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Teaching for Cosmopolis: Authentic Human Subjectivity and the Liberal Arts Today

Teaching For Cosmopolis: Authentic Human Subjectivity And The Liberal Arts Today

The foundational texts and practices of the liberal arts developed in a classicist culture valuing logic, universality, essentialism, and an unchanging human nature with its corresponding account of human flourishing and excellence. Our own culture, on the other hand, is thoroughly empirical and historicist, values method over logic, particularity over universality, and contingent conditioning over static human nature. As a consequence of this shift, traditional explanations of the liberal arts may seem better suited to a culture no longer in existence and unlikely to return.

This is not to say that the classical understanding is defunct or wrong, but simply acknowledges the unique challenge facing the tradition. A contemporary defense is nonetheless possible by articulating an account of human subjectivity in keeping with the best of the old and the new. This paper develops such an account through a critical appropriation of Augustine’s understanding of the human subject in the Confessions and De Trinitate in conversation with the contemporary phenomenology of Bernard Lonergan. The resulting synthesis provides a vision of human authenticity unwilling to reject the old but also embracing a cosmopolitan ideal for liberal education.

The Problem Stated

In his influential work, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, famed classicist Werner Jaeger claims that “we always return to Greece because it fulfills some need of our own life,” unlike other ancient societies which we view as mere relics of curiosity irrelevant to our own needs.[1] While every ancient society practiced some form of education, the Greeks alone sought “the creation of a higher type of man” within an ideal civilization:[2]

“Greece is in a special category. From the point of view of the present day, the Greeks constitute a fundamental advance on the great peoples of the Orient, a new stage in the development of society.… However highly we may value the artistic, religious, and political achievements of earlier nations, the history of what we can truly call civilization—the deliberate pursuit of an ideal—does not begin until Greece.”[3]

Jaeger shares good company seeing in Greece the permanently relevant springs of Western culture. Paul Elmer More, with characteristic flourish, put it this way:

“the enormous preponderance of studies that deal with the immediate questions . . . inevitably results in isolating the student from the great inheritance of the past … He comes out of college, if he has learnt anything, a nouveau intellectual, . . . he is narrow and unbalanced, a prey to the prevailing passion of the hour … [i]n place of this excessive contemporaneity we shall give a larger share of time and honour to the hoarded lessons of antiquity.”[4]

Among many there remains an abiding sense of the permanent accomplishment of antiquity.

Extolling the virtues and ongoing necessity of the ancients now seems quaint, even odd, and fails to persuade when practicality, immediacy, and augmenting the prowess of the human become central functions of education. Wendell Berry notes, “the purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian . . .  almost exclusively centered in . . . STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”[5] Compare this utilitarian version with the classical understanding articulated by Michael Oakeshott:

“. . . the distinctive mark of a university … is not encouraged to confuse education with training for a profession, with learning the tricks of a trade, with preparation for future particular service in society. . . . Whenever an ulterior purpose of this sort makes its appearance education (which is concerned with persons, not functions) steals out of the back door with noiseless steps. The pursuit of learning for the power it may bring has its roots in covetous egoism which is not less egoistic or covetous when it appears as a so called “social purpose,” and with this a university has nothing to do.”[6]

The clutching urge for control reveals an underlying ontological antirealism.[7] In older understandings, the universe was either divine or created by the divine and was a fitting object of contemplation. Theoretical disciplines were valued more highly than the productive precisely because they did not alter the world but revealed its underlying structures and order. Education, as such, was at least partly a means of coming into conformity with the real, of living in accordance with nature, and was less concerned to change things that were there. However, when the revolution which sought not to know but rather to reform the world occurred, the liberal arts—so named as they were not governed by utility—were doomed.[8]  Thought became practical and productive and did so in a universe that did not reveal God’s will but could be changed as readily as conformed to—education has become “a certificate . . .  on the exploitation of the world.”[9]

Alongside its practical bias, much of contemporary education is pluralistic with respect to culture.[10] If culture is empirical or descriptive, a “set of meanings and values informing a common way of life, and there are as many cultures as there are distinct sets of such meanings and values,”[11] then Jaeger’s portrayal of Culture as Greek is dealt quite a blow:

