Hard Times (Charles Dickens)

Imagine if the disciples of John Stuart Mill started an educational program.  Oh wait, that is where we are today.  Mill and other utilitarians taught that we should do the greatest good for the greatest number.  To be sure, that is not always incorrect.  Before we list the problems with such a position, we have to appreciate what must be the case for this to work.  In order to know the greatest good for the greatest number, we have to know the “facts.”  Fact is the key word in this novel.  Mr Gradgrind tells the teacher, one Mr M’Choakumchild, to teach them nothing but the facts.  No romance, no epics, no fancy.  Just facts.  “What is a horse?” the teacher asks.

Student: Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.

Even people who do not believe in “essences” or fixed natures know something is wrong with this definition, even though it is factually correct.

Unfortunately, the book does not maintain the tenor set by this wonderful opening. The opening leads us to believe that Cecelia (Sissy) Tupe is the main character.  She is not.  The next section of the book focuses on Stephen Blackpool.  Is he the main character?  Indeed, he is not.  The main character is probably Louisa, Mr. Gradgrind’s daughter.  In Dickens’ other works, such as Great Expectations, a single, often memorable character drives the novel. Hard Times has at least three main characters and none drive the novel.

That is a problem in this novel, but it is not an insurmountable one. In many ways, this might be the best novel to begin with.  The lack of a noticeable main character means one does not have to invest emotionally in a character, such as one would with Pip or David Copperfield.  And the book is funny and philosophically profound.

By the end of the book we realize that man is more than facts, and education is more than the sum of facts.  Here readers of Dickens (and perhaps Dickens himself) might draw the wrong conclusion.  One should not conclude that an education focused on facts and hard logic is wrong.  I myself am partial to facts.  Sentimentality unchecked can be just as dangerous.  The solution is in balance.


Epictetus (Discourses)

This is a manual for Business Ethics 101. The following metaphor is not original to me, but imagine your life as placed on a wheel with spokes.  If you focus your life in the center, the hub, then when the wheel turns, as it must, you will be moved, to be sure, but you won’t be thrown over the place.

Epictetus exhorts the reader to develop a strong inner life.  This goes beyond merely getting your priorities right.  It means being proactive and never reactive.  It even includes a calculus for business decisions.  Know your worth. 

Epictetus does not paint a rosy picture for the reader.  Having been a slave in a cruel world, he knows how the world can be.  He does not think it will ever get any better.  If Stoicism has sometimes been accused of being resigned to despair, that criticism might have some justification with Epictetus.

He does give us the basics of a Stoic worldview. There is the standard Stoic line on rationality.  Man is midway between beasts and God.  From the former he has a body, the latter a mind.


Man’s good is a type of moral purpose, or “a disposition of the will with respect to appearances” (1.8).

On the Gods

When Epictetus uses the term “God,” he can mean the gods, Jupiter, and/or a guardian spirit within us. He believes our souls are “parts and portions of God.”  We also have a guardian genius with us.

As a good Stoic, Epictetus assumes some form of pantheism, albeit not an extreme kind.  All things are united as one (I:14).  He does not mean some form of Eastern pantheism.  His point, so it seems, is to find a reciprocal relationship between heaven and earth.  In fact, “our bodies are intimately linked with the earth’s rhythms.”  We do not have to accept his mild pantheism, but that statement is not wrong.


“Impressions” is the key word in Epictetus’s epistemology. It is not always clear what an impression is. Notwithstanding that, they come to us in four ways: “things are and appear to be; or they are not, and do not appear to be, or they are, but do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be” (I.27.1).

 The mind forms “ideas that correspond with the impressions” (I.14.8). That seems accurate enough, but Epictetus takes it a step further with his definition of reason: a collection of individual impressions (I.20.5). That does not seem right.


The goal of education is to bring our will in alignment with God’s reality and governance (I.12.15). As long as we understand that Epictetus does not mean the same thing by “God” as one normally does, it is a true enough statement. 

One strength in his approach is that there is not a sharp line between epistemology, education, and ethics.  Epistemology and education dovetail with his use of the term “impressions.”  We all have preconceptions. Our reason makes use of “impressions.”  Getting an education, therefore, is “learning to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases as nature prescribes, and distinguishing what is in our power from what is not” (I.22.9). That last clause connects education with ethics.  The wise man understands what he can and cannot control.


