What Can We Learn from Saint Patrick?

“I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful and despised in the eyes of many.”

Saint Patrick – Confessions

Saint Patrick (389-461) was not from Ireland but a native of Britain and the son of a Roman citizen. Although raised a Christian, Patrick was not especially religious. When he was 16 years old, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. For six years, Patrick worked as a shepherd in Ireland. During this time, he underwent a spiritual conversion.

By 407 prompted by God, Patrick made his escape from servitude. He traveled to the southeastern coast of Ireland and managed to convince a boat captain to allow him to accompany them away from Ireland. Tradition has it that Patrick’s path then led him to the continent of Europe where he spent time wandering from holy site to site coming to know God and scripture. Eventually, Patrick found his way back home, reuniting with his family, a very different person than who he once was.

Patrick was convinced that God had called him to spread the gospel message of Christianity to his former oppressors, the Irish who were pagan. Thus, he studied to be a priest. His studies were very basic since Patrick entered the priesthood so late in life. But nevertheless, he had a deep familiarity and understanding of the Bible. Some historians have suggested that Patrick may have spent some time in Gaul with a famous scholar of the early Middle Ages named Germanus of Auxerre during his wandering time. Sometime after 431, Patrick was appointed to be bishop of Ireland, a position that he had wanted for some time since he believed that God tasked him to return to the Irish. Thus Patrick returned to Ireland, risking his life as an escaped slave to Ireland to the dismay of his family. Once in Ireland, Patrick fervently preached and established small churches and monasteries across the small island, uniting Christian tradition with elements of Celtic culture. To many, Patrick personified the Irish and, through his conservative and straightforward style, Patrick won the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland.

Many accounts of Patrick’s life are embellished with wild stories and legends, so there are many unanswered questions about his life. In general, most historians have used Patrick’s spiritual missals, Confession and Letter to Soldiers of Coroticus admonishing Irish soldiers and chieftain for being involved in the slave trade to piece together details of his life. Regardless of the scarcity of primary sources, Patrick is one of the most popular saints in the world and a symbol of Ireland.

After Patrick’s death, Christianity continued to spread and root itself deep in Irish culture. Different than other European expressions of Christianity, which included large churches and cathedrals centers, Ireland relied on monasteries to assume the functions of the cathedrals since the island lacked large urban centers. Eventually, Irish monks were even so bold as to reach out to the rest of Europe with missionaries including two other famous Irish saints, Saint Columba (521-97) and Saint Columbanus (540-615)

What can we learn from Saint Patrick?

  • Be humble. Saint Patrick recognized the enormity of his mission while understanding the small part of the task that was his.
  • Be grateful. Saint Patrick experienced some trying times in servitude and when returning to Ireland, but in all things, he was grateful.
  • Know your mission. Saint Patrick was willing to be patient, playing the long game in completing his mission.

Resources on Saint Patrick

What Can We Learn from Homer?

“Troy has perished, the great city. Only the red flame now lives there.”
Homer, The Iliad

Homer was possibly a blind poet who lived during the 700s BC. I write “possibly” because there is debate about whether he even existed. Nevertheless, he has been named as the author of two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which dramatically influenced Greek and Western civilization.

The Iliad is an epic tale about the Trojan War, which was possibly waged between the city-states of Greece and the nation of Troy. There is some debate on the historical nature of the account. If you are interested in the discussion, please watch the TedEd video at the end of this blog titled “Did ancient Troy really exist?” The war began when the beautiful Spartan princess Helen left her husband, the king of Sparta, for the love of Paris, a Trojan prince. The Trojans decided to shelter Helen. At first, they were successful in defending the walls against the Trojans and the Greeks’ greatest warrior, Achilles. But in the end, the war ended very badly for the Trojans. Through the trickery of the Greek king, Odysseus, and a large wooden horse, a small Greek force was able to sneak into Troy and open its gates, after which Greek armies tore the city apart and burnt it to the ground.

For the teacher in the classroom, The Iliad raises some essential questions in which to engage students. 

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What does it mean to die?
  • How should we honor the dead?
  • Which is more important: the community or the individual? 
  • Is life comparable to a battle? 

These questions from the reading of The Iliad will have students thinking at a deep cognitive level about their own lives in no time.

