Published in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 28 (Spring, 2005), 16-20.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Commencement Address Delivered to the Graduating Class
Ave Maria College, Ypsilanti, Michigan, May 6, 2005
ON TESTING THE TEST
On the Kind of “Work” Metaphysicians and Doctors of the Church Do
“The apostle Paul states that God has placed apostles, prophets and doctors in the Church.... He declares that there are different kinds of ministry and work, and that the same Holy Spirit is manifested in a variety of gifts for the good of all....”
– John Baptist de la Salle (^1719).1
“Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out. It is often a great bore. But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. The latter is what we commonly call culture and enlightenment today. But man is always influenced by thought of some kind, his own or somebody else’s’ that of somebody he trusts or that of somebody he never heard of, thought at first, second or third hand;’ thought from exploded legends or unverified rumous; but always something within the shadow of a system of values and a reason for preference. A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has ever tested the test.”
– G. K. Chesterton, “The Revival of Philosophy – Why?” (1950).2
A recent study in USAToday (7 April ‘05) indicated that the percentage of CEO’s of Fortune 1000 companies who have graduated from the Ivy League Schools is declining. Now, one can expect to find well-qualified candidates from almost any college, small or large, famous or unheralded. Even a number of famous CEO’s, including Bill Gates himself, are college drop-outs. So the first point that I wish to make to you 39 graduates of this small college in Michigan is that, in a sense, it does not make much difference any more, either career-wise or intellectual-wise, where you went to college. It may be a huge place like Michigan or NYU, a medium-sized place like Catholic University or Colgate, or a rather small place like the hundreds of colleges scattered over the land, especially in the Midwest.
Indeed, being educated at famous colleges may be an impediment in many ways. Allan Bloom, in a famous remark twenty years ago, said that the most unhappy people in our society today are those students in the twenty or thirty so-called best and most expensive colleges. He thought them to be unhappy, because they were being educated, implicitly or explicitly, with a philosophy that claimed it to be true that there is no truth, a formula for despair if there ever was one. You assume or are told that you are getting the best education in the world. Then you find that that education, in turn, is based on nihilist premises. You will naturally think there are no alternatives, since this education is “the best.” You will, if you are logical, be left with nothing, with emptiness as an explanation of all reality. Meanwhile, you have a mind that seeks to know all things, all that is.
However, I am under no illusions about modern liberal education or modern philosophy, for that matter. In this world, I think, with Belloc in The Path to Rome, that, at best, we can only have a modest and relative happiness. That is worth having no doubt, but not at any cost. A student can with little difficulty acquire a terrible educated in any college, famous or infamous. Moreover, even in the best college, whatever that is and if such there be, a student still has to allow himself to be educated. Not all do. He needs the virtue called docilitas, the capacity to be taught, no easy virtue. He also needs to learn what is really important, what is true, even if it is not being presented in whatever college curriculum in which he chooses to engage himself.
The problem, mind you, is not so much that no ultimate truth is presented in the school of our choice. Rather it is the pervading academic thesis, implicitly or explicitly assumed, that all truth is presented, to recall Plato, as mere opinion or shadow. It is presented as if, following Descartes, doubt were the basis of certitude. I came across the following parody that catches some of this irony that truth as truth we cannot hear in the schools we are likely to attend. It goes: “Now I sit me down in school / Where praying is against the rule / For this great nation under God / Finds mention of Him very odd. // If Scripture now the class recites, / It violates the Bill of rights. / And anytime my head I bow / Becomes a Federal matter now.”
Of course, these amusing lines refer more to government control than to the school itself. But it must be said that the ideas that currently motivate the government with regard to what students can hear were once but minority opinions someplace in academia. Ideas, even bad ones, perhaps especially bad ones, do have consequences. This is why we must know the difference between an idea that corresponds to reality and one that does not. That too is an essential part, if not the essential part, of any education. We should, in the end, be taught to be “judgmental,” to distinguish what is from what is not. As Chesterton once remarked, the very purpose of the mind is to make judgments. To use your mind to judge about nothing is implicitly not to use your mind at all. It is to try to give yourself comfort by denying that you even have a mind
Though not ideal, I have long considered that a good education today must be more in the nature of private enterprise. Education is something every student has, to some extent, to pursue by himself. I have little sympathy with students who know that they are receiving an awful education, especially in terms of truth, but do not do anything on their own to counter-act it. That is what my book, Another Sort of Learning, was really about, to give some guidance to those lost in the nihilist forests of modern academia. If you can read, you can be educated, even if education is more than reading. Indeed, the unlettered are not necessarily the unwise, as Aristotle already indicated.
The famous essay of Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which anyone can easily find and read on Google, was about this very point This short essay is not to be missed even if you did miss it while in college or even in your middle or old age. Indeed, one of the main things that we gradually learn on leaving college at twenty one or twenty two, as Plato intimated in book seven of The Republic, is not just that we missed much already. Rather we learn that much more we probably we were not capable of learning until we were older, with more experience.
