Thomas More Center lectures focus on education, liberal arts of Cicero and Augustine

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Linda Smith & Akiko Bremar, News Editor & Contributor

The Thomas More Center hosted two guest-lecturers last Friday, Nov. 9, bringing the thoughts of professors from Notre Dame and Baylor University to bear on topics of education and liberal arts as explored by Cicero and St. Augustine.

The first of the two lectures was given by Dr. Walter Nicgorski, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and was entitled “Cicero on Citizen Education and the Liberal Arts.” This lecture focused on Cicero’s views on the necessity of liberal arts education for all.

Nicgorski began by comparing Cicero’s “role in the unfolding of human history” to a warm-up act at a concert. Nicgorski sought to answer the questions of what Cicero specifically said about “liberalizing” arts ­– how educated one had to be to possess these arts and how to educate for “necessary qualities” – by looking at how Cicero’s teachings stand up to philosophy.

Photo by Rebecca Rosen. Dr. Walter Nicgorski of the University of Notre Dame lectured on Cicero’s view of liberal arts education and its necessity in society.

According to Nicgorski, Cicero believed that schools that held virtue and happiness as the highest goods could foster the best education. Nicgorski then turned to Cicero’s De Republica, which is unlike Plato’s Republic in its study of a “city in time, not speech,” but which is like Plato’s Republic in that it allows for good study of classical political theory. He also focuses on three arts that should be learned through education: preparatory, professional and the “art of arts” – the art of ordering all to the communal good.

Nicgorski masterfully tied all of this back to Cicero’s view of politics, stating that “law with eloquence is a grand empowerment” and that there is “interdependence between success and law.”

Senior Ben Starnes, who attended the lecture, said, “In the wake of the election returns … I wanted to see how Cicero could help us respond to the incredible amount of ignorance that permeates so many of our brothers and sisters.” Starnes saw in the lecture a need for us to “put liberal education in its proper place.”

“I agree that a liberal education is a great boon to society, but I still wonder if, after Christian revelation, we can still believe that liberal education is necessary to live a fully human life,” Starnes said. “I would be loath to say that someone like Mother Teresa or St. Bernadette somehow didn’t live fully human lives because they weren’t liberally educated. Some of the most joyful Christians have been among the least educated.”

Sophomore Ollie Bockwinkel, who attended both lectures, liked the synopsis of Cicero’s stance on the matter of education.

“The lecture was good and gave a very detailed summary of Cicero’s main works and where in those works he talks about what the liberal arts are, as well as the humanities, and how that relates to what Cicero considers to be necessary to be a good citizen,” Bockwinkel said. “There was a large attendance, and [the attendees were] mostly faculty and a community of scholars who discuss and study citizenship in relation to these classical figures.”

The second lecture from the Thomas More Center, titled “Augustine, the Liberal Arts, and the Theater of Life” was led by Dr. Michael Foley, associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. This talk focused on Augustine, his view on the “theater of life,” and his relation to and opinion of the liberal arts’ significance in life.

Dr. Foley opened up the lecture by discussing theatrical life and Augustine’s view of the theater and liberal arts. According to him, Augustine criticized the theater, but realized that through it, people are able to find truths. Augustine thought that everyone lived the drama of life as if God was the only spectator and critic that mattered.

“Soliloquies and the dialogue are supposed to be an aid to the cosmic stage,” said Foley, and through soliloquies, which we liken to theatrical performances, truth is found.

“Augustine thinks that the seven liberal arts are capable of finding internal truths, but his point is that they do not necessarily point to the first truth or lead you to the one true God,” Foley said. “The liberal arts are instrumental for the educated life and the happy life, but they are not essential for it.” For example, Augustine’s mother did not receive a liberal arts education but still worked toward a happy life.

Dr. Foley talked about the relevance of Augustine to our time and to Thomas More, even though Augustine wrote hundreds of years before More did. Augustine transcends one particular time in his writings, and was able to reach out to all ages.

Some students felt that Dr. Foley’s lecture on Augustine’s thoughts about the liberal arts was engaging and interesting, and that it connected well with Augustine’s notion of “the threater of life.”

“What I got from the lecture was that theater is something that comes out of the liberal arts and is something that we associate with the liberal arts,” Bockwinkel said. “Through the theater of life, we are able to find truths, and the liberal arts themselves can lead you to some truths.”

These lectures given on last Friday were only two of a series of lectures of an ongoing conference that the Center of Thomas More Studies is holding.

Junior Matthew Bellet, who also worked at the Center for Thomas More Studies, said, “I thought Dr. Foley was a good speaker. I thought his talk tonight, and his talk at 4 [p.m.], gave a look into this fascinating conversation about what education should be, and how we should look at ourselves in the world of academia. It is inspiring to see all the people so passionate, including our professors and people who have traveled from far away, about something that seems so erudite.”

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