Introduction: An Ideal University?
by Dr. Robert Alexander
I hope you’ll pardon me if I seem ungracious. I find myself a little gun-shy of academics holding ideals. I’ve been around them, counted myself one of them, too long. Instead of approaching your topic in terms of an ideal, I’ve decided instead to approach it in terms of what I believe to be real. And so I’ve chosen to substitute the word real in my title because I’d like it to be understood that if a school is to be as good as it can be, I believe that it has to be rooted in a number of intersecting realities: it has to emerge from our own experiences; it has to see its being as ultimately rooted in the reality of the Trinity; and, finally, it has to discover whether its identity is in answer to a call. Two questions have to be asked up front: the first is, has there been a call, and if so, what is it? And the second, is the school prepared to accept the reality of a mystery–the unfolding of that call over time? I believe there has been a call. That call is Fides Et Ratio, and for those of us in education, it is to take up the task of reconciling faith and reason. This is our challenge, and I take it that it is all the more urgent because it has been given explicit form. We have all heard it.
The difficulty of reconciling faith and reason is in some ways the struggle of our time. Failure to take it up, I believe, is the root cause of the secularization of our schools–it’s simply easier to begin with reason, to make it and the power or control it gives us over things the center of our lives. Scientific and technological advances have so established themselves in the popular mind, the material benefits are so obvious, the promises of reason so great, why should anyone turn to faith? Generations have been raised on the belief that universal education and the cultivation of reason are natural rights and the sure means of happiness. And the fruits of that philosophy are understandable. Reason has given us the power to make ourselves comfortable: it has put security within reach (seat belts, contraception, cell-phones); it has given us a sense of mastery over our immediate world. Even our inner, spiritual world seems to have been brought under control with our theories of psychology, the unconscious, dreams. The possibilities for control seem endless.
On the other side, faith presents religious communities with some of their more serious problems: people are drawn to “causes,” see themselves as making great sacrifices for the group or the common-good, “serving the community,” when in fact what they’re doing is too often only serving their own self-interest. Their faith puts their reason out of reach of discipline. Their work suffers as a result, and when it does, its most conspicuous characteristic is its lack of good sense; it simply doesn’t stand up under the light of day. And the consequence of this sad fact is that non-Christians who already begin with some resistance to Christianity are simply given more reason for doubting it. We’ve been called to sanctify the secular order, to work for a “reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order” (Fides, 43). We can’t do this without submitting our faith to the discipline of reason.
The opposition between faith and reason, then, isn’t simply a tension between two terms of a proposition. It is the struggle of our time. It’s always struck me as somewhat of an irony that Christians find in the excesses of reason (the tendency of modern man to exult in his technological powers, his apparent mastery over nature) a cause for despair. It seems to me a little like a man despairing of hunger while sitting under a fruit tree. If anything, the greater the dependency of our culture on reason, the more a Christian has to work with. If we despair, it’s only a symptom of the divorce between faith and reason and ourselves, of some assumption that reason is merely technical or, worse, corrupt by nature. If reason and faith have the same source in God, then the possibilities for inspiration and conversion should be unlimited. Either we assume that our faith isn’t reconcilable with reason or we haven’t learned to properly submit our faith to the disciplines of reason, to penetrate reason with our faith in order to use it well. And if we fail to do this, it only makes clear our capitulation: we have handed reason over to the world and admitted its corruption. The primary purpose of education is the pursuit of truth. As Catholics facing a widening breach between faith and reason, it’s important that we not be cavalier or too literal in our understanding of the meaning of that pursuit. Whatever form the program takes, it has to reflect a vision in which faith and reason are integral to each other. Anything less and the college will surely take its place adding to the list of casualties. The great Christians of the last century were known not only for their piety but for their extraordinary uses of reason. Newman, MacDonald, Chesterton, Williams, Lewis, all led an educated, unbelieving world to faith and taught Christians how to think. The goal of education is not the pursuit of faith–at least not directly–and our susceptibility to despair of the world and its uses of reason can’t allow us to change that fact. The challenge facing us is do we have a faith strong enough to hold us to the discipline of reason while we learn to use it well?
