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The terrible problem of being good

By Sarah Flynn-O'Dea - posted Wednesday, 20 March 2024

One of the Western Canon's most ubiquitous concerns is the terrible difficulty associated with being a good person. This is because it is a truly human problem.

For parents it is central to the task of childrearing. Thus, it must also be a central concern for educators. However, it is not the rules of being good, a law or standard, neither the description of a what a good person is like, that give rise to difficulty; it is easy even for a small child to understand these things.

It is real world's inherent tensions, contradictions, and moral ambiguities encountered in the quest for virtue and an ethical life that are the subject of so many works of those considered our greatest writers. So how does the Classical tradition of education, equip a young person to track successfully towards this True North?


My daughter is studying fables currently. I have enjoyed listening to her lessons. Lessons where she thinks she is being taught to write but I have the inward satisfaction that what she is learning is far more profound. This is classical education. In the same lesson she is explicitly taught writing skills, vocabulary and concepts such as morals. Implicitly her the inner man is taught. The how of being a good person, not only the what or why is embedded in these lessons.

If you have ever struggled with your own poor choices, resisting temptations or tried to teach a child the same, you will know this is not a straight forward task. It requires repetition. Repeated practice provides the range of opportunities needed to work through the practicalities of being good. In a nutshell this is how virtue is developed.

In my daughter's class she is working through many fables and though it is still early in the year I have noticed the mechanism by which mastery is attained. On the surface it is the repeated exercises of the progymnasmata, the sentences, vocabulary and word play, rewriting sentences with variation. However, beneath the surface, there is the repeated pattern associated with the fables themselves.

I expect she will remember some of the fables and some of the wise maxims from them, but the pattern of the fable itself, iteratively embedded over and over in each new story, is the mechanism by which virtue is demonstrated and developed. The link struck me as I noted a pattern explained similar to that used in cognitive behaviour therapy, arguably the most ubiquitous, highly regarded, evidence-based therapeutic modality in modern psycchology. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) seeks to unpack automatic negative thinking patterns, first drawing a client's attention to the thoughts that lay behind a negative experience and connecting them to a consequential negative behaviour. As the client gains awareness to automatic thoughts, feelings and behaviours, the theory is that they are able to challenge and replace negative thoughts with more positive ones.

It never ceases to amaze me, the many embedded psychologically therapeutic mechanisms I find in classical education.

Here in my daughter's fables class, I see a shadow of CBT. As she repeats each fable, the characters are caught in a scenario, an action. As they act out their behaviours there are both good and bad consequences for themselves and those around them. Iteratively, it becomes clear that certain thoughts, beliefs or values in the characters give rise to a behaviour that carries results, either positive or negative.


Through the repetition both of this moral pattern and the grammar exercises, the student is trained implicitly to know that certain thoughts give rise to positive outcomes. The students are also guided to explicitly examine alternative thoughts or beliefs that may give rise to better or worse outcomes.

This in a nutshell is the CBT method. How wonderfully hopeful that here in these stories and pedadogy from the ancient past, in this most enjoyable form of story, with animal characters that children are naturallly drawn to and curious about, we see a psychological gold standard of healthy thinking and resilience education.

Most of us have lived long enough to know that whilst the prospect of 'being good' gives rise to productive life outcomes, it is always the outworking, the development of good habits in thought and deed where the difficulties lie. "We do the things we do not want to do and those things we want to do we do not do".

The terrible problem of being good, thoroughly considered in the fables holds unexpectedly contemporary treasures for student wellbeing and flourishing. Whilst many may be surprised by this, the increasing number of those who advocate for a renewal of the Classical Tradition will knowlingly nod without surprise, because, in spite of the dramatic shifts in human culture in the 21st century, those who went before no doubt knew a thing or too.


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This article was first published on Logos Australis.

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About the Author

Sarah Flynn-O'Dea is a Queensland teacher and the founder of Logos Australis.

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All articles by Sarah Flynn-O'Dea

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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