The goal of virtue is “a life that flows smoothly” (12).  Even though he does not use the term, he means that we should reach a state of apatheia. We can only do this by having “correct judgments about externals,” as externals are the only things outside of our control (I.29.24).


If one wants to read a primary source on Stoicism, this is as good as any.  Epictetus, perhaps in line with his own philosophy of limitations, never gets to the substance of the issue.  These are more conversations than logical analyses, and they should be judged as such.  It even seems that Epictetus commits a logical fallacy.  He writes: “God is helpful. Whatever is good is also helpful.  It is reasonable to suppose, then, that the divine nature and the nature of the good correspond” (II.8.1).  The conclusion is certainly true, but Epictetus committed the fallacy of the undistributed middle premise. We can illustrate it in a Venn Diagram.


Epictetus lacks the nobility of Marcus Aurelius and the poetic grandeur of Lucretius. In some ways, however, he is more accessible than both.

Reforming Education (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J. Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind.

Provocative writers make you rethink assumptions.  Truly great writers make you a better human being at what you do.  Mortimer Adler is a truly great thinker.  This book is a collection of his key essays on education, what is wrong with it, and how to fix it. Behind every essay is Adler’s commitment to the Great Books program.

We define education as “the process whereby the powers of human nature become developed by good habits” (Adler 17).  An educated person is someone who is able to think through the Great Ideas.  This means that no one will be an educated person upon graduation of high school or college.  All we can reasonably hope to teach are the skills that prepare you to live as a free man. Intrinsic to Adler’s definition are a host of assumptions that will not be granted by today’s academic.  Too bad for them.  Adler assumes there is a human nature that can develop habits towards the Good. That also implies the existence of an objective, knowable Good.

Following that, if education prepares the free man for society, then there must be some end or goal that society should follow.  A good education understands what is good for man at any time in place and/or what is good for man as he is a member of a particular society (44).  As such, education cannot be severed from the virtues.  Adler asserts that the “proximate ends of education are the moral and intellectual virtues” (60). The ultimate end is the good life.

A habit, accordingly, is a development “of powers or fulfillments of capacities” that “can be said to be good if they conform to the natural tendency of the power of capacity which they development” (61).  From one, then, education is quite simple: identify the powers and capacities of a student and develop them towards the Good.

If schooling is simply the perfection of habits so that one may live a life of freedom towards some ultimate End, then we have to change the way we look at schooling.  We simply need to make “young learners” rather than degrees (138). This requires revamping entire departments.  For example, and here I speak as an English teacher, get rid of the English department.  That is the first step in bringing the humanities back to the center. English should rather be “The Great Books” plus rhetoric. Part of this is to get rid of the atomistic approach to teaching grammar.  Also worth considering are the “three negations: abolish all departments, abolish all electives, abolish all textbooks” (163).  If you can only pick one, choose the last one.  There is no point in ever using a textbook in a humanities class.

The goal of the teacher is to be, as we saw in Plato’s Thaetaetus, a midwife to the student’s ideas. This requires the teacher to avoid the pitfalls of indoctrinating lecturing on one hand, and freestyle learning on the other. Rather, the teacher must cultivate the mind of the learner.  The teacher is a cooperative artist, not a sole cause (171).

I do not praise all of the book, though.  Adler’s approach assumes not only the legitimacy of modern democracy, but even its totalizing approach.  He is consistent, though.  If you believe in democracy (or representative government), which at its basic is extending enfranchisement to the whole, then it is hard to see why public education shouldn’t be compulsory.  Of course, I do not think it is, but only because I do not grant his major premise.  

Francis Bacon, The Major Works

Bacon, Francis.  The Major Works.  New York: Oxford, 2002.

Francis Bacon was not the opponent of Aristotle and tradition that common knowledge made him to be.  Aristotle was only a problem when people read final causes into inanimate objects, thus rendering science impossible.  What was needed, and what Bacon struggled to say, was an understanding of nature as contingent rationality.

