Published in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 25 (September 2002), 8-14.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
ABEYOND DESCRIPTION@: ON THE AMOST WONDERFUL BOOK@
AAt seven in the morning we reached Hannibal, Missouri, where my boyhood was spent. I had a glimpse of it fifteen years ago, and another glimpse six years earlier, but both were so brief that they hardly counted. The only notion of the town that remained in my mind was the memory of it as I had known it when I first quitted it twenty-nine years ago. That picture of it was still clear and vivid to me as a photograph. I stepped ashore (from the fast boat of the St. Louis and St. Paul Packet Company) with the feeling of one who returns out of a dead-and-gone generation.... I saw the new houses B saw them plainly enough B but they did not affect the older picture in my mind, for through their solid bricks and mortar I saw the vanished houses, which had formerly stood there, with perfect distinction.@
B Samuel L. Clemens, Life on the Mississippi.
If someone has the privilege of attending grammar school and high school in the Napa valley, he probably knows more about grapes and wine than anyone else of his own age except perhaps those from Bordeaux in France or the Chianti region in Italy. My friends, Jim and Kay Kline, tell me that, within fifteen miles of downtown Healdsburg, where they live, there are sixty-five wineries, a statistic, in their case, that derives, I believe, from no book. Nor is it a fact learned from their respective youths in Joplin, Missouri, or Alliance, Nebraska, where other things besides grapes, like corn and wheat, were there to be observed just by looking around within fifteen miles of downtown Joplin or Alliance. And Mark Twain, in the passage I cited in the beginning, reminds to Asee,@ at least in our memories, even those things that have disappeared in the town in which we were born and raised.
Yves Simon remarked somewhere that if we are the son or daughter of a doctor, it is more likely that we will know something of, say, biology or anatomy, than if we grow up in a home of a Buick or Toyota dealer, wherein we probably would know something more of workings of automobiles than how to turn on the ignition key. In other words, it is perfectly all right to learn something from your family, from the place in which you live. In fact, many, if not most, of the important things that one most needs to know about life are probably to be found within his own household or within his own city limits or within fifteen miles of the city=s center. We should not be entirely surprised that someone, even our parents, learned something before we came along. One of the burdens of being young is that it takes someone, as Plato calculates it in the seventh book of The Republic, until he is about fifty to figure out most of the essential things he needs to know, when, alas, he is too old to appreciate it if he did not get started correctly. Not a day passes in which we did not learn something we might have learned. There is nothing tragic about this, unless we think we are gods, somehow.
Aristotle has something even more fundamental to say on this point of the need of a proper upbringing before we can really understand what we are capable of knowing. We need to be brought up in Afine habits, if we are to be adequate students of what is fine and just, and of political questions generally,@ Aristotle tells us.
For the origin we begin from is the belief that something is true, and if this is apparent enough to us, we will not, at this stage, need the reason why it is true in addition; and if we have this good upbringing, we have the origins to begin from, or can easily acquire them. Someone who neither has them nor can acquire them should listen to Hesiod: AHe who understands everything himself is best of all; he is noble also who listens to one who has spoken well; but he who neither understands it himself nor takes to heart what he hears from another is a useless man@ (1095b4-12).
So, we do not want to be useless men. We do not want to be those who have not understood the simple fact that Asomething is true,@ which he should learn at home. Someone who cannot figure such a principle out or learn it from another, simply cannot begin to understand what his life is about. Aristotle suggests that we do not need to know everything from the beginning. But we do need to accept the premise that Asomething is true@ from which all valid things flow. This original principle, again, is that Asomething is true.@ Much of modern thought and much of modern academic life are built on a denial of this position. There usually follows from this denial that Asomething is true@ an effort to extricate the very idea of truth from students who have learned it, as Aristotle says, by their upbringing.