“We are accustomed to use the word culture, not to describe the ideal which only the Hellenocentric world possesses, but in a much more trivial and general sense, to denote something inherent in every nation of the world, even the most primitive. We use it for the entire complex of all the ways and expressions of life which characterize nay one nation. Thus the word has sunk to mean a simple anthropological concept, not a concept of value, a consciously pursued ideal.”[12]

For culture to be a singular, permanent accomplishment, then (a) human nature must be universal and unchanging, (b) normative understandings of culture and civilization are possible, and (c) the relative worth of a culture is linked in some manner to unchanging human nature, since a culture could attain excellence qua human only on such a basis.

A normative understanding of culture renders coherent the purpose and value of the liberal arts in the traditional sense, for education is the task of cultivating the untutored into persons of excellence.[13] Such understanding admits of little variation in terms of times and places; since it disregards the variety of empirical cultures (what Jaeger calls the “trivial”), normative or classicist grasps of culture tend to think in terms not of the plurality of cultures but rather of Culture and the lack thereof:

“On the older view culture was conceived normatively. It was the opposite of barbarism. It was a matter of acquiring and assimilating the tastes and skills, the ideals, virtues and ideas that were pressed upon one in a good home and through a curriculum in the liberal arts . . . It could not but claim to be universalist. Its classics were immortal works of art, its philosophy was the perennial philosophy, its laws and structures were the deposit of the prudence and the wisdom of mankind. Classicist education was a matter of models to be imitated, of ideal characters to be emulated, of eternal verities and universally valid laws.”[14]

And so a great deal of conversation about the liberal arts frames itself around notions of perennial philosophy, eternal truths, permanent things, first principles, and human things:

“For centuries, liberal education did not need to be justified. It was simply the way one came to be educated. The curriculum, of course, evolved with the growth of knowledge and changing intellectual fashions over the very long stretch of time from the late Middle Ages to the early twentieth century. However, it did not evolve as much as one might think: learning Latin and Greek and reading a selection of books written in those classical languages had remarkable staying power.”[15]

Such understandings are no longer self-evident in the contemporary context which is empirical rather than classicist in orientation, and, indeed, very often has rejected classicism as out of touch, hackneyed, and imperialist. The late Richard Rorty defines the alternative position as ironism, denying “that there is such a thing as ‘human nature’ or the ‘deepest level of the self.’ . . . socialization, and thus historical circumstance, goes all the way down … there is nothing ‘beneath’ socialization or prior to history which is definatory of the human.”[16] The ironist radically doubts her way of seeing the world and does not believe any worldview or philosophy to be final, is a skeptic about the ability of reason to resolve these doubts, does not believe that her way is any closer to the truth or reality than others, and has abandoned the notion of getting to the truth of things.[17] Compare this to the tradition, what Rorty calls metaphysics, holding that truth matters, that human by nature desire the truth, and that progress towards the truth can be made.[18]

Disagreements such as these cannot but have implications for education. The metaphysician “sees libraries as divided according to disciplines, corresponding to different objects of knowledge,” whereas “[i]ronists see them as divided according to traditions,”[19] with no particular genre or tradition any closer to the truth than another. In fact, education, of either the liberal, scientific, or professional type, must proceed as if there is no truth at all, just more or less helpful ways of description and control.[20]

The key question, then, concerns the understanding of  liberal education in an empirical, non-classicist, and ironical context. If the culture in which the traditional conception of the liberal arts makes most sense promises access to what is, but the contemporary emphasis on historicity, particularity, and practicality renders such promises as pearls before so many swine, what is a contemporary defense of the liberal arts? Additionally, can a defense of the liberal arts be provided which does not reduce to the practical benefits provided by such an education?[21]

This article argues for an account of human subjectivity and flourishing in keeping with the tradition of classical culture while still conversant with the best of contemporary thought—nova et vetera. St. Augustine provides an understanding of the intellect and reality that can be critically re-appropriated and engaged with the best of modern thought to provide an understanding of the liberal arts which (1) explains the cause and error of radical immanence and an unreasonable concern for practicality; (2) provides a normative understanding of human subjectivity that is not so static as to be irrelevant to contemporary concerns but which remains non-ironical; and (3) provides the foundation for a renewed sense of the purposes of the liberal arts.


