The Lost Transcendental: My Only Concern for the Classical Education Movement

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal in The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal in The Hollow Crown.

Prince Hal is one of my dearest friends. I met him at a critical moment in my life, and in fact, it is not entirely an exaggeration to say that he almost single-handedly saved my education.

It was the middle of my senior year at Hillsdale College and in order to graduate from the Honors Program, I had to write and defend an interdisciplinary thesis. Having majored in literature and history, I decided to combine my two favorite areas of study by researching Shakespeare’s memory of English history as portrayed in his Henry plays. Every narrative of history is biased according to the unique perspective of the storyteller. I wanted to see what set Shakespeare’s perspective apart from the chroniclers who told the story of England before him.

Shakespeare’s rendition of the English kings is much more multi-faceted than those of his predecessors. This is especially true of St. George’s favorite son, King Henry V. In my thesis research I paused on this Henry in particular because I noticed, to my surprise, that Shakespeare openly comments on England’s memory of its own history and the consequential education that memory provides in Henry V.

Personally I expected to find Shakespeare using his country’s history as a rubric to help his contemporary readers mend their hearts and actions in the present. I was shocked and humbled by what I found instead.

In the first act of Henry V, when the Archbishop of Canterbury tries to convince the king to invade France, he points to Henry’s noble ancestors in an effort to inflame him to action. Canterbury uses history in the way I expected Shakespeare to use history, asking Henry to view his past as an example:

            Gracious lord,

            Stand for your own; unwind your bloody flag;

            Look back into your mighty ancestors.

            Go, my dread lord, to your great grandsire’s tomb,   

            From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,

            And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,

            Who on the French ground played a tragedy,

            Making defeat on the full power of France,

            Whiles his most mighty father on a hill

            Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp

            Forage in blood of French nobility. (Henry V 1.2.100-10)

To Canterbury, Edward III in his perfect bravery and victory on the battlefield, is the standard for kingship. Young Henry cannot possibly be a worthy king until he lives up to these expectations passed down by his ancestors. According to the archbishop, to order his life in a way that is pleasing for England, the king must study the ideal image of “kinghood” and implement it into his own life.

As a college student coming to the end of my career at a school steeped in classical tradition, this all sounded familiar. Many educators participating in today’s classical education movement are enamored with what the Greeks referred to as the transcendentals, otherwise known as the buzzwords “truth,” “goodness,” and “beauty.” I’ve sometimes even heard the transcendentals referred to as a holy trinity. The study of them is said to lift up our souls, providing a bridge between heaven and earth and making us fully human when we act on our love for these ideals. Sure enough, my professors at college laid before me a feast of truth, goodness, and beauty, instructing me to gaze on these highest things so that I might order my soul. In my freshman year I was dazzled by that idea. I had never heard of classical education, and it captivated me. Just like Henry, I was moved to contemplate these images of perfection with all my strength and live up to the ancient tradition of a good life informed by truth, goodness, and beauty.

However, as is unfortunately often the case, my wonder soon became tainted by ambition. I was striving to know and recognize the ideal–perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty. You can understand how I eventually came to expect this kind of perfection from myself. And the more I strived to achieve truth, goodness, and beauty in myself, the more I grew weary, and the more I was unable to meet any such standard. From sheer exhaustion, assignments were left unread and papers were handed in late. I grew angry with myself, and my self-value started to crumble.

 Alongside of this, something much darker began to transform me. After keeping my tunnel vision on the highest things for long stretches of time, I began to grow intolerant of that which didn’t meet these standards in my mind. I lost patience for friends and neighbors back home who didn’t value my new gods. I dismissed human beings who weren’t my ideal kind of human being. Even those I loved and respected caused bitterness to take root in my heart when they failed to meet my expectations.  The irony is, the more obsessed with truth, goodness, and beauty I became, the more false, wicked, and ugly I grew. So there I was. Failing at every turn, and causing relationships to suffer that might otherwise bring me comfort.

When one has been gazing on the highest things for so long, how can she turn her gaze back onto the lowest thing—herself?

This was my condition when I met Shakespeare’s Prince Hal. The wonderful thing about King Henry is that before he became king, he spent a great deal of time (in 1 and 2 Henry IV) as a jolly patron of the taverns in Eastcheap. Today Eastcheap would be considered “the wrong side of the tracks,” but Hal didn’t care. The tavern was a safe place where he could take a load off and vent about his heavy, royal concerns to friends like Falstaff, Pistol, and Bardolph. As uncultured and mischievous as these friends might have been, they truly loved Hal and made them one of their own, and Hal loved them in return.

