came down the aisle punching tickets the great physicist reached into his vest pocket, but could not find his ticket. So he reached into the pockets of his pants, but still he couldn’t find the ticket.

The conductor said, “Dr. Einstein, it’s ok. I know who you are.”

As if not hearing these words, Einstein continued searching for the missing ticket. As he opened his briefcase to look inside, the conductor said again, “Dr. Einstein, we all know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Please don’t worry about it.”

Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets, but behind him he could see the scientist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for the missing ticket.

Rushing back to him, the conductor said, “Please, please Dr. Einstein, do not worry. I’m sure you bought a ticket. We know who you are and really, it’s no problem.”

Einstein stood up, looked the conductor in the eye and replied, “Young man, I, too, know who I am. What I do not know is where I am going.”

I don’t know if that story actually happened, but I opened my talk tonight with that story because it gets to the heart of an important truth. Sometimes it isn’t good enough to know where you are, or even who you are. You also have to know where you’re going. So in the spirit of Albert Einstein, I would like to say a few words to you this evening about where you are going.

But first of all, let me say that it is a pleasure to be able to address the graduating class this evening. What you have been given during your years of classical education at this institution is a gift you should treasure all your life. Treasure this gift in gratitude for the teachers, administrators, parents—and in some cases, grandparents—who made this education possible for you.

So, where have you come from, and where are you going?

You have been at a school that values something called “classical Christian education.” Widespread confusion exists about what this term even means. In the last twenty years, classical education has become trendy, but in the process it is easy to lose sight of the core values that inform this type of educational approach.

Whatever else we might say, classical education—both in its ancient and modern application—has been understood to be about the cultivation of virtue through the liberal arts. Now “virtue” is as misunderstood today as the true meaning of “liberal arts.” One of the worst misunderstandings of modern Christianity is the legalistic reduction of virtue to mere action. In the historic classical tradition, virtue was understood to be about having correct dispositions, and cultivating mental and physical habits that foster rightly-ordered attitudes at the deepest core of our being. Through rightly-ordered habits, dispositions, and attitudes, the virtues or excellences appropriate to the human being can be realized.

Unfortunately, modern man misunderstands attitude as much as he misunderstands virtue. If virtue has been reduced to mere action, all too often attitude is reduced to mere subjective emotion. What is lost is the understanding that our attitudes can have congruence to how reality actually is.  Our attitudes—what we are attracted to, what we find beautiful, what we consider to be ennobling, and so forth—can be either congruent or incongruent to the bedrock structure of reality.

C.S. Lewis discussed this in The Abolition of Man. Drawing on Plato, Lewis noted that the aim of education is to cultivate in students certain responses of emotion and attitude that correspond to how reality actually is. As Lewis put it, “Certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[1] Or again:

“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 mere receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”[2]

In the historic understanding that Lewis was articulating, virtue includes action but involves so much more and is rooted in attitude. And while attitude includes emotion, it also involves having dispositions tuned to reality in a special sort of way. To have virtuous attitudes and emotions is to instinctively recoil from what is base and disgusting. It is to be the sort of person who is nourished by beauty instead of triviality, who instinctively has a fitting response to what is lovely. It is to be able to go out into the world with a sense of wonder towards all that is awe-inspiring, and to derive genuine enjoyment from what is good, true, and beautiful.

Given the nominalist presuppositions of the modern age, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there are some attitudes and desires that God simply declares to be right, while there are other attitudes and desires that God declares to be wrong. But Lewis’s point in The Abolition of Man is that there is an internal grammar to the structure of creation which assures us that certain attitudes, desires, emotions, and dispositions, are more congruent to objective reality than others. What is the case sets the context for what ought to be the case.[3]

The Scriptures constantly assume that virtue includes dispositions and not merely behaviors. Many of the virtuous dispositions that God commands—dispositions like peace, gratitude, contrition, joy, compassion—all include both emotional and behavioral components. Virtuous disposition also includes such things as proper perception, right motivation, and an attraction to goodness and truth. Such dispositions are the fruit of time and good habits, which is why a person cannot suddenly become good overnight, despite the best intentions.

