The moral peril of a classical education

By Deal Hudson

Was I asleep in class when my teachers talked about the ways of wicked men? I remember the sins of envy and pride on display in “King Lear,” the wrathful ambition in “Macbeth,” the betrayal of Judas in the Gospels, and all the souls being tormented in Dante’s “Inferno.” But, for some reason, most of what I recall from my mostly classical education, are ideals, ideals of moral behavior, ideals of society, ideals of human happiness.
I believe I was well-versed in the “oughts” of life, what human persons should aspire to, what vices to avoid and virtues to embrace, and a steadfast commitment to uphold the common good of our nation. As I look back on my education, and I am blaming only myself, I think that I absorbed the ideals but without the offsetting tales of evil, of the weak and the wicked.  In other words, I became naive about human nature, always expecting the best from people, loyalty from friends, respect toward the great traditions, and belief in the common values upon which our culture had been built.
Another way of putting it is this: I read and understood Aristotle, but read and did not understand Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Baudelaire, Dickens, Hawthorne, Poe, and Flannery O’Connor. These authors combined contain, in their writings, all the warnings against human weakness, human cupidity, and human deceit that any person needs to know to live wisely in this world.  I read them, even read them closely, but somehow did not think that I would encounter in my world people like Iago, Lady Macbeth, Chaucer’s Pardoner, Dicken’s Bill Sykes, Hawthorne’s Rev. Dimmesdale, or O’Connor’s traveling Bible salesman, Manly Pointer.
I have always thought it a virtue to give people “the benefit of the doubt,” to expect “the best from them,” and so on. Unless these attitudes are balanced by a healthy skepticism and wariness, I would now consider them a gullibility that a good education ought to purge.  Am I saying we should organize Great Books courses around the theme of Evil or Wickedness?  Maybe, if that’s the only way teachers can utilize works of literature, history, and philosophy, as well as works of art, to reveal the human condition in its totality.

“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”

When I first read this line from Machiavelli’s The Prince I considered it cynical, the product of a violent and bygone age. What a silly boy I was, a silliness that unfortunately lasted into manhood.
Why am I pondering this? Today I opened an email to find that someone I considered a friend and ally had deliberately published something to hurt me, injure my reputation, and describe my motives as base and self-serving.  I surprised myself by how easily I passed it by, put it in the past, not even registering my disappointment with the person responsible.  But twenty years ago I would have felt wounded and confused, wondering to myself, “How could he have done this to me?” Not today, however; my education in the evil ways of men, including my own, has been augmented by what is called “life experience.”

[This piece will appear in Catholic Online. Thanks to Deal Hudson for permission to carry it on Quiner’s Diner.]