Wisdom & Happiness: What Classical Education Can Do for Your Soul

classical educationOne of the measures of how hard it is to articulate the case for the value of a classical education is that you have to use the assumptions of those who don’t value it in order to persuade them that it has value.

That’s a mouthful, I know. But what I mean to say is that whenever you are asked to give a reason why your student needs a liberal arts and humanities education, you are expected to give a thoroughly utilitarian explanation, an explanation that someone with a classical education would immediately see was not only beside the point, but a little subversive of the very goals of this kind of learning.

Think about it for a second: You believe in an education that teaches students the distinction between higher things and lower things—between ends and means—between what is more important and what is less important—and what that entails for the ordering of our lives. And yet you are supposed to explain this to people in terms that ignore this distinction and what it entails.

The assumption behind the utilitarian mindset is that the most important things in life are the tangible things, like money, technical knowledge and expertise, or employability. These things certainly have a great deal of importance in life—after all, you have to eat in order even to think about what is important in life and you have to have money (and presumably a job) to eat.

But are these things inherently more important than your own happiness and the happiness of your family? Are they more important than peace of mind in this world, or eternal bliss in the next?

Means vs. Ends

This is one of the great mistakes of the modern mind—to think that means are more important than ends. The question of how we should educate our children—and whether this education should focus on technical and job skills on the one hand, or the best that has been thought and said on the other—is the same question faced by Solomon: Whether we should choose earthly riches or wisdom.

The modern utilitarian would find Solomon foolish for choosing wisdom over wealth.

One of the things I hope people get out of a liberal arts education is a way to avoid the predicament of Paul Orberson, the man who was at the top of the Excel long-distance phone-service pyramid in the 1990s. He was the guy who got a percentage of every sale to every subscriber to Excel back in the days when you still had to pay for long distance for your land line. He became extremely wealthy as a result.

Orberson was from the little town where I live and one day he came and spoke at our church. He talked of his financial success and what it had brought him. But he was there to underscore what it didn’t bring him. He talked of finally having achieved what he had aimed for all his life, and how, one day, sitting in his large expensive house in Florida with a dock and several boats, he asked himself the question “So, what now?”

Orberson wasn’t as happy as he thought he would be because he had achieved his end, but discovered that his end was only a means, and not an end at all. Nor was it a means that really brought him any closer to happiness (the only true end).

This is why, whenever I am approached by friends who are involved in some kind of pyramid-style business and whose appeal always involves the argument that joining their plan could make me rich, I ask, “Well, what would I do then?” Their almost automatic response is to say, “Then you will have enough money to do what you want to do.” And I say, “But I already do what I want to do.” And they say … well, actually they don’t say anything, because there is really nothing you can say.

I have a great job doing what I love, a great family which I enjoy, and I can sit on my cool front porch on a warm summer afternoon (or by my warm wood stove on a cold winter evening) and read, which I also love to do. Why would I want to spend time doing things I don’t like to do in order to do things I do like to do when I can already do them?

If you have already achieved your ends, or have acquired the means to achieve them readily, then you don’t need to spend the rest of your life acquiring more means. You already have your end.

And so my means-seeking friends go away—too often to unhappily pursue the things they think will make them happy but which, if they ever actually get them (which they almost certainly never will), will realize won’t really make them happy at all.


In recent years it has become fashionable to replace the term “happiness” with the term “human flourishing,” in discussions among intellectuals about the Good and the good life. This more complex expression, we are told, is the more accurate rendering of Aristotle’s eudaimonia, the Greek term traditionally translated “happiness.” This may or may not be true, but I still do not see what the expression “human flourishing” does that “happiness” does not do just as well. So I will stick with the traditional English word.

Aristotle said that happiness (apologies to the Eudaimoniites) is the thing for whose sake we do everything else. It is the one thing we do experience just for experiencing it. It is its own end. In other words, we do not seek happiness for any other reason than itself.

As Mortimer Adler once pointed out, its status as an end rather than a means is witnessed by the fact that we never directly aim for happiness itself. Because it is an end, it cannot be aimed at. The only thing that can be aimed at are the things that make us happy—the means to the end which is happiness. If we want to be happy (which we always do), then we cannot just “be happy”; we do some other thing that makes us happy. We don’t just “do happiness,” rather we golf (if golf makes us happy), or play the piano (if playing the piano makes us happy), or weed our garden (if a well-weeded garden makes us happy), etc.

These things—golf, or playing piano, or keeping a garden—are not ends, but they are proximate means: Means that lie the closest to happiness itself. If we do them, we are not led to another means; we are led directly to happiness (as opposed to what we would call “remote means,” which are means that do not bring us to an end, but only to another means).

The difference between proximate and remote means is illustrated in one of Harry Blamires’ novels in which a man goes to heaven. As part of the process of his admission, however, he must go before a panel of angels who must decide whether he can be admitted. The angels proceed to ask him a battery of questions, and they determine that he holds to all the correct doctrinal beliefs. But there is still something wrong. They begin to ask him about what it is that makes him happy. The man tells them of various things that he does, all of which, to the disappointment of the angelic panel, turn out to be means. They are not really things that make him happy. They are merely remote means that only serve to lead him to the things that he just assumes will make him happy, but which are actually only another set of means.

But in the course of the interrogation, the man mentions in passing that he smokes a pipe. One of the angels interrupts him at this point, and begins questioning him about this. One of the questions he asks is why he smokes a pipe. But the man can give the angels no answer as to why he does it. As it turns out, he does it for no reason at all—or rather, he does it for its own sake. He does it merely because it makes him happy. The angels cease their questioning, realizing that this is in fact something he does, not as a means to another means (a remote means), but as a means to nothing other than happiness itself (a proximate means).

