America is in trouble. The freedoms we have known for over two centuries are fading fast. Many are sounding the alarm, but the vast majority of Americans remain unconcerned. Like many ancient civilizations which have come and gone, physical comforts and sensual pleasures are the primary focus of most Americans. Rather than comprehending the importance of knowing, most Americans care only for the experience of feeling. It is as if comfortableness has exalted itself to the throne of the American heart. As a result, the intellectual strength needed to sustain the civil freedoms that produced American's societal comforts in the first place has disappeared like a morning mist. Knowledge is power, and most Americans are losing their power because we have lost our knowledge. Whereas most elementary school students in the 1800's learned Latin, Greek, philosophy and the natural sciences, most American adults today could not tell you the philosophical basis for what we call Western civilization.
I want to show you in this post how three contemporary men--Socrates of Athens, Ezra of Israel, and Confucius of China--advocated learning as the answer for the problems in their respective civilizations. These men and their advocacy of life-long learning had a profound effect on their countries and the world at large. Much of what they advocated has been lost in our culture. As long as Americans are only concerned with comforts, we will see very little need for stretching our minds to understand the concepts that built our comforts. In my opinion, one of the best things that could happen to America in the next five years is a total economic collapse which would wipe away all the comforts that cause us to ignore life-long learning. History is repeating itself, and for our American way of life to continue we are going to need some people who are invigorated with the challenge of intellectual pursuit.
Athens during the 5th century BC is considered the birthplace of what we call Western civilization. Socrates (c. 470-399 BC), the son of a stone mason and mid-wife, possessed a remarkable intellect and became convinced at an early age that learning was the path to virtue and the surest road to happiness. Perhaps the emphasis on mental training arose because Socrates was an ugly and uncoordinated man physically, at least by the contemporary standards of his fellow Athenians. The Olympic Games had begun in 776 BC, and Grecian culture was all about molding the finest male physical specimans in their gymnasiums in order to attain victory for the gods. So in an age where male physical beauty and prowess was esteemed, Socrates was indeed an outcast. This seemed to bother Socrates little. Though he exercised throughout his life, Socrates developed a paunch in his thirties, and with his distinctive bowlegged walk, the people of Athens often made cruel jokes about him. When asked why he did not resent being mocked, Socrates said, "If a man slaps my face, he does me no evil, only himself."
Socrates decided early in life to be a teacher of others. In 5th century Greece, education was handled privately, among individual families, and it was mostly the privilege of only the wealthy and upper class. Socrates, a middle-class man himself, strongly felt that education for the poor was the only way Greek states could ultimately succeed against invasion attempts by rival nations, especially the Persians. Socrates took no pay to be what he called "an examiner" of men. For this reason, Socrates learned to live on the bare necessities of life. He is famous for sayings like, "Some men live to eat. I eat to live." "Greedy people do not appreciate delicacies." "Those who drink a lot don't relish rare wines." "Poverty is a shortcut to self-control." "Nothing is said to be in favor of riches and high birth, which are easy roads to evil."
Socrates star pupil was a young man named Plato (c. 427-347 BC). The central event of Plato's life was being taught by Socrates. Since Socrates himself never wrote anything down, the only way we know of Socrates is through the writings of Plato and others. Plato is considered the first professional academic, for after Socrates death in 399 BC, Plato founded the Academy in a suburban park in Athens. The Academy was the first for-pay university in Western Civilization. A seventeen-year-old young man named Aristotle (384-322 BC) traveled from Thessolonica to study at the Academy. After Plato's death, Aristotle founded his own university in Athens called the Lyceum, a rival to the the Academy. The competetion among universities that we experience today officially began with the Lyceum's founding in 335 BC. Aristotle's star pupil was Alexander the Great, who would conquer the known world militarily. Thus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are considered the triumvirate fathers of Western philosophy and Western civilization.
