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How to Educate Yourself in Liberal Arts: A Spiritual Transformation.

by Andrew Flaxman


For hundreds of years, from all over the ancient world, kings and commoners traveled to Delphi to ask the Oracle of Apollo about the right course of action – whether to make war or seek peace, whether to marry one person or another. They brought rich offerings to the god and were sent on their way by the priests with riddling answers.

And yet, over the entrance to the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was the admonition: “Know Thyself!” This ancient wisdom suggested that the true oracle lies within. The answers to the great human questions, public and private, are found not outside us but only through an inner journey of the seeking spirit. The crucial importance of developing self-knowledge can best be understood in the words of another ancient piece of wisdom: The Hebraic Talmud says, “We do not see things the way they are, we see things the way we are.” In other words, we grind the lenses with which we see the world.

What exactly is the SELF? Civilized people today generally see themselves in a physical and psychological-religious dimension but remain unconscious of any further aspect of their being. The question is how we develop deeper insights so that we can acknowledge and integrate intuition, imagination and inspiration into our conscious everyday lives.

Development of such self-knowledge requires being able to learn to have an “open eye”. This is what liberal arts education should teach but most often does not. The word “Liberal” has the same root as “Liberate.” Liberal Arts should be the study of what leads to freedom, as in “The truth shall set you free.” The purpose of the course is to help free one from traditional programming and become more autonomous and creative.

The conventional approach to the Humanities too often has consisted in rote teaching, memory training and problem solving. Opening the “inner eye” requires experiencing the “I” as an integrated whole, an ego (Latin for “I”) that balances thinking, feeling, and willing. Increased mastery of this integrative process leads to the ability to distinguish between true intuition and mere whim; between inspiration and empty abstract thought; between creative imagination and disconnected fantasy.

Such personal development goes against the present flow of conventional Western thought. For 500 years Western civilization has developed itself through the exploration and conquest of the “outer” world. This progress seems to have come from a scientific materialistic philosophy. The world viewed with this attitude appears separated from our inner being. And yet, if one looks more deeply – imagination, inspiration, and intuition – all spiritual, integrative processes, are at the core of our scientific and cultural discoveries. Einstein, to take one example, has said that he valued his ability to speculate and fantasize above his mathematical skill. The “new physics” is based on doing away with the old attitude that “I am here and it’s out there.” The observed, say the new physicists studying sub-atomic phenomena, is always changed by the observer.

Yet so much of the way we think and live is structured in dualism, (binary thinking) the commonplace way of thinking in terms of either/or, bad/good, inner/outer. Whether our faith is in science, progress, God, human nature or government, our outlook is often confined to dualities. Only enhanced self-knowledge enables us to transcend the temporary illusion of duality and one-sided materialism. An experience of opening the “I” breaks through to the integration of head, heart and creativity that is the core of all reality – the “patterns of organic energy” with which the Zen masters of ancient China were concerned.

To satisfy the universal need for inner direction many are turning toward gurus, cult figures, drugs and pseudo-Christianity (close-mindedness, intolerance, hatred and violence in the name of Christianity). People who choose to neglect their own self-development through self-knowledge can become attracted to and become locked into unhealthy, unfree solutions for their doubts, illnesses, insecurities and dissatisfactions.

Where do we find constructive help in this difficult journey into ourselves? We can turn to the great artists, writers, thinkers, statesmen and scientists throughout history who have communicated their heightened sense of awareness through their lives’ work. They have tried to awaken us to a higher view of ourselves through artistic forms and significant deeds. Their examples can make clear to us that we have more than just five senses. We can go beyond our material senses to deeper levels of cognition. We all have dormant organs of finer perception which have always been cultivated by leading Human Beings throughout history. If we can understand and absorb their insights, we can ourselves participate more completely in the great creative force that drives humankind forward and upward.

So often what we search for is to be found right in front of our noses. It is the same with life itself. It’s like a game of hide-and-seek that we play with the self we know and the self we are trying to find. And the method that we can use is also right before us in our own great culture and tradition. It is only a matter of learning how to “see better” as the loyal Earl of Kent implores Shakespeare’s King Lear.

The self-developmental thrust of this type of Liberal Arts education goes beyond the conventional approach to the Humanities found in colleges and universities today. For example, undergraduates study the doctrines and ideas of Plato. In contrast, this approach redirects the focus of study to the process of self-knowledge using Plato’s symposium as a catalyst. Self-knowledge is the goal. Plato is the guide.

To those who do not understand the spiritual dimensions of “Know Thyself!” self-knowledge appears to be narcissism. To those who have had this inner-experience, it is a path to community service. It is the goal of true education to cultivate that which is the best within each of us. This creates the conditions for a superior understanding of perennial wisdom, so called because it constantly blooms.


At the heart of any education for tomorrow are these seven basic principles:

An understanding of the importance of love in education, and the development of human relationships based on such an attitude.

Recognition of the ever-changing ways we view ourselves and the world we live in – the evolution of individual human consciousness.

An appreciation of the growth of personal freedom as it has evolved in the Western Tradition.

An emphasis on the potential for self-development and self-transformation inherent in each individual.

An awareness of how each subject relates to the experience of “I AM” as the balanced center of thinking, feeling and willing.

A sense of integrating the whole as well as clearly distinguishing the parts of each subject.

An exploration of the creative and artistic elements in our lives and in civilization in addition to the factual and intellectual elements.


Copyright©2005 by Andrew Flaxman
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