This challenges us to rethink the nature of emotion. In our culture, the main distinction we make with respect to emotion is between those which are pleasant vs. those that are unpleasant, with the assumption that the former should be cultivated and the latter avoided. This assumption lies behind so much of the substance abuse, immorality, and destructive habits that have become commonplace in today’s world. But the historic Christian approach has not been to divide emotions between those that are pleasant and unpleasant, but to make a distinction between rightly-ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Some rightly-ordered emotions (such as contrition) can be unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions (like happiness at an enemy’s misfortune) can feel pleasant.

Even before Christianity, Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role both in correct thinking and in helping a person’s appetites to be regulated by virtue. For the philosopher, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. The emotion follows from how reality appears to us. When we perceive the world aright, then qualities like courage, friendship, moderation, loyalty, generosity and so forth, appear to have an intrinsic fittingness. But it is also possible to experience dispositions rooted in a false perception of the world, as would be the case if I felt envy at the good fortune of another, or satisfaction when my enemy suffers pain.

One of the goals of education is to cultivate proper habits that will incline us to respond to situations with the right emotional responses. What a person gets angry about, what makes someone sad or ashamed, what causes grief, what a person feels love towards—these are all conditioned by how we see the world, and how we have been educated to perceive the world at the centermost core of our being. Without emotions rooted in a proper perception of reality, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated “happiness” but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.

The teachings of Church Fathers like St. John Chrysostom have much affinity with Aristotle since they urge us to approach our emotions with the question, “Are these emotions rightly ordered? Are they based on a correct perception of reality?” For the Patristics, the spiritual life does not involve eliminating painful emotions, but becoming the type of person whose emotional life is rightly ordered.

Let’s make this very practical. Why, as educators and parents, have we worked to expose your minds to the best literature and the finest music? Why do we strive to cultivate rationality and a well-ordered intellect through the study of history, logic, mathematics and the language arts? Why do we encourage inquisitiveness towards the natural world through the sciences? Whatever subsidiary purposes these educational pursuits may serve, all these endeavors have ultimately been aimed at helping you become the sort of people who are attuned to what reality actually is. Through such attunement, the student is given the opportunity to become a man or woman with a well-ordered mind, a gentle heart, and rightly-ordered affections. The student is equipped to have an aesthetic as well as an ethical objection to engaging in deeds that misfit our nature, and instinctively to recoil at that which is disordered and base. As the playwright Sophocles has one of his characters say, “All is disgust when one leaves his own nature and does things that misfit it.”[4]

The legalistic understanding of virtue as mere right behavior fails to take into account that both the moral corruption of the individual, as well as the moral corruption of society as a whole, are both preceded by a corrupting of sentiments and affections. The corrupting of sentiments occur when things that are ugly and base are perceived as good and noble, or when good and noble things cease to be apprehended as good and noble, or when good and noble things begin serving as idols. To address such idolatry, we need more than simply correct behavior, as if virtue involved little more than trying harder to stop sinning. We also need more than simply correct concepts, as if a “Christian worldview” is enough. Rather, the answer to idolatrous sentiment is a type of virtuous sentiment that instinctively perceives idolatry as a misfit, as a departure from nature. For example, the internal sensor of a well-educated student should immediately perceive the misfit when knowledge is corrupted into mere data, when thought is corrupted into calculation, when patriotism is corrupted into blind obedience, when beauty is corrupted into sentimentalism or romanticism, when courage is corrupted into bravado, when compassion is corrupted into tolerance, and when love is corrupted into lust, and so forth.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis suggested that this process of training a student’s deepest dispositions occurs even before a child has learned to reason, as he or she is nourished in the right attitudes.

“The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful…. From his earliest years [he] would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”[5]

Cultivating correct dispositions is hard work and requires years of right habits—habits that may seem drudgery at the time but which have as their reward the flowering of a certain sort of person. It’s easy to misunderstand the nature of this type of reward, since often the rewards we receive from hard work have no organic connection to the labor. For example, when I tell my son I will pay him $5.00 after he has mowed the lawn, or when I tell my daughter we will go to the lake after she has cleaned her room, there is no natural connection to the work and the reward. But sometimes we do experience rewards that are organically connected to the work that earned them. For example, the enjoyment of reading Virgil in the original language is organically related to the work of studying Latin and learning to appreciate good literature. Or again, the enjoyment a man derives from having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman is organically related to the work of becoming virtuous himself. One who has not worked to appreciate good literature may puzzle why another would prefer Virgil over comics, just as a man who has not worked to cultivate virtue may find it hard to understand why another man would enjoy having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman.