The Odyssey picks up where The Iliad ends, detailing the adventures of king Odysseus as he tries for ten years to return to his beloved wife, Penelope, and his city-state of Ithaca. Finally, after ten years and some help from the goddess Athene, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, journeys in search of his father to free him from his imprisonment by the goddess Calypso.

What can we learn from Homer?

There is a great deal of opportunity for teachers to engage their students in some big ideas and essential questions. 

  • Is life comparable to a journey?
  • Is there a greater meaning to “looking for your father”?
  • Is deceit justifiable?
  • How do Helen and Penelope compare?
  • Why is storytelling important?

Of course, beyond being a great story, the Greeks used the epics to teach the values of Hellenic culture. Greek heroic virtues or the arête are embedded in the texts. As such, they were used by the Greeks in education in the paideia, where students would learn to be virtuous citizens of the polis. And for educators today, they can serve as a way in which to engage students in the essential questions of life while learning about a major influence on Western thought.

Resources on Homer

What Can We Learn From Thomas Becket?

St. Thomas Becket – Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral

“Those who tread among serpents, and along a tortuous path, must use the cunning of the serpent.” – Thomas Becket

For this blog entry, I will be deviating from the Greeks to detail the life and importance of Thomas Becket, whose feast day in the Catholic Church is celebrated on December 29th. Hopefully, by the end, you will be able to see his importance to Western tradition. 

Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, once described himself as “a proud, vain man, a feeder of birds and a follower of hounds.”[i] Once a friend and advisor to King Henry II, Becket opposed Henry’s legal reforms concerning the Church. He thought that no member of the clergy should be subject to the laws of England and vowed to fight King Henry’s Constitution of Clarendon as long as he lived. His stand represents one of the classic confrontations between Church and state in politics. 

Becket rose from very humble beginnings to end up challenging a king. He was born in London and studied at Paris under a noted teacher, Robert of Melun. He then entered the service of the English monarchy, working with the English sheriffs as a clerk. In 1141, he became a member of the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Becket made a name for himself as a man with a considerable future. As a result, he was sent to study law at Bologna and Auxerre and in 1154 he was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury. As a rising young star in English politics, Becket attracted the attention of King Henry II and they became fast friends. Both had similar tastes and interests; both had a love of hunting, women and luxury. Eventually, Henry gave Becket the position of Chancellor of England. Becket wielded vast power in English government and with his gift of administration, he ruthlessly enforced Henry’s political will. As Chancellor of England, Becket reduced the opposition of barons and centralized royal power, often to the detriment of the Church. Since the power of the Church was always a problem for the king, it seemed logical for Henry to appoint his friend and confidante to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury with the death of Theobald in 1161. Becket was reluctant to take office, but did after Henry’s prompting in 1162. 

The Becket Casket, about 1180-1190

Becket soon clashed with King Henry II on several issues. He excommunicated a baron, one of Henry’s loyal vassals; opposed a tax proposal; and fought against the Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket also rebuffed Henry’s claim that clerics who committed crimes should be tried in secular courts. Henry responded with some harsh measures of his own against his former friend. He had Becket condemned by a council of English bishops loyal to the king. As a result of the condemnation, Becket fled the country and came under the protection of King Louis VII of France. He remained in exile from 1164 to 1170. During this period, Becket appealed his case to Pope Alexander III, while Henry ran the Church of England through the bishop of York, who was loyal to the king. In 1170, Henry and Becket were reconciled. Becket returned to England in November of that year. The people of England, who saw Becket as a hero, lined the roads to greet him as he made his way to the cathedral in Canterbury.

Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

But the reconciliation did not last. By December, the final break between Henry and Becket occurred. Becket refused to absolve any of the English bishops who supported Henry during his exile unless they took an oath of obedience to the pope. Henry, upset over the public displays of support for Thomas, greeted the news with rage and fury. In the end, Henry, angry and drunk, supposedly referring to Becket, asked some of his knights, “Is there no one to rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four of those knights took Henry’s words to heart as a command and murdered Becket as he prayed in the cathedral at Canterbury. Becket’s last words, reported by one eyewitness, were, “Willingly, I die for the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church.”[ii] 

The death of Becket was universally condemned. Miracles were reported at Canterbury shortly after his death. Soon pilgrims began appearing at Canterbury, making it into one of the most famous holy sites during the Middle Ages. Becket received sainthood quickly from Pope Alexander III in 1173. Henry was blamed for the popular Becket’s murder and performed penance for his sin, which included being flogged naked by monks. The king also agreed to recognize papal authority in Church law and to exempt clergy from punishment in the civil courts. 