Augustine’s influence in Western thought is enormous. One of  his inventions is the inner self, or the notion that “our principal route to God is not through the object domain but ‘in’ ourselves,” because God is “not just the transcendent object or just the principle of order of the nearer objects” but also “the basic support and underlying principle of our knowing activity.”[22] As such, God is not just an object out-there but also is the inner light powering our ability to see what is; Augustine shifts the focus inward in “radical reflexivity” towards the “activity itself of knowing,” whereby we can “become aware of our awareness, try to experience our experiencing, focus on the way the world is for us.”[23] Despite the apparent difference from Plato, for whom the order of eternal being is found by converting away from the world of our experience and towards the divine and unchanging, Augustine still values the permanent and unchanging over the merely ephemeral but positions access to the eternal within our own activity of knowing.

The inward conversion is hard-won, however. Augustine begins his account of studying at Carthage with these memorable words:

“My hunger was internal, deprived of inward food, that is of you yourself, my God. But that was not the kind of hunger I felt. I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment, not because I was replete with it, but the emptier I was, the more unappetizing such food became. So my soul was in rotten health. In an ulcerous condition it thrust itself to outward things. . . .”[24]

He takes great care to reveal the variety of ways that his outward turn manifests itself—the theatre, friendship, ambition, lust. A reading of Cicero’s Hortensius  “changed my feelings. It altered my prayers … It gave me different values and priorities … I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour.…”[25] Longing now for truth, he begins, incompletely, to leave the ulcerous condition, burning “with longing to leave earthly things and fly back to you.”[26]

A great deal of the Confessions recounts Augustine’s inability to overcome the mistake of corporeal thinking, for conceiving God as a body he was not “following the intelligence of the mind . . . but the mind of the flesh” and was “living outside [himself], seeing only with the eye of the flesh.”[27] Little by little he begins a conversion from corporeal thought, but quite frequently confesses that his “mind moved within the confines of corporeal forms”—he just simply cannot overcome the “miserable folly” of thinking that all reality must be material, God included.[28] So limited, he cannot “see [his] mind” or “investigate the source of the intelligence”[29] since reducing intelligibility to materiality impairs knowing God or himself—it is, he says, “the  principal and almost sole cause of . . . inevitable error.”[30]

His heart “vehemently protested against all the physical images in my mind,” but “hardly had they been dispersed when in the flash of an eye they had regrouped and were back again. They attacked my power of vision and clouded it.”[31] Recovery beings when Augustine realizes that the quest is inward; just as he begins to recognize “it was not in a place” that thought existed the “inferior things came on top of me and pressed me down . . . they attacked me on all sides in massive heaps . . . the very images of physical objects formed an obstacle.…”[32] At last, by God’s grace, expressed Augustine discovers “through . . . inward perception” the light of God: [33] “I would have found it easier to doubt whether I was myself alive that that there is no truth ‘understood from the things that are made’ (Rom. 1:20).”[34] He ascends from “bodies to the soul . . and from there to its inward force . . . to the power of reasoning . . . it withdrew itself from the contradictory swarms of imaginative fantasies, so as to discover the light by which it was flooded.”[35]

No thinker better grasps Augustine’s struggle with corporeality than the late Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984): “St. Augustine of Hippo narrates that it took him years to make the discovery that the name ‘real’ might have a different connotation from the name ‘body’”[36] Lonergan finds in Augustine’s discovery of inwardness an intellectual conversion overcoming the cognitional myth that knowing is somehow like taking a look, with three further errors following from the myth: (1) that knowing is like looking, (2) that the real is what is out there to be looked upon, and (3) that objectivity is seeing what is there to be seen.[37]

Lonergan, rightly, insists that mere looking does not equal knowledge, nor does reality reduce to those sorts of bodily objects “out-there” which can be looked at, despite the empiricist’s naive tendency to  “identify[y] the real with what is exhibited in ostensive gestures. What is a dog? Well, here you are, take a look”:[38]

