Liberal Arts and the Human Soul

by Dr. James A. Arieti, Thompson Professor of Classics

In the fall of 2010, I sent an e-mail to my colleagues on the faculty bemoaning the decision of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, to add business, engineering, and other vocational tracks to its curriculum. I argued in my message that doing so would destroy or at the least undermine its status as a liberal arts institution. I drew attention to the implicit charge of all liberal arts colleges, one explicitly and gloriously proclaimed in Hampden-Sydney’s mission statement—to form good men and good citizens.

A good human being I defined as one whose moral and intellectual values are harmonious with those that comport best with rational arguments and the traditions consistent with those arguments. I reviewed the traditional threefold classification of human goods—psychic goods (or those of the soul), bodily goods, and external goods—and how they line up in a hierarchical order, with psychic goods first, bodily goods second, and external goods last. Finally, following the traditional inventory, I listed as among the psychic goods the various virtues—things like courage, justice, moderation, wisdom, the due adaptation of means to ends in words and deeds, and a respect for the dignity of all one’s fellow human beings and for the world of nature; among the bodily goods, health, strength, and beauty; and among the external goods, friends, family, and wealth.

Dr. James Arieti (at right) leads a seminar in the Maples.

It now seems fitting to explain with some specificity how the traditional core-curricular requirements at liberal arts institutions and at Hampden-Sydney in particular directly contribute to developing the psychic goals listed above. We often hear pious platitudes about traditional educational values and claims of how the great heroes of the past were as great as they were because of their fine liberal educations. But in general no account is given of precisely how the education resulted in their greatness of soul. And so I shall try to fill this gap and to lay out in what ways our core requirements aim at the goods of the soul. It will be obvious that just as not every arrow aimed at a target hits the bull’s eye, so not every class in a given discipline will achieve the effects that I outline, a matter I shall return to later.

Hampden-Sydney’s Core Requirements

Let me begin with the College’s requirement in composition, which at the College we denominate “Rhetoric.” A human being is an animal capable of reason—or, in Aristotle’s definition, capable of receiving knowledge. Reason manifests itself most perfectly in discourse and speech, that is, in observations of truth expressible in sentences. The unit of discourse is the sentence; the unit of the sentence is the word, of which there are various kinds. The relationship the words have with each other is grammar. To study grammar, then, is to study one’s core humanness. By learning to speak and to write well, students learn to formulate and then to organize their thoughts so that they become clear to themselves and to others. The ability to think and to communicate with clarity renders their interaction with other people fulfilling as well as their inner lives gratifying and rich—and these are qualities that make them good human beings and good citizens. I should emphasize that the contribution to a superior inner life is no small part of the benefits of the requirement. Were a graduate of the College to find himself stranded on a lonely island in the middle of the ocean, because of his proficiency in Rhetoric, he would be able to enjoy intelligent reflection and to provide himself no small consolation from possessing an articulate, stimulating mental lucidity.

The foreign language requirement provides all the advantages of the Rhetoric requirement and more. It enables students to look at language from outside the familiar and hence yields more insights into and understanding of the nature of language. And, of course, as almost everyone who has studied a language other than his own has discovered through the humbling process of learning it, foreign languages are very difficult. The Bible recognizes this difficulty in the story of the Tower of Babel, where the multiplicity of languages is a punishment for presumptuous pride, and the sheer handicap of communicating across languages is intended to tame the arrogance human beings feel because of their intelligence.

When students consider how hard it is for themselves to learn a foreign language competently, they become sympathetic to the plight of those who come to our shores as immigrants speaking foreign tongues. Cognizant of how disconcerting it is to communicate even in the safety of a foreign language classroom, they realize just how hard it is to communicate across borders. As the chief operation of a good person is to feel moral sympathy for others—as enshrined in the famous rules of Hillel, Jesus, and Adam Smith—it is clear that the study of a foreign language will contribute to the goal of forming a humane, compassionate human being, quite apart from any occupational or travel benefits that may accrue. The College exempts from the language requirement foreign students for whom English had to be learned as a second language. The justice of this policy should be evident from the preceding remarks.

