[Hillsdale College, Convocation Address, April 16, 2009]
President Arnn, colleagues, students, and guests, I thank you profoundly for asking me to speak.
Today is Easter Thursday, 2009, and we have passed beyond, at least in this Christian liturgical season, the time of great darkness, the time known as Tenebrae, the hours after 3pm on Good Friday, the moment when the world shook with the absence of grace. The extinguishing of light, candle by candle; the stripping of the altar; the beating of the books; the departure from the chapel in a deafening silence.
Still, if we look at the state of the world, the state of our republic, the state of western and American culture, we still seem to be lingering in Tenebrae, the darkness absent of grace. Hovering, circling, peering into the abyss, too timid to jump in, not strong enough to walk away. Easter Day has come and gone, and western culture seems to have missed it—its reality, its symbolism, its joy, its glimpse of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful.
This is to state the obvious: we live in a time of great troubles. When our present time of troubles began . . . well, it is difficult to say, definitively. But, troubled it is.
Maybe it began eight years ago when Radical Islam once more asserted itself in a very bloody and tangible way; maybe it began when the United States deserted an ally in the spring of 1975; or when the Bolsheviks claimed victory in the autumn of 1917; or when an obscure Serbian terrorist killed an Austrian Archduke in 1914; or when a Russian dissident published “What is to be Done” in 1902; or when a terrorist struck Tzar Alexander II in 1881.
“The first bomb wounded several Cossacks of the Imperial Guard. Tsar Alexander II got out of his carriage to see in person to the care of the wounded men,” Whittaker Chambers described in Cold Friday. The Tzar “even spoke, ‘not urgently’ we are told, to the terrorist who had thrown the bomb, and thanked God that the damage was no greater. ‘It is too early to thank God yet,’ said Grinevitsky, and tossed a second bomb between the Tsar’s feet. The explosion tore him apart, and killed Grinevistky. ‘Home to the Palace, to die there,’ muttered the dying Tsar.” [Chambers, COLD FRIDAY, 147]
This earliest incident reveals much about the divide between the old, Christian world, and the new, sterile world of terrorism and ideology.
Most likely, our time of troubles began long before any of these events. But, without question, the time of troubles has increased in violence and intensity. We continue to wallow in darkness, in Tenebrae, as citizens of western civilization. We’ve flirted with the abyss for well over a century. And, while as a whole, we’ve not stepped in—again, too entranced to walk away, too uncertain to walk in—we’ve watched many thrown in against their will, and we’ve stood by, all too often, in complete silence.
From any perspective, a look back over the recent past is messy, as the field of history and our vision of it, is obscured: littered with the victims, the Jewish and Christian martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
It’s difficult to see through the limbs, the parts, the pieces, the charred flesh, the coagulated blood that once made up individual human persons, in origin, unique in dignity, time, and place.
And, through all this, one must ask: Why is God silent?
A Republic of Letters
But, I do not want to spend a convocation address talking about death. Instead, I would like to talk about a Republic of Letters and the current state of the academy.
By a Republic of Letters, I mean a group of scholars that understands the continuity of generations; a little platoon that bears the glorious burden in pursing what is eternal through time; and a community of women and men of letters that willingly defends and explores the infinite mystery, uniqueness, and dignity of the human person.
Such a republic of letters might just lead us from this present darkness, this tenebrae.
As we enter into the heritage room we walk under the engraved Weaverian motto, “Ideas have Consequences.” This, of course, is absolutely true. But, it is equally true that the form—the very presentation—of the ideas has consequences as well.
In the western academy, many brilliant and well-meaning scholars drown in their own subjective realities.
We might trace this back to the most important trends and thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A look at three of the most significant men of that time period reveals much about the modern world and the ultimate denigration of the human person. Though I could list more, I’ll list the three most obvious: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Their ideas have had consequences. Each, in his own right, offered some serious insights on the nature of man and of the world, whether we agree with the ideas or not.
But, the form of the ideas, as presented by each of these figures, is extremely important as well. Each of these men, by focusing on a particular aspect of the human person, ignored the whole of the human person. Or worse, each exaggerated the particular aspect claiming it to define the whole person. For Marx, man is economic. For Darwin, biological. For Freud, psychological. Each of these things is true. But, man—a complexity and mystery even unto himself—is all of these things and so much more.
