John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue

Horner, Grant.  John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue. Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2015.

A man of virtue must have discrimination of taste.  You can only get there by being trained in virtue.  Grant Horner walks us through that process by means of the lens of John Milton.

John Milton modeled his education after the Greek “schole” (Horner 13). This type of education, what Russell Kirk would call “humane letters,” implied some degree of the leisure necessary for it.  A good education won’t yield fruit immediately.  It takes time.

Milton saw education as a partial corrective to the Fall (25; see his famous line on “repair the ruins”).  He is not saying that knowing the good means one will do the good (though the Platonic truth in that line is almost always misunderstood). Rather, imitating the good (presumably, at least by immersion in it) is itself an act of transformation and becoming.

Milton urged learning foreign languages by use, not rote memorization of charts.  Yes and no.  You have to have some rudimentary knowledge before jumping into the text.  On the other hand, though, one does make better progress through reading these great texts.  The danger, though, is to avoid what my German and Latin mentor called “taco Spanish.”  That is when you give a student a computer program to learn a language and at the end all he can really say is “taco.”

Milton also assumed you would learn Italian in your spare time, since it wasn’t difficult.

At the heart of his project is a three-fold examination of virtue. We begin with the grace of faith, then we progress in virtue, and we arrive at the perfection of a thing. Virtue is the middle term between grace and perfection.

In practical terms, and in conjunction with his language program that allows the student to view the world through language, the student should be reading heroic literature.  This creates an “admiration of virtue, stirred up with high hopes living to be brave men, worthy Patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages” (Milton “Of Education”).

The Miltonic goal is to unite intellectual, physical, and spiritual teaching into one unity.


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