On the same principle, when we say that education is its own reward, we mean that becoming a certain sort of person is the natural reward of our formative educational habits. We want to become people with dispositions attuned to reality, people of gentle heart, people with rightly-ordered affections. These goals are achieved through habits that may not seem particularly educational or pleasant at the time. Consider, why do our parents insist that we do things like make our beds every morning, do our chores in the afternoon, listen to good quality music, and practice daily spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible reading? Why do our teachers insist that we conjugate verbs, practice scales on our instruments, and diagram sentences? The real value of these good habits is that they orient us towards the end of rightly-ordered attitudes—ultimately, being able to recognize what is lovely, being able to be attracted to what is right, and being able to derive genuine enjoyment when discord resolves into harmony, and when chaos gives way to order. Such dispositions are formed through years of right habits, including habits that may seem humdrum and monotonous at the time. Through right habits, we are trained to distinguish what we ultimately desire from the pull of our own short-term wants, and thus to be buffered against easy manipulation from other people’s opinions and advertising. Right habits give us the tools to say “This is the right path even though I feel a desire for something else.” On the other hand, a person without good habits might objectively recognize what is good, and yet be powerless to reach towards it against the pull of the passions.

Good habits do more than merely buffer us against the passions; they free us from having to constantly think about our behaviors. A child who has been trained to habituate basic behaviors like courtesy, politeness, self-control, attention, neatness, and obedience, will then have cognitive resources freed up to work on more lofty goals. For examples, habits of basic attention can become a basis for developing inner stillness; habits of observation can become a basis for developing contemplation; habits in routines like regular exercise or keeping your room tidy can become a basis for developing habits in ascetic disciplines.

Through virtuous habits, our hearts are ultimately prepared for the rewards of heaven. But like I mentioned earlier, we often misunderstand the nature of future reward and to reduce it to something like, “Be good and then God will reward you with more treasure in heaven.” A better way to think about future rewards is to realize that your aim is to become the sort of person who will be able to enjoy God’s presence. To return to the example I gave earlier: just as the enjoyment a man derives from having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman is organically related to the work of becoming virtuous himself, so the unfathomable joy of being eternally united with Christ is organically related to our present-day struggles to grow closer to Him. By growing deeper in our relationship with Christ through spiritual disciplines and habits of virtue, we gradually become the type of man or woman who can enjoy Christ’s presence, both in this life and in the next. As C. S. Lewis remarked in The Problem of Pain, “the joys of Heaven are, for most of us in our present condition, ‘an acquired taste.’”[6]

But just as we can acquire dispositions that enable us to delight in what is good, true, and beautiful (ultimately in God Himself), it is also possible to corrupt ourselves so that heavenly joys are perceived as torment. Accordingly, it is not so much that the wicked are deprived of heavenly pleasures when they die, but that their soul-corrupting habits have created a condition whereby they cannot receive heavenly pleasures as pleasure, like Milton’s Satan whose hatred of earthly beauty portended his much greater hatred of heavenly joy. From Paradise Lost Book 9:

With what delight could I have walked thee [earth] round,
If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange
Of Hill, and Vallie, Rivers, Woods and Plaines,
Now Land, now Sea, and Shores with Forrest crownd,
Rocks, Dens, and Caves; but I in none of these
Find place or refuge; and the more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries; all good to me becomes
Bane, and in Heav’n much worse would be my state.

Satan hated the beautiful hills, valleys, and rivers of his earthly exile, yet preferred these to the torment he would undergo if faced with the beauties of heaven. Paradise Lost, like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, explores the paradox of a being who has become so corrupted that he prefers misery to the infinite pleasure of the beatific vision. What this has to do with schooling is that education, properly conceived, is the project of making  students into people who delight in the good, and who can enjoy the beautiful, rather than those who, like Milton’s Satan, recoil at what is good.