Your education, in this sense, is not ending today, but just beginning. In the end, it is possible to know something of the truth of things. It is important even if we have to find this truth outside the schools, as we often do. I am not particularly an advocate of what is sometimes called “lifetime education,” of the notion that we are always learners or students. I do not mean that we cannot always learn something new, but maturity means that we reach point where we know, as Aristotle said in his famous discussion in the Parts of Animals, how to make our own judgments even about the wisdom of the wise.
I am going to continue with two striking citations from students I know, the one remark rather sharp, the other rather enthusiastic. Both are about the sort of education a student is receiving. I will begin with the one most critical. It comes from a young man I do not know personally, but with whom I have often corresponded via old-old fashioned letter or e-mail, that modern substitute for instant vision, that perplexing tool that makes it almost possible for a professor to teach at least something to anyone anyplace in the world.
The only thing I will suppress from this comment is the student’s name and the university that this blunt and energetic student attends: “I can’t resist commenting on your last exhortation that I ‘keep the place alive.’ Ha! This place will need more than me to keep itself on life-support,” the student wrote..
The NIHILISM that saturates this place, nay, I will use a qualifier: the ‘debonair nihilism’ (Flannery O’Connor) that permeates this place – that tender, warm emotion that says ‘there is no truth; yet, there is a revolutionary truth’ at the same time. Of course, that ‘revolutionary truth’ is always vague, always undefined, always confined to the realm of ideas, never enfleshed. All I know is that it involves accumulating a lot of community service hours, and repeating the motto, ‘Men and Women for Others.’ Then, of course, we fill out the rubrics, carefully jotting down how many hours of service we have done.... When will this revolution happen? Perhaps at the same time when Sancho Panza finally gets his promised island, and when Don Quijote brings back the Golden Age.
This young man hits pretty close, I think, to the heart of the practical ideology that governs many universities. There is “no truth,” but we work hard for the revolution to “improve” the man whose being is what we are free to define, however we choose to define it.
Newman, in his Sermon Seven on Subjects of the Day, to follow this young man’s perceived logic to its consequences, briefly observes, “The one peculiar and characteristic sin of the world is this, that whereas God would have us live for the life to come, the world would make us live for this life. This, I say, is the world’s sin; it lives for this life, not for the next.” The problem is not that we cannot save our souls without also effectively loving our neighbor in some concrete sense, which was the young man’s Burkean point about “enfleshed,” not vague, ideas. The point is rather that, since we have no souls and no truth to lodge in them, we have no grounded principle with which to oppose those who would, in revolutionary fashion, reconstruct us, even bodily, in the image of man no longer fashioned in the likeness of God, the real norm and measure of what we are.
A student in one of my classes, to come to the second instance, told me that his sister had enrolled in a master’s program at St. John’s College in Annapolis. I do not know where she went to undergraduate school or how she ever discovered the program at St. John’s. But I asked my student how his sister was doing there. He replied: “My sister is doing very well. She has started the language component of her course work. She tells me daily that she could not imagine the great feast of ideas that was laid out, with table set, and her having never known it was there. She has made inroads on ideas and works that make me – in a good Augustinian sense – envious.”
I am quite fond of this passage. It does three very useful things. First it reminds us that it is never too late. This young woman learned what ideas were after she finished college. Yet, before this young woman learned what she was missing, she had to have some prior inkling or unsettlement that she was missing something.
Secondly, the passage reminds us that we often do not know what we are missing. If we did, we would already take steps to find out. I have often had the experience of having students in a class where we were reading together say, Plato, or Aristotle, or Augustine, or Aquinas. As an aging clerical professor, I know what wonder can be found in these sources. But I easily recall that I was once in the same situation as this young woman. Not only had I never heard of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas, but I had no idea what they were about or how to go about finding out about them. For this we do need teachers, or at least, as Yves Simon says in a marvelous passage in A General Theory of Authority, find them useful.
The fact is, thirdly, that we cannot know what these ideas are about unless we have the good fortune to be introduced to them, even if, unhappily, we have to do it ourselves. Moreover, I think we should be, as my student said of his sister’s studies, a bit “envious” of those who receive a better education than we do. There is nothing wrong with that “unrest” in our souls that arises from our being aware of how much we do not know. After all, this awareness is the beginning of that Augustinian quest that we find when we begin to learn anything, namely, that one truth leads to another, that we are never fully satisfied with what is in fact true because we sense that more is true than we know. What is always points to its origin. And this is an experience that is an intrinsic part of our very opening to the truth, any truth.
I began this address with two citations, one from John Baptist de la Salle, the sixteenth century founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. The great saint of practical education pointed out that it is all right that there be a variety of talents and accomplishments among us. We are not all to do the same thing. To recall Plato, we cannot have a city in which there are only philosophers, but no farmers or craftsmen or, yea, politicians. We are to rejoice that others can know and do what we cannot or do not. We all need a certain humility before the man who can fix our car.
