The mystery is how one person whom I never met, through recountings down the ages of how many others whom I also have never met, could shed light on each other, eventually to enlighten me…

teachersIn The Apology, Socrates brought up the question of whether he was paid for being a teacher, like the Sophists, who were paid for their skill in teaching whatever it was that someone wanted to know. Socrates was dubious about the Sophists’ claim to teach while, at the same time, being indifferent to the goodness or badness of what was taught. Socrates further maintained that he was not, in fact, a teacher, nor did he take any money for anything he said. If someone learned from him, it was only indirectly, by listening to his examination of those who claimed to know. And this latter form of imitation of his ways could be dangerous, as he found out when he was called before the court by fathers who were angry that their sons used Socrates’ methods rather flippantly on their sires.

Properly speaking, then, teachers cannot be “paid” for what they teach. What they teach, if true, is not theirs. They do not own it. They did not make it or make it to be true. This fact is why any financial arrangement with a true teacher is not a salary or a wage, but an “honorarium,” something offered to keep the teacher alive, not to “pay” him for ownership of a segment of “truth” said to be exclusively his. The motivation of the teacher has to be something in itself, some “love of wisdom” for itself.

What he who teaches knows, then, is known for its own sake, not for his sake, even when the knowing is, as it should be, his. Truth is not like private property, something we own and cherish. Rather it is something when, on someone else’s coming to know it, both are more, no one less. Truth is of the spirit, the “conformity of mind and reality,” as Saint Thomas Aquinas said. Besides, teachers do not need much in the way of material goods, as their delight is really not in financial rewards, or if it is, their teaching is suspect–at least this was the Socratic attitude toward the status of the philosopher. The reason the philosopher was not rich is not because he did not know about how to become rich, as the famous example of Thales and the wine press monopoly showed. The reason the philosopher was poor was because he knew that there was something beyond riches, something that carried a fascination little realized by those immersed in them, until perhaps the rich became old and began to worry about their death and, in its glaring light, about how they have lived, as in the First Book of Plato’s Republic.

A teacher gives an account of truth, his account, but not his truth. “The origin we begin from,” Aristotle said, “is the belief that something is true.” If we are brought up with fine habits, we can be “adequate students of what is fine and just.” Someone else, however, brings us up. We are beholden not only for our very being, but also for our gentle habits, if we have them. We are beholden to those who guided us so that we can easily see and, if we choose, arrive at the first principles on which all truth stands.

Teachers and students are in the same condition with regard to truth–they stand before something neither the one nor the other made. The modern idea that the only truth is the “truth” we ourselves make is a narrow view that quickly cuts us off from what is. A teacher is content to see that light in the eyes of the student who himself, after some guidance perhaps from parents the teacher does not know, some prodding, some examples, some reflection, begins to see, to delight, in the truth of things. The teacher must, at his core, be unselfish, must rejoice in what is not his. This is the liberty of truth that links the generations, that links friends, one to another.

The human spirit transcends time and space. “We are lucky,” Leo Strauss said, “if one or two of the greatest thinkers who ever lived are alive during the same time in which we are alive.” And even if they are alive during our time, we will be quite fortunate to meet them, let alone to recognize them if we do meet them. The philosopher could live privately for a relatively long time in Athens because it was difficult for the citizens of a democracy, in which all opinions are equally true or equally false, to distinguish the fool from the philosopher. And if the few great minds are not alive during our days, we do not despair. We can still find them, meet them, let them teach us, through books, mainly. Indeed, with the new electronic devices, it almost seems that no one who is dead is really dead. We can search before our very eyes the information system and find references, works. We can continue a conversation with someone in the twelfth century, with a Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, if we so choose.

