On s’est trompé lorsqu’on a cru que l’esprit et le jugement étaient deux choses différentes: le jugement n’est que la grandeur de la lumière de l’esprit; cette lumière pénètre le fond des choses, elle y remarque tout ce qui’il faut remarquer, et aperçoit celles qui semblent imperceptibles…
We are deceived if we think that mind and judgment are two different matters: judgment is but the extent of the light of the mind. This light penetrates to the bottom of matters; it remarks all that can be remarked, and perceives what appears imperceptible. Therefore we must agree that it is the extent of the light in the mind that produces all the effects which we attribute to judgment.– La Rochefoucauld, “Maximes” No. 97
This is a reminiscence and an expression of gratitude. If one expects to find a tight, syllogism-based argument for the Liberal Arts or a Great Books education in it, it will probably be disappointment. Instead, this is a narrative testimonial, a reaching back through the years to find the origin of something rich in a personal, and yet I am convinced universal, way—one that it is difficult to describe. But aren’t the most precious things in life more often than not the ones most challenging to articulate?
Narratives express truths which are difficult to convey. And narratives always have a beginning. So as I think about my experience with the Great Books at St. John’s College, it is important to start at the beginning. As a result, casting my mind’s eye back to find the genesis of my narrative, I realized that it is probably a common experience for people to remember the moment they set foot on the campuses of their alma maters. It was so for me. The memory of arriving at St. John’s is vivid.
I was fresh on American soil from East Africa. Traveling alone for a time, I had stopped to visit a friend who was attending NYU as a pre-med student, someone I had known for as long as I could remember and had gone to school with in multiple countries. What a sweet thing it was, fresh from the remoteness of Tanzania, to spend time with her again on the cusp of my experiences as a college student in a new and, to me, foreign land.
It is odd to me, now, to consider that I once thought of Maryland as a foreign land…especially since I ended up spending a decade of my life there. These days of course, I am acclimatized, so to speak. In a basic way, I know my way around cities all across the United States. But then? Not so. At that time, American cities represented a whole universe of unknowns to me. I thought—and many did not hesitate to tell me I was naïve and idealistic for thinking it so (which I find humorously ironic, since I was young and at the beginning of my journey then—wasn’t I supposed to be idealistic?)—that I would find my way through them by studying the Great Books at St. John’s College. Against all arguments that I needed to go to college to prepare for a particular career and that I would be hampered in my future by a lack of a specific set of ‘expert’ skills, I stubbornly argued that I had the right idea. In the light of experience, I am now sure I was right.
Loaded with suitcases and a few smaller bags, I awkwardly boarded a bus at the New York Port Authority. A few hours later, I disembarked in Baltimore—much to the amusement of many at the station. Looking back on it, I must have been a sight: a teenage girl wandering around, encumbered by suitcases, and seemingly lost at the busy hub. No wonder I received skeptical, and some downright bemused, looks. There, I searched for the local transit bus that would deliver me to Annapolis. It was a place I’d never seen before in my life. College visits were not an option for me as I had mulled over my future educational choices in the pre-Internet foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. Annapolis was a place that had appeared to me in my dreams as I slept beneath the southern hemisphere’s cavernous skies (no light pollution there, to raise the black darkness to a shadowy haze).
About an hour later I found myself, and all my earthly possessions at the time, dropped off unceremoniously on the College Avenue edge of the St. John’s campus in downtown Annapolis. I could see King George Street and the Naval Academy to my right, what was then the Maryland Hall of Records to my left (now the St. John’s Library), and stately McDowell Hall straight ahead. The campus was engulfed in silence. I stood for a moment, taking it all in. A sense of peculiar familiarity came over me as I surveyed the cobbled streets, red brick buildings, beautifully manicured lawns, and the historic Liberty Tree. Despite the fact that I had spent the last years of high school in the midst of the third world, healing from the effects of a violent revolution in Iran (and deeply relishing the magnificent heights of Kilimanjaro where the omnipotence of the Divine cannot be mistaken, going on safari and hunting in the untended wilderness of the Serengeti, and celebrating the sweet-smelling Bougainvillea-covered dirt roads of the quiet town in which I had truly enjoyed driving a World War II era Land Rover), I felt as though I had stepped back into memories of childhood visits to centuries-old towns in Europe—places that also lived in my recollections and dreams. For example, Salzburg, Austria, echoing with the words of Everyman booming from the stage at the Salzburg Festival; or Henley-on-Thames, England, cozy in a cottage hiding behind what seemed to me the Shire-like hedgerows; or a pub in Dublin listening to a man who, undoubtedly fully in his cups, stood upon the bar as he dramatically recited the poetry of William Butler Yeats. So, I was oddly at ease, knowing that I was a stranger in a strange town but experiencing an unshakable sense of having arrived in a place that would become an indelible part of the fabric of my life, perhaps even of my being.
