This essay is adapted from the 2012 Lyceum college preparatory school commencement speech.
I am grateful to the founding parents and benefactors of the Lyceum that you have not had to grow up in a cultural wilderness as I did. Why anyone would be nostalgic for the 70’s I do not know. To give you an idea of how bad it was: In 1973, Admiral Jeremiah Denton returned to America from seven years in a Vietnam prison camp. He was utterly shocked by the society which greeted him. It must have been like Jimmy Stewart’s nightmare in It’s a Wonderful Life, when Bedford Falls became Pottersville. The new America was a society in which family life, virtue and nobility were not only lost, but openly mocked. Today the mockery is even more open, but at the time, that attitude was all we heard, except perhaps for the lonely voices of our parents. We had no Lyceums, no EWTNs, or popular Catholic publishers.
What happened in the 60’s and 70’s? Why had society collapsed seemingly overnight? I suppose the answer is very involved, but I began to understand the whirlwind we had inherited as I read through the modern authors in the upper division seminars at Thomas Aquinas College. Nietzsche and Freud proclaimed the dictatorship of relativism over a hundred years ago, as European civilization was poised to destroy itself in WWI. But the seeds of their views were sown even earlier, by authors like Machiavelli, Bacon and Descartes. Blessed John Paul pointed to Descartes particularly as the one who opened the doors to Western Europe’s violent rejection of Christianity, preparing the way for modern relativism.
Surprisingly, those early moderns were not themselves relativists at all. They were seekers of truth, and believed strongly that they were the first ones in the history of mankind to really figure out how to attain truth. That is what made them “moderns.” It is the quintessential modern attitude: “We of the now, of the moment, of today, have finally gotten it right; before us whatever truth and goodness existed was all sunk in the mud of ignorance, error and wickedness. Our education threw us into the mud; a completely new education is needed.”
In his delightful and exciting Discourse on Method, Descartes reviewed the education he had received, the finest classical education in Europe, and patronizingly rejected it point by point as a means of discovering truth, substituting his own method as a model for those souls brave enough to follow him.
Is it accidental that the rejection of classical studies was the beginning of what has become the dictatorship of relativism? I don’t think so. Descartes thought that, if he wanted to know the truth, he had to doubt all of his received opinions, anything he had heard or read, thoughts that had come to him naturally from the beginning of his conscious awareness, even anything he sensed. He believed that if he could cut himself off from every opinion he had ever received, he could find truth through himself alone with absolute certainty. He did not believe he was creating his own personal truth, but he believed he had discovered what is universally true all by himself.
Descartes was terribly wrong, not only about himself but about the very capability of a human being to discover truth all by himself. By leading men to seek truth in themselves alone, he led Europe onto the road to relativism. Every new Cartesian thinker was doomed to failure; failure after failure led men to doubt the very existence of universal, indubitable truth. In the face of this, the weak-spirited took the easy way out – they did not reject truth (after all, the natural desire to know runs very deep), but they accepted everything for truth. “I’m okay, you’re okay,” just don’t demand that I change my mind or heart to conform to something outside of myself.
Yes, Descartes was terribly wrong. In fact, truth in its completeness is enormously difficult to arrive at. As Aristotle expresses so poignantly, “As the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.” For this reason, a classical attitude takes the opposite stance toward the past. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God said to lonely man. And out of that Divine Thought came not only the man’s woman, but the entire multitude of Adam’s progeny, who were to assist him in the enormous project of coming to appreciate and develop the wisdom and beauty and goodness of God’s creation. Through sin, Adam lost for us much of what he originally knew, but the road to recovering truth must be traveled in communion with others.
Over the millennia, although often wandering, often stumbling, men have made much progress, especially when aided by the divine light of revelation through the Incarnation of the Word of God. And so, if we want to be wise, we must begin with the past, for in the past, we find enormous wisdom, beauty, and goodness. We should learn from it, be inspired by it, imitate it, apply it. We should even improve upon it. But we can’t do any of those things if we don’t immerse ourselves in it. As Descartes himself said:
The reading of all the great books is like conversing with the best people of earlier times; it is even studied conversation in which the authors show us only the best of their thoughts.
A classical education has as its fundamental belief that to form the young well no better way can be found than initiating them into the great community of tradition.
To illustrate the difference between the modern and classical approaches, my thoughts turn, as they often do, toward Tolkien. Every great civilization has a canon of great books which expresses the best of that culture. Through education, formal and informal, the great books imbue in their souls words, phrases, images, stories, characters and judgments that come spontaneously to mind in moments of significance, bringing contrast, illumination, and meaning to the present. Homer’s works filled that role for the Greeks, the Aeneid for imperial Rome, the Scriptures for the Benedictine-led civilization of the Middle Ages, England added Shakespeare. What does it portend that nothing fills that role today for our civilization? Thankfully, I stumbled upon Tolkien’s works in my early teens – their moral and spiritual beauty so enchanted me that I read them over and over to the point where they became for me what the Iliad and Odyssey were for the Greeks.
