Learning and Life

Note: Robert Royal has just been named as the first occupant of the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. Further information on his appointment is available by clicking here or on today’s “Notable.” The text below is adapted from the Convocation Address he gave to the college this weekend. Dr. Royal will, of course, continue his work at The Catholic Thing, and his new book, “Columbus and the Crisis of the West,” will be officially published and available from Sophia Institute Press on Thursday.

It’s good to be able to come together this evening in Convocation. In fact, it’s good to be able to come together just now, in person, for anything at all. The recent obstacles we’ve faced in doing this usually ordinary thing, however, highlight just how natural and necessary it is for us to be present to one another, in many times and places and ways. We always need a good deal of solitude, especially digital solitude – both now and when things are more “normal.” But there are also many important things we can only do well – teaching and learning prominently among them – when we are present, together, face-to-face, as we are this evening, in true community.

So this is a very special occasion. Still, I know a Convocation speaker’s place and am not going to keep you long. I’ve heard that when Anglicans used to go to Confession they were told: Be brief, be blunt, and be gone. It’s good advice that I intend to follow.

A Convocation, as President Fahey, a classicist, reminded me when he asked me to speak to you, means in Latin a “calling-together.” People come together for many reasons, but we are here, at Con-vocation, because Thomas More, with its unparalleled devotion to the humanities, is not merely a place to pursue a college degree but an opportunity for each of us to recognize that we have a vocation.

A vocation is not only a call to the “religious life” as a priest, brother, or sister. For most of us, in fact, it’s not, though we should all deeply consider whether we have that kind of special calling. We desperately need knowledgeable, well-formed, dedicated religious for the sake of the Church to be sure. But also for the sake of the world, the world that is always lost and wandering, and currently in deep chaos, for lack of true knowledge and wisdom.

The great C.S. Lewis, just as World War II was breaking out in 1939, gave a sermon at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford – where John Henry Newman also was once vicar and where he gave many of his most memorable sermons. Lewis urged those present to pursue “an intimate knowledge of the past” because otherwise they would be helpless before “the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone.” Is this is any less true decades later? And Lewis had not seen Facebook, let alone Twitter.

But he had seen war, in fact, was a bit of a hero in World War I. And still he argued in that sermon, which is titled “Learning in Wartime” that periods of unusual turmoil are not as abnormal as we think. That conflict, controversy, ultimately death are part of human existence. We just ignore it much of the time. And we must continue to pursue the important human things, learning among them, no matter the time in which we live. St. Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, “The times are never so bad but that a good man can live in them.”

There’s a lesson here for us too at this unusual moment in our national history. We’re all going to have to train ourselves to greater physical bravery because of the many palpable threats to both faith and reason that are all too obvious in the world today. We’re not in civil war, but we’re experiencing nationwide outbreaks of violence nonetheless. Merrimack, New Hampshire is a safe haven, but we should all keep that larger context before us in our daily prayer and work.

And I want to suggest to you that it may be even more urgent that we develop the intellectual courage, along with intellectual skills, to confront “the great cataract of nonsense” about which Lewis spoke. And there’s no better way to see what needs doing than to continue what you are already doing here at Thomas More College: studying the great books and figures of the past who have survived the nonsense and turmoil of their own ages – and much else since – because they have significant truths to convey to every age.

Don’t think that this is a mere private luxury while so much of seeming importance appears to be going on in public. Here’s an example of why from one of the great books. One feature of Dante’s Inferno that it took me years to appreciate is that he puts the fraudulent far deeper down in Hell than the physically violent. He suggests in other places that this is right – he seems to think Aristotle agreed – because a physical attack is only against the bodily life that we share with animals. An attack on the truth, however, strikes at our rational souls, the distinctive feature of a human being. This is something worth pondering amidst all the current talk about the desire to be – physically – “safe.”

Truth is not only something “out there.” Truth is what a human being is called to know and live by. Truth is an appropriation of “what is” as my dear friend, the late Fr. James Schall, used to say, borrowing from Plato. Being in contact with “what is” rather than with our fantasies of what is not means we will live lives of authenticity, lives linked to, formed and energized by, the deepest truth of all, God Himself. We will all be seeking truths in various ways this year and, Deo volente, finding it, little by little. And then starting the lifelong process of living the truth.