Pope John Paul II entitles one of the sections of a chapter in his encyclical, “The drama of the separation of faith and reason.” I’m assuming most of us understand the implications of that drama, have experienced its casualties, seen the cost of living in a world in which reason tries to operate without faith or faith struggles to inspire without reason. These two powers are inextricably bound and wherever we find casualties, it’s often because they are being acted upon in division. At the outset of Fides Et Ratio, when John Paul says that the truths of Catholic doctrine are at risk of “being distorted or denied,” I hear him asking us to recover them and to find their sure “foundations in relation to faith” (6). He says at the end of the first chapter, “the truth made known to us by revelation is neither the product nor the consummation of an argument devised by human reason. It appears instead as something gratuitous, which itself stirs thought and seeks acceptance as an _expression of love” (15). I take it that the reason for our conference–if I can use that word here–is that an act of love has already taken place–struck deep and inward; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. Now, the question is, can it be incarnated in the world? Can it be submitted to the practical and speculative workings of reason and so given real–not ideal–form?
Several purposes directed me in this paper, although none of them will be immediately obvious. Two of them were purely practical. The first was the curriculum, both in its overall character and its inner, concrete workings; the second was literature. I had to make a place for literature because of defects in contemporary approaches. Artists are especially close to the gifts of the Spirit; they have a special power for moving the affections and cultivating the kind of sympathetic knowledge that literature and poetry can give us through the affections, the seedbed of love. It was important to make a defense for this kind of knowledge because in the hands of too many teachers, its power for awakening healthy emotions has been lost. Literature is simply made to serve ideological ends. So this was not a small task. It meant clearing the way by being as careful of philosophic principles as I could. The two great battles in academia today are being waged over philosophy and literature. And this is no accident. The one has to do with wisdom, the other with our affections and our capacity to love. The primary purpose of a college is the pursuit of truth; but our call is to love. We do this by forming ordinant emotions; but we create the conditions for this work by first awakening the natural affections, by helping students become capable of large, generous feelings–not just magnanimity, a great pagan virtue–but depths of empathy and compassion. Young people are coming out of schools today in a condition of intellectual hypertrophy–they have enlarged heads but shrunken capacities to love. And one of our urgent tasks is to address this problem.
The final purpose guiding me wasn’t just the truth of Fides Et Ratio; it was what I take to be its underlying spirit, something we can detect in its tone. One of
St. Thomas’ greatest achievements, as John Paul puts it, was the reconciliation between the radical character of the gospel and the secularity of the world, and I don’t believe it’s possible to reconcile faith and reason unless our work is carried on in the context of this larger struggle. That requires real gifts of intellect. We simply can’t engage in this struggle today without better developed minds. We are asked to reclaim God’s creation, not by force but as He does it, freely, by invitation and through the gifts of the Spirit. For us, in a large way, that means through our use of what the secular culture most prizes, our reason and imagination. But, clearly, the spirit in which we use these is, in a sense, everything. And I find that part of the wonder of Fides Et Ratio is the example it gives of this spirit. What John Paul is asking of us he himself does, and the form of Fides Et Ratio, its tone, makes that abundantly clear. It begins with a call to self-knowledge and closes with a prayer to Mary, the Seat of Wisdom. What ties the beginning and end together and unites the whole of the encyclical is a spirit of humility and surrender. It was Mary’s humility that allowed Christ to come into the world; and it’s only in humility that we have any promise, any hope of discovering who we are, of completing our quest for self-knowledge.
I take it that the movement of that document from self-knowledge to the self-forgetfulness that brings Christ to us provides the terms of our endeavor: to be open to discussion and inquiry, to struggle to find our identity in Christ, and to know that if we enter into this struggle in a spirit of humility and surrender, we will find our identity in Christ in bringing faith and reason together because He is the source of both of them.
A Real University or College
Catholic higher education is in a mess. I don’t think it an overstatement to say that in some ways it’s in a state of war. Schools everywhere are experiencing serious problems; faculties are breaking up; good people are being chased off, let go, and fired; loyalties are dividing around unresolved tensions between faith and reason, between some who lean more towards charismatic approaches or a sense of “mission,” and others wanting greater intellectual integrity, higher standards–so many of the problems are traceable back to some failure of reason to draw on faith, of faith to stoop to reason, some failure of assimilation between the two. And, meanwhile, the body count is mounting. Nearly a whole generation has passed since Vatican II. It is a propitious time.