Few Christians realize that Ezra the scribe (c. 493-440 BC) was a contemporary of Socrates. Ezra was born in Babylon (modern day Iraq). King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had invaded Judah and carried off Hebrew captives while destroying the Temple and the city of Jerusalem (587 BC) nearly a century before Ezra was born in Babylon. After the fall of Jerusalem (587 BC) the Hebrew captives were held in Babylonian slavery until 539 BC when Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, invaded Babylonian and defeated the Babylonians. Cyrus issued a decree in 538 BC that some of the Hebrews could return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild their Jewish Temple. Ezra was born in Babylon four decades after those first Jews returned to Jerusalem to begin their work. As Hebrew young men came of age in Babylon, many of them were sent to help their fathers and grandfathers rebuild the Temple and the city walls.
When Ezra grew to be a Hebrew man, he refused to return to Jerusalem and stayed in Babylon to study and learn. He, like Socrates, believed the education of the mind was more important than the comforts of the body. It was only in 458 BC, the year Socrates turned twelve years old in Athens, that the educated and erudite thirty-five-year-old Ezra left Babylon for Jerusalem. Rumors had reached King Artexerses that the Hebrew men in Jerusalem had begun marrying pagan women, had become sloven in their work, and were in need of reform.
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he was shocked by what he found. You can read about Ezra's discoveries in the book of Ezra, chapters 7,8,9, and 10. The Hebrews were not keeping the Law of God. They were more interested in their personal comforts and daily sensual pleasures than any discipline of the mind. They intermarried with women from surrounding pagan countries, and any semblence of morality or moral education was gone. Judaism credits Ezra with establishing the Great Assembly of scholars and prophets, the forerunner of the Sanhedrin, as the authority on matters of religious and Hebrew cultural law. Similar to the Plato's Academy and Aristotles Lyceum, Ezra's Great Assembly raised the educational level of the Hebrew culture. Ezra is considered metaphorically by the Jews as "the flowers that appeared on the earth," signfying the person who led Israel in a springtime rebirth of learning and education.
A few years before Socrates was born in Athens, and during the time that Ezra lived in Babylon, a man named Kung Fu-tzu, (known by the Latinized Confucius) lived in Shantung, China. Born in 551 BC and dying at age seventy-three in 479 BC, just twenty years before an adult Ezra left Babylon for Jerusalem (458 BC), Confucius, whose name Kung Fu-Tsu means "Philosopher Kung," became the Chinese equivalent of the Hebrew Ezra and the Grecian Socrates.
Confucius devoted his life to the moral and cultural transformation of his society by stressing the importance of all Chinese people--rich and poor, young and old--learning the six intellectual arts of Chinese culture: ritual, calligraphy, arithmetic, music, archery and charioteering. Contrary to the Chinese beliefs of his day which emphasized only the latter two, Confucius believed that no amount of physical expertise could ever replace the importance of intellectual learning.
Confucius taught that a person should be "so deep in study that he forgets to eat, so full of joy in learning he ignores all practical worries, and so busy acquiring knowledge he does not notice old age coming on. Education, for Confucius, was the process whereby civilization, and the minds and bodies of those privileged to enjoy it, breathed and lived" (see Paul Johnson, A Man for Our Times).
The descendents of Confucius live today in the same area their forefather was born seventy-six generations ago. Much of Chinese culture today is indebted to the emphasis Confucius placed on learning. Israel in our modern times, much like China, is saturated with a culture of learning. Western civilization, from Europe to South America, is indebted to the Socratic and Platonic influence of 5th century Athens.
America, however, is going downhill fast.
As a follower of Jesus Christ I could advocate that what is missing in our culture is what we Christians call "revival." But as one who understands that there have been great cultures in this world that have never been influenced by the Christian faith, I will settle for a secondary advocacy as a hopeful rescue for our country. We need Americans of all ages interested in learning.
Sadly, it seems we have raised up several generations of Americans who care more about video games than reading, more about pop-culture trivia than philosophical truth, and more about personal comfort than societal concerns. We are about to lose all our American comforts. It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when. When we do, don't despair.
Just maybe God will show us grace and raise up an American Socrates, an American Ezra or an American Confucius. God knows we need one.