“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. This quote reminded me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian (part of his Narnia series) that has vividly remained with me since I first read it as a child.
The passage occurs during an important quest, and focuses on a point when Lucy Pevensie has seen the famed lion Aslan from afar, yet failed to chart a course towards him which could’ve successfully completed the quest. Later, Lucy encounters Aslan in the dark of night amid the woods:
“Welcome, child,” he said…”we must not lie here for long. You have work in hand, and much time has been lost today.”
“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. “I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so—”
From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.
“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault, anyway, was it?”
“The Lion looked straight into her eyes.
“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I – I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that…oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?”
Aslan said nothing.
“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right – somehow? But how?…”
“If you go back to the others now” [said Aslan], “and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me – what will happen?…”
“Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy…”But they won’t believe me!”…
“It doesn’t matter,” said Aslan.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Lucy. “And I was so pleased at finding you again…And now everything is going to be horrid.”
“It is hard for you, little one,” said Aslan….
Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.”
“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed…”
The message here isn’t complicated: Lucy should’ve followed the vision she’d had of Aslan, no matter what was going on around her, who she was with, who believed her, or who accompanied her. She should have followed the path towards Aslan no matter how impossibly difficult the path seemed or how rejected and afraid she felt.
This truth also applies to the classical way: one must hold onto the vision of education that, as Aristotle believed, leads human beings to happiness. The vision must be rooted in, grounded in, and tethered to reality: to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. This requires the cultivation of virtue.
Virtue can be difficult to define. It isn’t a word in great favor in the 21st century. And it’s a word that can have more than one meaning, let alone nuance. I’m not going to try to give an exhaustive definition, but in this context, it deserves a brief overview.
More often than not, virtue is taken to mean moral merit. However, it’s worth noting that the Latin root of the word, virtus, indicates courage, strength, honor, and worth. Our English word is derived from the Anglo/French word vertu, signifying force, vigor, and strength. The Greek counterpart of virtus is arete, meaning excellence. The classical virtues articulated by the Greek philosopher Plato, carried down through the centuries so that they are still appreciated even today, include prudence and wisdom, courage, temperance and moderation, and justice. These are laudable goals in any society, and cultivating these in students not only should be desirable but obviously so.
Part of virtue – that is, having attributes such as those listed above – is being (a) tethered to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and (b) being loosely tethered to the things of the world that would draw you away from them…so that in situations such as the one in which Lucy found herself, you’d make the choice to take the path towards Truth, Goodness, and Beauty no matter what—no matter who argued with you or dismissed your vision. You would be able to overcome the obstacles faced by personal insecurity, doubt, weakness, and fear.
It’s along the classical way that students can be nurtured to virtue in this sense, to the difficult task of staying the course: to adhere to the path and remain true to the vision. Classical education rejects any notion that the education of human beings must change with every shifting wind, with every mutable vision, because it understands that our basic, shared, human nature doesn’t change; it may be twisted and damaged, but the nature of a human being today is, in essence, the same as that of every human being who ever lived. Virtue is what helps chart the course of human beings towards happiness, excellence, and fulfillment, and not just for themselves but for others.
The point of this narrative from Prince Caspian illustrates this: not only does Lucy initially fail to follow the vision of Aslan, but her failure to do so impedes the progress of everyone around her towards stability, security, well-being, and happiness. However, in her later meeting with Aslan she is encouraged to virtue, infused with strength to be a lioness who is able to stay the course.
For more on this topic, read Asking Not Too Much of Earth or Heaven.
Consider your origin. You were not formed to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge. – La Divina Commedia Angelica Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)