What Can We Learn from Thomas Becket?

  • There has been some controversy about Becket’s character, with ambitious and imperious most frequently used as descriptors. But one can’t make an impact without overcoming challenges, both internal and eternal.  
  • His defense of the Church has resonated through the centuries of Western development, creating a dichotomy between Church and state. This dichotomy is never balanced or without tension, but it has allowed for the development of individuality so essential to Western tradition. 
  • Becket’s compelling story has attracted dramatists from Tennyson’s Becket through T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Anouilh’s play Becket or The Honor of God, which was later adapted into the 1964 film starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. All recognize and explore the tension between Church and state resonating still today.

Resources on Thomas Becket

Trailer for the film Becket (1964)

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  [i] Paul Burns, Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 606.

[ii] Donald Attwater and Catherine Rachel John, The Penguin Dictionary of the Saints, 3rd ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 342.

What Can We Learn From Aristotle?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” – Aristotle

Aristotle (384-322) is among the most influential philosophers in human history, often considered with Plato to be the “father of Western Philosophy.” Aristotle was interested in moral and ethical philosophy concerning the good life. He taught and practiced a life of moderation or the “Golden Mean” in Eudemian Ethics. At the start of his text, Ethics, Aristotle argues that all questions of human activity involve a conception of the good. Humans are aware of themselves as acting or engaging in the Greek word praxis or practice. This action or practice is distinctly human. Accordingly, praxis involves choosing to do a certain thing in light of our sense that action will achieve a good end. This end does not need to be independent of that action itself or even something the action brings about. In some cases the action is the end itself. 

 Aristotle argues that there must be some mode of acting that is desired for itself only and not for the purpose of something that it might bring about. If that were not the case, humans would be involved in an infinite regress of actions. Thus the question is raised: what is the highest good at which human action should aim? Aristotle answers that question quite simply: happiness.

Happiness for Aristotle is a mode of being not just a state of feeling good. Aristotle says happiness is “the same as living well and doing well.” Thus happiness is not about feeling good but about leading a good and virtuous life. Much like Plato, Aristotle understood the good and happiness as a question of function of human beings. Happiness, in this sense is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.

In Book Two of Ethics, Aristotle takes on the subject of virtue. To Aristotle, virtues are not natural. Humans are not born with virtues but they are not contrary to nature. They are “second nature” and formed by habit. Aristotle states it this way: “A virtue is a characteristic involving choice, consisting in observing the mean relative to us, a mean defined by a rational principle, such as a person of practical wisdom would use to determine.” Thus to Aristotle, virtue is the capacity that an individual has to know not merely how to behave or act appropriately but also how to properly allow oneself to be affected by the world around oneself. Virtues involve both the recognition of proper action relative to desire and the cultivation of proper desire itself. Aristotle, like Plato connects virtue and justice with justice being the actions of good morality. 

In another book, Organan, Aristotle explored how humans learned through deductive and inductive reasoning. Aristotle thought that people have to individually decide which type of reasoning best suited them to ensure a good education. In the volume, Politics, Aristotle described a good government as one that should serve all citizens, very similar to Athenian democracy. In addition to being a philosopher, Aristotle was a scientist who investigated a diverse array of topics largely through the view that all concepts and knowledge are ultimately based on observation. The topics covered in Aristotle’s other writings include physics, psychology, biology, language, rhetoric, political science, literature, the performing arts, and metaphysics producing over 200 volumes of writings.

Aristotle’s Essential Works

Below is a great clip on Aristotle from the Wireless Philosophy: Open Access Philosophy. It is a great clip and well worth the watch.

Digital Resources on Socrates, Socratic Dialogues, and the Greeks

School of Athens

Below are some great digital resources for educators interested in Socrates, Socratic Dialogues, and the Greeks.


Socratic Instruction

The Greeks

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What Can We Learn From Plato?