If one thing is necessary at this moment it is that we get clear on first principles. The school will take its identity from them; it is the one thing on which there has to be complete agreement. And since it is first principles that will animate the school, give it its mission and identity for action in the world, there is almost no greater task than articulating them; it will be the hardest thing to do. They will express the school’s vision, declare to the public–profess, really–the seriousness with which it answers its call, the spirit in which it takes it up–finally, how deeply it has plumbed the resources contained in them, how open it’s been to them, individually and collectively.
But, of course, principles don’t exist in a vacuum. They represent seminal truths about the structure or nature of reality itself. Our ability to penetrate them, to live by them, depends in large measure on our openness to learn from reality and our own self-knowledge. Their meaning and vitality depends upon constant reflection on our own experiences–not simply our experiences with formal education but with life in general, with the multitude of ways we informally learn or ways others–including God–have taught us. A long view, which a course of studies will give us, is a pre-requisite. But what about our own experiences? What are we learning from the problems immediately in front of us? One of our first concerns should be to learn from the experiences of this passing generation, this extraordinary grassroots reform we are still a part of, from its hidden graces, its serious mistakes, the courage and faith of the people willing to step out the way they did, and to discover what these years have to offer if we see them in light of faith and reason. Have we seen their achievements and failures in the context of our political/social institutions and also in the light of personal struggles to reconcile faith and reason? Have we adequately reflected on our own failings? The Manicheism, elements of Jansenism, even the bigotry that infects us, the tendency to think that because of our faith, we can’t be wrong? A new school can’t be a refuge or sanctuary; it has to rest on sound affirmations, and we have them in abundance. One of the blessings of our faith is that we know by it that its principles are superior to the whole order of social life; they are the reference points that give it meaning. But it is our task to bring all that the world has offered to teach us and all that our experiences have given us, to the incarnating work of reconciling faith and reason in a college.
One of our assumptions today, perhaps because we begin with doubt and want everything to be proven to us, is that argument or dialogue ends when agreement is reached, when doubt is answered. But in fact, the reverse is true. There can be no real conversation or argument unless people begin with some ground on which there is agreement. This is true of scientific, philosophical, and theological discussions, how can it be less true for a founding? A people can’t really be said to come together, they don’t become a people, without agreement on principles.
What is the content of our two founding principles of faith and reason in this hour? I’d like to offer reflections on this question, but before I do, I have to back up still further to two preliminary principles that establish conditions and parameters for discussing the primary ones. The first is that there can be no conversation if there is no agreement on what the conversation is about. How do we reach agreement if we can’t come together in dialogue? The most immediate question, then, isn’t the content of faith and reason; it’s whether we can talk. John Courtney Murray says that the first question, the one we have to take up before any discussion of those principles or truths we hold, is are we civil?
Therefore I suggest that the immediate question is whether American society is properly civil. This question is intelligible and answerable, because the basic standard of civility is not in doubt: “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” …The specifying note of political association is its rational deliberative quality, its dependence for its permanent cohesiveness on argument among men. In this it differs from all other forms of association found on earth…. This form of friendship is a special kind of moral virtue, a thing of reason and intelligence, laboriously cultivated by the discipline of passion, prejudice, and narrow self-interest (We Hold These Truths, pp.6-7).
I quote these lines partly for the example of their tone but mostly because they establish the preliminary conditions for our endeavor–reasoned conversation and deliberation that have the function of disciplining “passion, prejudice, and narrow self-interest” and of cultivating friendship.
And the second preliminary principle is that a Catholic school is an institution which stands both as a mediary and in time. That is to say, it looks back to the family–the kids are coming directly from home–while at the same time looking ahead to the universe we are preparing our students to enter. It is the staging ground where we begin the work of helping them to take on the conquest of their own freedom. And because its identity as a mediary is lived in time, it must return to its first principles again and again over time. These principles don’t exist in a vacuum; they are lived experiences submitted to reflection and embodied in traditions, the living embodiments of a people’s memory. They are, in Murray’s words, “experience illumined by principle, given a construction by a process of philosophical reflection. In the public argument, there must consequently be a continued recurrence to first principles” (Truths, p.11).