“An act of ocular vision may be perfect as ocular vision; yet if it occurs without any accompanying glimmer of understanding, it is mere gaping; and mere gaping, so far from being the beau ideal of human knowing, is just stupidity.”[39]

Further, if knowing is like seeing, and if the real is what could be seen or imagined, then “any cognitional activity that sufficiently resembles ocular vision must be objective” and “any cognitional activity that does not sufficiently resemble ocular vision cannot be objective.”[40]

Augustine struggles to admit the reality of God or even of his own intellect because God, should God exist, is by definition not a body, and there are good reasons to think the intellect is likewise immaterial. Since God cannot be bodily, God cannot be seen; since God cannot be seen, God cannot be real; since cannot be real, there can be no objective knowledge of God. Consequently, Augustine’s acceptance of the existence of God has as a necessary pre-condition the acceptance of his own inward intellect, for it is only the recognition that he himself exists as an intelligent and existential subject irreducible to matter which renders possible the recognition of God’s existence. This is not to say that God exists because Augustine exists; it is to say that Augustine can grant the possibility of God’s existence because he can grant the possibility of his own existence, and he knows his own existence, so God is thereby possible.

Granting this possibility undoes the cognitional myth, for the intellect and God, if existent, are immaterial and not known by seeing. Lonergan describes Augustine’s advance as a conversion of the intellect:

“Intellectual conversion is a radical clarification and, consequently, the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity, and knowledge. The myth is that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there to be seen and not seeing what is not there, and that the real is out there now to be looked at.”[41]

As with all conversions, the shift of epistemological and ontological conceptions can be something of a shock and is usually resisted and accomplished only with difficulty—just as Augustine describes with his recurring descriptions of his enmeshment with corporeal thinking.

Given the difficulty of conversion and the fact that much of our concern and understanding is of bodies and the domain of the physical, it would be premature to conclude that Augustine, or this paper, has demonstrated the veracity of intellectual conversion. Augustine clearly underwent a transformative existential and intellectual experience in rejecting corporeal thinking, described by Lonergan as overcoming the cognitional myth, but such experience hardly confirms that the standards of objectivity and reality proper to physicality are overly reductive, nor that other standards are operative—let alone that God or an immaterial intellect exist and can be known!

Appropriating the Self

What Augustine intuits in the Confessions he theorizes, explains, and proves in the later sections of De Trinitate.[42]  Here too he warns about bodily images, declaring that we are often trapped by our familiarity with them:

“it is easier and almost more familiar to deal with visible that with intelligible things, even though the former are outside and the latter inside us . . . we have grown so used to bodies, and our interest slips back and throws itself out into them . .  it runs away again to those things and seeks to take its ease in the place where it caught its disease.”[43]

The solution to this, the means to escape, seems to be something akin to phenomenological introspection, an advertence to what we are doing when we are knowing anything. Augustine’s example is the experience of truth: “Come, hold it in that first moment in which so to speak you caught a flash from the corner of your eye when the word ‘truth’ was spoken … but you cannot; you slide back into these familiar and earthly things.”[44] But rather than slide back into biological extroversion and its patterns, he beckons “once more come, see if you can,” which is a call back to the inward way, back to self-appropriation of our own mind.[45]

Augustine is not naïve, he is not practicing a proto-Cartesian introspection which is an inner-looking at the mind by some mysterious power, despite what his critics claim. The mind is precisely not a body, not is it conceived or imagined on anything like bodily lines, and thus it is not something that can be made present in any mode analogous to the presence of a body:

“As we climb up inward then through the parts of the soul by certain steps of reflection, we begin to come upon something that is not common to us and the beasts, and that is where reason begins, and where we can now recognize the inner man. But through that reason which has been delegated to administer temporal affairs he may slide too much into outer things. . . .”[46]

Augustine is explicit about this, contrasting the mind’s knowledge of itself from its knowledge of bodies: “You cannot say the mind knows other minds and is ignorant of itself in the same sort of way as the bodily eye sees other eyes and does not see itself.”[47] We know the mind insofar as we know things other than the mind, for it is in the operations of understanding and judging that we become aware and attain self-presence: “whenever we correctly approve or disapprove of something represented by such images, we have the inescapable conviction that we make our judgments of approval or disapproval within ourselves by altogether different rules which abide unchangeably above our minds.”[48] That is, when I call to mind an image, he uses the example of the ramparts of Carthage, or when I exercise the faculty of imagination, I exercise the power of judgment which I have in light of my participated light in the Goodness of God.

