Feasting in the Liberal Arts

By Adam Thompson

Eros empties us of estrangement but fills us with kinship, causing us to come together in all such gatherings as these, in festivals, in dances, in sacrifices a leader… in labor, in fear, in longing, in discourse a guide, defender, comrade in arms and best savior; beauty and good order of all gods and men, leader most beautiful and best, whom every man must follow chanting beautifully, sharing the song that he sings, touching with magic power the thought of gods and men. - From Plato’s Symposium

978-0-226-04275-6-frontcoverIn Plato’s Symposium, a group of intimate friends gathers to drink and be merry. Over the course of the feast, the different members of the party, including Socrates, discuss the nature of love into the wee hours of the morning. In the passage above, Agathon delivers a stirring poetic exposition of Eros, the god of love. This ecstatic image of erotic love within the context of feasting and friendly Platonic dialogue highlights the true secular and religious end of a liberal arts education: a festive communal life of freedom for the sake of the contemplation of Love, the very source of all love and freedom and life. Without feasting, the transcendent dimension of human freedom would be greatly diminished, if not lost. Feasting, then, holds pride of place as the source and summit of the liberal arts education, for without feasting man cannot be “crowned and mitered” ruler over himself.

Eros drives the feast because God “fills us with kinship,” as the persons who attend the feast ardently desire companionship and community with one another, the world around them, and the God who brought them into being. There can be no proper school, let alone a liberal arts education, without friends experiencing reality in community and engaging in dialogue with truth and each other. Socrates grows in freedom through a daily examination of the meaning of his life with friends. Socrates is no armchair philosopher, but more like Jesus who always taught through stories and dialogue in a community of friends who lived together freely. It is no mere coincidence that Jesus’ ministry began and ended with a wedding feast at Cana and the Last Supper in Jerusalem. Feasting represents the highest expression of lived freedom in a communal contemplation of something greater than ourselves, namely God.

At Western Academy, the festive spirit is alive in both secular and sacred settings. The spiritual center of the campus is the Chapel where the community daily feasts in the Lord’s sacrificial offering of Himself in atonement for our sins. Any education in freedom would wither and stultify without the daily infusions of grace made possible in the loving reception and friendly contemplation of our Lord. Freedom is incomprehensible without the Story of God’s love for His people to imbue life’s narrative with transcendent meaning. The other symbolic center of campus is the Greak Oak where boys are sorted into their houses and compete as barefoot boys for glory and heroism. The Great Oak is also a potent image of a liberal arts education because the boy’s poetic experience of the life and reality of the tree reflects the organic, holistic, and integrated qualities of a liberal arts education. Additionally, the Great Oak affords each boy a daily opportunity to express his daring and to master his wildness, essential steps in the journey toward manhood.

It should not be surprising, then, that the festival days set aside throughout the year feature both the sacred feasting of the Mass and the secular feasting of poetry, material nourishment, and physical feats beneath the Great Oak. Taken together, these complementary modes of feasting are the highest manifestation of human freedom in the liberal arts. Each boy feasts in and on the liberal arts! Feasts make Western Academy a place of freedom for our barefoot boys; a place of freedom to discover our poetic verse in the song of God’s providential design; a place of freedom to pretend, play, and become a hero; a place of freedom to experience the poetic symphony of Truth; a place of freedom to discover and harness the wildness within us; a place of freedom to learn from friendly mentors; a place of freedom to contemplate Love in the quiet stillness of our souls in communion with one another, the world, and God.

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