As I began to learn more about classical education, I realized that through their quest, the hobbits received such an education. The hobbits themselves were quiet folk who loved their simple, Shire life and had no interest in the larger, disturbing affairs of the world. Those who fancied stories about great dangers and heroic deeds were considered odd; those who left the Shire to seek them out were largely considered outcasts. But the four hobbits who set out on the quest to destroy the Ring found themselves immersed continually in the great affairs of the world.
Through their time with Aragorn, Gandalf, Treebeard, Theoden and Faramir, through their stays in Rivendell, Lothlorien and Minas Tirith, they learned of the great beauty of story, art, architecture, and custom that had been cultivated over thousands of years, which made life so worth living that the ancient heroes had sacrificed everything to preserve and foster it. They learned that their own story was part of a larger story, one that began with time and reached to eternity. And as they came to understand their roles, to experience the interior pressure to live up to the great, they grew great themselves. At the end of the quest, as they approached the Shire which had fallen on bad times, Gandalf told them that the quest had made them ready to lead the Shire out of its troubles:
I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand?
Their quest had nurtured the seeds of greatness in them so that they could not only restore their beloved Shire but even better it by leading it into full participation in the renewed civilization of the Two Kingdoms. As Gandalf continues:
As for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.
As for the Greeks and Romans, a book containing the stories and wisdom of a civilization will be the heart of it all, as Frodo tells Sam before he departs:
You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be…and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more.
Though often spectacular, Peter Jackson’s movie presentation of Tolkien’s work systematically inverts this central theme. In his movie, Aragorn struggles not to be like his forefathers, Gandalf doesn’t want Frodo to go to Mordor, Treebeard is going to turn away from storming Isengard, Faramir chooses to return the Ring to his father. Disaster is averted, the right choice is made only because the hobbits shame or trick or astonish their betters. It is not the hobbits who learn from the great, but the great who learn from the untutored hobbits.
So a classical attitude begins with deep reverence for the past, a past that offers us the best of human efforts aided by grace, a past that sets high standards for us and urges us to live up to them. Like the real Aragorn, whose greatest fear was that he would fail to live up to the example of his ancestors, the classically-oriented soul remembers the great stories of Cincinnatus, of Socrates, of Ignatius of Antioch and Francis, and learns from the words of Augustine and Thomas and Dante, and continually judges itself in their light. Am I living up to their greatness, their ideals?
Yet to be classical is not to be stagnant – each generation will make its own contribution, will even correct the errors of the past, but will do so, not by condemning the whole and razing it to the ground, but by using the ideals and principles of those that came before them.
When one considers what it is like for the majority of recent students graduating from high school today and how many come from broken and re-made and re-broken homes, how many have never experienced a moment’s inspiration in the classroom, how many parched, thirsting souls have never tasted even a drop of real beauty, one can’t help but fear for the future. For those who have been blessed with a classical education, we must be grateful for what we have received and have pity for others who may seem our enemies.
Thomas Aquinas College’s founding President, Dr. Ronald MacArthur, recently told students who asked what they should do with their education, “Go out and start schools like this one!” Or perhaps newspapers, or blogs, or art schools, or music ministries or companies that treat employees and customers like human beings.
Blessed John Paul began his papal ministry with a bold proclamation —Be Not Afraid! Somehow he knew what the Church needed to hear in the darkness of 1978. He wasted little time in condemning a crazy world. Rather he spoke to all those like us whose souls longed for the beautiful in an aggressively ugly world – Be Not Afraid!
Admiral Denton was not afraid. He knew that he had suffered seven years for a great and lovable nation. He saw that something needed to be done; he saw he had the opportunity and the grace to do it, and he became the first Republican Senator from the state of Alabama since the Civil War. Although he was not as legislatively successful as he had hoped, he inspired many. Thankfully, many founders of today’s Catholic educational institutions shared Denton’s spirit: “If the existing structures have turned against us,” they said, “we’ll start new ones. If it’s too late for our children, it won’t be for our grandchildren.” Today we are blessed with many vibrant and faithful Catholic schools who are very much part of the Great Tradition.
They foster my conviction that we are on the brink of a great renewal in the Church, at least in our blessed land of liberty and faith. The graduates of these schools will enter the world in a unique position. They have been formed as citizens of the great Catholic civilization that began with the deaths of St. Peter and St. Paul in the heart of the decadent, tyrannical yet fiercely beautiful Greco-Roman empire. With God’s abiding grace, they go forward in a spirit of hope and love and sacrifice. The Holy Spirit is forming them to be the presence of Christ and the Church in a strange world. Be Not Afraid!