It was Bernard Shaw, I believe, who once quipped that Aadolescence is such a wonderful time, it is too bad that we have to waste it on the youth.@ But if we do not waste any time at all in our lives, especially when we are young, we probably have never really been youths of the human species. The Little Prince, in a book I hope you have already read, affirms that it is only the time that we Awaste@ with our friends that matters. Getting to know one another is not a question of science; it has a lot to do with just being together with nothing Ato do.@ If we are always Abusy,@ always preparing for something else, we will never be able to attend to the important things, to which someone, besides Plato, should tell us to attend. On second thought, perhaps Plato is sufficient to tell us these things. Much of what is called education is the realization that Plato has already told us most of what we need to know.
On October 25, 1944, in England, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a letter to his son Christopher. In it, Tolkien in turn cited a letter that he had himself received from a young man by the name of John Barrow, who at the time was twelve years old and attended AWest town School, West town, Pa.@ Tolkien was then in the process of writing his famous Ring trilogy, of which I am sure you all are aware, and, if not, you should be.
This is the letter: ADear Mr. Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book, The Hobbit, for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description.... Gee Whiz, I=m surprised that it=s not more popular.... If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names.@ Notice that the title of this address B Abeyond description@ and the Amost wonderful book@ B stem from this very letter. In a footnote, Tolkien remarks that he was quite surprised to learn that American boys really used the expression, AGee Whiz!@ I must doubt, however, that it is still much used among you. We need not add that, in retrospect, young Mr. Barrow did not have to worry about the future popularity of Tolkien, whose tales have become the most widely read books in the 20th century and probably, so far, in the 21st Century.
Over the years, I have had two students in my classes at Georgetown who have told me that they read the whole of the Lord of the Ring trilogy ever year since they were ten or eleven years old. They would agree with the young man from West town, Pa., that this book B I will here assume The Hobbit and the Ring trilogy are one B is Athe most wonderful book.@ It is no mean thing, I think, to encounter such a book when one is under twelve, even if he does not fully know what it is all about. The book=s very charm is enough to alert us to something of fundamental significance. I do not think that I read these books until I was in my sixties, in my dotage. I am just in the process of rereading them in lieu of seeing the movies on them. I fear that the movie will deprive me of the actual book that Tolkien wrote One of my ex-students advised me against the movie. He did not think it retains the sense of joy that suffuses and underlies the book. I suspect he is right. Tolkien himself, however, admitted to his son that he was a bit vain to receive such a letter from the young man in Pennsylvania telling him it was Aa most wonderful book.@ Something powerful had happened to this boy because he read Tolkien=s book. AWhat exactly is it that happened to him?@ we might ask. ACan it happen to us?@ How do we find something that is Abeyond description,@ and yet still try to describe it?
One of the most famous books of antiquity is Plutarch=s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. This book is the source of several of Shakespeare=s plays and indeed a treasure for all subsequent generations since it was first written in the early part of the second century A. D. (45-120 A. D.). Probably no book gives us more graphic examples of how we ought or ought not to live than Plutarch does. In his ALife of Cato the Younger@ (95-45 B.C.), for instance, we read that
Cato=s natural stubbornness and slowness to be persuaded may also have made it more difficult to him to be taught. For to learn is to submit to have something done to one; and persuasion comes soonest to those who have least strength to resist it. Hence young men are sooner persuaded than those that are more in years.... In fine, where there is least previous doubt and difficulty, the new impression is more easily accepted. Yet Cato, they say, was very obedient to his preceptor, and would do whatever he was commanded; but he would also ask the reason, and inquire the cause of everything. And, indeed, his teacher was a very well-bred man, more ready to instruct than to beat his scholars. His name was Sarpedon.
Though we doubt whether any of them bear the first name ASarpedon,@ we certainly do presume that the instructors here at Trinity are distinctly Awell-bred@ and Amore ready to instruct than to beat@ young scholars! We also hope that these same young scholars themselves, though manifesting considerable stubbornness in being persuaded, have shown themselves ready to Ainquire the cause of everything.@ We shall see shortly that the young Socrates revealed this very quality of wondering about the cause of everything.