This allows the judgment of truth which is “shining vigorously from above.” Later he says we “make judgments about those things according to that form of truth, and we perceive that by insight of the rational mind,”[49] “observ[ing] with the eye of the mind the form . . . according to which we do anything with true and right reason.”[50] In other words: “just as operations by their intentionality make objects present to the subject, so also by consciousness they make the operating subject present” to herself.[51] Of course by this presence we do not mean via introspection which is a backwards ocular look at oneself. Instead one adverts to what one is doing when one is knowing—we know ourselves when we pay attention to ourselves knowing other things:

The mind knows nothing so well as what is present to it, and nothing is more present to the mind than itself. . . . the mind cannot even set itself in some fashion in its own view except when it thinks about itself. Nothing is in the mind’s view except what is being thought about, and this means that not even the mind itself, which does the thinking about anything that is being thought about, can be in its own view except by thinking about itself. . . . when the mind thinks about itself its view is drawn back to itself not through an interval of space, but by a kind of non-bodily turning round.[52]

Like any animal, we have a basic type of knowing very similar to looking and “constituted completely on the level of experience; neither questions for intelligence nor questions for reflection have any part in its genesis.”[53] Unlike animals, however, humans also attain knowledge of the intelligible, and such knowledge is not gaping but made possible by a series of intentional and conscious operations—what we do—and we can discover ourselves doing these operations and thereby rendering the world intelligible and meaningful beyond the mere presence of bodies:

“There is the empirical level on which we sense, perceive, imagine, feel, speak, move. There is an intellectual level on which we inquire, come to understand, express what we have understood. . . . There is the rational level on which we reflect, marshal the evidence, pass judgment on the truth or falsity, certainty or probability, of a statement. There is the responsible level on which we are concerned with ourselves, our own operations . . . and so deliberate about possible courses of action, evaluate them, decide, and carry out our decisions.”[54]

We have experiences empirically, we try to understand them intellectually, we judge truth and value, and then decide to act, and these four levels of operations are available for all persons to discover operative in themselves if they merely, as Augustine discovered, paid attention to what they are doing.[55] Intellectual conversion occurs when persons discover operative in themselves these functions and affirm the operations as constitutive of meaningful and intelligible truth.[56] While cognitional myth insists that knowing is like knowing, the real is what can be seen, and objectivity is taking a good look, intellectual conversion allows instead that knowing is a four-fold series of operations, that the real is what is known as a result of those operations, and that objectivity is performing those operations well:

. . . while objectivity reaches what is independent of the concrete existing subject, objectivity itself is not reached by what is independent of the concrete existing subject. On the contrary, objectivity is reached through the self-transcendence of the concrete existing subject, and the fundamental forms of self-transcendence are intellectual, moral, and religious conversion.”[57]

And it is just here that the implications for the liberal arts begin to manifest, for Augustine and Lonergan provide a type of virtue epistemology rather than the universal methods of rationalist fantasy. Not only is knowing not as easy as just taking a look, but knowing is something that must be performed—performed well—with excellence.[58] Such excellence is not a matter of following a recipe well, or even a scientific method, but rather of being an excellent person qua person, as Lonergan puts it, “genuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity. It is to be attained only by attaining authentic subjectivity.”[59]

Authentic subjectivity is not as relative or “squishy” as it might appear. Not only are the four levels of consciousness universally applicable to all rational persons, but they are, or such is my argument, knowable and verifiable to all rational persons through the process of self-knowledge or self-appropriation:

“. . . no one . . . is going to say that never in his life did he have the experience of seeing or of hearing . . . or that if he appeared to have such experience, still is was mere appearance, since all his life long he has gone about like a somnambulist without any awareness of his own activities. Again, how rare is the man that will preface his lectures by repeating his conviction that never did he have even a fleeting experience of intellectual curiosity, of striving and coming to understand . . . In brief, conscious and intentional operations exist and anyone that cares to deny their existence is merely disqualifying himself as a non-responsible, non-reasonable, non-intelligent somnambulist.”[60]

In other words, the levels of conscious operations outlined here are accessible and verifiable by any rational agent capable of self-awareness, for all they need to do to confirm the theory, as suggested already by Augustine, is to pay attention to what they are doing, and what humans do to make sense of things is to experience, understand, judge, and decide.