The learning and the living are both parts of a liberal arts education, the education that makes us truly free (liber). I’ve already mentioned to students in the course I’m teaching this semester that at about your age I came across a passage in Ezra Pound’s translation of the Confucian Analects that I’ve never forgotten. (In our course, we’re reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” for which Pound was a kind of midwife.) Here’s the passage from Confucius that I’ve quoted to them (Bk. II, 4):

1.  He  said :  At  fifteen,  I  wanted  to  learn.
2.  At  thirty,  I  had  a  foundation.
3.  At  forty,  a  certitude.
4.  At  fifty,  knew  the  orders  of  heaven.
5.  At  sixty,  was  ready  to  listen  to  them.
6.  At  seventy,  could  follow  my  own  heart’s  desire  without  overstepping  the  t-square.

Thanks to God’s Revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we have considerable advantages over even the wisest pagans, but notice how the progression in Confucius goes from seeking knowledge to acting according to “the orders of heaven.” This is a sharp reminder of what a lifelong project a liberal-arts education must be for us.

Don’t let this discourage you. What it means is not that it takes forever; it’s that it takes you toward the eternal. Heaven. THE Truth, God Himself. Liberal learning is not the same as living faith. But it’s one of the important channels of opening up our lives to the greatest things, so long as we don’t make an idol out of our own learning. The literature of spirituality is full of warning about not letting knowledge make us “puffed up,” which is to say beset with a pride that vitiates the good of learning.  That phenomenon is only too common, even among people studying the very greatest things that have been thought and said.

As the first St. John Henry Neman Visiting Chair at this college, I feel obliged to quote a warning by the great saint about confusing even the most rigorous and far-ranging use of reason with the full range of the Christian life:  “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”

That’s from The Idea of a University, a book in which the saint is trying to define what a liberal arts education is and is not. It would be hard to say that the world, even many in the academic world, have taken to heart what he was trying to say. We still have the illusion that smart is good, that by a strange elision, the best are the brightest. This despite the fact that very smart people do very bad things every day.

There’s a humble, practical human side to these things as well. To put this in the most ordinary day-to-day terms, I’ve worked for three decades in organizations in Washington that have had – or I’ve had myself – interns from a variety of secular and  Catholic colleges and universities. Without making invidious comparisons, let me just say that I’ve found students of Thomas More College as well prepared intellectually as any – and generally better prepared in human terms. Cherish that humanity and cultivate it as one with liberal learning.

We sometimes overlook the fact that we have to work at living out the knowledge we acquire just as much as we have to work to be good at playing a musical instrument, or sports, or being good at science or math. It’s good to know the theories and procedures for such training. But even better to actually do the things necessary to bringing them within our reach. Cardinal Newman in a famous essay warned about the “Danger of Accomplishments.” And part of the danger, as he conceives of it, is to assume that because we’ve read or approved of something we’ve encountered, that we are already living it.

Still, what God has assigned human reason to do, it must do. We are heirs to the richest cultural tradition in the world, what I call The Catholic Thing – the concrete historical reality of Catholicism. It was born from Judaism and, through that spiritual parentage, even reaches back into the great ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In its early days, it confronted, absorbed, and redirected what was then the most sophisticated society in existence, Greco-Roman culture. When that culture fell, Catholicism preserved what it could and rebuilt the rest over centuries, incorporating new influences from Northern Europe and, during the great age of exploration, from the entire globe. In short, it’s survived wars and revolution, changes in culture and the collapse of whole civilizations. Despite its all-too-human imperfections, there is simply nothing like it.

So as we begin this academic year, as we are “called together” to undertake a great common task, let’s be grateful for the great tradition of faith and of reason that we are so fortunate to inherit. Let’s be mindful of what a great privilege it is to have these days to live and work in the presence of such great and often holy human beings. And let’s also treasure the fact that we are a small face-to-face community of teachers and learners. Pope Benedict XVI, as you probably know, was fond of saying that it has always been “creative minorities” who move history. Or if that seems too big a job to you for now, we could at least try to live up to an old Italian saying that I myself am fond of: siamo pochi, ma buoni “We’re few, but we’re good.” Thank you.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.