WHAT THE WISE MEN TEACH US
"When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold,
there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying: Where is he that is born king
of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to adore him."
St. Matthew 2:1-2
We have all seen the pictures of the three wise men, riding their camels, following the star and presenting the Child Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Catholic tradition even names the three wise men for us: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
The sacred narrative of the wise men's mysterious arrival leads us to ask three questions:
Who were these "wise men"?
How did they find Our Lord?
What do the they teach us?
WHO WERE THESE WISE MEN?
The Church fathers taught us that these men were Chaldean philosophers from Babylon, which had an ancient tradition of philosophical study. We see this in the biblical book of the prophet Daniel and therefore we must allow sacred and profane history to be joined together here that we may understand God's orchestration of both to arrive at this climax of human history. In the book of Daniel, we read:
"The king [Nebuchadnezzar] spoke to the master of the eunuchs, that he should bring in some of the children of Israel, and of the king's seed, and of the princes, children in whom there was no blemish, well-favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, acute in knowledge, and instructed in science, and such as might stand in the king's palace, that he might teach them the learning, and tongue of the Chaldeans."
We can see, then, that since ancient times, the Chaldeans were great philosophers in the east and the "wise men" in the Gospels are men of this wisdom-seeking tradition which modern minds are very ignorant of.
HOW DID THEY FIND OUR LORD?
In the Old Testament (Numbers 22) , we learn of a wise man, Balaam, a pagan prophet who lived in the East who prophecied of things to come. He said:
"The hearer of the words of God hath said, who knoweth the doctrine of the Highest, and seeth the visions of the Almighty, who falling hath his eyes opened: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel"
Thus, it was known in the east, from ancient times, that a great king would one day rise up in Israel and rule the world. That prophecy was kept in mind by the eastern wise men and they studied to know the time of that appearance, while watching for the rising of that star.
What is worth noting is that they knew of the time, but erred in judging the place of Our Lord's birth. They knew a king was to be born, and where did they seek him? In the king's palace at the royal city--Jerusalem. However, the king there, Herod, knew nothing of any royal child's birth. The Child was not in the royal city, nor was He of the royal household. Herod and the wise men were forced to call the Jewish priests to learn, from other Scriptures, where the Child was to be born. They answer from the prophet Micah:
"But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times."
Thus, though the priests had the Sacred Scriptures and the Mosaic traditions, they and their king were made aware of the Savior's birth by the arrival of Gentile philosophers. Pretty interesting.
It was a day when history's most glorious king, Augustus Caesar, sat in Rome, ruling the world, yet these wise men believed that one greater than Augustus was here. One ancient commentator said this of the wise men:
"They had been taught that this Child was one, in worshipping whom they would certainly secure that salvation which is of God. Neither His age was such as attracts men's flattery; His limbs not robed in purple, His brow not crowned with a diamond, no pompous train, no awful army, no glorious fame of battles, attracted these men to Him from the remotest countries, with such earnestness of supplication. There lay in a manger a Boy, newly born, of infantine size, of pitiable poverty. But in that small Infant lay hid something great, which these men, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, had learned not of earth but of heaven."
Now, to recognize the arrival of a new star in the sky, the wise men must have had an exhaustive knowledge of the existing stars, and such a careful watching of the heavens, that they would be able to notice something different, something new. Think about that! Most of us would be lucky to be able to name 10 stars of the innumerable stars that are visible, but the wise men knew the sky so well that they would catch a new star when it appeared. Pretty impressive.
There is much to learn beneath the surface of this narrative. The study of classical Astronomy, assumes the mastery of other studies on which it depends. Astronomy assumes a mastery of Geometry and Arithmetic--which should not be confused with modern classroom course bearing the same names. In classical Mathematics, we find all to be dependent on the masterful use of human Reason, for it is by the reasonable joining and disjoining of axioms and definitions that truths are deduced. This study of Reasoning was itself dependent on the mastery of the study of speech and its parts, which we call classical Grammar. Thus, we can be sure, based on our knowledge of the history of ancient learning, that these wise men were enabled, through their participation in the classical liberal arts tradition to find the Savior of the world. It's also worth noting that the works of Aristotle were preserved by the eastern philosophers after Alexander the Great brought them there in the 4th century BC. They disappeared from Europe and did not come into Catholic use until the time of...St. Thomas Aquinas--but that's another subject. None of this, however, should surprise us, for the study of Philosophy was never considered to be something separate from Religion. In fact, inasmuch as God made made unique by the gift of Reason, it was this study that made man truly human. In the ancient world, "wise men" were almost always religious leaders.
To clarify one thing, the Church fathers, who were themselves masters of the classical liberal arts, and who would qualify as "ancient wise men", worked diligently to destroy the ancient study and practice of Astrology, which sought to predict from celestial events the fates of men. Teachers of these arts in the early Church era pointed to the wise men as proof of the truth of the science of Astrology, but St. John Chrysostom explains that this is not Astrology:
"The object of Astrology is not to learn from the stars the fact of one's birth; but from the hour of their nativity, to forecast the fate of those that are born. These men knew not the time of the nativity to have forecast the future from it, but the converse."
Thus, it is not correct to call these wise men "Astrologers", but it is certainly true to call them "Astronomers", that is, natural philosophers who studied the heavens in the ancient way.
WHAT DO THEY TEACH US?