Though the mathematics requirement, after the foreign language requirement, is probably the one most dreaded, it is fundamental to forming good persons and good citizens. When students learn a theorem and have understood its formal mathematical proof, they have arrived at as persuasive a conclusion as possible. A mathematical proof requires definitions, a small number of axioms (self-evident truths), and a string of propositions made deductively in accordance with the rules of logic. When students have reasoned their way to a mathematical conclusion, they are persuaded that they have achieved a level of knowledge (and the knowledge that they know) that they acquire from no other intellectual exercise. What mathematics contributes to their psychic excellence is a standard by which they can assess the degree to which they know. What I mean can be illustrated with an example. When a student has been through the geometrical proof that the interior angles of a triangle equal two right angles, he is absolutely convinced of the accuracy of the conclusion. He has a canon, or ruler, by which he can easily calculate the degree of his knowledge about other matters—the excellence of this or that novel, the moral or practical benefits of this or that policy, the accuracy of these or those experimental data. Math offers a yardstick, as it were, to assess knowledge in general. Using this yardstick, a person can then be appropriately skeptical or appropriately certain. As a good person will know when to affirm with certitude and when not, and as the latter will in the course of things be far more frequent than the former, he will be suitably cautious and confident according to the varying circumstances.

Because the College’s Western Culture requirement combines the overlapping benefits of history and literature, I shall take up the requirements in literature, history, and Western Culture together. The often repeated assertion that a mere knowledge of history will keep us from being doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, alas, is false. Indeed, what history shows is that the same mistakes are made over and over again, just as Thucydides predicted they would be so long as human nature remained the same. It is, in fact, a question whether an acquaintance with history actually causes a repetition of mistakes. Did the calls to remember the appeasement of Hitler at Munich elicit the war in Vietnam, a war that perhaps repeated some of the errors of World War I (which the appeasement at Munich was intended to avoid)? We should be better off looking elsewhere for the benefit of history to our souls. I suggest that the value of history is that it forces us to imagine times and places unlike our own and thus obliges us to exercise our imaginations, to put ourselves in the situations of others, to try to conjure times and places removed from our direct experience, and to compare the values, motives, and manners of people different from ourselves. It enables us to be as spectators in conflicts of which we have no part so that we can reflect with a disinterested clinical detachment on the totality of actions and arrive at disinterested verdicts. This exercise may not inoculate us completely against repeating the same mistakes, but it is the preventative medicine most likely to achieve the result. Literature adds to history an even greater variety of experience and also allows us to penetrate into the psyches of characters and, unlike history, which lets us gaze on persons from the outside in, lets us gaze on them from the inside out. We read their thoughts and feelings, we watch them devising schemes and carrying them out. Along with the characters we can rehearse their reactions to crises; we can exercise our emotional responses and compare them to those of the characters; and, with the help of our teachers, we can refine our responses. We thus train ourselves for the crises that we shall encounter so that we shall be more likely to act correctly when the time comes. By enlivening our imaginations, history and literature, and their combination in our western culture course, offer a very direct preparation for the challenges of life.

Perhaps someone will ask why at Hampden-Sydney we should require Western culture as distinct from any culture whatsoever; the West, after all, does not have a monopoly on greatness. The answer may be stated briefly. It is a principle of education that we begin with what is familiar and then move to what is unfamiliar. The idea enshrined on a tablet at the holiest of ancient Greek places, the Oracle at Delphi, was “know thyself.” Part of knowing ourselves is knowing about the culture in which we live. After we have mastered this task, we can more profitably move to unfamiliar territory. For students attending an American college, familiar territory is what we find in the collection of the great works that constitute the subject matter of our western culture course. That the College remains among the few that still require a western culture course is a sign of its place at the top of the hierarchy of bona fide liberal arts institutions.