We are not seeking the “pure knowledge” of universals, a pre-fall knowledge (125).  Rather, what we aim for is knowledge as application, which is much closer to the biblical view of applied wisdom.

The error was not in using Aristotle’s forms and substances, but in the endless multiplying of them by the schoolmen (196).  This had the added error of reading them into nature, making nature something in itself rather than something contingent.

Metaphysics has its place as a tool, not a goal. It should be an open-ended system.

A Defense of a Life of Study

The Romans never ascended the heights of empire until they achieved the heights of other disciplines (131).  Societies that are too focused on teaching practicalities end up losing much of education.

Bacon’s main problem with previous models: the emphasis in those times was on copying rather than substance.  This was particularly the case in using Cicero as a model. This means substance is more important than the beauty of words.

On Trusting Authorities

“For disciples owe unto their masters a temporary belief and suspension of their own judgment until they be fully instructed” (144).  Antiquity helps us discover the truth, but once discovered we have to move forward. 

When one approaches nature (or rational inquiry), does one begin with “certainties” or does one maintain a humble and open frame of mind?  Bacon notes of older models: “If a man begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content with doubts, he shall end in certainties” (147).

Book II

Book II is a discourse on university curricula, of proper subjects of study and when to study them.  It is interesting, yet of limited value today. We get a short treatment of Bacon’s ambivalent attitude towards “magic.”  On one hand, he knew, ala the Bible, that delving into magic was forbidden.  On the other hand, he did not quite dismiss the sometimes accurate results from magic.  What we wanted and never got was a systematic understanding of “white magic.”

Interesting Tidbits and Essays

Bacon’s Essays are always insightful, if not always deep.  He has an interesting method of employing his main idea as the opening sentence.  If Bacon were alive today, he would dominate the Twitter world.

“Miracles convert not atheists, but idolaters” (191).

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out” (347).

“Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state, servants of fame; and servants of business” (359).

“As for nobility in particular persons; it is a reverend thing to see an ancient castle or building not in decay; or to see a fair timber tree sound and perfect” (365).

“I had rather believe all the fables in legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind” (371).

“We take cunning for a sinister or crooked wisdom” (383).

“It hath been an opinion, that the French are wiser than they seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are” (389).

“Riches are for spending, and spending for honour and good actions” (396).

“Suspicions among thoughts are like bats amongst birds, they ever fly by twilight” (405).

“I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue” (409).

“Nature is often hidden; sometimes overcome; seldom extinguished” (417).

“Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set” (425).

Of course, there is his legendary essay on study, which is worth reading in its entirety.


Not everything Bacon said stands the test of time.  He was correct, however, to see the direction that scientific knowledge had to go.

Volume 2 of the Syntopicon (Adler)

Mortimer Adler regularly claimed that it was impossible to be educated before the age of 40.  If true, I would also suggest it is difficult to be educated without working through something like his Syntopicon.  The setup is the same as the earlier volume.    There is a ten page essay, topical indexes, and a recommended reading list.  This review will only outline his key topics, the various positions taken, and how the great thinkers interacted with their predecessors, if time permits.


Man is the only subject where the knower and the object known are the same (Adler 1).  Indeed, “the human intellect is able to examine itself.”

The Western tradition is divided on man’s essence.  The standard (and correct) view is that man differs from animals because he is rational.  His use of speech is a consequence of this rationality.  It is not the main difference.  If this is true, then there must be some distinction between reason and sense (5).


The mind is capable of self-knowledge. This is the difference between sense and intellect.  Senses do not seem to be aware of themselves (172). 

Following Aristotle, we see that if “the soul is the principle of life and all vital activities, so mind is the subordinate principle of knowledge” (173).  And the act of intellect moves as such:

1) conception
2) judgment
3) reasoning.


Adler wisely separates the principle of absolute government from monarchy, since republics and democracies can be as absolutist (205). Monarchy as an idea underwent a transformation in the Middle Ages. It did resemble an absolute system in one sense by giving power to one man, yet it placed supremacy of law in the hands of the people (207).  The only problem with this idea is that given its birth in feudalism, it did not last long in the modern age.

