What Teaches Wisdom – Poetry, Clear Prose or Beautiful Art and Music?

 love of learningAn education in truths that cannot be expressed in words 

In his book, the Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Jean Leclerq describes various tensions playing out in education in the medieval period.

One arises from the love of beautiful literature, poetic or prosaic, that is not explicitly sacred. The danger is that at some point the beauty of these works is so compelling that it hampers the spiritual development of the individual, because ‘Virgil might outshine Holy Scripture in the monk’s esteem because of the perfection of his style’[1]. A properly ordered asceticism in this area consisted in a harmonization of sources and sometimes the more humbly written simple prose divinely inspired Scripture is necessary for us so that we focus on the beauty of what it directs us to, he says.

The second tension that Leclercq describes relates to the study of logic, or sometimes called dialectic, which is another of the first three liberal arts that together comprise the trivium. As such it requires an understanding the technical language of logic. It is necessary in order to study philosophy and theology. The difference arose between two different sorts of school, the monastic and the town scholastic schools. The word scholastic is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘school’ and is applied to distinguish it from the monastic setting.

One the one hand is the more traditional monastic school that is more literary, drawing on Biblical language and traditional literary forms.

The monastic schools of the medieval period recognized the value of dialectic, but were suspicious of scholastic Schools in which there was a tendency, they felt, for dialectics to dominated to the detriment of the other liberal arts, and especially those concerned with the beautiful expression of what is true and good. As Leclercq puts it: ‘ The Scholastics were concerned with achieving clarity. Consequently they readily make use of abstract terms, and never hesitate to forge new words which St Bernard [as an example of an authority from the monastic school] for his part avoids. Not that he refuses to use the philosophical terminology which through Boethius had come down from Aristotle…but for him this terminology is never more that a vocabulary for emergency use and does not supplant the bibilical vocabulary. The one he customarily uses remains, like the Bible’s, essentially poetic. His language is consistently more literary than that of the School.’

And in the use of this traditional technical vocabulary there also exists a certain diversity: each monastic author chooses from the Bible and the Fathers his favourite expressions and gives them the shade of meaning he prefers. Within the overall unity there remains a variety which is characteristic of a living culture.’[2]

The strength of this is great flexibility is a noble accessibility and beauty that opens the door and draws in the ordinary reader to receive the wonders they describe; the weakness is its technical imprecision so that it can be ambiguous and this leads to a greater possibility of misinterpretation.

Those seeking to offer a Catholic education today are likely to draw on both the monastic and scholastic influences. Even in the few Catholic ‘Great Books’ programmes that exist today we can see how a polarization might develop, some favouring either poetic knowledge on the one hand or of a formal Thomistic training on the other. This needn’t be so. As a general principle, I suggest, the way to avoid extremes of an over emphasis on the poetic form on one hand and an overemphasis on dialectic on the other is to make prayer and the liturgy the central, harmonizing principle of the life of the student and professor alike, whether monastic or scholastic. This is something more than encouraging participation in the liturgy. It is making the participation in the liturgy the guiding principle in what and how we learn and teach. The students should understand clearly how everything that they learn is done in order to deepen our participation in the liturgy. In this regard, the liturgy of the hours is a crucial presence, I suggest. Then the praying of the liturgy will in turn illuminate the lessons learnt in the classroom.

In light of this I suggest there are aspects of education that are neglected in Leclercq’s account. He focuses almost exclusively on communication by language. I wonder if this is too narrow a vision. The teaching of truth expressed linguistically is the most important part of study, but it should not be emphasized in a way that excludes the visual and musical. A formal study of perceptible beauty, especially visual and auditory aspects of harmony, proportion and order is in the traditional study of the quadrivium. St Augustine[3] spoke of how the beauty of the form says things that words cannot.

There are levels of understanding that cannot be said in words alone, even poetic words, that can only be communicated visually or through words when they are sung beautifully. Any lover of holy icons would say the same, I suggest, in regard to visual beauty. Giving ourselves a beautiful visual focus for our prayer, especially Out Lady, the suffering Christ and the face of Our Lord is important in this regard.

Liturgy is the place where all of this can be synthesized and one is immersed in God’s wisdom and this, deep in the heart of the person, is where we form the culture.


[1] Ibid, p124

[2] Ibid, p201

[3] St Augustine, On Psalm 32, Sermon 1, 7-8; quoted in the Office of Readings for the Feast of St Cecilia, November 22nd

love of learning

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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