The aim of philosophy is understanding through reasoning, and, of course, a high level of reasoning is the distinguishing characteristic of the human animal. As in any natural activity, the tendency is to attempt the activity in as complete, efficient, and effective a manner as possible. Philosophy trains our reasoning to understand the world by means of the tool called logic. Like our requirement in Rhetoric, philosophy aims to render students adept at this quintessentially human quality. Liberal education, and philosophy in particular, embodies the dictum of Aristotle, that all human beings by nature desire understanding. A human without understanding, then, is like a body without food: it will wither and die. The ancients called this subject philosophy because it aims at wisdom or understanding (sophia), one of the chief goods of a rational soul.
The requirement in fine arts aims punctiliously at the appropriate and the beautiful. In theatre, it aims at the emotions appropriate to an occasion and to a character, and secondarily to the accidental qualities that might obtain. In the visual and musical arts, the goal is an understanding of the appropriate and the beautiful as apprehended by the senses of sight and hearing. In addition to an appreciation of the appropriate and the beautiful, the arts promote both ethical and epistemic values in the soul, as may be illustrated by a single example. A dramatic role—say, Hamlet—may be acted by several actors who portray the character very well even as they portray it very differently. Each actor may plausibly enfold his own creative interpretation in his portrayal and highlight a different dimension of Hamlet. When examining various performances, students can realize that within the overarching constraint of a script (or, in the case of art, an image) there can be great variability. The ethical effect of this realization will be the students’ extension of respect to people who have plausible, intelligent views different from theirs. The epistemic effect will be the consignment of genius and value to multifarious interpretations, as each underscores a different feature of reality—and the result will be for students to recognize that diversity in the interpretation of complex things (like the character of Hamlet) expands their comprehension of the range of human nature. We need only think how in painting the myriad versions of a springtime scene have each captured an aspect of the season or how in music thousands of melodies have each evoked a particular expression of the tenderness or frenzy of romantic love.

Human beings live in a material universe and are themselves made of matter, and self-knowledge therefore includes an understanding of the material world. Human reason has been able to unlock the mysteries of the natural world, to discern the relationship of parts to wholes, to investigate things smaller than an atom and vaster than galaxies, to examine phenomena that happened billions of years ago and that will happen billions of years hence. The College’s requirement of classes in natural science yields the dual and perhaps paradoxical ethical benefit of letting students recognize how small a particle a human being is in the scheme of things and yet how magnificent is the human mind that can survey the cosmos.

There is no need to discuss in detail the benefits from the other requirements, which largely recapitulate the benefits already described. Religion, for example, as an academic discipline, reveals the common quest of human beings to understand what, if anything, may be beyond nature. When students put themselves in the minds of people of other faiths who have struggled with the same issues, they develop that sympathy that lies at the heart of moral goodness.

Now perhaps someone may object that not every class in these subjects will consummate the goals that I have sketched. A student may choose a course in mathematics in which formulae are memorized rather than deduced, or an art class in which he learns nothing but the names and dates of artists, or a theatre class in which he is compelled to obey slavishly the interpretation dictated by a director, or a history class where he memorizes dry facts with no engagement of the imagination, or a language class where the difficulties of a foreign language are brushed away and all he confronts are anecdotes and PowerPoint slides of his professor’s summer travels. Whatever can be taught, can be taught poorly. And of course, for those in whom there is no inclination for learning, no amount of education, even with the most excellent of teachers, will bring about the desired results of moral and civic goodness. We should not forget that Socrates had the miscreant Alcibiades as his student and Aristotle, Alexander the megalomaniac.

The essential benefit of a liberal education, then, consists of the goods of the soul. But they are not, of course, the only goods; and at the College a student may derive benefits that he can obtain also at a non-liberal arts institution. These are collateral goods—goods to be sure—but ones not essential to the education that I have described above. From Rhetoric comes an ability to persuade—a skill that is practical in law and politics and advertising; from mathematics comes numeracy—a skill necessary for balancing a checking account, for keeping books, and for running a business; from learning a foreign language comes a facility in traveling to countries where the language is spoken, and so on. But these are secondary or even tertiary goods—collateral benefits of the subjects but not the goals of liberal education. Let me illustrate my meaning with an analogy. Let us say that a physician instructs a patient to exercise in order to improve his vascular or respiratory functions. If the patient dutifully goes through the tortuous regime, he may discover that he has also become more physically attractive, and as a result he may become more confident in social situations. The improvement in appearance is a secondary effect attributable entirely to the exercise, the increase in confidence, a tertiary effect. The patient may take great delight in his increased bodily tone or self-confidence, but to confuse a secondary or tertiary effect with the primary one would be an error. A person who exercised with the primary goal of beauty would aim at those exercises that improved his appearance rather than his vascular or respiratory condition. He would be like the person who studied mathematics to be able to keep books rather than to have a canon of what it is to know with certainty. Keeping books is a good, to be sure, but it is not a good of the soul; knowing about knowledge is, and is a much greater good.