Hegel suggests a robust constitutional monarchy.  In this view the state is more of a corporation. The advantage of this view is that it is quite flexible with modernity and market forces  It doesn’t have any of the disadvantages that plagued medieval models.  On the other hand, it’s not always clear what Hegel is saying.

One and the Many

In line with Aristotle, unity is the first property of being.  All contraries are reducible to things like being/nonbeing, one/many, etc.  Moreover, unity belongs to the individual natural substance.  Man is a substance.  He is not made of other substances.  Machines, though, are.

This is somewhat different from Plato.  Plato’s view had problems.  The idea of the one is also one idea among many.  Plotinus corrected some of these problems.  For him, the one transcends being.  It also transcends intelligence, since knowing requires an object, which would introduce duality into the One.


Opposites do not simply distinguish, they exclude.

Plato: Everything has one opposite.  This was his idea in Gorgias and Protagoras on the unity of virtue.  This also illustrates the numerous subdivisions in Western taxonomies.

Aristotle: made the distinction between correlative opposites (double, one-half) and contrary opposites (odd/even).

Hegel: Unites opposites by reconciling their differences.  Every finite phase of reality has its own contrary.  For example, being and nonbeing imply and exclude one another.  They are united in becoming.


The words “if” and “then” indicate that reason is a motion of the mind from one alternative to another.

Plotinus: any form of thinking signifies a weakness.  It introduces duality.  Higher intelligences, by contrast, know by intuition.  Later Christian thinkers didn’t accept this extreme a view, but they did borrow his idea on intuition and applied it to angelic intelligences.

All the praise I gave of volume one also applies to this volume.

Redeeming the Time (Russell Kirk)

Kirk, Russell. Redeeming the Time. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006.

Russell Kirk suggests that Western culture isn’t necessarily doomed. There are ways to slow the decay. Whether or not that is true, and I remain doubtful, we can take much advice from his suggestions on how to order the soul.

Order in the soul and order in the polis parallel each other. Kirk writes, “Order, in the moral realm, is the realizing of a body of transcendent norms–indeed a hierarchy of norms or standards–which give purpose to existence and motive to conduct” (Kirk 33). Society does have a contract, but it isn’t Rousseau’s ghastly experiment. Rather, with Edmund Burke we hold that the “rights of towns, the independence of guilds, the code of chivalry–these arose out of faith in what Burke was to call the contract of eternal society” (31).

There is no point in trying to give an analysis of Kirk’s views of education. The best thing to do is simply quote him. A liberal education is actually conservative because it defends order against disorder (43). True education is meant to develop the individual human being rather than to serve the state.

Continuing Kirk’s thoughts on education we see a defense of reading fiction. It’s probably the best defense ever given. It might be tempting for legalists and hyper-gnostics to disavow the reading of fiction because “it isn’t true” (never mind Jesus’s parables). Rather, good fiction trains the emotions. He defines “moral imagination” as a high power of perception that penetrates the human condition (69). A purified moral imagination will apprehend the connection between the right order in the soul and the right order in the commonwealth. These great books train our moral faculties. This relates to what Kirk calls “sentiment.” A sentiment is somewhere between thought and feeling (131). These are what you will fall back on in a crisis. It won’t be syllogisms that keep you from retreating in battle. It will be because your moral faculties have been purified and exalted.

Kirk has a fun chapter on architecture. In short, dehumanizing and modern architecture (whether in its Soviet or mass man variety) keeps man perpetually discontented (87). Kirk suggests this is so because it creates boredom. That’s no doubt true, but I think it is deeper than that. Modern architecture illustrates an open attack upon an ordered telos. Humane architecture, by contrast, focuses on the person, rather than the expediency (which, for what it’s worth, it never obtains). Humane architecture illustrates that the community remains a community; it nurtures roots (91). I urge the reader to visit Wrath of Gnon’s social media profiles to see exciting examples of urban renewal.

There is some repetition in this book, as many of the essays are also found in The Wise Men Know. There is new material, though. The essays on education, virtue, and architecture are worth the entire book.

The Mind of the Maker (Dorothy Sayers)

Sayers, Dorothy. The Mind of the Maker.