Linus and a very cute little girl by the name of Lydia are seen walking back from the ice cream shop. Lydia is in front of Linus and over her shoulder politely tells him, AThank you for the Chocolate Sunday, Linus.@ This intriguing response naturally encourages a smitten Linus, who responds perkily, AYou=re welcome.... Maybe we can do it again sometime.@ But Lydia suddenly turns on poor Linus, now completely deflated, to tell him, AI don=t think so.... I don=t find you very interesting.@
In the next scene, a forlorn Linus is seen in the yard sitting against a tree understandably depressed that charming Lydia finds him dull. But soon we see Lydia comfortably seated in a big couch in her home. She is on the telephone. We hear her say, AHi, Linus.... This is Lydia.@ Linus, still crushed, replies, AIf you don=t find me very interesting, why did you call me?@ Finally, we see Lydia, before her TV set, still on the phone to Linus, explaining to him, AThere=s nothing on TV.@ Given a choice of nothing or Linus, even Lydia chooses Linus. This is what I will call Athe Lydia academic principle.@ When it comes to things that really count, Athere is nothing on TV.@ Almost anything, even poor Linus, is better than the nothing on TV. Always first go the Athe most wonderful book that is beyond description,@ however much occasionally we might learn or mis-learn something from TV. Always seek to Afind the cause of everything@ before you find there is Anothing on TV.@ Nothing, strictly speaking, will teach one precisely nothing.
Earlier, in citing the young man in Water town, Pa., on his reading Tolkien, I remarked, Awhat is it that happened to him?@ ACan it happen to us?@ In Psalm 119, we read, AI have no love for half-hearted men: my love is for your law@ (113-14). I have long been struck by that phrase, Ahalf-hearted men.@ Allan Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, has spoken of college students with Aflat souls.@ That is a devastating phrase. AHalf-hearted men with flat souls@ B what could be worse? Would believing that what is false to be true be worse? Plato said that truth is to know Aof what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.@ Error is to affirm of what is that it is not. Thus, at first sight, we seem to be worse off if we have a head full of errors than if we are Ahalf-hearted@ or have Aflat souls.@
Yet, it seems, in a paradoxical way, that it might well be worse not to care about knowing anything important than to have a mind full of lively errors that we think are true. One of the seven capital sins was called Asloth.@ This sin did not mean laziness. It rather indicated never trying to face what we are in our existence, never asking ourselves any objective question about our purpose in reality. We consistently avoid ever having to live according to what we ought to be, on the basis of what we are and our purpose. In this sense, it is quite possible to be enthusiastic about many things and still be Ahalf-hearted men@ when it comes to the higher things. Indeed, pleasure and business, even education, have long been seen to be a kind of escapism, an escapism from our selves lest, as Socrates would say, we examine our lives..
In his last day in jail, Socrates spends his time discussing with young men, the potential philosophers, the reasons why he does not escape or show signs of unsettlement about his dire condition. At one point he talks to Cebes about his own youth. AWhen I was young,@ he tells Cebes, AI had an extreme passion for that branch of learning which is called natural science; I thought it would be marvelous to know the causes for which each thing comes and ceases and continues to be@ (97a). Here we have this same effort to know the causes of things. But Socrates admits that he never really could solve these sorts of questions. The ordinary answers given for them, about earth, air, fire, and water, did not satisfy him. Finally, however, in his perplexity, he tells us that AI once heard someone reading from a book (as he said) of Anaxagoras, and asserting that it is Mind that produces order and is the cause of everything@ (96e). This explanation, Socrates adds, Apleased me.@ We have here no Aflat soul,@ no Ahalf-hearted man,@ but one that was passionately interested in finding the truth of things he could not understand.
