“We are born with minds, not books. We are not limited to what we read. . . The immediate origin of our knowledge comes from the fact that our minds are directed to the things out there that are not ourselves. Knowledge enables us to be more than ourselves with our own limited experience.

Education means both awareness of what is “fresh from life” and what is “strained” through books. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that we can know everything. But to want to know everything worth knowing is no deception. It remains the goal of any education worthy of man.”

— James V. Schall, S.J.

It is no exaggeration to say a classical academy’s health is best measured by how well it studies books, specifically the greatest works of expository and imaginative literature, the books to which Father Schall leads his readers. We typically call that study humane letters. The very term humane letters denotes both the general subject at the heart of classical education, namely our humanity, and the most foundational spheres of inquiry—who we are, our experience, the place we hold in the order of being, and how we ought to live. It also denotes the chief educational vehicle for understanding our humanity, classic literary works. Great books open up the world for us beyond our natural limits. Through the study of the best literary works, we come to observe and know what “enables us to be more than ourselves.”

The study of humane letters unites our students to the broader civilization they and their academy belong to since these great works are the chief written communication of Western culture. Collectively, the classics are the literary record of what we know and love. As a record, they forge a unity in our historical existence. Alongside masterworks of art and music and the language, religion, customs, and practices that hold central places in our civilizational life, the West’s greatest literary works bind us to our forebears and to those who will one day be the keepers of the Western heritage.

That historical feature of humane letters reminds us of the foundations of classical education and its liberal purposes. With classical, we invoke our origins, the deep sources that give Western education its foundation. With liberal, we invoke the classical purpose of Western education: freedom, where to be free is to know the truth, to live by noble purpose, and to give generously, even sacrificially, to others.

These two directional sources, our beginnings and our destination, are closely related, since what we know of our freedom was initially revealed and cultivated long ago. It was subsequently preserved, defended, and developed, then bequeathed to us, largely in humane letters. Now it falls to us as keepers of culture to pass that knowledge on and maintain it by teaching others. In other words, a culture of genuine freedom is not merely an inheritance of literary treasures, it is a great responsibility. There is, then, an urgency to studying humane letters. Our culture, our freedom, and our children’s freedom depend on that study.

The development of humane letters has, at times, been a matter of greatest urgency. We see this in Plato’s dialogues, written in the wake of Athenian collapse. Augustine’s theology, for another example, emerged in no small measure to counter threats to Christian order; and his political writing developed largely as a defense against the pagan accusation that Christians were responsible for Rome’s collapse. One thinks here as well of Hobbes, Locke, Burke, and Tocqueville, all of whom wrote in the aftermath or midst of either civil war or revolution.

Time and again, we return to classic works for the light they shed on our lives. Our need for that illumination may not always bear the urgency that social collapse or revolution bring. However, Western letters always impel us to consider what matters most. Great imaginative literature moves us the way we ought to be moved; hence, the enduring power of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. Great expository literature challenges us to ask the questions any human ought to ask; hence, the timeless insight of Thucydides, Aquinas, or Publius of the American Founding.

At its core, to study humane letters is to observe the human person. Consider Orestes, Oedipus, or Antigone, for example, whose stories are told through the actor’s personaprosopon in Greek, the actor’s mask—and whose lives are situated between the tragic and the glorious. They allow us to view our own existence as a moral and spiritual drama. In other words, the great plays from Greek antiquity illuminate a prevailing feature of the human condition: Each of us lives in between the poles of existence, more or less constrained and free at the same time.

As part of the discovery of the intellect in ancient Greece, Greek philosophy expanded our scope on the person by expounding on the mind’s affinity for all things knowable. It widened the range of that affinity by illuminating the mind’s inherent connection to all levels of being, even divine reality. For Aristotle, the mind—in Greek, the nous—is not only what is highest or most divine in the person, it is where eternal things are contemplated. In other words, he indicates the convergence of what is from within and what is eternally from beyond us and helps us understand that, through the mind, the human person participates in the highest realm of being, albeit in a limited way, not merely below it.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures expanded our understanding of the person yet further since, according to their account, not only are we created in the image of God, God himself became one of us. The convergence of divinity and humanity could not be more complete. This event would have enormous significance for our culture. The person of Christ would become the most oft-depicted subject in the history of Western art and the most oft-considered individual in all of humane letters. Because he identified with our personhood, a full range of human experience was transformed: love, poverty, suffering, life and death, memory, and hope, to name just a few.

Each of these sources from antiquity renews in us the conviction that to understand our humanity means to sympathetically grasp the person and his or her transcendence. All three remind us that, while culture is a record of knowledge and love, that record is built around the agent of knowing and loving, the person.

The cultural direction impelled by the literary study of the person is perhaps most clear to us when we contemplate the West’s quest to articulate a rationale for universal rights, a search that is central to what our modern classics on philosophy, politics, and even theology illuminate. One recalls Locke on liberty, the ideals of the American Founders, Kant and Hegel on freedom, and the Christian personalism of Maritain and John Paul II. More recently, one notes Roger Scruton’s reflections on modern art and music in which he compellingly delineates works that obscure the spirit of the person and ones that free us to rediscover it.

We rightly understand the study of our humanity, then, as the study of the person. That makes it the study that directs all other studies. The reason for this position of priority among studies is the priority of the person.* On the one hand, the person, we learn, is never a means but an end, one always to be treated as an occasion for the greatest responsibility. On the other hand, the person emerges as a revelation, captured beautifully in the ancient Jewish teaching that says, “Whoever saves a single life is considered by the [Scripture] to have saved the whole world.” In other words, in something akin to the role played by an icon, the person uniquely represents to us the whole of being.

Such a claim may well strike us as at odds with much of our current culture, marked as it is by the widening assault on our shared transcendent nature, our common capacity for knowledge and responsibility, and the inestimable value of each life. At the same time, when we recall the foundations of Western culture through the study of humane letters—tragedy’s persona, philosophy’s nous, the person of Christ—we renew for ourselves the ability to evaluate that assault as false. We also reinvigorate the will to reclaim and advance the culture we have inherited.

Then again, the recollection of our origins offers more than our own renewal, since the great and unique claims of Western letters—the discovery of the intellect, the revelation of divine love, and the unprecedented expression of and investment in the dignity of the person—speak not just to our history and culture but to the humanity of all.

Source: https://www.canaacademy.org/blog/humane-letters-the-heart-of-the-matter