On What One Does Not Learn in School

An academic year begins. We reflect on what a man learns in school. We begin with a passage in Pierre Manent’s incisive book, Seeing Things Politically: “You know, the first thing one learns in the last year of lycée is that man is a historical being. This means that man has no nature, that he, in a way, creates himself in history.” I am not confident that American students, unlike the French, would recognize here anything that they explicitly learned in high school. But probably, when sorted out, it is something that they implicitly lived but had never heard fully formulated –or adequately critiqued.

On arriving at most any college, however, from the moment that freshmen students hear mandatory dorm “rules” to their first (and later last) law, history, psychology, English, philosophy, or religion classes, this idea that man is “nature-less” will recur in multiple forms. College students will frequently hear, not only that man is without a “nature,” but even that “nature” is without a “nature.” We cannot be too careful in protecting our students from such wacky notions that an “order” is found in things, especially in human and even divine things.

At first sight, the next logical step, that man is an “historical” being, seems harmless enough. History is what went on before you and I came along. The question then becomes: “Was it ‘predetermined’ that man has to create his own history?” If he was, it is difficult to see what difference his life makes. Whatever he has become, he had no real part of it since it had to happen the way that it did.

Yet if “what he did become” could just as well have been anything else whatsoever, what difference does man’s life make? Nothing is really at stake whatever he does.

Moreover, if every man is an “historical” being with no “nature,” we really cannot complain when someone else becomes dangerous to us, becomes something that we do not like. He is just as much an “historical” being as we are. He created his own “being” just as I created mine. Neither of us has any grounds for agreement or disagreement.

We formalize this thought: We are “free” to become whatever it is we want to be. The only question that anyone can ask of us is this: “Is this what you want to be?” If we say “no,” then the only logical response is: “Well, go become something else.”

“Newton” by William Blake (1795) [http://www.blakearchive.org]
“Newton” by William Blake (1795) [http://www.blakearchive.org]
            Such thinking is usually cast in the language of “rights.” We have a “right” to be whatever we want. This position gets a bit sticky if we need help (friendship, protection, or goods) in becoming what we want to be. What if the person who can help us does not want to be bothered? Can we force him to our aid? Is that what government is for – to coerce those who can help me to do what I want? We may be creating a monster here, a “Leviathan.”

Can we say that “what I want” is what I “ought” to be? We float again in troubled waters. Can we say of another that he “ought” to assist me in what I want even if he does not want to “create” himself in that image?

Is it possible that something is wrong with this way of approaching things? What is it, we wonder, about this idea, if it is only an idea with no “nature” behind it? It does seem quirky to maintain that we can be whatever we want to be – provided only that we deny that things have “natures.” Maybe the only way that we can be free is if we ought to be something that we are still free to reject. If this is so, history would look very different.

This affirmation that “things have natures” seems to be the one consideration we are not free to explore. “Why?,” we wonder. We are told patiently that it is not “scientific.” But what’s scientific about denying nature’s reality?

What one usually does not learn in college is the reasonableness of “nature.” It is one of the things that perceptive students are going to have to figure out by themselves if they are not to be imprisoned by the “no nature” presuppositions.

Thus, we also realize that “nature” did not cause “nature” to come to be what it is. To prevent anyone from considering this line of thought was the reason the “no nature, all history” thesis was developed in the first place.

In our day, the beginning of a college education whose end is truth and not fashion is the student’s introspective realization that we did not “create” ourselves to be men by nature. We only cause ourselves, as Aristotle implied, to be good men or bad men. We have a standard.

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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