Sayer argues that the laws of creative imagination are analogues of the Trinity. Or to say it another way, there is a Trinitarian structure in the mind of man. This is also mirrored in the writing of a book:

Book as Thought (Idea).

Book as Written (Energy or Word; she is on better ground when she calls it the “form” of the thought. That at least echoes what St Hilary said).

Book as Read

While she has a fascinating number of insights, this book, rather ironically, suffers from a lack of unity. It is almost as if there were two books. One is a theological and trinitarian reflection on the nature of thought and mind. That book is quite good. The other book is a sub-conscious literary criticism of then-current England.

A word on the analogies. She is not saying that the Trinity is like….x. Rather, she is saying x mirrors (in some limited, analogical way) the Trinity. That is not heretical. Augustine said the same thing.

The Image of God

“The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and ability to make things” (22). Sayers is quick to point out that this is metaphorical and analogical: we can’t make things out of nothing. And then she gives a meditation on what analogical language is.

It is not that both God and man make things that they are similar. The very structure of thought and imagination are not limited by finite material. I have to destroy a tree to make a wooden table. Yet, Shakespeare, in order to create Falstaff, doesn’t have to kill Hamlet (29). Sayers writes, “The components of the material world are fixed; those of the world of the imagination increase by a continuous and irreversible process.”

Idea, Energy, Power

We see Trinitarian patterns in creation. There is a trinity in sight: the form seen, the act of vision, and the mental attention which correlates the two (36). Every thought is a trinity of memory, understanding, and will.

Creative Idea–beholding the whole complete work at once

Creative Energy (activity).

Creative Power

When I form the Idea in my mind, the forming of the idea is itself not the Idea. It is the self-awareness in Energy (38).

Sayers has a fun chapter on Scalene Trinities, in which she points out imbalances in authors.


I think her analogy (Idea/Energy/Power) is wobbly. It is confusing for those of us who have studied the Christological controversies. For example, for Sayers “energy” and “Power” refer to the Son and Spirit, respectively. But in Greek the terms are roughly synonymous. And after Paul in 1 Corinthians, few Christians used them exclusively of the Trinitarian persons, since “power” referred more to capacity than divine person.

A Thomas Jefferson Education

Demille, Oliver. A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century.

Fear not. This book has little of Jefferson in it, in case you are bothered by his Deism, slavery, and defense of Lockean politics. One shouldn’t read this book as a manual on how to do education. I gather that other books in the series do that. The best approach might be counter-intuitive: read it as an inspiration manual.

Demille’s argument is simple: the best way to train leaders is to get them to read the classics in dialogue with a wise mentor. This skirts the debate between classical vs. private vs. public education. Demille offers a tool, not an ideology. Like many texts that lean towards the classical model, the volume is weak on math and science, but it still works quite well on the arts and humanities.

He begins with a distinction some might find artificial but upon further inspection is quite profound: you cannot “fix” education. An education is what the student gets out of the process largely based upon the student’s effort. What you can fix is teaching and externals. “Teachers teach and students educate” (Demille 12). The best education is when the student gets excited about learning and goes from there (with guidance).

He notes the three types of education: conveyor belt, professional, and leadership. It is fashionable to mock the conveyor belt approach (presentation of facts, etc). There is nothing wrong with that approach. It accomplishes precisely what it was designed to: educate poor people so they can get a job. The professional approach is fairly obvious: medicine, business, etc.

Demille’s focus is the leadership approach to education. It’s purpose is to train leaders who perpetuate freedom by knowing how to think. (A textbook teaches you want to think; a classic teaches you how to think.)

I won’t spend too much time on Demille’s method except to note a few good points. One is to “structure time, not content” (45). Is it better to make the student read 50 pages of Thomas Aquinas or spend two hours analyzing what Thomas means by essence and being? Go deeper, not wider.

There is the tough question of “What is a classic?” I’ll keep the list open-ended, but we can say a book that was formative upon the Western mind.

Can I get a Job?

Since we are now at the point where a university education does not guarantee a (good?) job, education is freed to be more formative and soul-forming. Modern America replaced leadership with job prep. While modern education gurus urge teachers to ask higher-order thinking questions, and while textbooks are happily being replaced with “modules,” the system is fundamentally the same.