Further, the theory is irrefutable and non-revisable. To deny these operations in a rational way is to point out an overlooked experience, or misunderstood data, or a hasty judgment, but to do so is to appeal to experience, understanding, and judging in order to correct, alter, augment, or refute another judgment based on understood data. In any event, a judgment is made based on an understanding of data, and always so: “Am I a knower? The answer yes is coherent, for if I am a knower I can know that fact. But the answer no is incoherent, for if I am not a knower how could the question be raised and answered by me?”[61] To reject this account of subjectivity would involve a person rejecting themselves.[62]

The theory is also normative, for the structure of consciousness reveals not only what we do in fact do when we are knowing, and also what no one could deny without self-contradiction, but reveals as well normative precepts for the successful, or authentic, function of consciousness.[63] Again, since the theory is performative rather than merely abstract, authentic function is not met by an arbitrary and abstract account of knowledge but by the norms immanently revealed by the operations of knowing—objectivity is genuine subjectivity. These norms reveal the natural exigencies of the operations taken to their conclusion in knowledge—so the objectivity of experience is being attentive, understanding is being intelligent, judgment is being reasonable, and deciding is being responsible.[64]

These normative canons reveal the natural exigency of knowing, i.e., insofar as one is attentive one is more likely (but not guaranteed) to attend to the relevant data than if one is inattentive; insofar as one is intelligent one is more likely than not to ask relevant questions resulting in insights into the intelligibility of the data; insofar as one does not accept just any insight but carefully examines whether the hypothesis fully explains the data, one is more likely to be reasonable and avoid mistakes. None of these norms—what Lonergan calls transcendental precepts—guarantee knowledge like some Cartesian method (neither did the Cartesian method, of course) but rather reveal a normative probability. It is only insofar as one follows the natural exigencies of the intellect, as symbolized by the transcendental precepts, that one tends towards objectivity in knowledge.

Cosmopolis and the Virtuous Intellect

Two of the serious challenges facing the tradition concept of liberal education are practical bias and cultural pluralism. Practical bias reverses the hierarchy of contemplation and action, and cultural pluralism sees no fixed, invariant standards of human and cultural excellence. In tandem this alters irrevocably the notion of educating students into the life worth living, for insofar as no desires are more or less excellent, and insofar as desires are in flux, cultivating the power to attain the objects of desire with the greatest efficiency and lowest risk becomes the only constant goal of education—practical bias become the telos of liberal education without standards of human excellence to moderate, limit, and forbid the desire for control. The result is decline.

If practicality determines what counts as genuine and necessary activities of reason persons of “practical common sense become warped by the situation in which they live, and regard as starry-eyed idealism and silly unpracticality” those exercises of inquiry looking beyond the immediately practical.[65] Those questions which do not seem to meet some immediate need are deemed unnecessary and whole domains of intelligence are written off, violating the transcendental precepts and the normal development and self-correction of knowledge occurring when the transcendental precepts are followed. Practical bias and relativism both reject the transcendental precepts and thus lead to decline rather than progress. In other words, by rejecting the “useless” questions of leisure, practical bias destroys intelligence and results in decline.