Recently, I was at Canisus College, in Buffalo. A fellow Jesuit was in the community’s computer room. I went in to watch him. He showed me how to find online the text of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a book written in 1908. Suddenly, there it was, perhaps my favorite book, whole and entire, on the screen before my astonished eyes. But the technology of putting this text before my eyes, be it noted, is not more enchanting than Chesterton’s thoughts themselves. What he said is, as it were, the miracle, not the technology, that keeps them alive, though keeping them alive is one of the main functions of civilization itself. In the beginning, the words of what we now know as written Scripture were kept alive by oral voice and memory. It is still in some sense the best way. We are what we choose to remember and record. Yet we can forget our very being, again if we choose. Civilization does not depend on memory, but on the choice to remember, on what we choose to remember.

Of course, I already have a couple of printed versions of that wonderful book I saw on the monitor in Buffalo, a book, in fact, among other things, about gratitude, or better about an understanding of the world in which gratitude is even possible. Chesterton, in his short History of England, defined gratitude in a way that distinguishes our lot, and hopefully, our civilization. “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”’ Why would Chesterton call thanks precisely “the highest form of thought”? I think it is because he understood the world was not made by us. We can only give thanks for what we receive that is not ours, even when it is ours. And we can only give thanks to a someone, not to a something. Thanks are always addressed to another. A world in which thanks for the world itself is possible is a world, a cosmos, in which the world is not sufficient to explain itself.

And gratitude–what about gratitude? Obviously, Chesterton thought it was something more than thanks, which he thought to be the highest form of thought. Perhaps thought is not the highest category? Chesterton called gratitude “happiness doubled by wonder.” We need not go too far back in our memory to realize that “wonder” is the very word that Aristotle used in his Metaphysics. What begins our quest for knowledge is not need, not pleasure, not pain, but wonder, something on a much different and higher level. Happiness, the end that explains why we do all that we do, is “doubled” when we already have something that can be doubled. What is this? First, there is the thanks for what we did not ourselves make. Secondly, there is the wonder at the thanks. We are curious, as it were, that such things as the world and thanks in it should exist at all. The initial wonder inaugurates the strange quest that sets us on the journey to find the truth of what is, of what is to be wondered at, since what is, is not ours. And the doubling? That is, we are the ones who give the thanks, almost as if this is our highest activity, as Plato would have said that it is. We give thanks, all the while knowing that this act of ours is itself appropriate and fitting to give in that there is a someone to thank, hence the exhilaration.

It has been Chesterton, moreover, more than any one else, who has taught me that it is quite all right to acknowledge that there are certain things that I will never do–another way of saying that “man is by nature a social and political animal.” I need not myself discover the North Pole–a discovery Chesterton called “that insidious habit”–nor need I be the Astronomer Royal, though I need not not admire those who do still find the North Pole or the North Star again and again. I can be grateful to them, admire them. But if I am going to do these technical things, I have to do them well, otherwise, I shall not do them at all. But there are other things, fundamental things, that I want to do, even if I do them badly. “If a thing is worth doing,” Chesterton said, “it’s worth doing badly.”

On the Feast of Saint Augustine (August 28), I reread in my Breviary the Second Lesson from The Confessions. Augustine died in 430 A.D. I read, “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance into the innermost depth of my soul. I was able to do so because you were my helper. On entering into myself I saw, as it were with the eye of the soul, what was beyond the eye of the soul, beyond my spirit: your immutable light” (Book 7). Is there anyone today who tells me to “reflect upon myself”? And if so, is it, when I do so, with the divine guidance? Is there anyone who tells me that when I reflect on myself, it is not myself that I discover, that I am not the end even of my own desiring, of my own self-reflecting? The “immutable light” is not myself. And for this too, I give thanks and double thanks.

When the philosopher in the Cave, in Book VII of the Republic, was unchained, he was eventually blinded by the light, the light in which he saw the truth of things. There are teachers, like Plato, like Augustine, who still teach us that, however much we want to know, the truth of things is not ourselves, not caused by ourselves. We have heard that light shines and the darkness comprehends it not. Those who teach us about this light mostly do not come from our time or our place. They do not usually speak our language. If it is all right to dance badly, because dance we should, it is all right to reflect on ourselves badly, in the depth of our souls, because the “immutable light” is not just for the philosophers. This condition is why Thomas Aquinas maintained that philosophy, good as it is, is not enough, because the immutable light is to shine also on the non-philosophers, indeed on sinners.