We all long for Christ’s presence, for the beatific vision. We long for Him like flowers stretching forth towards the light of the sun, for it is in our nature to aim towards what is good, true, and beautiful. But the impulse towards the good often misfires as we follow after merely transitory and temporal goods rather than the Eternal Good, or as we pursue the fleeting ephemeral beauty of this world that cannot satisfy the soul. Because of our fallen state, we do not approach God directly, but through the good things of creation. For example, the sense of completion we feel when we love and are loved by another prepares our hearts for unity with God. The sense of wonder we feel when contemplating objects of beauty prepares our hearts for the beauty of Christ. When we experience human forgiveness, understanding, compassion, empathy, or encouragement, these qualities become icons of God’s love for us. The temptation, however, is to treat these things of creation (which, though good, are still merely transient goods) as if they are ultimate ends rather than means towards the One who is Ultimate Good. The power transitory goods have for enticing us away from the Ultimate Good lies precisely in the fact that they are genuine goods, for it is far easier to turn genuinely good things into idols than those things that are obviously bereft of life and beauty.

Recognizing this puts an additional imperative on the educator. Education should serve the dual purpose of cultivating dispositions attuned to what is good, true and beautiful in this world, while also cultivating a sense of holy discontent that refuses to be satisfied with anything but God Himself. The manifestation of what is good, true and beautiful in creation should be seen as an icon of the Eternal Good, Truth, and Beauty, but it is only an icon; the reality towards which these qualities point can only be found in the happy vision of God. That is why the most moving poetry, the loveliest music, the most beautiful literature, always leave us slightly unsatisfied. The best art points beyond itself and awakens within us deep yearnings for something more.

Recall Plato’s wonderful allegory about the cave. A group of people have been chained to the wall of a cave all their lives. Behind them is a fire that causes shadows from the outside world to be projected on the cave’s wall. These shadows make up the prisoners’ only experience of the outside world. But imagine that one of the prisoners is suddenly freed. At first the light of the sun will hurt his eyes, and he might long to return to the familiar world of shadows. To his unaccustomed eyes, the shadowy forms in the cave seem more substantial than the world from which the shadows are but a dim reflection. Perhaps he is dragged up a rough ascent and out into the sun. This would no doubt give him pain and make him angry, which would only intensify his reaction against the radiant light of the sun. His pain would confirm him in his preference for the bondage of the cave over the freedom of the sunlit lands.

Whatever else this story may have meant for Plato, it certainly functions on one level as an allegory of education, and the role that philosophers serve in pointing us to ultimate forms. Today our parents, teachers, and clergy are reminiscent of Plato’s philosophers, who keep dragging us into the light, sometimes against our will. When our eyes are still unaccustomed to looking upon higher things, the transitory things of this world (e.g. things like fast-food, television, popular music, computer games) seem more real to us. And yet our teachers drag us away from these vanities into the world of liberal arts, a world that will free us if we surrender to it long enough for our eyes to become accustomed to its light. In a similar way, our parents force us to develop good habits—habits that seem monotonous and unexciting at times—in order that we may experience the liberating effects of virtue.

That is not all there is to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Once the liberated man can fully see and understand, he has pity for the remaining cave-dwellers. He returns to the cave with a message of liberation. He explains to the other prisoners that there is a reality of which the shadows on the wall are but a dim reflection. Yet unable to imagine anything beyond their present world of shadows, the prisoners prefer to remain in the cave. They have mistaken the world of appearances for the reality itself.

We do not live in a cave. We live in a world where we are surrounded by beauty and love, where every day we taste from heavenly blessings graciously bestowed on us by the Creator. Yet compared to the eternal realities awaiting us in the new heavens and the new earth, even these earthly blessings are but dim shadows. Our sin ties us to the bondage of chasing after shadows within the immanent sphere, rather than using these shadows as a ladder to ascend to the transcendent realities they reflect. This is a bondage from which we cannot escape ourselves. We are like prisoners chained to the cave, always dragged down by transient ends and transitory pleasures. Or, as St. Augustine eloquently put it in Book Two of The Confessions, “the soul commits fornication when she…seeks apart from thee what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to thee.”[7] The solution to this—which Plato could not conceive even in his wildest dreams—is when the true form of The Good became enfleshed and entered into the cave with us, to free us and show us the way out. Thus, the ultimate answer to the problem of the cave is not in philosophy, as Plato thought, but in joining ourselves to the God-man and availing ourselves of His redemption.

One of the deepest theological reflections on Plato’s cave comes from the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, and his posthumously published book The Rod, The Root and the Flower. Let me read you a passage from the book.