The response to decline, as Augustine and Lonergan reveal is the ancient dictum, “Know Thyself,” an ideal rather more than self-indulgent navel-gazing. Self-knowledge reveals a fixed, invariant, transcultural, and normative standard of human authenticity and progress:

“Progress proceeds from . . . subjects . . . observing the transcendental precepts, Be attentive, Be intelligent, Be reasonable, Be responsible. Being attentive includes attention to human affairs. Being intelligent includes a grasp of hitherto unnoticed or unrealized possibilities. Being reasonable includes the rejection of what probably would not work but also the acknowledgement of what probably would. Being responsible includes basing one’s decisions and choices on an unbiased evaluation of short-term and long-term costs and benefits to oneself, to one’s group, to other groups.”[66]

Decline is avoided, and progress rendered more likely, insofar as individuals, cultures, and civilizations follow the transcendental precepts, a condition Lonergan terms cosmopolis.[67]

Cosmopolis is concerned “to prevent practicality from being shortsightedly practical and so destroying itself.”[68] Cosmopolis is not a political agenda or proposal, and as such is concerned not with parties or ideologies or power, but instead with the search for truth and speaking “the simple truth though simple truth has gone out of fashion.”[69] Just as Plato worried that recourse to laws in a citizenry without education would be like cutting the heads off the Hydra, so cosmopolis realizes that without the exigencies of reason and a disinterested concern for truth, “one shift of power is followed by another, and if the myths of the first survive, the myths of the second will take their stand on earlier nonsense to bring forth worse nonsense still.”[70] To be sure, cosmopolis functions as a heuristic ideal rather than an agenda of particular actions, something akin to the first principle of the natural law, “seek good and avoid evil,” which needs concrete and prudent application. The discovery of authentic knowledge provides not a curriculum or a set of texts, but it does provide a heuristic—an anticipation of completeness—to guide concrete choices.

My argument can be summarized as follows:

(1) A good deal of contemporary education, including liberal education, is overly constrained by practical concerns or by skepticism regarding the possibility of truth;

(2) Such constraints, whatever their immediate benefits, cannot but result in long-term decline as it inevitably rejects the natural exigencies of the intellect’s search for knowledge and truth;

(3) The natural exigencies of the intelligence are universal, irrefutable, non-revisable, normative, and knowable to anyone who adverts to their own intellect’s operations of experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding—such knowledge is intellectual conversion;

(4) Cosmopolis is the attempt to avoid and reverse decline while abetting progress through an adherence to the norms of intellect summarized as the transcendental precepts: be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, and be responsible.

My conclusion is quite simple. The point of the liberal arts today is to teach for cosmopolis, a teaching which has as its condition of possibility the fostering of intellectual conversion. That is, insofar as individuals have self-knowledge of their own intellects in action, they will be aware of the conditions of genuine objectivity, progress, and cosmopolis. This is not to say that such self-knowledge guarantees objectivity and progress, for objectivity, even if known, must be chosen, and education, however well done, can never ensure the goodness of the pupils’ choice. Each existence is a risk, a gamble, and every new generation of humans is a crop of potential barbarians.


None of this is new. Teaching for cosmopolis is the tradition of liberal education in the broadly Socratic tradition, although not that of the Baconian or practical understanding of education.[71]It is the education of the tradition of the search for truth and the confidence in human capacity to attain at least something of the truth. To be sure, teaching for cosmopolis has been conceptualized and expressed in a variety of ways in its history, but each expression, if in keeping with the ideal of cosmopolis, articulate the common operations of experience, understanding, judgment, and decision in service and search of the truth. This tradition is now increasingly misunderstood and abandoned as practicality and ironism arrogate the place of cosmopolis. And any and all forms of education which in their rank skepticism, greed, cowardice, pessimism, or illiberality do not seek the truth in wonder result in decline, irrationality, myth, violence, and collapse.



[1] Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 1, Archaic Greece: The Mind of Athens, rev. ed., trans. Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), xiv.

[2] Ibid., xvii.

[3] Ibid., xiv.

[4] The Essential Paul Elmer More: A Selection of His Writings, ed. Byron C. Lambert (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1972), 235.

[5] Wendell Berry, “May 2007 Commencement Address,”

graduation/berry_address.aspx (accessed July 14, 2010).

[6] Michael Oakeshott, “The Idea of a University,” Academic Questions Winter (2003-04): 23–30.

[7] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 146–58.

[8] David McCabe, “Michael Oakeshott and the Idea of Liberal Education,” Social Theory and Practice 26 (2000): 443–64.

[9] Oakeshott in McCabe, “Idea of Liberal Education,” 445.

[10] Carol Iannone, “What Happened to Liberal Education?” Academic Questions Winter (2003-04): 54–66; Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987); R. V. Young, At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1999).

