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Not long ago, I was sent a review copy of the Bodley Head-Ignatius Press
collection, A Chesterton Anthology.  The first thing I read in
the wonderful book was a 1910 Chesterton essay entitled "What Is Right
with the World?" some of which I read aloud in a medieval theory class
I was teaching at the time. The passage I read began, "It is at the
beginning that things are good, and not (as the more pallid progressives
say) only at the end."
But there was a passage in that same remarkable essay that I did not somehow
read to that class. Let me site it here:
Sincerely speaking, there are no uneducated
men. They may escape the trivial examinations, but not the tremendous
examination of existence. The dependency of infancy, the enjoyment of
animals, the love of woman, and the fear of deaththese are more
frightful and more fixed than all conceivable forms of the cultivation
of the mind. It is idle to complain of schools and colleges being trivial.
Schools and colleges must always be trivial. In no case will a college
ever teach the important things. For before a man is twenty, he has
always learned the important things. He has learned them right or wrong,
and he has learned them all alone. 
This is not, of course, common doctrine in our academia,
where we like to think the highest things are our private preserves.
yet it is a sober testimony to the fact that what is of ultimate importance
is often disclosed to us through our parents, our localities, our churches,
and our rooted openness to the being, to the what is that stands
before us wherever we are. Perhaps the most satisfying doctrine in Aquinas,
in this sense, is his bold affirmation that each of us has his own intellect,
complete in itself, looking out on a world none of us made, so that each
of us first begins to know what is not himself. Only having thus begun can
we reflect on the famous Socratic admonition to "know thyself".
Leo Strauss often talked about the care with which we must talk earnestly
about the highest thingsbecause there are so few who seem willing
to listen. Sooner or later we must come to realize that most of the important
things we do not in fact learn are not learned because we choose
not to learn them. At some point we must recognize that our own natural
capacities are not the real causes of our personal status before the highest
things. And we cannot, at times, but be conscious of the fact that we do
not, often dare not, talk about the important things.
In 1770, Boswell recorded this passage from Samuel Johnson on the occasion
of the death of Johnson's mother:
He [Johnson] lamented that all serious and religious conversation was
banished from the society of men, and yet great advantage might be derived
from it. All acknowledged, he said, what hardly anybody practiced, the
obligation we were under of making the concerns of eternity the governing
principles of our lives. Every man, he observed, at least wishes for
retreat: he sees his expectations frustrated in the world, and begins
to wean himself from it, and to prepare for everlasting separation.
Such are solemn words, fit for pubs and walks and other places where we
engage in serious conversation.
Universities, to be sure, are places where we can hear some questions formalized,
refined in a way we could never encounter otherwise. Yet modern universities
seem more like Socrates' "democracy", where every possible opinion
can be heard and no one, in principle, is able to tell the outlandish from
the commonplace, the odd from the sane. Such universities where all opinion
is created equal and departmentalized have gotten the "think tank",
as it is called, a newer institution where more and more of real thought
in our societies seems to be taking place. When we are unable to take a
stand because, in theory, no stand can be taken, it is logical and inevitable
that vital thought surfaces elsewhere. Some, like Alasdair MacIntyre at
the end of his famous After Virtue, even seem to hint that we need
to refound the monasteries. 
In a touching essay, Professor Ralph McInerny recalled listening as a young
man to the last lecture the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain
gave one autumn night in 1958 at the Moreau Seminary on the South Bend campus.
Here is what McInernywhose book St. Thomas Aquinas is a must
(see Chapter 7), and whose novel The Noonday Devil a delightsaid,
reflecting on the event:
He [Maritain] was a saintly man. That is what
I sensed as I scuffled through the leaves on my way back from Maritain's
last lecture at Moreau (later published as The Uses of Philosophy).
He loved the truth, but his purpose in life was not to win arguments.
He wanted to be wise. Such an odd ambition for a philosopher! He succeeded
because he prayed as well as he studied. 
This sort of experience is why we go to a university
as young men and women; the chance to find there, once or twice if we are
lucky, a wise man to teach us, or at least to teach us about the wise men
and women who lived before our own lifetimes.