Henry Adams entered Harvard College in 1854. Henry was the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, and the great-grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States. The family on both sides had gone to Harvard before him. At the time, about a hundred students in Adams= class at Harvard, one of whom was the son of a Colonel in the Second United States Calvary by the name of Robert E. Lee. The nick-name of Lee=s son was ARoony.@ Though at first Adams thought the handsome young Lee to be a leader, but by the end of the four college years, he changed his mind. AHe was simple beyond analysis; so simple that even the simple New England student could not realize him. No one knew enough to know how ignorant he was; how childlike, how helpless before the relative complexity of school.@
But Adams was even harder on Harvard in those days and he was witty. AFour years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank,@ Henry Adams remarked,
a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped. The stamp ... was a good one. The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught. Sometimes, in after life, Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions, but, disappointment apart, Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other university then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile.
Surely, we do not want our education to ruin us. We prefer to be taught Alittle@ than to be taught falsehoods. And our minds should not be so open or free of bias that we stand for nothing and recognize no distinction in things. We do want to be Adocile.@
In Latin, this word Adocile@ is docilitas. It means the virtue of being able to be taught. The very name of this striking virtue implies that we must at some point choose to be taught, Thus, we can refuse to know. Only the proud cannot and will not be taught. Pride means, quite literally, that we are closed to everything but ourselves. We allow ourselves to learn nothing because we think we already know everything, or perhaps better, only what we know is worth knowing.. This is the worst of human conditions. If sloth is the capital sin that refuses to examine what is our purpose in this world, pride is that capital sin at the heart of all other sin and disorder of soul. It wants not to discover what is worth knowing, but positively to decide whether anything is worth knowing, even when it is worth knowing.
Samuel L. Clemens tells of reaching his old home town of Hannibal, Missouri, on the packet boat of the St. Louis and St. Paul Lines, at seven in the morning. It was a Sunday. He walked through the town. He felt like Aa boy again.@ In his memory, all things were again fresh. Clemens encountered an old gentleman who had been in Hannibal for twenty-eight years, that is, he arrived the year after Clemens left. He told the old man his name was Smith. He inquired of his old school friends. Of the first one, the old gentleman replied, Ahe graduated with honor in an Eastern college, wandered off into the world somewhere, succeeded at nothing, passed out of knowledge and memory years ago, and is supposed to have gone to the dogs.@
Of the brightest lad in the village, the man recalled, Ahe, too, was graduated with honors, from an Eastern college; but life whipped him in every battle, straight along, and he died in one of the Territories, years ago, a defeated man.@ Cautiously, Clemens inquired of the girls, especially of his early sweetheart. AShe is all right,@ the man reflected, Abeen married three times, buried two husbands, divorced from the third, and I hear she is getting ready to marry an old fellow in Colorado somewhere. She=s got children scattered around here and there, most everywhere.@
This was clearly not too promising a beginning. Another friend had been killed in the Civil War. Finally, he mentioned another boy. And this boy presented one of the most curious enigmas of our nature. This is the man=s observation of what happened to this young man: AThere wasn=t a human being in this town but knew that that boy was a perfect chucklehead; perfect dummy; just a stupid ass, as you may say. Everybody knew it, and everybody said it. Well, if that very boy isn=t the first lawyer in the State of Missouri today, I=m a Democrat.@ This information startled Clemens and he wanted to know of the old man how to account for it. AAccount for it? There ain>t any accounting for it, except that if you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don=t tell them he=s a damned fool, they=ll never find out. There=s one thing sure -- if I had a damned fool I should know what to do with him: ship him to St. Louis -- it=s the noblest market in the world for that kind of property.@
Finally, Clemens slyly got around to asking the old man about himself, if he knew anything about what happened to one Samuel Clemens? AOh, he succeeded well enough,@ the man told him, Aanother case of a damned fool. If they=d sent him to St. Louis, he=d have succeeded sooner.@ To this amusing observation, Clemens concludes, AIt was with much satisfaction that I recognized the wisdom of having told this candid gentleman in the beginning, that my name was Smith.@
One would be hard pressed to find out how many valuable lessons about life and docility and humility and humor, about not being Adamned fools@ or perfect Achuckleheads,@ are to be found in this short passage from Life on the Mississippi. No doubt the citizens of St. Louis, in the meantime, have come to find out that their greatest natural resource was explained to Samuel L. Clemens, alias Smith, by an old gentleman one Sunday morning in Hannibal, Missouri. If you send a smart young man to an Eastern college, three things may happen to him, either he will go to the dogs to die unknown in the Territories or he will be elected to the state legislature but remain a Adamned fool,@ or he will come back home as Mark Twain, alias Smith, enjoying a certain wisdom listening to candid gentlemen telling him he too should have been sent to the market in St. Louis.