Plato Bust

The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life. – Plato

So we might understand the importance of Socrates and Confucius, but what about Plato? Why should we know about Plato? Wasn’t he just a student of Socrates who wrote things down? Right place, right time, end of the story. Well, no. It isn’t easy to separate the voice Socrates from Plato in Plato’s dialogues. But once separated, the importance of Plato’s well-defined thought and philosophy becomes very clear. So we can’t leave Plato behind, not today or any day for that matter.

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Plato (427-347 BC) was a student of Socrates, and it’s through him detailing many of the dialogues of Socrates that historians get most of their knowledge of Socrates. There is much debate to the voice of Socrates or Plato in dialogues, but there is a consensus that later writings are attributable to Plato’s thought. Much like Socrates, Plato was interested in the individual and morality. Unlike Socrates, he expanded his scope with interests in politics and society. Plato’s volume, a Socratic dialogue focused on politics, titled The Republic, is his most enduring work. 

In The Republic, Plato stressed the importance of ideals and truth. These perfect ideals and truths can be found in the forms. The forms can be defined as an ideal form of an object or concept (e.g., a flower or justice), which is located in the perfect and pure world of the forms, which is not our world. The contemplation of these forms is the goal of philosophy. The ideal ruler of a city-state, according to Plato, would be a philosopher-king who would have a greater understanding of the forms of the city-state, including notions of justice and equality, then the typical ruler. The philosopher-king would also lead the polis to a better understanding of the ideal forms of politics, where the individuals of the city-state would place the welfare of the polis above their well-being and the creation of a perfect society. 

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With the forms, Plato also developed an understanding of human ethics and morality in which every individual was trying to reach for a higher, purer, and almost spiritual truth that will enlighten our lives and transform the world around us. Of course, this type of thinking has made Plato a significant transcendent reference point of mysticism and religious belief in the Western tradition, including Plotinus and Saint Augustine. His writings on the forms have also influenced many other artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, and theologians over the past 2400+ years. 

Plato’s influence extended well beyond his writing when he opened an educational center for young men to learn and discuss philosophy, called the Academy. In this setting, he taught Aristotle, who would later become just as influential to Western tradition but in a different direction. Plato was focused on understanding through contemplation, while Aristotle was valued observation and experience. It is the classic dichotomy of the liberal arts and the sciences that will continue throughout Western educational thought into the 21st century. This importance of this tension is very well analyzed in the text, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. 

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Although the Academy would be destroyed the Romans in 86 BC, its legacy would continue. It was the first place where scholars gathered to debate, discuss, and teach about the world. Platonism taught at the Academy would influence later Neoplatonism, which had a significant impact on Christian theological thinking. The concepts of Platonism and Neoplatonism also later influenced the development of science and philosophy in the late Medieval period in Europe. This led to the eventual development of universities, like the University of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. The Academy was a model of debate, teaching, and learning at these and other universities in Europe during the Middle Ages, having a profound impact on the West. More on these developments can be found in A Legacy in Learning: A History of Western Education or The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages.

Thus, Plato is essential to an understanding of Western culture philosophically, educationally, and theologically. You can move forward without Plato.

Below is an excellent clip of Plato’s best (and worst) ideas from TED-Ed. It is a great clip and well worth the watch!

What Can We Learn From Confucius?

Close-up of stone statue of Confucius, pagoda roof in the background

“If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” – Confucius

Alfred North Whitehead once said that Western tradition is all just “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of course, Plato was arguably sketching the philosophy of Socrates, who has few equals in the Western canon. But a sound classical education does not only work with the figures and writings of the Western canon. It also looks at the insight of great writers and thinkers from around the world. So, it is wise for us to look to the East at a comparable giant of philosophy, Confucius. 

K’ung Fu-Tzu (551-479 BC), better known by his Latinized name, Confucius, was born around 551 BC and lived during a turbulent time in China during the slow decline of the Zhou dynasty. Working as a minister of state who never rose above a minor official rank, Confucius saw up close how government did and did not work. He developed a great deal of political insight with recommendations while observing this interplay between individuals and the kingdom-state. When he couldn’t find a ruler to put his recommendations into practice, he turned to education. His goal was to teach for a just government schooling his students on the essential truths of the ancient ways (Tao). Eventually, Confucius traveled across China, sharing his ideas with an ever-growing group of followers.