As scholars such as historian Christopher Dawson and theologian Romano Guardini, have penetratingly noted, modernity compartmentalizes all things—breaking things into units, and then breaking down such units even further. In an attempt to dissect the thing, not only is the thing lost, but all connection to a universal truth and reality is lost.
So, three questions must be asked,
• How do we move back toward true unity and wholeness without imposing a stifling conformity?
• How can we place the human person back in the order of things—fallen, but bearing the image of God?
• How can we bring the highest out of the person, elevating the best qualities while attenuating the worst without remaking that person in OUR own image?
One thing must be noted and noted repeatedly, for, I think, modernity and post-modernity has led all of us to believe, for a variety of reasons, that changes can happen quickly, that solutions come almost as quickly, and that all things are solvable.
Not all things are solvable and change that happens quickly usually only adds new problems and thus demands new changes and new solutions. Because of the complexity of each individual person and the unfathomable complexity of existence itself, real change requires time, laborious effort, fortitude, and patience. The world cannot be fixed over night. If we want to reform the world, we must put the effort necessary into it and not look for the quick and easy fix.
As our colleague Mark Kalthoff has argued in his own scholarship, we must ask the right questions if we seek the right answers. This is easier said than done, for ideologies, no matter how limiting or dangerous, continue to attract the attention of scholars “because there remains a culturally systemic misconception of four subjects: human nature, virtue, education, and tradition.” [Kalthoff, “Contra Ideology,” 222]
As another one of our colleagues, Richard Gamble, has recently claimed, we, as professors at a college dedicated to teaching the liberal arts, are part of a Great Tradition. Not only do we join into the Great Conversation which began when God spoke the universe into existence, but we also remind ourselves and our students that the conversation has yet to end, and will not end until all things have been redeemed through the One.
As professors at Hillsdale College, we strive “to best develop the minds and improve the hearts of [our] pupils.” We do so by inviting students to partake of the conversation, to speak with Plato, St. John, and Dante. We must invite our students to become citizens not only of our little but mighty res publica, but of a larger one that transcends time and may, if so graced, enter into eternity—sojourners pursuing all that is True, and recognizing the humbling limitations of what can be known.
“What is there, not just in humans, but in all heaven and earth, more divine than reason?”, the great Roman Republican Cicero asked. “When it has matured and come to perfection, it is properly named wisdom. . . reason forms the first bond between human and god” [Cicero, On the Laws, Book 1]
A man deeply rooted in the Great Tradition of the West and a follower of Cicero, Harvard’s Christopher Dawson, argued for a Republic of Letters, one that recognizes the continuity of thought and dialogue and sacrifice, generation to generation.
As proof of the power of the Republic of Letters, Dawson offered us this example: Without a Republic of Letters, “there would have been two completely separate cultures in the Protestant North and the Catholic South, divided by an iron curtain of persecution and repression which would have made the two parts of Europe as alien and incomprehensible from one another as Christendom was from Islam. It was the influence of the humanist education that saved Europe from this fate. . . . [Melanchthon] establish[ed] a sound tradition of Protestant education . . . . Calvin himself fully appreciated the importance of education and study. Wherever the Calvinists went, from Transylvania to Massachusetts, they brought with them not only the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes, but the Latin grammar and the study of the classics.” [Dawson, Crisis of Western Education, 36-37]
If we are to challenge—within any degree of success—the ideological hostility toward the liberal and whole understanding of man, we—Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, and women and men of good will—must fight as a band of brothers, a republic of letters, and avoid a “civil war of rival propaganda.” [Dawson, CRISIS OF WESTERN EDUCATION, 124]
“Virgil and Cicero, Ovid and Seneca, Horace and Quintilian were not merely school books, they became the seeds of a new growth of classical humanism in Western soil,” Dawson wrote in 1956. “Again and again—in the eighth century as well as in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries—the higher culture of Western Europe was fertilized by renewed contacts with the literary sources of classical culture.”
So, as citizens of our little republic, we, as members of the Hillsdale College community, belong to a larger republic of higher education, to the American republic, to the, broadly speaking, Christiana Res Publica, and, ultimately, to change Augustine slightly, to the Republic of God. Our citizenship belongs to republics within republics, in expanding, upward concentric circles.