They have discovered the man’s most proximate means, the closest thing to happiness itself. At this point, they approve his admission to heaven. It is as if they were trying to discover whether, in fact, the man had a soul at all—a soul which can only be detected by the ability to be happy. Once having discovered that he does, then they know he has something that can be admitted to heaven.

And there is another thing about happiness. Anyone who truly finds his happiness in the mere acquisition of money, or one with mere facility with technology may be happy, but in only a shallow way. He is happy only in the sense that he has exhausted his inadequate ability to be happy. His glass may be full of good things, but his glass is very small. One of the things the right kind of education does for you is to expand your capacity for happiness—to expand the number and kind of things that make you happy. That’s what training the affections—one of the essential aspects of classical education—does for you. By cultivating the taste in higher things you would not otherwise be able to appreciate, you are not just obtaining more things to be happy about; you are expanding your ability to be happy.

This can be the case with literature or music. I may find immediate gratification in a trashy novel, but not be able to appreciate Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina because I have never adequately prepared myself to appreciate its greatness. Or I may like the immediate pleasures of some form of insipid pop music (or whatever else has taken its place in the modern cultural pantheon), but because of my lack of experience and knowledge of any other kind of music, I not only don’t like more sophisticated forms of music, but I’m not able to like anything else—because my taste for other things has not been cultivated.

There are things that are deeper and richer that my sensibilities simply aren’t able to appreciate because I have never cultivated my appreciation of them. Ernest Hemingway says this about wine in Death in the Afternoon:

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased. One can learn about wines and pursue the education of one’s palate with great enjoyment all of a lifetime, the palate becoming more educated and capable of appreciation and you having constantly increasing enjoyment and appreciation of wine …

I know enough about wine to know what I like. But I have friends who have cultivated their taste in wine and their knowledge about the craftsmanship that goes into making wine. They are able to appreciate it in a way that I do not. They are able to enjoy it at a level that I cannot. Things which would have bored me before, things which would have had no appeal for me, things that involve some effort and even education to adequately appreciate can later become the means to deeper joy or fulfillment. Not only am I happier, but I am better able to be happy. It is like any ability or strength, the more you exercise it, the greater it becomes.

It is easy for us—sometimes through sheer laziness—to be content with insignificant things. This is not only a problem with the things, but with the inadequacy of our contentment. It takes a little work to be really happy.


One of the chief goals of classical learning is the acquisition of wisdom, which Thomas Aquinas defined as the ability to “order things rightly.” But in order to order things rightly, you must know their relative worth, and in order to know the relative worth of things, you must know their true or ultimate worth. As Aquinas also pointed out, you cannot say that anything is “better” or “worse” unless you have some ultimate standard that gives meaning to those terms. Something is “better” if it approximates whatever good you are relating it to better than the thing which is “worse.”

This is the knowledge that the liberal arts and humanities give you. The knowledge of the ultimate value of things so you can order everything else rightly. This kind of learning not only teaches you the distinction between the true and the false, but how to tell the more important truths from the less important ones; you learn not only the difference between the good and the bad, but how to distinguish between the more important goods and the less important ones. You learn not only the difference between the beautiful and the ugly, but how to determine the difference between the more and the less beautiful.

When someone told me a few years back that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I asked him how, then, if that were true, we could say that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a greater artistic work than, say, the Goosebumps books. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember it wasn’t very convincing.

St. Augustine said that sin was not choosing evil over good. We never willingly choose evil: we always choose something we think is better than something else. Valuing ourselves is good, if we value ourselves rightly. But valuing ourselves over God is evil (Pride) because valuing God is a greater good than valuing ourselves. Wanting to possess something is not evil, but wanting to possess a thing at the expense of another (Envy) is valuing our own material desires over the greater good of the welfare of another. Desiring sex is not evil in itself, but desiring it outside of its intended purpose is putting the lesser thing (our sensual gratification) over a greater thing (intimacy with your spouse or the raising of the children that can come of it in a traditional family). This is likewise true for all sins.

If this is true (and most Christian thinkers throughout history have agreed with Augustine about this), then knowing the relative values of things is essential even to lead a simple moral life.

And this is why, by the way, that people of little formal learning (but much wisdom acquired by experience) can often be wiser than those whose resumes are bedecked with advanced degrees. There are many people who are extremely intelligent, but they simply don’t comprehend the relative values of things. They are not wise.

To prioritize means over ends, that is, things that will never make us happy over those that will, or to prioritize anything over wisdom, is to order things wrongly, and therefore very unwise.

The Practicality of Wisdom

I remember giving a talk at a recent conference, and in the question-and-answer time, a man raised his hand and said that he wanted to defend vocational education against my assertion that a broad classical education was superior to a merely vocational one. I first pointed out that that was not exactly what I had said (there is nothing wrong with vocational education as long as it is prioritized correctly), but he went on to try to argue his position anyway. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the skills to competently do this. And the reason he lacked the skills to do it was because he didn’t have a classical education. A vocational education can teach you many good and useful things, but, unfortunately, defending vocational education (or anything else) is not one of them. Had he had a classical education, he could have done a much better job defending vocational education.

An education in the arts and humanities doesn’t teach that practical, utilitarian things are not important, but it does teach where these things fit in one’s life, and how we can order things in our lives to reflect on the knowledge of what is more or less important.

The nice thing about an education that teaches you about happiness and wisdom and the difference between man’s ends is that it is actually the most practical education you can get. The skills you learn from such an education are skills that make you better whatever you do, whether you end up being a carpenter or a mechanic—or a college professor.

Now of course it will be hard to explain all this to the family of the next prospective student in your school—or to your friends if you homeschool—but as a classical educator, you should at least understand it yourself.

Ready to make the switch? Explore our Classical Core Curriculum packages, Junior K through 9th grade!

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