Today, we stand in a post-modern world that knows virtually nothing of these ancient studies or of the knowledge that the ancient wise men possessed and passed from one generation to the next. The reason we know nothing of this is because during the Renaissance, in the 14th-17th centuries, this tradition was overthrown and replaced by a new idea of how men should seek knowledge. The ancient world followed Philosophy, in a tradition that had Aristotle as its greatest teacher (as St. Thomas proved once and for all in the 13th century). The ancients believed that Reason was the instrument that God intended to be used by men to discover the truths needed by them to fulfill their ends. Aristotle, in the 4th century before Christ, wrote a series of books called "the Organon", which in Greek means "the Instrument" or "the Method".
It is dangerous for us to say, today, that this method was "Logic" because the modern idea of "Logic" is different from Aristotle's idea of Logic. Quite ironically, Aristotle explained the danger of common names in his "Logic", which modern men don't study. The ancient understanding of Logic was rejected and abandoned during the Renaissance by most non-Catholic philosophers. We must understand that the tradition to which the wise men belonged was rejected and abandoned as a great error by men in the Renaissance. That is where the history of human learning was corrupted and knocked off course. This is why we, 500 years after the Renaissance, know nothing of the what these wise men knew. It's not an accident--we are no longer a part of that intellectual tradition.
In 1620, the English philosopher Francis Bacon published a book titled "Novum Organum", which means, being translated, "the New Method". In this book, Bacon explained that the Old Method was evil and false and that the only way for men to know the truth of the world was by their own fresh scientific investigation of...everything. The Church with its dogma and Scholastic philosophers was the root of all evil and the only way to free oneself from it's control was to reject its method of learning. Once that was set aside, men would be free to be non-Catholics, which is for such men what it means to be true. This was called "the Scientific Method", and the revolution that flowed from it was called "the Scientific Revolution". (see note 1 below.)
Now, when we look at schools today, we find no disputation halls or courses in Aristotle's method. We find science labs, math classrooms and maybe a modern "Logic" course. Where have the Grammar courses gone? the Reasoning courses? the Disputations? the Natural and Moral Philosophy courses? the old Geometry? How many children today can name the four virtues, identify a fallacy in reasoning, write a persuasive moral essay or explain something of the defining characteristics and functions of common animals or celestial bodies--or their own bodies?
Have these studies all, indeed, become obsolete? Has the course in learning that led the world to Christ and Scholastic Theology been replaced with something better? Has the new curriculum really advanced human learning? Are our schools really better than they were 500 years ago?
We are no longer connected to tradition of the ancient wise men--of these three kings of the East, of Aristotle, of Cicero, of Socrates, of Pythagoras, of Solomon, of Moses, of Abraham. More importantly, we are no longer connected to the tradition of St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and all the others who happily maintained ancient methods without ever suggesting any need for others.
Today, I would argue that Catholics are stuck with a great dilemma that the wise men highlight at this time of year. We no longer employ their "method" in our schools. We no longer respect their "arts" in our curricula. We are, supposedly, smarter, more advanced and more aware of how things work than they were way back when--but this is a lie.
The chief end of education, as the old Jesuits used to say, was to know and love God--and the old method was quite successful in achieving that end. Has the "new method" done better? Has the "new method" led to times of greater human happiness than were accessible to men like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine? The signs of our times suggest that we have been duped--and that the "new method" is not a better method.
In 1870, Pope Leo XII explained all this in his encyclical Aeterni Patris, in which he attempted to call Catholics back to the "old method" (see note 2):
"Philosophy, if rightly made use of by the wise, in a certain way tends to smooth and fortify the road to true faith, and to prepare the souls of its disciples for the fit reception of revelation; for which reason it is well called by ancient writers sometimes 'a steppingstone to the Christian faith', sometimes 'the prelude and help of Christianity', sometimes 'the Gospel teacher'."
Furthermore, he said,
"We think that, apart from the supernatural help of God, nothing is better calculated to heal those minds and to bring them into favor with the Catholic faith than the solid doctrine of the Fathers and the Scholastics, who so clearly and forcibly demonstrate the firm foundations of the faith, its divine origin, its certain truth, the arguments that sustain it, the benefits it has conferred on the human race, and its perfect accord with reason."
Now, while I'm tempted to quote the entire encyclical, I will leave it to you for your own careful reading. The season in which we find ourselves would be an excellent time for doing so, as we have the wise men before our eyes as proofs of the truth of it. The question we are pressed to ask is, "Is what we are doing in schools, and in our own intellectual lives, really better than what was done throughout human history?"
In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we are seeking to restore the "old method" and I believe that we are the only people working to do so. In fact, many people tell us the idea is stupid--but is it? We don't think so. The name "classical", apparently for some marketing rather than any historical or philosophical purpose, is being attached to things that were, in their origin, intended to put away what was truly "classical". The publishers and teachers don't seem to know their history very well. Many are teaching anti-classical ideas invented in the 16th century and imagining themselves to be restoring something ancient and trustworthy. Worse, we see a popularity of this pseudo-"classical" education among Protestants. Would God that it were so, as there would be an end to the foolish schism that began, wait, in the time of Francis Bacon. Surprise, surprise.
It is our hope that students interested in these things will have, through our efforts, access to true Catholic classical studies. We will find that as we restore the tradition to which the wise men belonged, the steady descent into materialism and relativism will end among us and the zeal of wise men, searching for salvation, as opposed to than leisure technology, will return. It is my conviction that the falling away we see of so many Christian youth is not without a cause. I submit to you the argument that the "new method" is to blame for much of the darkness, confusion and despair that surrounds us.
In the meantime, Happy Advent.
William Michael, Director
Classical Liberal Arts Academy