So my first question is: do we agree on the importance of discussion, civil argument, the fundamental value of disagreement? If the answer is yes, then having reached agreement, we can begin the conversation. What are those first principles, those truths we hold about which there is no disagreement and upon which everything else depends? These truths will provide the living standards by which everything in the future will be measured, decisions, adjustments, even significant changes. What is our understanding of faith and reason, because it is this understanding that will give shape to the program. We are not angels whose pure intelligence perceives and comprehends immediately (Sum. theo. I,58,3). We cannot get to the depths or range of first principles except by patient, careful, painstaking efforts. To begin those efforts is our most important task right now. In the on-going effort of carrying them into the future, the school will realize its identity.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Call: to join Faith and Reason
The most important task for any of us involved in this founding, what has to command everyone’s attention and energy, is to conceive of the program as a whole, and to see that what animates the center of this whole, giving form and substance to all its parts, is the call to reconcile faith and reason. This is the sum, the total, of what I have to say. Whatever form the college takes, however it articulates its mission, its governance policies, its public and administrative guidelines, its common-life rules and customs, its constituting principles, it should not underestimate the importance of this animating dynamism between faith and reason, of the shared commitment to resolve them into a whole. The commitment to realize this call, like a marriage, will give the college its identity. What will this mean for the future? Who knows. But the principles making up that tension will establish the guidelines, the parameters, the foundations on which all work, all discussions, all planning will take place. This shared understanding of these principles is something we come to; we become who we are by coming to them. They aren’t simply working hypotheses; they are the truths by which we live.
The implications of this are, obviously, profound. As corporeal creatures, we live in two interpenetrating orders, moving about in what seems to be a bounded physical universe while constantly breathing above time. We are called to reconcile two orders, the natural and supernatural, the finite and infinite, the immanent and transcendent. And the cost of doing so is a constant tension–is it too much to say, it is one aspect of the cross? How do those of us involved in education resolve these two orders and the rich, hierarchical whole they comprise into a curriculum? How do we–I don’t want to say implement; it’s too mechanical–how do we incarnate, give a living form not just to our understanding but to those loves informed by it? I would make a preliminary stab: readings. Readings that give _expression to these two orders. Philosophy, science, and catechism or theology, yes, for sure, because ideas and statements of doctrine are essential. The mind requires their clarity. But statements of principles are not the same thing as those principles presented as immediate, lived experience: we need poetry and literature, works that make the spiritual world felt. It is not enough to simply read “the best that’s been thought and written”; it’s essential to feel it. And for that reason, I would recommend Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Chesterton, MacDonald, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, and O’Connor. They help make us aware of multiple levels of reality in ways others have not. But even more importantly, by not confining their stories, their settings or images to those of an ecclesial world, they help us find our ground with all of humanity, to see the grace that is working there, what the Spirit is doing in an unbelieving world. But this is to get ahead of myself. What is the content of the first principles of faith and reason? Let me take faith first.
Because of the mysteries involved, I’d like to be brief here, but basically, our first beliefs are:
Faith: First Principles
1. Our Triune God; we believe in three Persons, God the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit: because we are made in their image, both our individuality and our social nature have their ontological roots in them: three Gods, each distinct and individual and yet absolutely social in nature, all of one being; so our humanity: each of us distinct while still having the same nature,
2. The Incarnation: we believe that out of a boundless love, Christ took on our human nature in order to redeem our sins. The measure of our sin, however much it was hidden from us before His crucifixion, was made clear afterwards: we killed Him–our revolt against God is that great. But His death and resurrection made clear that however great our sin against Him, His love was, is, greater. The full extent of the magnitude of His love and its radical nature was shown not only in His last commandment, that we love one another as He did us, but in His return to Heaven. He returned still in our nature and by inviting us to join Him there, he offered us a share in His divine nature with the Father. Can any of the fantastic mysteries or fairy stories that leave us breathless in wonder get even close to that? As the divine founder of our Church, He gives it its infallibility, and not all of men’s sins, however great they are, will prevail against it;
3. The Traditions and Magisterium: these are not abstractions or institutions inspired by men; they are the presence of the Holy Spirit working out God’s providential plan in time. The doctrines, dogmas, encyclicals are all expressions–the steady out-pourings of words over time–of the single, silent, undivided, uncreated Word of God;
4. The Cross: the invitation out of our fallen love into the divine love of Christ with its promises of joy. Our way: folly to the Greeks (those most knowing) and a scandal to the Jews (those most righteous). Herein is the freedom from all the fears that are the result of our attachments to the world. The cross is the thing most impossible for us, except in Christ.
