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What We Read Together Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 08 June 2010
Ed. Note: This is a slightly edited version of Fr. Schall’s brief address upon receiving the Edward B. Bunn, S.J. Award for Faculty Excellence at Georgetown this year, an honor bestowed by vote of the graduating Senior class. – Robert Royal
 

To receive the Bunn teaching award from Georgetown seniors is indeed an honor, a high honor. Many of you have heard me say that I have spent my life teaching twenty-year olds – Plato’s potential philosophers.

When your parents look at you today, however, they see you as a baby, as a six-year-old, as a teenager, and now as a grown young man or woman. They also anticipate in you their grandchildren and indeed their own declining years. This anticipation is why I have students read Cicero’s essay “On Old Age.” Early on, you want to know what to expect of a full human life.

A professor is concerned that the student knows the truth of things. Parents attend to the whole being of their children, including, as the baptismal rite states, “eternal life.” This division of labor between professor and parent is stark, but necessary.

Fifty years ago, I received my doctoral degree on Georgetown’s Healy lawn. My mentor was Heinrich Rommen, a great man. His famous book, The Natural Law, was recently republished. I assigned it to a class. On finishing this book again with this class, I was astounded how good it was.

C. S. Lewis said: “If you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all.” I probably would not have re-read this book were it not for actual students in an actual class. When I look at you graduating seniors now, I acknowledge the opportunity you constantly provide to re-read things again and again.

Many of you graduates have left my classroom for the last time. I recall things that we have read together. This is what we do; we read together. I do not tell you what it says; you do not tell me. We read the same text together to see what it says. We see in the same light.

We seek not what is private but what we have in common. With the help of Plato and Aristotle, Thucydides and Tacitus, Augustine and Aquinas, we look and often find the truth of things.

None of us owns this truth. It is free. It beckons us. It is a happy day for a professor when he looks out on his class, on the faces there, to notice that this or that student is suddenly awake, paying attention, not simply to the teacher, but to what is at stake, to what is.

E. F. Schumacher observes that we gaze out on rooms full of “invisible people.” When we see someone else or he sees us, the most important things about us, character or thought, cannot be known unless revealed to us in conversation, in friendship, or in our actions.

In book seven of the Republic, Plato sketches the life steps in which we reach the fullness of human life. At twenty, we have just begun. We do not leave these halls having learned everything. Rather we leave hopefully prepared and eager to know what is true, what is important, when we see or hear it as we progress through our lives.

To know, we have to want to know. We discipline ourselves so that we can know. The steps to wisdom, Plato assures us, are slower than we like to admit. Yet, they are not futile.

Two final thoughts: First, a university is where the constant reading of Plato occurs. Plato tells us that no one wants a lie in his soul about the things that are. If we possess such a lie, we alone could put it there or remove it. In our souls, we want to know what is true, no lies.

Secondly, Samuel Johnson, like Plato a must read, wrote in 1743 on library catalogues. They are not of “less importance to those whom curiosity has engaged in the study of literary history, and who think the intellectual revolutions of the world more worthy of their attention than the ravages of tyrants, the desolations of kingdoms, the rout of armies, and the fall of empires.” (Major Works, 119). For good or ill, all revolutions in politics happen first in the mind of some thinker.

So my young friends, you leave these grounds in your early twenties. Remember to reject a lie in your soul about what is. Recall that “intellectual revolutions are more worthy of your attention.” And, finally, know that the end for which we exist is nothing small, nothing less than “eternal life.” No alternative can account for that abiding unrest we find in our souls while we pursue the highest things, the things that are, but are not of our own making.

Again, I thank you for the honor of being with you today. It is, as I said, a high honor.

 

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at GeorgetownUniversity, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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written by Stephen MacLean, June 16, 2010
Congratulations, Fr Schall!

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