What is "Classical"?

September 26, 2017, by Dr. Gerald Proietti, Upper School geometry, Latin I, Greek

Across our first decade, people have often asked us: What does the “classical” in our name signify? Its meaning can be traced to the ancient Greek development of two interconnected sets of principles that we strive to cultivate: “shared inquiry” and “habits of mind.”

We refer to the antiquity of these principles, not because we want to revere their old age, but because it is helpful to keep in mind that these are not modern inventions—they are deep-rooted sources of vitality in our own striving to be free, to understand the world, to understand ourselves, and to live good lives.

Socrates of Athens developed shared inquiry into a method of pursuing truth. While he himself did not leave any writings that we know of, his students Plato and Xenophon show him using dialogue (dialogos) to pursue clarity about universal human principles such as love, justice, courage, and integrity.

Socrates did not mean the kind of dialogue that merely seeks practical compromises, but instead something like the kind of discourse among modern scientists, gradually sifting out invalid theories, that has led to our enriched understanding of the fundamental forces of physics, the quantal nature of matter—the periodic table of the elements!—and the cellular basis of plant and animal life. All of these advances required rigorous, truth-seeking dialogue among scientists across many generations.

One of Socrates’ sober observations about democracies is still humbling today: that one of our most prized possessions, freedom of speech, leads to a constant, confusing clash of diverse ideas—and as a result, many citizens come to believe that moral principles are merely cultural creations with no universal basis as guides for human life. But he also argued that this diversity of ideas, if used carefully—in productive dialogue—can make democracies a great environment for the pursuit of universal moral truths that lie concealed beneath the surface differences of opinion.

We cannot use experimental methods or microscopes as evidence in pursuing the truth about moral principles; so it is harder for dialogue to produce such decisive agreement about the human fundamentals as it can in the physical sciences. Yet in some ways moral principles are more self-evident to us than the fundamental forces of physics. Socrates compared basic moral principles to the elementary principles of geometry, such as “straight.” Their reality is not proven by logic; yet courageous and artful dialogue can help us to sift out their core meanings.

This ancient thinker showed, ironically, that in pursuing moral inquiry through rigorous dialogue, we are compelled to continually practice the very goodness that we are seeking to understand: we have to practice courage and self-control in striving, through dialogue, to understand them.

Explicit, direct inquiry about moral principles arises more naturally in some classes—in literature, especially—than in others. But at LCA our diverse studies, with teachers using diverse methods, have this in common: we explicitly, consciously strive to practice the “parts” of both intellectual and moral excellence—which the ancient Greeks and Romans called virtues, and which we call good habits of mind—through the challenge of honest, truth-seeking dialogue.