Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Unprovable Things

Seneca the Younger

The world’s first blogger was, I think, Seneca the Younger. He wrote letters for publication, known as the Epistulae Morales. But they were not really letters; the epistolary genre was for Seneca a conceit. Some are entitled, “On Noise,” or “On Philosophy, Life’s Guide,” or even, “On Quiet and Study” (perhaps my personal favorite). These were, in antiquity, the equivalent of blogs, a word derived, as you likely know, from the curious combination of “web” and “log.”

So, in the tradition of Seneca, who gives us eternal dicta such as “it is possible to grasp the proof of someone’s character even from the least little things” (Epistle 52.12) and “badness is fickle, it often seeks out change not for something better but for something different” (Epistle 47), I write this installment of the Residual Welshman’s blog on things that cannot be proved.

baylorIt is the second of these two Senecan maxims that directed my thoughts this week not to write about something new but rather to write about something old. I mean old in two senses, first in terms of antiquity, for I took the point of departure, as I have noted above, from Seneca, the world’s first “blogger,” long before there was a web on which to blog. Second, it is an old topic because I have touched upon it in previous weeks—liberal education. I have elsewhere mentioned that a certain major university in central Texas—Baylor by name—is in the midst of dismantling its venerable core curriculum. It is doing so in the headlong pursuit of mediocrity, a path that other universities have trod to their detriment and to the chagrin of the last remnant of veritable educators at these various institutions. Administrators love streamlined functionality. True educators, like Seneca, love nuance, depth, and breadth.

stacks-of-booksAnd, of course, in Seneca we find cautionary words, words that have stood the test of time—until now. Now, I suppose, Seneca won’t be read, won’t be found in the curriculum. Were he to be found at all, he would be found by the very rare student, perhaps in a book rarely read, rarely checked out of the library. Why? Because the students won’t have stumbled upon him in a class because change, as Seneca warns us, too often is sought out not for something better but merely for something different, something streamlined, something easier to work with, something to increase graduation rates, something to allow students the power to choose, something to accommodate.

I will close, however, with something else, namely an observation that actually relates to the title of this blog, namely something unprovable. To suggest that liberal education makes a difference in the way one thinks, the way one might potentially interact with one’s fellow human being is simply a proposition that is not quantifiable, not provable. It is, essentially, the God argument. One infers God not from the fantasy or fancy of religion but from the fantastic quality of nature. One infers Him from the goodness of life. Goodness in spite of human suffering, goodness in spite of human evil. Goodness in spite of our own terminal existence.

If you have been lucky enough to have had a liberal education, there is a chance that you know that education is not job-training. Nor is it just getting requirements “out of the way.” Rather, true liberal education is holistic, meant to mold, shape and form the individual willing to participate in it fully into a better person, a more thoughtful person. But that is unprovable. It is, again, in that way essentially parallel to the God argument. Those who have made up their minds against an argument for God will but seldom be swayed. Those who see education as job-training not training for life, they, too, are unlikely to be moved.

And thus, at my friend’s university, it seems to me, those who believe that liberal education is not really transformative are likely to prevail in the end and destroy the core of the liberal arts there. They won’t listen to Seneca when he admonishes us because they won’t be able to. They will assume Seneca is a town in New York state or, more likely, simply a kind of apple juice. Yet I close with the ancient philosopher’s words, which will perhaps hence forth but rarely be heard in central Texas and words that, in any case, cannot be proved. Yet I believe them to be true, as they take head-on modern questions and point up the need, then as now, for comprehensive, not streamlined education:

Wherefore, put off that wretched hope that you can merely sample in summary form the learnedness of “the greats.” Each work must be treated as a whole, considered as a whole. The matter is carried out by a course of study over time and by studying line after individual line of a work of genius, from which nothing is taken piecemeal without ruining it. Yet I do not deny that you can consider the pieces of it individually—of course you can—but keep in mind that a woman is not beautiful because either her leg or arm is, but rather because her whole appearance has removed the fragmented admiration of the single parts. (Epistle 33.5)

A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts depicts a young man led by a personification of Grammar into a circle of allegorical figures representing the Seven Liberal Arts: Prudentia, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music.


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