5. Mary: the human image of the absolute trust and faith in God: the Seat of
Wisdom. John Paul begins Fides Et Ratio with the Socratic maxim, to know ourselves, to grow in self-understanding. He ends with Mary because she is the image of the perfect humility which is the condition for self-knowledge. Clearly, self-knowledge here isn’t what it means to the psychologist or anthropologist: to know ourselves is to come to discover the Creator Who made us–and so enter into His boundless love.
These are our beliefs. I take it for granted they will be acknowledged everywhere, in chapel, in devotions, in shared prayer; in our openly professed attachment to the Magisterium, to Sacred Scripture, to the traditions of the Church; and in the program in theology, in catechism if it is given a place in the program. One of the more difficult questions is how do we make these beliefs living in the community, directly or indirectly? My own thought is that they should be lived indirectly or freely, because where they are forced or become one with the political structure and its rules and policies, they can introduce into the community a pharisaic, legalistic quality, forcing kids–and even faculty–to rebel or conform for the wrong reasons. Like the angel on the cornice of envy in Dante’s Purgatory whose good deeds are hidden by his own light, faith should animate everything in the program, be the beginning of the entire enterprise, the source from which the “whole” will come, and except in the liturgical, devotional life where it is given explicit form, it should do all this invisibly. Like God, it has to solicit or invite; it cannot force. But this approach means that exceptional burdens will fall to the founders, requiring of them real powers of abnegation, humility, surrender–these will give faith its life and also keep the externals from being merely externals. As academics, we’re not free of pride, and because it becomes easy to focus on curriculum and classes, those things we most immediately love, it will be easy to let matters of faith slip away, to allow work to overwhelm them. It would be good to recall the parable of the seeds blown away or plucked up by birds. To keep us mindful, fervent, I believe it’s essential we make room for retreats, exercises, for talks and papers. These should find an unassuming place along side of talks and papers on academic matters.
Reason: First principles of reason
According to St. Thomas, we exist as a part of a universe which we can know. Its very nature, the fact that it is comprised of various degrees and orders of immateriality, requires that we approach it using different manners or methods. Each science, according to Thomas, has its own virtue, its own perfecting habits, because each science not only has a different object to be known but ways of approach that are limited or determined by that object. Evidence of this fact is presented to us every day. Different minds approach the world in different ways. The philosopher doesn’t think like the scientist–he’s simply not trying to understand the same thing the scientist is–and the poet certainly doesn’t engage the world the same way the philosopher or scientist does. Each of these learners has a different way of knowing–a habit perfected by the way in which he approaches the world, and one of the values of their differences, is that when they bring them together, they can compliment and correct each other, give the benefit of their lights to others who would never have come to them because of the limits of their own disciplines. Our work is finally communal.
But I would like to consider this description of a universe of learning a little more closely, especially since what’s at stake is the ultimate outcome or shape of a curriculum. What are the first principles of our knowledge? First that all knowledge, at least all knowledge grounded in reason and in nature, however diversified or obscure its forms, is finally coherent because being itself is ultimately one and intelligible. And second, that reason is meant for being; it’s meant to see and to penetrate the depths of what it sees. Its immaterial character guarantees this if only we’re patient enough working with the diversified forms of matter in which being is presented to us. These are the first principles of reason and it’s imperative we give them working room in the program.