That late summer day, standing there on the street sidewalk studying the deserted front lawn, I remember realizing that I had arrived much earlier than most students. An air of profound emptiness hung over the campus. I made my way, lugging all my bags up the walk towards McDowell Hall, and from there I somehow discovered the path to the Admissions office. All the while, a vague sense of wonder was settling upon me: this was my home. Despite recent years growing up traveling from continent to continent, from culture to culture, and now living thousands of miles away from anything familiar to me, I embraced whole-heartedly the reality that a new world was waiting to be discovered. The sense of it was so heavy for me, that day, that I could almost taste it: it was the world of the Great Books, in whose pages I knew I would be privileged to explore some of the most significant ideas humanity has contemplated over the course of western history.
As I had filled out my application paperwork, during sultry East African afternoons as the monsoon rains passed over me, pondering a ‘self-selecting’ essay that St. John’s hopefuls had to write, I had in a dreamy way, almost like a young woman considering a wedding, contemplated the Great Books. My appetite had been whetted with exposure to Plato’s Meno and Dante’s Inferno, investigations into Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Shakespeare’s plays. I had even developed a deep fascination with Achilleus, though I had not really met him. Euclid bedazzled me already, though we too had yet to be introduced. And, in what seemed to be the distant future (of course I now know that three or four years constitute only the minutest grains of sand in life’s hour glass), such giants as Aristotle, Sophocles, Moliere, Kierkegaard, Newton, Dostoevsky, Einstein, and Hegel beckoned mysteriously. This, I thought with sweet anticipation, was the height of privilege: to be heir to such thoughts, to the musings and insights of those who had formed the bedrock of my civilization! What could possibly be more compelling, exciting, educational, or useful, than that? I didn’t think anything could be. Several decades later, I feel the same way.
So there I stood. Dreams were to become reality. I stared at the immaculate lawn, where later I would lounge in muggy spring days smelling of freshly mown grass—a treat for someone raised in the arid climate of the Middle East—flipping through the pages of one book or another, talking about ideas with friends, watching a croquet game with the next-door Naval Academy unfold…and I felt both excited and resolute; peaceful with a sense of being exactly where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there.
My parents were abroad at the time, and all the other members of my immediate family were far away, so St. John’s did turn out to be my home in virtually every respect. For the next four years, in fact, and for two more following that when I worked in the library surrounded by the books I loved, I spent my hours living and breathing in the grip of great ideas and under the mentorship of the books, my fellow learners, and the tutors (as St. John’s professors are called) at the college.
That night, however, was spent quite alone—for if I was not the only one there, I certainly do not remember seeing another soul—in eerie anticipation within the empty, echoing dormitory building. I silently settled into my side of the room. In an almost ritualistic way, I put the few books I had brought with me across the seas (which included beloved copies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ Narnia Series, and MacDonald’s Lilith, along with Tales from the Thousand and One Nights as well as well-thumbed volumes by Africa’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe) away on the small bookshelf as I meditated about the future. I couldn’t help musing about what the days ahead held for me at St. John’s, not just as a college student but as a wanderer into a world of possibilities, all held between the pages of history told through the recorded thoughts of great minds: the pages of Great Books.
St. John’s lived up to, and in fact surpassed, the promise of my wonderings that first night. It was the beginning of a journey…a journey that has not yet ended, and it has been a gift that has never stopped bequeathing. Of course, that journey reached back virtually to the dawn of recorded story-telling; it began with Homer’s Iliad. Actually, it began specifically with Achilleus. Reflecting on this recently, it dawned on me—with something of a thrill, I confess—that it also ended with Achilleus; the very first essay I was asked to write at St. John’s by my language tutor (as we were just beginning to dive into the throes of Ancient Greek), was about the famous Homeric description of the shield fashioned for Achilleus by Hephaestus. My final essay at St. John’s was my senior thesis, and in it Achilleus—as he is portrayed in Homer’s Iliad as well as in the Romantic dramatist Kleist’s play Penthesilea—was one of the most prominent characters of my inquiry.
What that really means, I confess, I have yet to completely uncover, but that is precisely the magic of St. John’s: a seed that was planted grows and flourishes beyond anticipation. For example, just this year I read The Iliad once again—I have now lost count of the times I have read it—with yet another group of young men and women whom I tutor. And still I muse…still held in thrall by the Muse…about Achilleus and his rage.
What did I learn at St. John’s? It is impossible to quantify. A mere checklist of the books I read and discussed there would never suffice to explain it, and if one were to complete the program at St. John’s and come away with such a list, I believe one would have learned little—and perhaps even entirely missed the point—from those books. No, the qualities of what I learned are the only elements that I can list, almost like a stream of platitudes. Yet I believe one must attempt to describe such things, no matter how poorly or stereotypically. I only begin to scratch at the surface, therefore, when I take a clumsy swipe at answering.