Plato’s cave of shadows is the most profound and simple statement of the relation of the natural to the spiritual life ever made. Men stand with their backs to the Sun, and they take the shadows cast by it upon the walls of their cavern for realities. The shadows, even, of heavenly realities are so alluring as to provoke ardent desires, but they cannot satisfy us. They mock us with unattainable good, and our natural and legitimate passions and instincts, in the absence of their true and substantial satisfactions, break forth into frantic disorders. If we want fruition we must turn our back to the shadows, and gaze on their realities in God.

It may be added that, when we have done this, and are weary of the splendors and felicities of immediate reality, we may turn again, from time to time, to the shadows, which, having thus become intelligible, and being attributed by us to their true origin, are immeasurably more satisfying than they were before, and may be delighted in without blame. This is the ‘evening joy,’ the joy of contemplating God in His creatures, of which the theologians write; and this purified and intelligible joy in the shadows—which has now obtained a core of substance—is not only the hundredfold ‘promise of this life also,’ but it is, as the Church teaches, a large part of the joy of the blest.[8]

Patmore understood that when heavenly shadows reach us they can provide limited satisfaction, and can even be delighted in, yet this very delight depends on recognizing these shadows as reflections of a higher reality. This is comparable to a man taking delight in a portrait of his beloved because it is such a good reflection of her. But the man would be a fool if he became so attached to the painting that he could not leave it to see the woman herself when she had arrived in town. Similarly, once the good and beautiful things of this world are treated as ends in themselves, they become empty sources of illusory promises. The beauteous forms that haunt our world become mere cheats unless they serve as icons of something beyond themselves.

David Fagerberg, who teaches liturgical theology at the University of Notre Dame, reminds us that we should not spurn the genuinely good things of this world, but recognize them as prototypes of deeper desires that can only be fulfilled in God. “Because we are in the image of God,” he writes in Consecrating the World, “we have a desire for God, and the icon will always seek its prototype; but because we are fallen, our desire regularly fastens upon inadequate objects. That is why it is so important to keep our desire alive… Once our desire has attained any finite object, we will know that this was not the true country for which we yearned. We must live from the paradoxical tension of neither spurning nor being satisfied with any earthly blessings… Earthly goods can arouse our appetite for heavenly goods so long as we do not fixate on them.”[9]

My friends, the choices you go out from here and make, the material you feed your imaginations with, the attitudes and habits you cultivate through thousands of little choices you make every day—all these will ultimately determine what you enjoy, what types of things you desire, and what rival visions of the Good Life you will, or will not, allow to be nourished in your heart. Through your habits, you can determine whether the good and beautiful things of this world become ladders by which you ascend to heaven, or idols that drag you down to hell.

Think of virtuous habits like armor to protect you from the rival visions of the Good Life. Through our culture’s media, advertising and entertainment industries, we are constantly assaulted with rival images of what it means to flourish as a human being. The Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has done a good job of showing that these rival visions of the Good Life appeal to our hearts at the level of gut instinct; they appeal to the emotional component of our being. One of the problems with conceiving virtue legalistically—in terms of mere rules and arbitrary commands rather rightly-ordered affections—is that we create a dangerous vacuum in the affective side of our being, leaving us unguarded against these rival visions of what it means to flourish as a man or woman.

One of the most pervasive competitors against the Christian understanding of flourishing is the notion that the Good Life is found in personal happiness. The false promise of this type of transitory happiness is often held out to graduates when they finish high school. I’ve sat through graduation addresses at high schools where I hear charges like, “go out and pursue your dreams and everything else will fall into place,” or  “you’re so special that you deserve to go out and have fun,” or “you’ve just graduated from one of the best schools, and therefore, you should be able to accomplish anything you set your hand to.” It always bothers me when I hear things like this, because it is setting the students up for failure. Given the type of world in which we live, few of us can ever fully attain these hedonistic goals, and those who have been properly educated would not wish to.

The reality is that a well-educated man or woman is being educated for pain. That’s not the sort of thing you want to hear at a graduation ceremony, but it’s true and so I’ll say it again: if you have been well-educated, then you have been educated for a life of pain.