Three passages from St. Thomas make clear what’s at stake here. In the first (Sum. theol. I,85,1) Thomas establishes the place and mode of human reason in the scheme of creation. Because man occupies a middle ground between animals, who can know only particulars through their senses, and angels, who having no bodies, can know essences directly, he can know both–particulars and universals, but only by patient, hard work. In the second (Commentary on The Trinity of Boethius, V,1), he makes clear the two conditions essential for real learning: for man to have real knowledge, he must have an intellectual habit of science–that is, he must be capable of coming to certain knowledge of things. There must also exist an object whereby the intellect can be perfected. This object has to be immaterial (because the mind is immaterial) and necessary–that is, it can’t be other than it is. And to arrive at knowledge of this object, the intellect has to develop habits of abstraction, powers of separating matter from motion and change–that is, getting beyond the simple grasp of particulars that animals have–or it won’t be able to arrive at those underlying forms contained in matter that are immaterial and unchanging, the essences or universals that angels can grasp. Finally, based on the principles of these two positions, Thomas lays out the foundations for the ordering of the sciences, distinguishing between objects of knowledge (those of physics, math, and metaphysics) by their relative freedom from or their dependence on matter to exist or to be known (Commentary on The Trinity, V,1).
Now these passages are probably commonplace to most of you. But I confess I only came on them in recent years, and when I did, I experienced them almost like a broken bone being reset. A thousand confusions, a host of wracked and misdirected efforts, suddenly were put to rest. Let me explain why. I’ve spent my life teaching literature, and I think I have a fairly good grasp of it. I graduated from what I believe is an excellent graduate program, one that required work in a field outside of literature–we all knew the queen of knowledge was philosophy and didn’t take it at our peril. But it wasn’t till I was teaching and came up against the confused interpretations of my colleagues, each making literature into something different according to his or her own starting points–Freudian, Feminist, Marxist, De-constructionist–that I became aware that I really could not defend my own field against those who would make of it anything they chose. And I came to realize, early on, that what I discovered about myself was not only true of the other teachers in my department, it was true of most of my colleagues. Colleagues from all departments were clamoring for interdisciplinary courses–they all suffered from the isolation of their disciplines–but none of them could give an account of the principles of division or unity of fields. And worse, because none of them could do this, none of them could see that by simply combining courses, they would only be adding to the confusion, contributing to the incoherence and fragmentation they were trying to escape. We were all under the shadow of Babel.
Thomas freed me from this. The value of his principles is that if he is right, we can’t simply arbitrarily construct a curriculum along any lines we want. If a curriculum has any pretence of objectively presenting a universe, the organization of courses and pedagogies has to do justice to the real nature of that universe and our ways of knowing it–our ways of engaging and becoming one with it. This principle of correspondence is absolutely vital to the life of a curriculum. The mind has as its object an immaterial thing because its own nature is immaterial. If a habitus is to be developed or perfected, its object has to be constant or “necessary”; otherwise, how could the intellect know? Each science has its own perfecting habit because each is concerned with a different aspect of reality, each limited by the depths of the reality of its own specific object. What the physicist is studying isn’t the same as the mathematician, and what the mathematician knows in his head isn’t the same as what the metaphysician knows. Each knows some-thing different because each one is encountering the world at a different level of immateriality. Whatever universal laws the physicist discovers, he still has to verify them against the concrete world of things; the mathematician has to validate his conclusions according to strict laws of logic as they apply to the definitions or postulates he begins with. And the metaphysician, if he begins with an intuition of being (each seeker or learner begins with some intuition of being), still has to proceed with concepts that can unfold the nature of being in its relation to matter. To take “disciplines” away from a curriculum and turn students into generalists is to undermine the very condition, the very nature of learning. If the object of knowledge is constantly shifting for a student, and if there is substantial depth to what he is seeking to learn, how can he develop a habitus, the power for grasping that is the fruit of a perfecting work in a discipline? Wouldn’t he simply be perfecting a rationalist habit of mind of grasping ideas–not penetrating being? Without a discipline or a way, he’s as liable to become a rationalist, someone living in his head or a sentimentalist, someone who can inspire others but who leaves them finally outside the way.