The Challenge to Liberal Arts in the Twenty-First Century
What then is the greatest challenge to liberal education in the current century? The challenge is the same, I would argue, as it has always been—no greater, no less. It is the challenge illustrated with great force in Plato’s Gorgias, where the young men Polus and Callicles desire an education in rhetoric for the purpose of acquiring political power for themselves. It is the challenge Augustine describes in the Confessions, when he upbraided his own parents for their insouciant neglect of his moral goodness so long as he continued to pursue an education for a legal career. In short, the challenge has been in the past, continues to be in the present, and will be in the future to persuade prospective students and their parents that the goods of the soul are not only real but the most important goods. Again, let me illustrate my meaning with an analogy. One might ask, what is the greatest challenge to human nutrition in this century? The challenge is to persuade people to eat healthy foods in the right amounts. Persuading people to put nutrition first and pleasure second is, like the challenge to liberal education, not an easy one to defeat.

Why are goods of the soul so frequently discounted? As the answer to this question is not the focus of this article, I shall briefly sketch the principal cause and then set it aside. The cause principally has to do with the limitation of human vision. Moral excellence, sound judgment, appreciation for the beauty in the diversity of nature and of human insight, a sense of order, and humility are all invisible, while fine houses, automobiles, dining in cordon bleu restaurants, jewelry, shoes, and the like, since they are visible, are easily measured and compared. In a market economy, the esteem placed on things is indicated by their monetary value. That we generally pay the highest salaries to those whose work is the farthest removed from the invisible goods of the soul reflects the dismal fact that as a society we do not perceive the value in the ends of liberal education. For social animals like human beings, it is to be expected and, for the most part, it is socially useful for people to adopt the values of their community. The great challenge to liberal arts institutions is to resist the pressures to conform to the prevalent love of material goods and to adhere steadfastly to the traditional values in their hierarchical order, with psychic goods, or goods of the soul, first, bodily goods second, and external goods third.

Should liberal arts colleges teach or foster only those subjects and activities that aim at the goods of the soul? Here, I think, we need to keep in mind, as mentioned earlier, that there are goods other than those of the soul. So long as institutions provide a strict mechanism for maintaining the proper hierarchy of goods, it does not seem to me inappropriate to provide some access to the lower goods. We need not adopt the severity of our forbearers who excluded the pastime of athletic competition on the grounds that it distracted from piety. We need not forbid sports, so long as they maintain their place as a secondary good and do not usurp the liberal arts. (And this means, of course, that practices and games not encroach on the academic schedule and that funds for the institution not go disproportionately to athletics.) Shall we allow a smattering of courses whose ends are vocational, courses, say, in automobile mechanics, typing, cookery, nursing, and accounting? These subjects, while they do not aim at the goods of the soul, nevertheless do aim at goods. Here, I would suggest, we encourage students to make use of the opportunities that already exist as curricular parallels, as we do, for example, with ROTC, or to use the summer months for these subjects. They might be taken, not as substitutes for, but as add-ons to their liberal education. For the College to offer a major in these subjects, however, would not be compatible with liberal education. The term major, from the Latin, means more or greater. And when a student undertakes a major, he devotes more time and greater energy to it than to the rest of the curriculum. Were we to offer a major in nursing or accounting, these would be the foci of a student’s activity, and these are subjects that aim at bodily or external goods, not at the goods of the soul.

Such majors would thus be antithetical to the goals of liberal education. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote (Democracy in America, chapter 11): “If it be true that the human mind leans on one side to the narrow, the practical, and the useful, it naturally rises on the other to the infinite, the spiritual, and the beautiful. Physical wants confine it to the earth; but, as soon as the tie is loosened, it will unbend itself again.” The job of liberal education is to untie, to free the human mind from the physical and to let it take flight.

Let me conclude with a word about my own education. I attended Grinnell College, in Iowa, from 1965 until 1969. In those years Grinnell had a strong prescribed core liberal arts curriculum, very similar to the one Hampden-Sydney still honors. When, in 1970, President Nixon escalated the Vietnam War with an invasion of Cambodia, universities and even erstwhile liberal arts colleges, even my own Grinnell College, for reasons that I have never quite understood, went wild and either eliminated their core curricula or so diluted them as to bear little resemblance to the kind of education that Hampden-Sydney retains. They eliminated, for example, requirements in sciences and mathematics and foreign languages.

What set Hampden-Sydney apart in those bizarre times and what sets it apart today is its courageous embrace of the liberal arts. Other colleges may have endowments with a monetary value ten times greater than that of Hampden-Sydney’s, but the spiritual gold of Hampden-Sydney’s curriculum has a much greater value still.