Sense and Nonsense: Dry and Dull on Campus

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One Saturday afternoon in Washington, I chanced to buy a day-old Washington Times on K Street. Walking up 20th Street, I noticed an article entitled, “Virginia ‘Prohibition’ Cramps Life on Campus.” “Oh, those poor dears,” I thought to myself, “how can they possibly survive in such austerity?”

Coincidently, I had been reading Aquinas on the educative nature of the civil law, along with Solzhenitsyn’s remark at Harvard that the letter of the law has become our sole norm of morality. It turned out that the new twenty-one-year-old age limit on drinking is being increasingly enforced on Virginia campuses. The bars near colleges and universities are going broke, while campus parties are more and more dry and dull. Apparently there is a causal connection between dryness and dullness. (So much for the “higher things.”) Meanwhile, the business in fake ID cards is flourishing.

Commenting on this dire situation, hardly intelligible to anyone who did not experience the Volstead Act, one student at UVA, as the University of Virginia at Charlottesville is called, gravely remarked that cocaine snorting and marijuana are increasing at the same time in college settings. Why? “I think,”, he responded, “a lot of us just don’t see much difference any more. I mean, it’s all illegal anyway. Why not go ahead and try it?”

I laughed right out loud in downtown Washington when I read this marvelous argument. Then and there I decided that the condition of intelligence in academic life is considerably worse than even Education Secretary William Bennett has imagined. Thus, if both Pabst and pot are illegal, then take pot. If both pickpocketing and armed bank robbery are both illegal, well, rob the Riggs bank at Wisconsin and M. Forget the little stuff! This sort of thinking has, indeed, something Augustinian about it: steal the damn pears just because it is forbidden.

About five years ago Ann O’Donnell gave me a copy of The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. I had almost forgotten about this delightful book. But the other day I wanted to see what Waugh had to say about Oxford, for the edification of my friend Denise Bartlett who was spending a semester there with her good husband and family.

I found the book on my shelves. But when I opened it, I noticed that Ann had penned, in her wonderfully crispy script, the following dedication to me: “J. As Flannery (O’Connor) says, Don’t make an algebra problem out of this — just enjoy. — A.” Again I laughed to read this happy, forgotten admonition to Schall about not complicating what is already wonderful.

So I read a letter Waugh wrote in 1922 from “Coll. Hert. Oxon.,” something I was able to translate because of a postcard Denise had sent me about the names and dates of Oxford colleges: Hertford College, founded in 1284, its emblem a stag and a cross. Waugh wrote to Tom Driberg, in words that would, on the surface at least, warm the heart of every college student in the great State of Virginia:

Dear Driberg:

. . . Do let me most seriously advise you to take to drink. There is nothing like the aesthetic pleasure of being drunk, and if you do it in the right way, you can avoid being ill the next day. That is the greatest thing Oxford has to teach.

I do not recall Denise writing that this was the major lesson at Oxford, but I will have to check.

However, it is of interest to note that the Virginia student, deprived of his beer, decided it was the same thing to take cocaine, whereas Waugh as a young man decided, on the contrary, that it was all right to be drunk, provided you could manage to eliminate the effects which usually accompany the cause. The direction of Waugh’s vices was toward the imitation of virtue, whereas that of the Virginia student was toward greater vice. There must be a lesson here.

On Tuesday, April 7, 1778, the topic of drinking wine came up in another Oxford context. Samuel Johnson said: “I did not leave off wine, because I could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College [founded in 1249, with an emblem of a cross surrounded by five birds] has witnessed this.” Regarding this impressive record which the students at UVA might envy — even if they, like me, have been so fortunate as to have been introduced to real port — Boswell responded: “Why, then, Sir, did you leave it off?”

To this question, Johnson replied: “Why, Sir, because it is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never to be intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself. I shall not begin to drink wine again, till I grow old, and want it.” But Boswell persisted: “I think, Sir, you once said to me that not to drink wine was a great deduction from life.” And in the great tradition of logic, clarity, and virtue typical of the civilization he embodied, Johnson answered: “It is a diminution of pleasure, to be sure; but I do not say a diminution of happiness. There is more happiness in being rational.”

The conversation went on. Boswell remarked that he had more pleasure in Johnson’s conversation than in wine. This, I suppose, is the essence of the matter. If Ann O’Donnell were still with us, I am sure she would laugh and accuse Schall of introducing algebra into something quite simple. She would enthusiastically agree with Boswell, I think, that conversation with a Johnson is what civilization ought to be about, even if it cannot be had at an Oxford or a UVA because the law prohibits the pleasures of beer and wine.

In the end, as Johnson observed, “There is more happiness in being rational” — more enjoyment too. (Ironically, this is likewise the subject matter of the first book of Aristotle’s Ethics.) The preference of cocaine to beer because the law forbids both is the measure of how far we have descended from that life of intelligence our civilization was designed to foster in its educational institutions.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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