Thomas’ distinction takes us to an especially high level of abstraction, but it provides a sound working principle by which to deal with questions of learning and by extension, texts, organization of courses, means and ends. The principle firmly establishes a correspondence between the subject to be learned and those perfecting habits the learner will have to develop if he’s to learn his subject and not simply know ideas. More importantly, it establishes beyond any doubt the relationship of the student to the curriculum and the whole world of being it attempts to help him enter. If a habitus is to be formed in him, he will have to come to know the interconnectedness of knowledge, its underlying coherence and unity, but he will also have to face the resistance that some specific field presents to his mind. All fields lead to the same place, to being itself, because each field participates in being in some way, but we can’t get to being without submitting ourselves to the limits inherent in each field, to the peculiar kind of obscurity that the matter of each field presents to us.
How, then, do we do justice to both the unity and diversity of our created universe in a curriculum? How is the unity underlying creation reflected in a program while still making its first principle philosophic inquiry? If being is manifold, rich in the diversified forms it takes in matter and hierarchical as well by the degrees of immateriality penetrating this matter, and reason is meant to penetrate this being, how do we adequately represent it in such a way as to be faithful to both its complexity and to the pedagogies necessary to approach it? Can a program be faithful to this teeming display of being so that what students are introduced to actually prepares them to properly engage it when they leave, both with the wonder that it invites and with the work necessary to penetrate the hidden intelligibility that is behind its mysteries? For this to happen, it’s important not to allow the Great Books to overly intellectualize learning at the expense of the affections, at the expense of the extraordinary richness of being or the diversity of ways approaching it–through the affections, through inclination, through what Thomas called connaturality or sympathy. And it’s important if the group recognizes this–and it’s clear it does–it not allow poetry or literature, those disciplines in which the affections have a greater home, to become merely means. If we want our students to penetrate being, to stand before its mysteries in wonder, with open hearts and rolled up sleeves, we have to prepare them for that work at the outset. The place the Great Books give philosophy and literature, then, will be important from the start.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Few people that I know of have any serious reservations about the Great Books, and few would argue with their value as the core of a program. The value of the texts is that they offer “the very best that’s been thought and written.”
When we read the Iliad by itself, its meaning remains confined to the book. When we follow that reading up with the Odyssey, the Aeneid and then Chaucer and Shakespeare, we don’t come away saying simply that these are “great books”; we come away feeling we’ve begun to appropriate a tradition, even without knowing it. And the same can be said of philosophers and scientists. No doubt there’s a benefit to reading Thomas alone, but anyone studying him in a line of sustained readings from Plato and Aristotle up through Augustine, Boethius, Avicenna, and Averroes, and then following him up with readings in Gilson and Maritain, will realize a depth of intuitions Thomas gave _expression to that he could never have arrived at if he confined his reading simply to Thomas. Read one way, the “tradition” stops with Thomas. Read the other way, Thomas becomes alive today, part of a dynamic, living tradition that expands and deepens the more and the longer we are immersed in it.
The Great Books are the legacy of Western thought and should be the core of a liberal arts education. They should be given their place, and one properly recognizing the importance of forming the emotions, the capacity of young people to love.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This brings me to disciplines. Of course, academics are going nuts with them; they proliferate everywhere. But this fact isn’t a reason for discarding them any more than bad marriages are an argument against marriage. We have to learn to use them well; fortunately, we have principles to guide us.
The first is that the correspondence between the thing known and the knowing subject should firmly establish its place in the curriculum. The ideas in our minds don’t separate us from the world, and the world doesn’t stand off as alien to us. We are a part of the world as knowing creatures, and disciplines only validate this capacity in us to know. They reflect our awareness of the difference between what it is we know and how we know it, the mode or manner by which we know and the fact that these change with the object known. It’s commonly accepted that we can’t expect from philosophy the same kind of precision we do from geometry or math. I myself am amazed at the precision of both Aristotle and Thomas in their treatises on the principles of nature; but still, the manner of these treatises is different from any concerned with physics, and so the precision is as well. In physics, the manner is largely metric–most questions are resolved in terms of measurements, in steps whose logical progression is conceived in terms of formulas or numbers–and since numbers are infinitely divisible, infinitely precise. Philosophy, however, is conceptual and verbal. The philosophy of nature deals with becoming and motion and demands that anyone treating these deal more directly with problems of language and give a conceptual precision to his thinking. The manner of each is radically different, involving different languages, different acts of abstraction; anybody hoping to master philosophy or math won’t be able to do so without painstaking work in their respective languages, in the different conditions of those disciplines.