And there must be a hierarchy of duties, some are more important than others, but all, if they are real duties that must be done, are important. Without denying the existence of frivolous things – and I am a defender of a world in which frivolity can also exist – the least support the best and the best the least, and we all need “middling” things. While there may be such a thing as a “vocation” to be a teacher or a professor, there is, I think, no “vocation” to be a student. That is, a student is always someone in preparation for something else, for the myriad of things to be done without which the world cannot go on. Like childhood which is supposed to end, so being a student is supposed to end. The day is to come when we are “educated.” This day does not mean that we now know everything, but rather that we know how to go about judging and learning what we can know of what is.
The purpose of education, then, is that we be educated. That is, we are finally to achieve those habits and talents whereby we can judge and act on our own in this world in the light of our awareness, as Newman said, that we are not only made for this world. The medieval guilds used to speak of the “master-craftsman,” the man who had acquired the artistic and craft habits and skills whereby he could now, on his own, produce fine works, masterpieces. Analogously, this is where we are to arrive, as Plato intimated in book seven of The Republic, at the point of being educated. In a kind of foreshadowing way, this is in part what your graduation here today is designed to teach you.
My second citation was from Chesterton. This year, your graduation year, I might note, is the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Chesterton’s Heretics, a book that I dearly love, a book that, in its own amusing way, foresaw most of the aberrations that would come about and are still coming about in the century following its publication.
“Philosophy,” he said, is merely thought “thought out.” This is already Socrates’s “examined life,” isn’t it? One of the blessings of your years of college life is that it provides us with the quiet opportunity to think things out ahead of time, as it were. Whether we like it or not, our lives will be confronted with the great issues of truth, good, beauty, power, death, suffering, salvation, eternity. Certain questions must be faced whether we like it or not, whether we think about them ahead of time or not. But it is one of the great things about human life that we can face them, think about them.
Moreover, as Chesterton again said, we do not have a choice of being only influenced by good ideas. The world is full of ideas that are not so good . We ought to know what these are and how they got that way. This is why we study the “heretics,” as Chesterton called them, why we study the history of philosophy and political philosophy, as Leo Strauss remarked, as a series of “brilliant errors.” We cannot know “errors” unless we have a philosophy based on what is, on the truth of things. I hope it is this latter that you have begun to learn here during your four years, at the end of which, as those of us who are much older than you see, that you are still young. But you are no longer without, we hope, intellectual tools and the moral habits with which to use them well.
We must, as Chesterton said, test things with something. We need to know the criterion or “test” by which things are rightly judged. Moreover, we are given minds in order that we make our souls luminous to ourselves. As Thomas Aquinas said in his famous Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, (#15), “But above experience, which belongs to particular reason, men have as their chief power a universal reason by means of which they live.” Notice that Aquinas said that it is by reason that we “live.” What a striking idea or phrase. That is to say, unless we illuminate our lives with thought about what is going on so that we are aware of what we are about, we will not be living a human life. We are indeed the rational animals, the beings who proceed by using our minds.
Let me conclude. Little Sally is standing behind Charlie Brown, who is comfortably slouched in the bean-bag seat contentedly watching TV. She says to him, “‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ That’s my new philosophy.” In the next scene, while Charlie continues to watch TV, she continues her explanation with some determination, “Whenever someone says something to me, I just say, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’”
As you can imagine, Charlie thinks he must make some response to this new philosophy. With a kind of dull look, still watching TV, he replies, “I’m glad you told me. Not I won’t say anything to you.” While Charlie sinks into the bean-bag in despair at her logic, Sally responds, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
As you leave here, I want to remind you that things do have meanings, that a meaning is merely our way of saying what a thing is. Things have, in a way, two existences, the one their own esse or being and the other in our word that identifies what they are. The two are intended to go together.
We read in the Prologue to John, that the Word was made flesh. During your years here, as the great John Paul II remarked in his Fides et Ratio, you should have often asked yourselves what is the relation of word and flesh, not only in your lives but in the divine Life. You are to study all that is, and wonder, following my young student friend, why the nihilist explanation is not the right explanation.
But unless you are aware that philosophy is thought “thought out,” you will not have taken the trouble, though in truth it is more of a delight than a trouble, to think things out for yourselves. And it won’t be long before you become “envious” of those who have taken this trouble. “What’s that supposed to mean?” It is supposed to mean that what is is what we think about. You have been to college in order to have begun to find out both what things mean and how to judge whether what you know corresponds to that reality that is.
Let me leave you with the following eleven observations that you might take with you for the rest of your lives:
1) “God has placed apostles, prophets, and doctors in the Church.”
2) “A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has questioned the test.”
3) “What’s that supposed to mean?”
4) “The unhappiest people in our society are those students in the twenty or thirty best and most expensive universities.”
5) “Now I sit me down to school / where praying is against the rule.”
6) “Of course, that ‘revolutionary truth’ is always vague, always undefined, always confined to the realm of ideas, never enfleshed.”
7) “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
8) “Men have as their chief power a universal reason by which they live.”
9) “My sister has made inroads on ideas and works that have made me – in the good Augustinian sense – envious.”
10) “This, I say, is the world’s sin; it lives for this life, not for the next.”
11) “Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out.”