Our Ancient Debt to Alcuin

First Things | 10/13/2017 | John Duggan
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If your intentions are carried out, it may be that a new Athens will arise in France and an Athens fairer than of old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teaching of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy. The old Athens had only the wisdom of Plato to instruct it, yet even so it flourished by the seven liberal arts. But our Athens will be enriched by the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit and will, therefore, surpass all the dignity of earthly wisdom.

When I first came across this passage, taken from a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne, ‎it stopped me in my tracks. Here, at the end of the eighth century, a scholarly monk, writing to a barbarian king, sketched a system that would strive to unify faith and reason, spirit and intellect, religion and science, Christianity and humanism, AD and BC. I felt as if I had been handed the original “mission statement” for the whole tradition of Western education.

Internationalism - Alcuin - York - North - England

The internationalism, too, is breathtaking. Alcuin was from York in the north of England. The court of Charlemagne was in Aachen, capital of the Kingdom of the Franks and now a city in modern Germany on the border with the Netherlands and the French-speaking portion of Belgium. The two men had originally met in Italy. Alcuin writes of a reviving tradition of learning founded in ancient Greece, which would be raised to new heights by a religion that had emerged from far-off Judea.

Their educational blueprint stood the test of time. The idea that Charlemagne “saved civilization isn’t so far wrong,” thought Kenneth Clark. Yet we now risk losing what they gave us—whether because of squeamishness, in an age of multi-culturalism, about the transmission of one culture (however broad and catholic it may be); or because an academic...
(Excerpt) Read more at: First Things
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