Recall what I shared earlier from The Abolition of Man, where Lewis suggested that the purpose of education is the right-ordering of the affections, and the aligning of our attitudes with the structure of what reality actually is. Well, it is worth reflecting that with rightly-ordered affections comes emotional vulnerability, not personal happiness. To illustrate this, consider civic virtues like patriotism and friendship. The feeling of loving my country is congruent to the virtue of patriotism, but with this disposition comes the possibility of emotional vulnerability if, for example, I watch my country abandon its ideals or become subject to defeat. These unpleasant feelings are something that a mere mercenary could never be vulnerable to. The more you excel in the virtue of patriotism, the more susceptible you are to unpleasant emotions in the face of your country’s destruction. Indeed, unpleasant sensations are sometimes the appropriate consequence of rightly-ordered dispositions. Consider the virtue of friendship. With this virtue comes the possibility of emotional vulnerability if your friend betrays you, or if your friend falls into pain and you are unable to help. The more you excel in the virtue of friendship, the more vulnerable you will be to heartache and sorrow.

What is true of civic virtues like patriotism and friendship is also true of the artistic and intellectual virtues. When your eye has been trained to appreciate the finest art and your ear has been tuned to the greatest music, then you may be vulnerable to sorrow when witnessing the aesthetic relativism and artistic complacency that dominates so much of our contemporary culture. Similarly, to excel in the intellectual virtue of sound reasoning and cogent argumentation is to be vulnerable to frustration and even sorrow when witnessing the crude sloganeering that dominates our public discourse. And yet, a well-educated person willingly embraces these unpleasant emotions. Part of what it means to be well educated is to prefer such discomfort to ignorance. An educated person prefers the burden of knowledge and good taste to the satisfied complacency of ignorance. As John Stuart Mill famously observed, it is better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a pig satisfied.

It is the virtue of love that presents the ultimate vulnerability. This is something lacking in Aristotle’s account of the virtues, and it only really comes to fruition in the Christian tradition. For Aristotle, the perfect man is self-sufficient in himself, and so Aristotle conceives prideful self-satisfaction as a virtue. There is no humility for Aristotle’s perfect man. Jesus—who showed love through vulnerability, weakness, and humility—falls quite short of perfection by strict Aristotelian standards.

But even in the ancient world, we catch glimpses of this fundamental truth that there is a type of love that can only be perfected in and through weakness, vulnerability, and pain. This emerges in Homer’s portrait of the hero Odysseus.

In the Odyssey—and actually, in the Iliad as well—Homer portrays Odysseus as a well-rounded man who is both an excellent athlete as well as an excellent artist (recall that the most famous sections of the Odyssey consist in Odysseus telling a poem in the hall of the Phaeacians). He excels in the manly arts of battle because of his great strength and his great intellect. He is tough but he is also sensitive. He has a disposition highly attuned to beauty. But he is not a god; he is a very human character, and with his humanity comes vulnerability.

Remember that Achilles was presented with the choice of having a long peaceful life, but without glory and honor, vs. a life that will end in an early and violent death, but with much glory. Since Achilles is Achilles, there is only one acceptable option: to pursue glory and honor even at the expense of his own life. Odysseus is given a variant of the same choice during his exile on Calypso’s island. He can stay with the nymph and live the immortal life of a god—a life untroubled by hardship, want, and the threat of death—or he can be true to his nature and pursue the things that have always meant the most to him, namely his family, his subjects, his true homeland, and above all his wife Penelope waiting patiently for his return.

From one standpoint, staying with Calypso would have been the sensible decision, for when Odysseus chooses to leave Calypso for his homeland, he is choosing to embrace vulnerability. He is choosing to live the life of mortality, with its promise of trouble, of slow aging, and ultimately death. Recognizing this, Calypso reminds Odysseus of all the troubles that will await him if he chooses to leave her. Remain here, she says, and you will be beyond the reach of death, and you can rule in calm possession of this dominion. The choice that Calypso offers Odysseus is that of transcending his human nature, and thus transcending the fragility and pain with which that nature is associated.

See Also

Odysseus recognizes exactly what is at stake when he turns from the path of the gods, represented by Calypso, and embraces the path of the human, as represented by Calypso’s counter-part Penelope. When Calypso puts this choice before him, elucidating the troubles that will await him if he chooses to leave her, Odysseus replies, “I know the truth of everything you say.” He knows that trouble awaits him, and he knows that Penelope is not to be compared in beauty to the goddess. Still, he explains,

But even so, what I want and all my days I pine for

Is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming.