[11] Bernard Lonergan, “Pluralism, Classicism, and Relativism,” in The Lonergan Reader, ed. Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 436.

[12] Jaeger, Paideia, xvii.

[13] For a fuller explanation, see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1984), 51–55; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2002), I.7 1097a–1098b.

[14] Lonergan, “Pluralism, Classicism, and Relativism,” 436–7. Plato’s educational schema in the Republic exemplifies this. The first stages of education purge the stories of gods and heroes of references to changing or acting outside of character. So too in style is imitation discouraged, or any mode, instrument or rhythm prompting emotional upheaval or change. And this is simply the education of the guardian; in order to have knowledge there must be a grasp of the unchanging through the ever more universal and static disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, solids in motion, astronomy, music, and ultimately dialectic.

[15] Rudolph H. Weingartner, “On the Practicality of a Liberal Education,” Liberal Education Summer (2007): (accessed August 10, 2010).

[16] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1989), xiii.

[17] Ibid., 73.

[18] Ibid., 75.

[19] Ibid., 75–6.

[20] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), esp. 23–90.

[21] A quick perusal online finds many institutions of higher learning promoting liberal education primarily for its practical benefits.

[22] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 129. See also Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; Colin Gunton, “Augustine, the Trinity, and the Theological Crisis of the West,” Scottish Journal of Theology 43 (1990): 33–58; Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[23] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 130–31.

[24] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.1.

[25] Ibid., 3.7.

[26] Ibid., 3.8.

[27] Ibid., 3.11.

[28] Ibid., 3.24.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 3.19.

[31] Ibid., 7.1.

[32] Ibid., 7.11.

[33] Ibid., 7.12.

[34] Ibid., 7.16.

[35] Ibid., 7.23.

[36] Bernard Lonergan, in Richard M. Liddy Transforming Light: Intellectual Conversion in the Early Lonergan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 55.

[37] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 238. Also R. J. Snell, Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing Without a God’s-Eye View (Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2006), 69–71.

[38] Lonergan, Method, 76.

[39] Bernard Lonergan, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 4, Collection,  ed. Frederick Crowe and Robert Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 206.

[40] Ibid., 215.

[41] Lonergan, Method, 238.

[42] Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 1991).

[43] Ibid., 11.1.

[44] Ibid., 8.3.

[45] Ibid., 8.4.

[46] Ibid., 12.3.

[47] Ibid., 9.3.

[48] Ibid., 9.10.

[49] Ibid., 9.11.

[50] Ibid., 9.12.

[51] Lonergan, Method, 8.

[52] Augustine, Trinity, 14.2.

[53] Bernard Lonergan, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 3, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, ed. Frederick Crowe and Robert Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 277.

[54] Lonergan, Method, 9.

[55] Snell, Through a Glass Darkly, 149–66.

[56] Ibid., 99–108; Lonergan, Insight, 343–71.

[57] Lonergan, Method, 338.

[58] For a similar position, see Eric Voegelin’s description of moral knowledge, “Appeal is made, therefore, not from the action to an immutably correct principle but to the existentially right order of man,” in Anamnesis, trans. Gerhart Niemeyer (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978), 65.

[59] Lonergan, Method, 292. See also Brian J. Braman, Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

[60] Lonergan, Method, 16–17.

[61] Lonergan, Insight, 353.

[62] Lonergan, Method, 19–20.

[63] Ibid., 15.

[64] Ibid., 20.

[65] Lonergan, Insight, 255.

[66] Lonergan, Method, 53.

[67] Lonergan, Insight, 263.

[68] Ibid., 264.

[69] Ibid., 265.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1989), 62–104. Also, R. J. Snell, “Love in the Ruins: Practicality and Decline,” First Principles (November 19, 2009), /articles.aspx? article=1351&theme=home&loc=b (accessed August 4, 2010).


This excerpt is from The Liberal Arts in America, Lee Trepanier, ed. (Southern Utah University Press, 2012).

R. J. SnellR. J. Snell

R. J. Snell

R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. He is author of The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Wipf & Stock, 2014) and Acedia and Its Discontents (Angelico, 2015).

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