Paideia, humanitas, and civility — what are they and why do they matter?

Read to the end to discover my verdict following visits to *three* of Nashville's best hot chicken establishments!

This week, we will explore:

  • Lessons from the “Other Parthenon”

  • Word of the Week: “Paideia” (παιδεία)

  • Recap from curiosity healing our divides event (watch video!)

  • Hot chicken: A Nashville must

  • February’s book contest!

Last weekend I visited Nashville, Tennessee. The reason for the trip was threefold.

First, I had never been to Nashville before, but have heard wonderful things about the city’s civic culture, especially in the wake of a series of crises over the last year: a destructive tornado, the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, a summer of protests against racial injustice, and most recently, the Christmas Day bombing just a few months ago. I went to see firsthand how the city has held together and even thrived in the wake of these monumental events. (More on this later).

Second, I had heard there was a replica of the Greek Athenian Parthenon—the only in the world—and as an admirer of all things antiquity, I had to see it for myself. It was extrodinary. As many of you know, the Parthenon built by the Ancient Greeks is magnificent and understandably the main tourist attraction in Athens today; but the millennia-old structure is under perpetual restoration, so one cannot get very close to it. But Nashville’s Parthenon is completely accessible. And it is stunning. (I recorded a series of videos about my reflections on visiting Nashville’s “Other Parthenon,” as it is known on social media, which I’ll share with you over the next several Civic Renaissance issues.)

Third, I adore hot chicken. This requires no further explanation. (Read to the end to learn about our experience at three of Nashville’s finest hot chicken establishments!)

Education, now and then

My visit to the Other Parthenon caused me to reflect on how our views of education today compares to how people have thought of education in other times and places.

Today, we frequently think education is a means to getting a job and earning a living. It is often associated with acquiring knowledge or technical skills.

In past eras, though—including in Ancient Greece—education wasn’t so static or utilitarian a concept. Education was understood as soul craft. It was character formation. It was exposure to a variety of different disciplines—geometry, rhetoric, philosophy, poetry, and more—to provide a baseline of subject knowledge to the end of orienting one’s loves toward the Good and the wellbeing of family, community, and the polis, or city. It was meant to promote lifelong learning and to cultivate our humanity to the fullest so that we might bring our best selves to bear on the problems of our day.

The Ancient Greeks’ word for this notion of education was Paideia. In greek, this word looks like this: παιδεία — recognize π from middle school math? Greek is very phonetic!

I’m currently reading PAIDEIA, by Werner Jaeger. It is a defining work of scholarship on this important concept, first published in 1933 in German. I’m reading the English translation, which first appeared in 1939.

Paideia was education, but also culture. It describes the process of shaping a Greek’s character. It was an all-encompassing approach to religion, politics, history, and literature, all to the end of defining and embodying what it meant to be a Greek citizen.

Greek Paideia found expression in Ancient Roman culture in the term humanitas, a word that meant not just education and culture, but also benevolence and love of humanity.

Eric Adler recounts a relevant anecdote in his new book Battle of the Classics, recently published by Oxford University Press. When Cicero defended his teacher, Archias, in court, he urged the judges to show mercy “in order that he may seem to have been freed by your kindness (humanitas), rather than to have been violated by your cruelty (acerbitas).”

Humanitas—the quality of being humane, showing kindness and grace to our fellow man—was both an intellectual and a practical virtue. Cicero said humanitas was cultivated through studying literature and philosophy and other disciplines—the same curricula that Archias had taught Cicero.

Such a study softened the rougher edges of our human nature, teaching those who studied its ways to pursue peace and harmony with others, and to avoid cruelty and violence. It also made its students free, and able to enjoy the fruits of life in a Republic.

It is no accident that the “studia humanitatis” or “the study of humanity” ultimately came to be referred to as the “artes liberales” or “liberal arts.” The study of humanity, after all, is appropriate for the education of those who wish to be truly free. For the stoic philosopher Seneca, philosophy was essential to any free person's education, because philosophy alone teaches wisdom, virtue, and kindness—essential requisites to being truly free.

Harvard intellectual historian James Hankins reminds us that humanitas was an also important concept for the humanists of the European Renaissance of the 15th century. In his fantastic essay, The Forgotten Virtue, he looks to the example of humanists such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Petrarch—thinkers who thought that cultivating humanitas, what we might call civility today, was an essential part of education. Through the study of art, history, philosophy, and literature, the humanists instructed members of the ruling class in what conduct was praiseworthy, what was blameworthy, and what was worth emulating in their own lives and in their leadership.

“The humanist theory of civility and humanitas linked civil conduct tightly with character,” Hankins writes.

What does this mean for us today, where our educational culture seems to have largely lost this vision of education? How can we revive an educational culture that cares about cultivating our humanity and kindness? One that prioritizes a well-rounded education in the humanities, and sees education as something that cultivates our humanity and makes us truly free—and doesn’t see students as units to be formed and fit into the job market?

We’re at an inflection point when it comes to education today. The last year has exposed many weaknesses in our education system. Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are ready for something new in the post-pandemic era. What might that look like?

Across the country, people are already re-envisioning our education system, having been forced to adapt because our current educational system has failed them. People, have been forced to think outside the box, outside the brick-and-mortar delivery system of education. Would you be willing to share your ideas about what innovations have been working for you, and what you think we need to continue to innovate, adapt, and improve?

If so, please write to me. I would like hear your story, what’s worked for you and what you think the future should hold.

What do you think about paideia, humanitas, and civility? What role might they have today as we think of post-pandemic education? Please write to me.

I’d love to hear from you!

You can reach me directly at ah@alexandraohudson.com.