It is understandable then, when Hal is finally made king at the end of 2 Henry IV, that Falstaff gets excited, imagining that he will now be honored (and showered with gifts—it is Falstaff we’re talking about, after all) as a friend of the king. Falstaff welcomed Hal as one of his own; wouldn’t Hal do the same for him? Therefore he can’t restrain himself when he sees the new king riding with his fancy, new entourage down the street. Falstaff cries out, “My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!”

For his answer, he hears from the king, his old friend Prince Hal, “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. / How ill white hairs becomes a fool and a jester!” (2 Henry IV 5.5.44-46).

In Henry V we learn that this rejection breaks Falstaff’s heart, and sends him to his grave.

I don’t think the text lets us believe Hal when he claims Machiavellian intentions here. Henry soliloquizes that his time of carousing in Eastcheap was just an act, meant to make him shine all the brighter when he tosses aside his boyish pastimes for the more serious work of the crown. But as much as he may want to believe this, the greater truth is that a king striving for the image of a true and good legacy in the eyes of his people cannot associate with drunkards and thieves.

Even on his way to becoming king, Henry admits “Before God, I am exceeding weary.” His companion at the time replies, “Is’t come to that? I had thought weariness durst not have attached one of so high blood.” Henry then answers: “Faith, it does me, though it discolours the complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it. Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” (2 Henry IV 2.2.1-6). Between the comments of Henry and his companion, we come to understand that the people at large believe true nobility means setting aside petty desires. For royalty, a good life demands abandoning all that is common and weak in favor of loftier thoughts and goals. With the truth, goodness, and beauty of ideal kingship in mind, Henry cannot tolerate weakness or humanity in himself, let alone in Falstaff. Yet already we see in his words here that, in spite of his honest striving toward the standard, Henry’s true desire is to lay down his crown and settle in with a good beer. Try as he might, he cannot abandon his humanity.

In spite of all of his success in the coming years, his victory in France, and the admiration and love of his subjects, we know from Henry V’s own mouth that he is a tired and unhappy king. Ultimately, as he walks disguised through his military camp, “a little touch of Harry in the night” (4.0.47), he will confess to one of his soldiers, “I think the King is but a man, as I am” (4.1.99). Perfection is never fully attainable. Sacrifices must always be made in one area or another. For Henry, that sacrifice involved trying to cut off his humanity for the sake of a “higher” goal: perfect kingship.

Did you know that scholars believe Shakespeare had a hand in writing a play based on the history of Edward III? In that script, Canterbury’s supposed standard of kingship is revealed to have participated in some pretty cruel maneuvers to gain his legendary status. I have a feeling Shakespeare wasn’t a big fan of ideals. Rather, he leaves us wondering if the legend Henry created for himself as a favorite king and victor in France was really worth his abandonment of Falstaff. Wicked as his friend might have been, Hal was content in Eastcheap and he never regains that lost contentment. And as for France–it took exactly one generation for England to lose it.

Prince Hal showed me that the trouble with gazing on truth, goodness, and beauty alone is that we are human. Don’t get me wrong, this triumvirate is very worthy of study and necessary to a good life. However, we must be aware that perfect truth, goodness, and beauty can only rest in the Godhead. Sometimes getting around down here on earth requires also gazing on that which is false, wicked, and ugly so that we may have compassion on our fellow men—so that we may have compassion on ourselves. Real life is often tainted by the stain of original sin, and the day-to-day is often common and ordinary.

If a transcendental is something on earth which shows us a glimpse of the eternal, then perhaps we’re missing one. Thus far in my experience, the most potent bridge between heaven and earth is grace. It is the ability to look on human falsehood, wickedness, and ugliness and say “You are beloved. Truth, goodness, and beauty have already been achieved. This is not your responsibility anymore.” Perhaps Hal could have lived a happier life if a little grace had been thrown into his study of English history.

Grace is the most necessary truth, the most blessed good, and the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Knowing this and resting in its mercy is true education. Using grace as the lens through which we conduct our studies makes our project a joy because suddenly the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty does not define us. Rather, it is one of the many things we get to do with our days if we so desire.

I imagine Hal would raise a small beer to that.