And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water,

I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me,

For already I have suffered much and done much hard work

On the waves and in the fighting. So let this adventure follow.[10]

In other translations, the last words “let this adventure follow” is translated “let new tribulations join the old.” Odysseus knows that suffering awaits him, but he gladly embraces it. The choice Odysseus faced with Calypso is similar to the choice he faced when passing through the land of the Sirens. You recall that these woman-like creatures lured sailors off their course with their enchanting singing—music that is so beautiful that no man who hears it is strong enough to resist the fatal call. But Odysseus would rather make himself vulnerable to this beautiful music, despite the painful longings it evokes within him, than to do the sensible thing and pass by with his ears plugged with wax. We might say that Odysseus is choosing the path of an unsatisfied Socrates. You all know how the story goes: he commands his men to tie him to the mast with strict instructions to disobey the orders he will inevitably start issuing once he falls under the spell of the Siren’s song. In the choice to make himself vulnerable to the beauty of the Siren’s music even though it comes with pain, and again in the choice to become vulnerable to aging and death by returning to the arms of Penelope, we catch a glimpse of a uniquely human set of priorities that characterize Odysseus. But with these values comes vulnerability. Odysseus chooses to pursue distinctively human virtues, including those that are inextricably linked to the vulnerability of mortal human experience and love.

To love is to be vulnerable. To pursue beauty and truth is to be vulnerable. Ultimately, to be human is to be vulnerable. But with the fragility, limitation, pain, and vulnerability of human experience comes the joy, beauty, and uniquely human values that give our life its richness. Both Achilles and Odysseus realized this in their different ways, for they knew that to become invulnerable like the gods would be to abandon all that makes human experience truly worth living.

The gods themselves seem to recognize this. When the Greek gods fall in love, they fall in love with human beings. That which makes human beings vulnerable also makes them attractive and beautiful in the eyes of the immortals. Thus, the Olympians often descend from their pristine heavenly existence in order to pursue a love mediated through imperfection and weakness. It seems as if that which makes human beings vulnerable also makes them loveable. Even with Calypso, the manly virtues that must have made Odysseus so attractive to her were those the hero forged in the fires of hardship, battle, struggle, and human vulnerability. In loving Odysseus, Calypso herself becomes vulnerable, as she experiences the pain of unrequited love.

This tradition of gods condescending to the level of human vulnerability finds its greatest expression in the incarnation, where the Creator God embraced the vulnerability of human life, and then the vulnerability of a painful human death. In the revelation of God in Christ, we confront a truth that was only partially glimpsed in the tradition of Greek mythology, namely that the highest form of love is one that is mediated through weakness, vulnerability, and pain.

All of you will go out from here like Christ–and like Odysseus–to confront a world of pain. You will find yourself shouldering burdens and embracing a life of risk. You will find that to be human is to be vulnerable. The choice each of you face is not whether you will face hardship, but whether you will confront hardship in a spirit of virtue and courageous vulnerability.

The hard fact is that many of your lives will not be successful by worldly standards. But that does not mean you cannot live the Good Life. Some of you may face pain, illness, divorce, bankruptcy, and death of loved ones. Eventually, you will be facing your own death. But if you strive for virtue rather than happiness, then you will have the opportunity to realize a type of beauty that can only be known in pain, a joy that can only be known in vulnerability, and uniquely human values that are forged in weakness.

Theodore Roosevelt talked about this attitude of courageous vulnerability in his famous “Man in the Arena” speech. Roosevelt contrasted a soul that is cold and timid with one that can dare greatly, even if it means opening oneself up to the risk of defeat. I want to leave you tonight with Roosevelt’s words:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”[11]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Collier Books, 1955), 29.

[2] Lewis, 25.

[3] For those who have been convinced by Hume that one cannot infer ought from is, I can only exclaim, “Read Alasdair MacIntyre!”)

[4] Sophocles Sophocles II, trans. John Moore (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 230.

[5] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 6–7.

[6] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 61.

[7] St Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Albert Cook Outler, (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 2002), 272.6.14.

[8] Coventry Patmore, The Rod, The Root and the Flower (Freeport, NY: Books For Libraries Press, 1950), 76.

[9] Fagerberg, Consecrating the World, 18–25.

[10] Book V: 219-220, The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (New York, NY: HarperCollins), p. 94.

[11] Theodore Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena: The Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. Brian Thomsen (New York, NY: Forge, 2003), 5.

Further Reading

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