I never met Eric Voegelin, though, like Chesterton, I have heard his voice on tape. It is good to be reminded by Voegelin, in a lecture I did not attend, in a city which I have visited only once, of something, to be sure, that was also in Aristotle, namely, that we should not look at what people say, but on what they do, how they act. When our words and our actions contradict each other, the philosopher knows that we have not found the truth, have not found the origin of our thoughts, have not reflected on the seriousness of our actions. Our actions do have a seriousness about them, the seriousness from which the seriousness we have originated derives in the first place, as Plato reminded us in The Laws. If our actions are serious, if we can give thanks, then our lives are full of risk, of drama, because we can choose against the immutable light, otherwise we would not be what we are.

Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623. The second century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote a most memorable book, called simply Meditations. I once did a little book, following Marcus Aurelius, called Unexpected Meditations Late in the Twentieth Century. The Roman Emperor taught me not exactly to meditate, but to see things, observe carefully, note what it is that things cause in us. Pascal’s book is called simply “Thoughts”–though we still prefer the French Pensees. His book is very much like that of Marcus Aurelius in form. We cannot resist the irony of an emperor “meditating,” while a Christian apologist has “thoughts.” One of Pascal’s Pensees reads: “If the compassion of God is so great that He instructs us to our benefit, even when He hides Himself, what light ought we not to expect from Him when He reveals Himself?”(847) What “light” ought we not expect? Of course, as Augustine would say, “the immutable light” is what we will find, even though we can in no way “expect” it.

The mystery of teachers we have not met, I think, lies here in these relationships and overtones. Our gratitude to which we testify seems to have no limits because we are all bound together in time. We can still feel the force of those we never met, often because someone else felt it before us. Augustine explains that he once read a now lost dialogue of Cicero, the Hortensius, and it changed his life, a life that needed changing, to be sure. I explain to my students that Aristotle had read Plato. I explain that Augustine knew Plato. I tell them that Augustine read Cicero, who sent his only son to study in Athens so he too could read Plato. Thomas Aquinas read Aristotle carefully. Pascal knew his Augustine.

In 1906, Hilaire Belloc published a group of essays he called Hills and the Sea. We are with Belloc as he crosses the Channel in his small boat. We walk with him into the Pyrenees. We muse with him about the great inns, like “The Griffin,” which may have never existed. We are with him at Carcassonne and Lynn. We see the Valley of the Rother as he does. We know his horse “Monster.” We march with French troops. We go to Andorra, to Ely, and to Arles. One of his essays—the essay, as I say, is still my favorite of literary form–is entitled “The Idea of a Pilgrimage.” The pilgrimage, of course, is the symbol of our lot. We are wayfarers and pilgrims on this very earth, as Scripture reminds us. But it is a real earth, a real lot, a real way.

Belloc explains the true outlook of the man who goes on pilgrimage. The true pilgrim will go “into everything with curiosity and pleasure, and be a brother to the streets and trees and to all the new world he finds,” Belloc writes.

The Alps that he sees with his eyes will be as much more than the names he reads about, the Florence of his desires as much more than the Florence of sickly drawing rooms; as beauty loved is more than beauty heard of, or as our own taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight are more than the vague relations of others. Nor does religion exercise in our common life any function more temporarily valuable than this, that it makes us be sure at least of realities, and look very much askance at philosophies and imaginaries and academic whimsies?

Beauty loved is more than beauty heard of? Why would Belloc say this?

Clearly, in these observations Belloc is telling us not only to read about things, but to know them, experience them, even desire them. Christianity is a very earthy thing, after all. It encourages taste, smell, touch, and sight. Only if we know what these things are will we suspect the reality they imply as their source, “the immutable light.” Each existing thing is a word made flesh, as it were. We are, consequently, to be certain of the “realities” before us, but we are to look askance at “philosophies and imaginaries and academic whimsies.” How odd it is to hear a Belloc say to us that the most important function that religion can perform in time is that it makes us sure of “realities,” as if our philosophies are often mostly imaginary and mere whimsy, as if they teach us that nothing is real.

