Know yourself, and become who you are. -Pindar
When the Roman orator, Cicero translated the seminal Greek educational term paideia into Latin he chose the term humanitas. It is within this same tradition of thought that we speak in English of “humanities.” In articulating the concept of paideia, the Greeks bequeathed to the world a unique and precious understanding of education. With singular vision the Greeks saw that education was not simply training but the bringing to perfection of the ideal man contained in each man. The other animals are what they are by nature, but man must become who he is by education. The task of the humanities is to humanize man.
The Fathers of the Church took up the educational patrimony of pagan Greece and Rome and transformed it in the light of Christ. Through His Incarnation, life, passion, death, and Resurrection, Jesus Christ reveals to man the true ideal of humanity that he is called to and wins for him the grace to answer that call. Man, the tarnished image of God, looking on the splendor of God’s incarnate Image now knows how sullied he has become and to what glory he must aspire. We see this sense of Christian paideia in a letter of St. Basil to his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa in which he tells him that Christians must follow those who have followed Christ as
… living icons of life according to God, for the imitation of their good works And generally, just as painters, when they are painting other pictures, constantly look at the example [and] do their best to transfer its lineaments to their own work, so also it is necessary for he who desire to make himself perfect in all branches of virtue, to look at the lives of the saint as though to some living and moving statutes and to make their good his own through imitation.
Avoiding the narrow conception of humanities held by many since the Italian Renaissance, we may also place within this broad tradition the monks of the West, those great and often forgotten preservers of the classical and Christian patrimony. Writing of the contribution of the monks, the Benedictine Jean Leclercq describes what should be the attitude of any Christian student towards the pagan classics:
If humanism is the study of the classics for the reader’s personal good, to enable him to enrich his personality, they are in the fullest sense, humanists. They had in view a useful and personal end: their education. And what, in fact did they get from the classics? They took the best these authors had to give. Through contact with them, like all who study humanities in any period, they developed and refined their own human faculties. To begin with, they owed to the classics a certain appreciation of the beautiful; this can be seen in the choice the monks made of texts to be preserved and in the quality of the texts they wrote under this influence….So, if they transcribed classical texts it is simply because they loved them. They loved the authors of the past, not simply because they belonged to the past but because they were beautiful.
Of course the “classics” that the monks studied were the great books of Greece and Rome. That was constant the meaning of the term until the end of the 19th century when expanding enrollments, declining competence in the classic languages, and a growing consensus of the importance of vernacular literatures broadened its significance.
The books studied in the humanities program at Gregory the Great Academy include Greek and Latin literature and history in English translations as well as great Christian works that by universal acclaim have attained the status of classics. The close reading of these works replaces the individual courses in literature and history.