The Ending of an Academic Year

My last class for this year was yesterday. I tell the students: “Be there.” The semester concluded by reading the final books of the Republic and of the City of God, books with, basically, the same title, books that contain at least half the wisdom of mankind.

As students disappear from the last class, any teacher knows that he will never see most of them again. This is not to be lamented, however striking the fact. Students are there but briefly, for forty class hours out of their lives.

I have a fair number of students each semester. Some do come back or write. A young man dropped by recently, a graduate of four years ago. He told me two things: 1) “I remember you emphasized the fact that neither Socrates nor Christ wrote a book.” 2) “You told us to form our own libraries of books we have read.”

Among those read books, I hope, will be those written about Socrates and Christ. With them missing, a library really is not a library.

After spring semester, seniors leave to their lives. They are about twenty-two, at the peak of their beauty or handsomeness, almost to the stage when, as Plato said, they can begin to learn about the important things, the things of life and death, of order and disorder of soul, of what is noble and what is corrupt.

The worst thing that can happen to a young philosopher, Yves Simon remarked, “is that he give his soul to an unworthy professor.” This sentence is one that every professor should write out by hand and place on his desk. And what is it to be a “worthy” professor?

Certainly, it is not necessary to be famous. Fame, in fact, may be an impediment, something sought for its own sake and not for what justifies praise. And what does justify the praise of fame? Only that truth be sought and shown to be grounded in what is.

In universities where “diversity” is the dogma, this effort is no easy task, as its very premise presupposes that no truth exists. Truth is not a popular topic in academia today, though there is nothing for which our souls more long.

Yet any professor recognizes that he is not alone, even if something lonely shrouds academia itself. “I was never less lonely than when I was alone,” Cicero tells us. Often our most important companions have been long dead.

If your education has ended, begin here.

Socrates, in the fifth book of the Republic, explained: “One can feel both secure and confident when one knows the truth about the dearest most important things and speaks about them among those who are themselves wise and dear friends” (450d). Is not this the charter of academia?

I never tire of citing from the nineteenth book of the City of God: “Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit—Man finds no cause for philosophizing except that he be happy.”

Likewise, I think Pascal’s Pensée #785 comes close to defining the narrow scope of modern universities: “Jesus Christ is an obscurity (according to what the world calls obscurity), such that historians, writing only of important matters of states, have hardly noticed Him.” Universities were initially founded when revelation met reason. The loss of the founding leads to, yes, “obscurity.”

On university campuses we hear little of threats to religious freedom or limits of government. Rumors do come across that bishops are upset, but it does not matter here. The likelihood of tyranny arising from democracy itself, though familiar to Plato and Aristotle, is rarely mentioned.

Yet we read in Nietzsche: “We, who have a different faith – we to whom the democratic movement is not merely a form assumed by political organization in decay but also a form assumed by man in decay, that is to say in diminishment, in processes of becoming mediocre and losing his virtue; whither must we direct our hopes?” (Beyond Good and Evil, #203).

Indeed, wither? We have not noticed that the foundations of just political order have been denied, while those not upholding them have succeeded to positions of power. This is the world students enter with little preparation.

In Jesus of Nazareth, a volume that few are asked to read, Benedict XVI wrote: “Those who understand freedom as the radically arbitrary license to do just what they want and to have their own way are living in a lie, for by his very nature man is a part of a shared existence, and his freedom is shared freedom” (I, 204).

At the end of book two of the Republic, Socrates says that the worst thing that we can have is a lie in our souls about the things that are (382a). As an academic year ends, a worthy professor tells his students that Socrates was right.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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