A reflection on the healing power of curiosity

Thanks to those of you who joined our conversation on curiosity, in partnership with Braver Angels and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, on Wednesday evening!

One of my favorite take aways from the dialogue was the importance of getting a “daily dose of wonder” to help jump-start our curiosity and, in so doing, be a powerful response to healing our divided moment.

Curiosity and wonder about others and the world put our small problems in perspective. They instill in us an intellectual humility that that allows us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers—and never will—which in turn helps foster interest in the perspectives of people who hold different opinions than we do.

View the conversation here (and yes, there are lots of enthusiastic “spirit fingers” throughout the evening!).

Nashville hot chicken: An empirical study

Three days in Nashville. Three hot chicken establishments.

Day One, we visited Hattie B’s. This place had been recommended to me by a local authority who ought know. My husband, Kian, and I were very (small c) conservative the first night in our approach to the heat level. “We love spicy food,” we thought. “But this is Nashville hot chicken we’re talking about.” We ordered “hot” when in any other circumstance, we probably would have gone extra or even extra-extra hot.

We were disappointed. The chicken was good! The spice level was not.

We thought we had learned our lesson about how “Nashville hot chicken” spice levels compared to our own internal heat gauge. We thought it was, shall we say, manageable. But we did not know what was still in store for us.

Day Two, we visited a Prince’s Hot Chicken food truck. Apparently the original Prince’s establishment had, sadly, shut down during the pandemic. But the food truck was still a great experience.

We decided to swing by before our trip to the Other Parthenon, and arrived right as it opened at around 11:30. We were the first there, and a line of twenty people rapidly formed behind us. It was a freezing day, so even just minutes waiting for them to open felt like ages.

Feeling daring and empowered from our experience at Hattie B’s the night before—but still dispositionally a bit wary—Kian ordered both “hot” and “extra hot” chicken tenders.

There are no words to describe either the pureness of the joy—or the severity of the cognitive dissonance—that we experienced eating Prince’s hot chicken.

It was both incredibly delicious—and incredibly hot.

Our brains were befuddled by the fact that our mouths were on fire but our extremities were so cold! (Outdoor dining in Nashville during a historically cold winter is not recommended.)

I haven’t gotten to the last day or establishment yet, but I’ll tell you that Prince’s was far and away our favorite of the three.

It’s also the original place for hot chicken in Nashville. The story goes something like this.

A women was dating a notorious philander—one Mr. Prince—and she was sick of it. The hot chicken was part of her revenge plot.

She added hot spices to the batter—and added hot sauces on top of the chicken as well—with the intent of teaching him a lesson about fidelity.

I don’t know if we can say it backfired, but her plan to make him suffer and know pain certainly didn’t work. Mr. Prince loved the chicken, so much so that he begged her to make it for his family and friends, who apparently also loved it so much that he opened a hot chicken establishment in the early 1900s.

While I do not support the infidelity involved in Prince’s hot chicken origin story, I wholeheartedly support the fact that it exists today and continues to nourish and scald the hearts and tastebuds of visitors to Nashville and locals to this day.

We loved it so much, that once we got home, I immediately took to the internet to see who had found an approximate recipe to re-create the delectable Prince’s hot chicken. To my chagrin, no one had. So I was mostly on my own!

Our son, Percival, was as eager to try the hot chicken we made as we were! Do not worry. We did not let the 11 month old eat the chicken made with 7 table spoons of Cayanne pepper.

The result was, to put it mildly, sensational. Not quite as good as Prince’s itself—and never will be. But it was still amazing. (Do you like hot chicken and would you like the recipe? I am thinking of making a video of my method. I think my rough approximation of Prince’s hot chicken recipe deserves to be added to the rich body of human knowledge of the The Inter-webs.)

Day Three was Bolton’s Hot Chicken and Fish. They were out of catfish, the sandwich they are known for, but the hot whitefish sandwich was delicious and also a fun addition to our spicy culinary journey in the South.

In short, Bolton’s was HOT. Definitely the hottest of the three. While it pushed our limits, we were still able to enjoy Prince’s “extra-hot” chicken. So, we thought we might take the same approach at Bolton’s, order both hot and extra hot.

“You don’t want to do that,” the cashier warned. “Prince’s ‘extra hot’ is our ‘hot.’”

I am so glad we listened, because that was an understatement.

I could not finish my Bolton’s “hot” chicken. I downed three water bottles and countless containers of ranch and my mouth was still on fire. (I ended up purchasing another order of chicken at the “medium” spice level, which was more my speed. Embarrassing, I know, but I wanted to enjoy it! And there is never shame in self-awareness of one’s own limits. Right?)

All in all, our foray into Nashville hot chicken was a wild success. I cannot tell you how much we enjoyed it, or how excited we are to go back for more. I am accepting excuses to re-visit Nashville on a rolling basis—so please keep them coming!

Win a book on manners!

February is drawing to a close, and this month’s book giveaway is not to be overlooked! This new book is about a few of my favorite things—Edmund Burke, political philosophy, manners, and commerce. It’s entitled Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke's Political Economy and is written by Gregory Collins, just published by Oxford University Press.

The Washington Post’s George Will called it “elegant,” and Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield called it a “thorough” contribution.

Read more about Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke's Political Economy here.

Would you like a chance to win this book?

To be entered, subscribe or share this post with a friend or on social media! (Be sure to tag me on social media so I know to enter you!)

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Civic Renaissance is a newsletter and community dedicated to ennobling our public discourse with the wisdom of the past, curated by award-winning writer Alexandra Hudson, whose forthcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s Press. Read more about Civic Renaissance here!