At St. John’s I learned how to struggle with fate—before I was even capable of truly grasping what fate might possibly be—as I viewed what it meant to be human through the eyes of war-like Achilleus and as I wandered with crafty Odysseus, searching for my own city. I learned how to examine an idea as though it were a diamond with Plato. I learned how to drag my dreaming eyes down from the forms in the heavens to study and appreciate the concrete particulars with Aristotle. I learned how to see mathematics as a thing of elegance and eloquence. I learned how to be quiet and still, to contemplate; to walk with Pascal in considering the vast void of eternity, and my own minuteness therein. I learned how to attend, to focus and absorb, and to wander with intentionality along with Montaigne through a multitude of musings. I learned how to listen carefully to the thoughts of others, the voices calling out from the pages of history, as well as the voices of my peers and my betters as we explored together; to pass through Socratic dialogue and find myself amazed to discover, at the end of a conversation, that suddenly a truth was revealed which I had never before seen.
I was taught how to appreciate true catharsis, sitting on the edge of my seat as I envisioned a play by Euripides unfold. I laughed with Aristophanes. I pondered the harmonies of the spheres as I struggled to understand Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler. I traveled with Descartes and arrived at Hume and then found myself alongside Kant, treading a relentless path towards eventual radical subjectivism and postmodernity. I fell headlong into truthful absurdity with the Man of La Mancha, and floated along with the waves of historical dialectic with Tolstoy. I learned how to honor the voices of others and their words—like a Dante trusting his Virgil, seeking his Beatrice and discovering Grace. And I learned how to respond. I learned how to assess myself, against both the past and the present; with Euclid I measured my paces. I learned how to recognize pride and prejudice, as well as how to discern greatness, dancing with Austen’s prose through a by-gone age that had so much to teach me about my own.
I practiced digging deeply into ideas, ruthlessly mining myself in order to transcend the self by subjecting it to universal realities of truth, goodness, and beauty that thread their ways unmistakably through the passages of human experience—expressed by those who had themselves been molders of the future, the future in which I now lived.
Did I also learn practical skills? I can only say that if those listed above don’t fall into that category, I do not know what does. Those were the skills that propelled me through several jobs in vastly different career paths, yet unified by singular principles with respect to my work, my values, and my goals. They were all the skills that made graduate school pass as though by second nature. They are the skills that have sustained me through years of marriage, parenthood, teaching, and civic community. They were the skills that allowed me to compassionately care for both my parents-in-law as they passed away beneath my roof. They are the skills that allowed me to become exactly who I am, whose happiness has been crafted uniquely out of universal principles as well as particular experiences. They are the skills I wish to pass along to my own children, to equip them for their future.
What I realize now, looking back on it, was that the whole journey was about what it meant to be a human being. Not in the sense of being the product of millennia of random physical mutations, but in the sense which St. John’s president Christopher Nelson evokes when he quotes C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man: men with chests, with “drive…dynamism…self-sacrifice…[and] creativity”; men of “virtue and enterprise.” That understanding of what it meant to be a human being has formed the foundation of my life’s efforts, like the meter of a poem, for more than two decades. I owe to it so much that I am, what little I may have accomplished in the great scheme of things…so much that I hope to contribute, for which I dare to hope for the future—for my children, my grandchildren, and for their children after them; for the polis: civilization itself…composed like a symphony, one by one, of each of us together.
For that, I feel a deep gratitude. It is because of St. John’s that I believe I was not condemned, as Peter Kreeft writes in his delightfully pertinent Socratic dialogue, The Best Things in Life, to living my life in a circle:
Socrates: I see. Let’s review what you have said. You are reading this book to study for your exam, so that you can pass it and your course, to graduate and get a degree, to get a good job, to make a lot of money, to raise a family and send your children to college.
Socrates: And why will they go to college?
Peter: Same reason I’m here. To get good jobs, of course.
Socrates: So they can send their children to college?
Socrates: Have you ever heard the expression “arguing in a circle”?
Peter: No…I’m a practical man. I don’t care about logic, just life.
Socrates: Then perhaps we should call what you are doing “living in a circle.” Have you ever asked yourself a terrifying, threatening question? What is the whole circle there for?
Here, at the end of my narrative, I remain an idealist—not despite my experience but precisely because of it; an idealist like that youngster who surveyed the St. John’s campus for the first time so many years ago: rejecting the cynicisms of our age, imagining the potential of a humanity made imago Dei, filled with dreams and great hope.
Thank you, St. John’s, for nurturing in me the discernment—as La Rochefoucauld puts it, le jugement—to see the point of the circle.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.