The Four Causes of Classical Education

When do you really know what something is?” When your philosophy teacher asks this, your gut reaction is to roll your eyes and say, “Here we go again.” Or you get up and walk out. Or—and this is the best option—you say, “Hmm. I’ve never thought about that.”

Thinking deeply about thinking is what philosophers do. Our pragmatic American society may look down on philosophy, but it is important to ask questions about fundamental things—things that most intimately affect our actions. If someone were to ask you what classical education is, could you give a clear, succinct answer? For if we are to defend or engage in classical education, shouldn’t we be able to define it?

When do you really know what something is? Maybe it is when your senses perceive it: I see a table, therefore I know what a table is. But that isn’t how daily life works—if I see a wedge for splitting wood but I’ve never cut wood in my life, do I really know what it is?

Maybe you know what a wedge is when you see the second or the third splitting wedge. After all, when a child sees his first table he doesn’t know that it is a table, but after he sees a few, he begins to equate “table” with that tall thing with a flat surface. But he doesn’t know that the table can be made of wood, metal, or some other substance; that it is for eating on and was made by a table maker. So does he really know what it is—or does he just know how to describe it?

Aristotle states in his book, the Physics, that you know what something is when you know its four causes: the formal cause, the material cause, the efficient cause (also called “agent cause”), and the final cause. The formal cause is the thing’s shape or soul. The material cause is what it is made of. The efficient cause is who or what makes it, and the final cause is what its purpose is. The traditional example for showing the four causes is a sculpture of a man: The material is the clay, the form is of a man, the efficient cause is the sculptor, and the final cause is to be looked at.

As students of the classics and classical heritage, we ought to look at the four causes of classical education as we seek to know what it is. This will help us come to a full definition of classical education that includes all its essential aspects. A definition should lead us to some clarity.

Let us first examine the material cause, as we might assume it to be the most evident. So what is education made up of? Books? Facts? Knowledge? Students? Whichever we choose, it will have far-reaching effects. If we choose books, the whole process becomes abstract and impersonal. If we choose facts, will we then be seeking to simply form informational robots? Though books and knowledge are crucial, they are a means to shape the material. The material we are working with is the child himself. Any assertion that the material cause is something other than the child reduces education to a set of formulaic rules or a “method” to follow. What is the point if we don’t aim to form the child?

Before getting to the formal cause (what we aim to form the child into), let’s first examine who or what is effecting the change in the student—the efficient cause. We could propose that the information presented or the exercises worked are educating the child, but the easy answer is the teacher. Asserting that the teacher is the efficient cause is in accord with what St. Augustine says in his work, De Catechizandis Rudibus (On Instructing the Unlearned). He is writing to a deacon who finds himself often recommended as a teacher to those wanting to learn the faith and become Christians. Augustine’s entire work centers around how the teacher ought to make his discourse interesting, and how the teacher should intimately know his students to customize the lesson for them. Clearly the teacher is the efficient cause of the education of the child.

The formal cause then is the ideal the teacher has in his mind of what he wants the unformed student to become. For every teacher the goal could be different. Some teachers may want their students to get good jobs, or to be replicas of Medieval scholastics, Renaissance men, or the orators of Roman times. Which of these is the best option? Or is there a different form that is best to mold a child into? Chapter Eight of De Catechizandis Rudibus sheds some light on this. In it, St. Augustine answers how someone who has been liberally educated should be taught the faith. He says:

It can scarcely fail to be the fact that a person of this character has already acquired a considerable knowledge of our Scriptures and literature; and, furnished with this, he may have come now simply with the view of being made a partaker in the sacraments.

Augustine saw a liberal education as the best way to prepare someone to embrace the Christian faith. Then we can say the form a teacher should intend to mold the student into is that of a liberally educated person—a person skilled in the liberal arts and steeped in the Great Books, which is fertile soil for the Gospel.

And finally the final cause: To what end is a classical education oriented? Why should we seek to attempt to mold a child into a liberally educated person? For the same reason for which we were created: To be in the image and likeness of God, He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The parallel to goodness, truth, and beauty is unmistakable. What better way to bring ourselves into correspondence with our nature than to be able to recognize the truth (wisdom)? What better way than to faithfully walk in the Way (virtue)? It seems that to lead a full, beautiful life, wisdom and virtue are the two essential components. By saying the final cause of classical education is wisdom and virtue, what we are really asserting is that we want the child to live fully according to how he was created: in God’s image and likeness. We recognize that God is the one bringing about that final goal (He is the prime mover behind the teacher and working directly in the child) and we do everything we can to “prepare the soil.”

Therefore, classical education is a teacher forming a child into someone skilled in the liberal arts and steeped in the Great Books in order to instill wisdom and virtue.

That, folks, is a definition. Now that we have come to it, let’s examine it.

“A teacher forming a child.” There is a mentor-mentored aspect of education that is essential. The teacher who contends that children learn from their peers is breaking the chain of tradition, of which the teacher is an essential link. While the best version of this is in a person-to-person relationship, you could argue that those who have been largely self-taught (think Abraham Lincoln) had lengthy conversations with the greatest minds by reading their books again and again. By thinking through the ideas and arguments presented in a book, the reader dialogues with the author.

“Skilled in the liberal arts.” The liberal arts are domain-specific skills. You don’t learn grammar in a vacuum; you learn grammar in the context of a language (preferably Latin). You don’t learn out-of-context “critical thinking skills”; you learn the rules of logic in the context of real argument. You don’t learn oratory through abstraction; you learn the means of persuasion and how to apply them in an actual speech or article. You don’t learn mathematical functions without numbers; you learn the theory and application of discreet and continuous number. Grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (understood in the Medieval sense) are the sine qua non of education. This statement would require its own defense, and you can read more about this in Martin Cothran’s article “The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax” published in the Winter 2018 issue of The Classical Teacher.

“Steeped in the Great Books.” Civilization, for thousands of years, has been inspired by great ideals. Those ideals are passed on in the best novels, histories, dialogues, plays, speeches, and essays of mankind. To be ignorant of those works is to be ignorant of those ideals. And how is the child to live in a society that esteems those ideals if he doesn’t know them?

“To instill wisdom and virtue.” We should be able to look at any classically educated person and say, “There is a person full of good character who knows how to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, and truth from falsity.” To be virtuous is to be of good character. To be wise is to be able to make distinctions (in modern parlance, “to think critically”). Every classical school and homeschool should have the acquisition of wisdom and virtue as their goal.

Classical education is a teacher forming a child into someone skilled in the liberal arts and steeped in the Great Books in order to instill wisdom and virtue. This is our essential definition of a classical education arrived at by classical means. Now you have a response when someone asks you what classical education is.

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