The same is true of poetry and physics. Even though both deal with the concrete physical world, their modes are radically different. One gives us knowledge through concepts (always referring back to the concrete as object), the other a kind of sympathetic knowledge, or knowledge by inclination or connaturality (this is Maritain’s term, following Thomas). Poetry offers us the immediate experience of a sympathetic apprehension, the becoming one with another through emotion. The self becomes one with the other not strictly as object (as the intellect knows it) but as subject. We begin to penetrate the inner self of things and of others through inclination, by a power of emotion or empathy. That’s one reason literature and poetry are approached in terms of point of view; they deal more directly with the hidden interior of things, with subjectivity, dream, imagination. These two, physics and poetry, apprehend reality through very different modes. And reading them as if they were the same or subjecting them to the same pedagogy simply violates this difference. It’s important to not neglect these differences because they remind us that the more we work in a field, the more we work with the modes and manners peculiar to that field, the more likely we are to come to perfecting a habitus and penetrate its object. I would suggest that one reason students don’t do well in school today is that they don’t get enough work in a field; they’re often asked to work at a level of abstraction that runs contrary to the mind’s natural inclinations. The mind is meant to penetrate being, but it can only do this by submitting itself to the inherent limitations in nature. The constant submission to particulars is not a waste of time. I am reminded of Allen Tate’s remark on Edgar Allen Poe, who in his efforts to arrive at pure essences, like an angel, tried to circumvent the natural order. In the end, his intellectual force was exhausted because it had no real object. Having turned away from the sensible world, in his efforts to reach God, he had nothing left to work with but his own ideas. Tate says,
The human intellect cannot reach God as essence; only God as analogy. Analogy to what? Plainly, analogy to the natural world; for there is nothing in the intellect that has not previously reached it through the senses. Had Dante arrived at the vision of God by way of sense? We must answer yes, because Dante’s Triune Circle is light, which the finite intelligence can see only by means of what has already been seen by means of it. But Poe’s center is that place–to use Dante’s great figure–“where the sun is silent.” Since he refuses to see nature, he is doomed to see nothing. He has overleaped and cheated the condition of man. The reach of our imaginative enlargement is perhaps no longer than the ladder of analogy, at the top of which we may see all, if we still wish to see anything, that we have brought up with us from the bottom, where lies the sensible world. If we take nothing with us to the top but our emptied, angelic intellects, we shall see nothing when we get there. Poe as God sits silent in darkness. Here the movement of tragedy is reversed: there is no action. Man as angel becomes a demon who cannot initiate the first motion of love, and we can feel only compassion with his suffering, for it is potentially ours.
(Tate, “The Angelic Imagination”)
We undercut the work of our students if we don’t give their intellects enough work with the physical body, with the world’s body and all that it offers us by way of analogy.
This brings me to my second and the more important reason for advocating disciplines: the importance of surrender. Disciplines are just that, a discipline. The word has become so much a part of common parlance, it has lost its meaning. Disciplines discipline us in a medium and a way of approach to reality. I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a friend. We were struggling to find a way into our talk and he said, “Jump off anywhere. They all lead to the same place.” If being is our end, it doesn’t matter where we enter it, what path or medium we choose. They all point to the same place. The question is: can we make the surrender necessary to the work of penetrating being through our chosen method? We want things easy or, even worse, grand and not to be bothered with doing small things.
Dr. Donald Cowan, Physicist and former President of the University of Dallas, has spoken of the importance of surrender this way:
What T. S. Eliot said about the necessary loss of personality on the part of the poet applies as well to a genuine learner. The Christian paradoxes operate in education: attainment through abnegation, wisdom through ignorance, triumph through submission. Deliberately to choose abnegation, submission, and ignorance, however–to strive toward them–is to fall into their opposites, as the attempt to be humble tends to be an act of pride. Something of interest must be set up outside students, something that causes them to forget themselves and exist in that outside phenomenon. But here again the paradox is at work. If the professor designs the object for the purpose of making students forget themselves