My friend, Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., has been steadily republishing English translations of the works of Josef Pieper. I do not have all of Pieper’s works, but I have many of them. One of the books that Ignatius Press published was a little book called Josef Pieper: An Anthology. In my own book, Another Sort of Learning, I have provided a number of what I consider useful book lists on various topics or by various authors, things that most of us would not come across unless someone told us of them. In it, I have a list of fourteen books of Josef Pieper, who is, not unlike Thomas Aquinas about whom he has written so much, perhaps the most clear and concise writer on philosophical things I have ever read. Many have read Pieper’s little book Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

In Another Sort of Learning I also have a list of twenty-five books, entitled “Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By-Selected for Those to Whom Making Sense Is a Prior Consideration, but a Minority Opinion.” Well, on this list there are two books by Pieper, his In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity and The End of Time. Pieper’s Anthology is a book of selections that Pieper chose himself, a book originally published in German under the title, Josef Pieper: Lesebuch.

In this Lesebuch, this book of things to be read, there are many beautiful chapters. I did not include this book in my list of twenty-five books “to keep sane by” because it was not yet translated when Another Sort of Learning was written. No book is quite like this Anthology. In the Anthology, there is a chapter called, “Joy Is a Byproduct.” The subject of joy, of course, is at the highest reaches of our being. Joy is not something that we can go out and pursue. It never comes that way. It is always, as Pieper points out, a byproduct. It comes from doing something else, from doing what is right and good. What is the nature of joy then? The common denominator of what joy is, Pieper observes, is “our receiving or possessing something we love–even though this receiving or possession may only be hoped for as a future good or remembered as something already past. Consequently, one who loves nothing and no one cannot rejoice, no matter how desperately he wishes to.”

How to love? What is love? These are questions of every day perplexity and of ultimate importance, because they do occur every day in the risk of daily life. It is Pieper who, for me, has identified in a graphic way the relation of love and joy. Belloc’s told us to be moved by things, the things we see walking through the Alps or in the Valley of the Rother. Our minds and souls feed on reality. Pieper says, shockingly to me, but truly, I know, that “the true antithesis of love is not hate, but despairing indifference, the feeling that nothing is important.” For those who are alive, for those who are attentive to the tastes, smells, sights, sounds, alive to one another, everything is important because it is. We do not find complete happiness or the immutable light in this life, as Aquinas and Augustine told us. But we find real things, finite things, that do exist. Their very completeness is a sign of their leading us on to what is complete, to what is joy, to possessing what we love. This, too, is our tradition. This, too, is taught by someone I never met.

A book, to continue my encounter with those I never met, that has gone through more printings and translations than almost any other one besides the Bible is The Imitation of Christ by the fifteenth-century monk, Thomas à Kempis. A friend of mine once found in a used book store a copy of some sermons that à Kempis gave to the Novices of his Order at Mount Saint Agnes, which is, I believe, in Holland. These sermons cover the various virtues and vices of monastic or, indeed, of any human life. At the end of each sermon, à Kempis would add a little homely example to illustrate his point. One of the sermons, the sixth, is entitled, “On the Night Watches against the Assault of Sleepiness.” “What on earth is this topic about?” we might ask. The Monks each day sing the Divine Office in choir. These are the Church’s official prayers-psalms, prayers, readings, usually chanted by monks. Moreover, these are said in five parts, some of the parts in the evening or even late at night or very early in the morning. Obviously, sleepiness is a problem in such circumstances. It is considered a virtue to keep awake and attentive to the the praises.

This is the delightful little example that à Kempis gave to illustrate this point:

A certain brother began to sleep a little at Matins [the early morning part of the Office]. Noticing which, the brother seated next to him cast into his ear just this word: ‘Hell!’ On hearing this, suddenly terrified and awakened, he cast off all drowsiness from him. Think therefore, slothful one, of hell, and thou wilt not slumber in choir, tired through weariness.