One final story is worth recounting to you today. I frequently recommend to students that they should haunt used book stores. A student I had in class a couple of years ago is now studying, law, I think, in San Diego. He wrote to me recently that he happened to be in a used book store where purchased eight books. Among these used books purchased, one was a volume of Churchill=s History of England, one a book on the Goths, one a biography of Dr. Johnson And one was entitled Mt. St. Michel and Chartres by none other than Henry Adams, whom we have already met at Harvard in 1858. I once used this wonderful book of Henry Adams in a medieval political philosophy class.
My young friend in San Diego was delighted with the Adams book. He was especially surprised to discover what Adams said of Thomas Aquinas. It is with this reflection on Aquinas that I will conclude:
I was particularly taken by his (Adam=s) comparison of Aquinas as a Norman to men like Abelard and Bonaventure as Bretons. The former always undertakes less than he can accomplish, but later wishes he had done more, while the latter assumes more than he can do, and later regrets it. It is difficult to look at the Summa of Aquinas and say, AThis man undertook too little B he really ought to have been more thorough.@ Nevertheless, Thomas himself recognized the paucity of his own work in comparison to the Divine Perfection. This does not discourage me: I find it rather comforting that the Divine Perfection is inexhaustible to the finite human person. Boredom is hellish.
Joseph Pieper in his book on Aquinas says the same thing, that the Summa is an unfinished book, that Aquinas in a vision at the end of his own life realized that in comparison to God, all that he had written is but straw.
So, what I want you to recall from these recollections from Linus, Henry Adams, my young friend in San Diego, Samuel Clemens, Plutarch, Plato, Aristotle, and J. R.R. Tolkien are the following propositions:
1) that boredom is indeed hellish,
2) that you can go to fine Eastern colleges and still return home a damned fool,
3) that nothing is on TV,
4) that the chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everyone, teacher and taught,
5) that we do want to know the causes of things,
6) that something at least is true,
7) that within fifteen miles of the downtown center of Healdsburg, there are sixty five wineries,
8) that you may be fortunate to have a tutor named Sarpedon, who is more ready to instruct than to beat his scholars,
9) that you learn to waste time with your friends,
10) that some charming Lydia or handsome Linus may find you Ainteresting,@
11) that your souls may not be Aflat@ or your hearts Ahalf-hearted,@
12) that you be not a perfect Achucklehead,@ either in Hannibal or St. Louis,
13) that you manage, for starters, to avoid the capital sins of pride and sloth,
and finally 14) that the you are blessed if, at least once in your life, even in Water town, Pa. or in the Napa Valley, you discover Aa most wonderful book,@ one Abeyond description@ and are hence incited to write to its author in London to see if he has written anything else.
Samuel L. Clemens, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Lancer, 1968), 456-57.
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 98
Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. J. Dryden, revised Arthur Hugh Clough (New York: Modern Library, n. d.), 918
Charles Schulz, ACould You Be More Pacific? (New York: Topper Books, 1988).
The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (New York: Time, 1964), 62
Samuel L. Clemens, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Lancer Books, 1968), 459-62.