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In his teachings, Confucius advocated for the principle of order, hierarchy, and compassion, which should be of primary importance to all people. Essential tools to these principles were the clearly defined institutions of family, authority, and seniority. In practice, people should live by ethical principles where the well-being of the community trumps that of the individual. Confucius also thought that good government was the responsibility of the ruler and being good subjects was the charge of the people. Furthermore, a rightly ordered society is one in which everyone performs the duty of his or her station in life. Of course, these ideas were particularly appealing to the people of China during the turbulent times Warring States Period of the Zhou dynasty (475-221 BC). 

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Towards the end of his life, Confucius returned to his home state of Lu. He never did find a ruler in which to put his principled recommendations into practice. But Confucius did succeed as an educator. His philosophy thrived and spread with the hundreds of students that he taught. When he died in 479 BC, his disciples built on a temple at the site of this grave, which has been visited ever since. His disciples and their followers also compiled the teachings of Confucius in The Analects. The Confucian ideas found in The Analects spread across China and East Asia. And much like Socrates in the West, Confucius is more profoundly respected in China than any other philosopher. What he said, or was thought to have said, has shaped Chinese thought to the present day. Those ideas have extended into Western consciousness, as well. 

Below are some recommended readings of and on Confucius and a great TedEd summary video.

What Can We Learn From Socrates?

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates

As a classical educator, I am often confronted with the question of why should we care about Socrates? What can we learn from Socrates today in the globalized 21st century? Can’t we move on from Socrates and the tiny Greek city-state of Athens? My response is no; we can’t, and here is why.

To begin, let’s jog memories on some background. Socrates (470-399 BC), son of stonemason and midwife, studied human behavior and ethics. He was famous for his ability to argue and challenge ideas through question after question, which became known as the “Socratic method.” Socrates believed in certain essential truths about being human. His questioning focused on the search for these fundamental truths, which he thought was the most important thing a person could do. Of course, questioning everything all of the time can sometimes get one into trouble. Socrates was definitely a case in point. After Athens lost the Peloponnesian war, Socrates became a scapegoat because of his questioning of the decisions of the Athenian leadership. As a result, he was put on trial for corrupting the youth and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Socrates could have easily escaped but refused because he thought as a citizen of Athens that he should live and die by the laws of the city-state.

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We would know little about Socrates if it wasn’t for his friends. Socrates never wrote down his thoughts because “you can’t know whom to address.” He thrived on face to face dialogues in the streets of Athens. So we are fortunate that his students and friends, Plato and Xenophon, cared so much for the man that they devoted their lives to detailing his conversations in their writings. 

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Socrates declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Different from the pre-Socratics, Socrates brought philosophy to the individual. As a Roman orator, Cicero once observed, “Socrates called down philosophy from the skies and implanted it in the cities and homes of men. Socrates urges individuals to “know thyself” through critical thinking about the challenges of life and living in the world. This critical thinking is driven by seven essential questions that underlie classical education. These fundamental questions are:

  • What is virtue?
  • What is moderation?
  • What is justice?
  • What is courage?
  • What is good?
  • What is piety?
  • What is friendship?

These questions are embodied in human experience daily. And when these essential questions are interwoven into a curricular framework both implicitly and explicitly, they have the power of connecting directly to the lives of students and becoming part of deep and embedded learning and understanding. 

Statue of Socrates in Trinity College Library

This explains what we can learn from Socrates and his importance. In the past 2400+ years, many have learned from him beginning with Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. The early church fathers thought Socrates to be a pre-Christian saint. Moving into modernity, Erasmus, Montaigne, Ben Franklin, and Kierkegaard looked to him continually. Even the postmodern nihilists, Nietzsche and Foucault, admired Socrates and his search for essential truths of life. And I would dare say that Socrates will remain in the cultural consciousness of humanity until the end of time because of the vital questions of existence that he asked which will never cease to be asked regardless of the century.

Below are some recommended biographical texts on Socrates which might interest those wanting further reading.

Below is a great clip on Socrates from the documentary The Greeks featuring Alexander Nehamas of Princeton University. It is a great clip and well worth the watch.