Our citizenship belongs not to one republic, then, but to many. Some are connected within time, others to eternity.
Perhaps, this is what Cicero hinted at, when he argued that all men who recognize their connection to the divine through Reason are citizens of the Cosmopolis. Or, maybe this is what Addison’s Cato meant when he told the African prince Juba that one does not have to be Roman to have a Roman soul. [Addison, Cato: A Tragedy, 82]
What happens, then, when a small republic asks the world to remember what is good and true and beautiful? How can one serve as a leaven to the rest, persuading the others to do what is right?
The American republic at its founding, it must be remembered, was a rather smallish place with a Protestant Anglo-Saxon Celtic population hugging the north Atlantic coastline. Even its closest allies doubted the efficacy of republic government and virtue.
Critically, as historian Forrest McDonald reminds us, the founders were first and foremost liberally-educated men. When a student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek. He would need to “read and translate from the original Latin into English ‘the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid’ and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ‘expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’” [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 1-2]
Such an education was a norm of the American Founders. Should it surprise us that they gave us the Constitutional Republic that they did? That they understood the universal quality of natural right in men? Here, the liberal arts leavened these patriots; these patriots leavened this republic; this republic leavened the world.
So, here we stand (or sit) in this place, as members of our wonderfully eccentric Hillsdale College, dedicated to preserving what has been given to us by thousands of years of thought and of sacrifice by men and women: from the Greek agora; to the Jewish Temple; to the Roman Senate; to that Cold Friday at the Place of Skulls; to a seat on the shores of North Africa, watching the Vandals descend, recording what we can over 14 years in the City of God; to a beheading under a Friesian sky as St. Boniface challenged one too many Norse gods; to an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise; to a stage where we are “merely players”; to the commons of Lexington; to the Hornet’s Nest of Shiloh; to a flight over September 2001 Pennsylvania skies, 8 years ago, knowing that no more innocents need die that day for a heresy.
This is Easter Thursday, 2009, and we have passed beyond, at least in this Christian liturgical season, the time of great darkness, the time of Tenebrae, the hours after 3pm on Good Friday, the moment when the world shook with the absence of grace—offering us a vision of hell itself. The candles are void of flame, the altar has been stripped, the books have been beaten, and we depart the chapel.
What to do? We peer into the abyss, into the heart of Tenebrae, do we jump in, do we walk away? And, if we walk away (as we should), with what strength and what conviction? With what purpose, with what will?
We stand here, in this place and in this time. Our little republic should remind each one of us in this church, as well as those in academia and those in the republic at large that there are those who refuse to succumb to all the glittering trinkets of modernity, those who refuse to succumb to the easy solution of ideology, those who refuse to take that which has not been earned, and those who will defend the dignity of the human person to the last breath.
As we look back over the past century, we see much death and destruction. As men and woman made in the Image of God were thrown into the fires of the Holocaust camps, the Gulags, and the killing fields, we might ask: where was God? Why was He silent as such atrocities were committed?
But, novelist Michael O’Brien reminds us, God has never been silent. As He watched the Fall, the depravity, and the destruction of his creatures by his creatures, He did not remain silent. A Word formed within Him. And, in the fullness of time, God spoke the Word, and the Word became Flesh.
Each one of us is a little word—carrying within us an icon, a perfect image of what God created us to be.
We cannot change the world overnight, no matter what we try, or how well we succeed in any one of our endeavors. Remembering what is good, true, and beautiful; seeking reformation of what has gone wrong; calling forth that which is best within us and our neighbors and attenuating that which is corrupt and fallen requires difficult and consuming labor. It demands patience, it demands fortitude.
As professors, we profess.
As liberally-educated women and men, our conversation “is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” [TSE, “Little Gidding”]
When Plato wrote, classical Athens was crumbling around him. His preservation of the best of his time and his mind has repeatedly re-awoken the world to an extent he could never have anticipated. The same can be said of Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, Thomas More, and the American Founders.
Some day, if we are blessed, the same may be said of us.
“In a time of troubles, they weathered the storm, they preserved the best of what had come before them,” a future historian might just write. “They carried the one light, away from the abyss, and through the darkness.”