Beholding the beautiful (with Dr. Brian Williams)

Today’s guest contributor is Dr. Brian Williams, Dean of the Templeton Honors College and Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education. In all of his various roles, Dr. Williams brings a wit and wisdom to his work, for he understands that we must meet this generation with the truth and goodness of the Tradition, in all of its beauty. 

In 1991, the R&B act P.M. Dawn sang “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful?” It’s one of those catchy pop hooks that (apparently) sticks in your head for decades. It’s also a question that any classical educator should be able to ask his or her graduates.  

Why? Because classical education aims to form beautiful people. It always has. Pause with that for a moment. At least since Herodotus and the pre-Socratic educators, the goal of education was to help students become “beautiful and good” (καλοκαγαθία). In his EudemianEthics, Aristotle invokes this ideal explicitly, and in his Nicomachean Ethics, the end and standard for virtue and education is what? The beautiful (τό  καλός).  

1500 years later, when the tradition passes to Hugh of St. Victor, the ideal is still, in Hugh’s words, “beautiful being” (pulchrum esse). Not politicus essetechnicus esse, or scientificusesse—the ideals of much contemporary education—but pulchrum esse.

Remember the three characteristics of beauty inherited from Aristotle and Aquinas?  

1) wholeness, integrity, or maturity;  

2) relational harmony, coherence, or proportion;  

3) claritas, radiance, and splendor.  

Together, these arrest the observer’s attention and engage her affections. Now consider the person who is intellectually, morally, spiritually, and emotionally beautiful. That’s pulchrum esse, the ideal of classical education, the ideal we ought to hold out before our students, and the ideal toward which we as educators help them move so that when we meet them as adults, we can ask them genuinely, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful?” 

N.B. Dr. Williams’ leadership of the Templeton Honors College also includes one of the country’s first Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) specifically focussed on classical education. The great books and the accompanying great conversation are integral to Templeton’s MAT, providing one of the best alternatives for teacher training in the country.


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