Many people no doubt, will talk to us, and the sum total of a year's worth
of courses at the average university campus may come closer to the Tower
of Babel than to the Seat of Wisdom. This is why we must somehow be rightly
oriented to reality even before we arrive at ivy-covered colleges and mega-universities,
as Chesterton told us. Plato, in The Republic, said much the same
thing before him: "...when it comes to good things, no one is satisfied
with what is opined to be so but each seeks the things that are ..."(505d).
In 1985, the philosopher Eric Voegelin died at Stanford University in California.
Voegelin was one of the most important thinkers of our time. In 1980, in
Montreal, a book of his conversations was published, as I have previously
mentioned. In one of the lectures in this book, he told his audience at
the Thomas More Institute, speaking of his own students and following Aristotle:
One should be aware that we always act as if
we had an ultimate purpose in fact, as if our life made some sort of
sense. I find students frequently flabbergasted, especially those who
are agnostics, when I tell them that they all act, whether agnostics
or not, as if they were immortal! Only under the assumption of immortality,
of fulfillment beyond life, is the seriousness of action intelligible,
which they actually put in their work and which has a fulfillment nowhere
in this life however long they may live. 
Rarely, I think, are we spoken to so seriously. Often
we do not want to be addressed because we sense where such conversation
might lead us. And that brings us back to the original discussion of "beginnings"
found in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis.
As I shall mention often, I think that the most remarkable scenes in pure
philosophy, those in Plato, have to do with young students instinctively
gathering around Socrates, the philosopher, hardly knowing why, to listen
to penetrating philosophical doctrines spoken and lived. Most young philosophers
began in the curiosity and delight caused by hearing their old professors
and parents made fun of, little suspecting that each himself must confront
the issue of which Socrates and Voegelin spoke.
And this brings me back to Chestertonto the idea that before we are
twenty we have learned the important things. We have learned them right
or wrong, and we have learned them alone. "The tremendous examination
of existence", as Chesterton called it, will not be based on whether
we have been to college, but on whether we seriously, yet in good humor,
confronted in our lives the highest things. St. Paul intimated, in a famous
passage, that learning could easily deflect us into "foolishness",
even if we be, perhaps especially if we be, professional philosophers (I
Our purpose in life is indeed "not to win arguments", but to be
wise. For this latter, we cannot neglect study or prayer, or especially
that openness to existence about which we must learn even if we learn nothing
else, or even if we learn all else. We must seek out where the important
things are taught if the "seriousness of action" is to be intelligible,
however long we may live.
My last words here are again those of Chesterton: "The ordinary modern
progressive position is that this is a bad universe, but it will certainly
get better. I say it is certainly a good universe, even if it gets worse...
We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure... The most dangerous
thing in the world is to be alive."
Living is "dangerous", I might add, not because we have been given
the chance to fail, but because we have been given the chance to see that
in the beginning, all things were good and we did not notice.
[This Ignatius Press Classic selection is chapter five of Another
Sort of Learning (1988).]
 G.K. Chesterton, A Chesterton Anthology, ed. P.J. Kavanaugh (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press 1985). Another new collection of Chesterton is
As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Anthology, ed. Robert Knille (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985). Another useful collection of G.K.C. quotations is
The Quotable Chesterton, ed. George Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and
John L. Swan (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).
 Chesterton, A Chesterton Anthology, p. 344.
 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, vol. I (London: Oxford,
1931), p. 418.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University
of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 245.
 Ralph McInerny, Notre Dame Magazine, summer 1985.
 Voegelin, Conversations, p. 6.
Three Books on Education
1. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University.
2. Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education.
3. Jacques Maritain, The Education of Man: The Educational Philosophy
of Jacques Maritain.
Four Books on Philosophy and Literature by Marion Montgomery
1. Reflective Journey toward Order: Essays on Dante, Wordsworth, Eliot,
2. Why Flannery O'Connor Stayed Home.
3. Why Poe Drank Liquor.
4. Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy.
Eight Books on Christianity and Political Thought
1. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State.
2. Charles N.R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought.
3. Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought.
4. Rodger Charles, The Social Teaching of Vatican II.
5. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths.
6. Thomas Molnar, Politics and the State.
7. Yves Simon, The Philosophy of Democratic Government.
8. Glenn Tinder, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at
Georgetown University and the author of numerous books on social issues,
spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning,
Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching,
Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing,
Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
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