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Only the Disciplined Are Free: How an Education in the Classics Preserves Liberty

In a time when so many voices cry for freedom, I offer this bit of insight from one if my favorite authors, Mortimer Adler.

“Discipline is indispensable for a free use of our powers. The man who has not the knack of doing something gets tied up in knots when he tries to perform. The discipline which comes from skill is necessary for facility. How far can you go in discussing a book with someone who does not know how to read or talk about it? How far can you get in your own reading without a trained ability?

“Discipline…is a source of freedom. Only a trained intelligence can think freely. And where there is no freedom in thinking, there can be no freedom of thought. Without free minds, we cannot long remain free men.”

This comes from “Free Minds and Free Men,” the concluding chapter of Adler’s 1940 work, How to Read a Book. I have often heard it said that only a classical education preserves liberty, but I never fully understood how reading Robinson Crusoe, Opticks, or Madame Bovary was supposed to preserve freedom. It wasn’t until reading these words by Adler that I really began to understand this concept. Many have tried to explain that the classics discuss true principles and that is why. And I am sure there is something to that. But my argument has always been that the classics don’t really “teach” those principles as much as they support or illustrate those principles, that a reader really recognises a principle’s presence in a work more because he has learned it in the core phase of his education. Here Adler says something very different. He says that the classics preserve freedom because they teach discipline. And only the disciplined have freedom.

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