Employers hire people, not degrees. (That said, don’t do anything stupid like go to Patriot Bible College. I’m also quite skeptical of a certain “Reformed” college in the Pacific Northwest). As Peter Drucker said, “The basic economic resource…is no longer capital…It is and will be knowledge” (115).

The non-uniqueness of classical education

I am not attacking classical education. I just don’t think it is all that special. Let’s do a thought experiment. What is it about reading Ovid that makes classical education superior? And don’t say Latin. You can learn that anywhere.

I am going to take a topic from the Great Books Series. I am then going to follow the references. The point that Mortimer Adler makes is that the Great Books (which are far from perfect) routinely generate questions about the great topics (e.g., justice, education, God, etc). My point is that such an independent education can do just as much or more as a Classical education.

Step one: read the section on education. It’s a summary of the Great Tradition.
Step 2: Read Adler’s Outline.
This is an analytical reference sheet. The sub topic is “The Ideal of an education man.” The following are the passages from the authors Adler mentions. Not all authors are good. These are just the ones I had nearby.
John Stuart Mill: general idea: the educated man reflects upon his own experiences in light of the tradition and customs.
Boswell on Johnson. Key point: the desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind (echoing Aristotle).

To be fair, there isn’t anything profound about these, but if you spend a week working through the references, it starts to add up. And you have a curriculum of sorts ready. This isn’t to attack Classical Greece and Rome. I just don’t see the immediate cash value of reading about incest in Ovid.

Does Doug Wilson make the case for Christian Ed.?

Wilson, Douglas. Why Christian Kids Need a Christian Education. Athanasius Press.

Disclaimer: Christian education stands or falls on its own merits. Although I think Wilson failed miserably, I think there are good resources for Christian education. Circe institute and the like.

If your goal is simply to write a basic worldview book, say so. Most of this book is generic worldview stuff, and even though it is by Doug Wilson, it isn’t technically wrong (well, it is but for different reasons). Because of Christian worldview or something, Christian kids need a Christian education. On one level, that’s fine. In terms of making a case for a distinctively Christian education, Wilson is less than persuasive.

I understand that this is a pamphlet and was meant to be read in under an hour. I also realize that Wilson has written larger treatises for a Christian education. Nonetheless, we must still examine whether he makes his case. In a way he does make the case for a Christian education, but he makes himself look silly in the process.

My initial review was openly hostile and I attacked Wilson for failing to prove his case for a classical education. To be fair, that wasn’t his thesis, so I have modified some things.

Of his general definition of education I have no problem with. Education is a passing down from one generation to another. The rest of the first half of the book is worldview talk. Take it or leave it for what it is. I do think he sometimes confuses “neutral” (which is bad) with “common” (which is good).

Around page 39 he starts to torpedo his own project. Wilson is committed to “biblical absolutism,” which sounds great. After mocking old earth Christians, he then walks into a trap he set for himself. The larger context is God’s two books, Bible and Nature. The Bible should interpret nature. That sounds great. Wilson then raises the question (which he fails to answer), “What about geocentrism, since the bible clearly speaks of a stationary earth?” He says the clear should interpret the unclear. That’s great, but it tells me nothing on who gets to determine what is clear and what isn’t.

In fact, the more I reread page 41 I couldn’t see any reason to suppose that Wilson isn’t a geocentrist. It’s rare that you get to watch an author shoot himself in the foot.

The next chapter on covenant nurture could read as a defense of homeschooling, which is odd since Wilson isn’t really a fan of homeschooling. Around page 56 he hints at a defense of classical education: you have to have a classical education because other models are sectarian. That’s rich, coming from Moscow. Classical education, by contrast, offers a robust Trinitarian education. I’m not sure why he thinks classical alone gives that. When we homeschooled my daughter I can assure you it was Trinitarian.

He says Christian education is too important to be relegated to the edge of town (56). I’m not sure what that has to do with the price of tea in China. He ends with a great quote from Eric Hoffer that is so rich in irony that I will just leave it as it is: “First you have a movement, then a business, then a racket.” Indeed.