No doubt, there is something charmingly amusing about this story as a cure for sloth and drowsiness. Hell or its equivalent is, in fact, found in much of our great literature and in our philosophy. It is, in part, the subject of the last book of the Republic. It is a book of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is a prominent factor in The Brothers Karamazov. It is not talked about today. We might wonder why? Is it because we, too, like the monk, are drowsy? Is it that we, too, think nothing is really important?

Thus, I go back to what Pieper said about the opposite of love is not hatred but a kind of “despairing indifference, the feeling that nothing is important.” Usually, and not unjustly, we do associate the notion of hell with hatred. It has been defined as a choice to love ourselves alone. Pride is the terrible sin, as Flannery O’Connor recalled. It locates the cause of all things in ourselves. We can have no gift or no love in such a world ruled by pride. Lucifer is said to hate what is not himself. Probably, by contrast, no other sentence epitomizes the core of our civilization better than that of Socrates, in The Apology, in which he said that “I do know that to do wrong and to disobey my superior, whether God or man, is wicked and dishonourable; and so I shall never feel more fear or aversion for something [death] which, for all I know, may really be a blessing, than for those evils which I know to be evils.” John Adams said that the doctrine of hell was the most politically important of the theological doctrines. Why would he say this? He would say it for the same reason that Plato said it; namely, that there are crimes that cannot be adequately known about or punished by existing polities, so that the meaning of justice is incomplete without a final sanction.

Socrates, to repeat, maintained that he was not himself a teacher. We know of Socrates because of another man, Plato, who was a teacher. In the Crito, Socrates testified that he was brought up by the laws of Athens. In The Apology, his vocation to be a philosopher came from outside Athens, from the Oracle at Delphi who said that he was the wisest man in Greece. This unexpected information set him to inquiring about Athens, to see who was wise. But if Socrates was not a teacher, however paradoxical this sounds to us, there is one passage in which he admits that he was taught. This is the famous scene in the Symposium with Diotima, the prophetess from Mantineia. And about what did she teach Socrates? She taught him about love, something evidently that he needed to learn from someone else, perhaps because love always has to do with someone else, not only with ourselves.

‘Then,’ she said, ‘the simple truth is, that men love the good?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘To which must be added that they love the possession of the good?’ ‘Yes, that must be added.’ ‘And not only the possession, but the everlasting possession of the good?’ ‘That must be added too.’ ‘Then if this be the nature of love, can you tell me further,’ she said, ‘what is the manner of the pursuit? what are they doing who show all this eagerness and heat which is called love? and what is the object which they have in view? Answer me.’ ‘Nay, Diotima,’ I replied, ‘if I had known, I should not have wondered at your wisdom, neither should I have come to learn from you about this very matter.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I will teach you:- The object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or soul…. All men are bringing to the birth in their bodies and in their souls.’

As I read and reread these lines in Plato, I realize that in some germinal sense, much of what I have been saying about the mystery of teachers I have never met is already here.

Aristotle pointed out in the Sixth Book of The Ethics that we are given a mind as part of our constitutive being, from nature, a mind not given in vain. This mind is capable of knowing all things, a mind that is somehow capax universi, as E.F. Schumacher recalled the Latin phrasing of this notion. Schumacher did this in a wonderful book entitled The Guide for the Perplexed, a title taken from the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who like Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas, carefully read Aristotle. We find ourselves wondering about things that are, on our walks with Belloc, in our conversations with Samuel Johnson, in our thoughts and meditations with Pascal and Marcus Aurelius. It is indeed mysterious that we can still be taught by those whom we never met, the connection of mind to mind that leads to the good which we desire and which, when possessed, gives us joy.

We can reject all the things about which we can wonder. We can refuse to acknowledge what is because it is not of us. The fact that we can do such things is the other side of the risk existence itself, the fact that thanks can be withheld even from what is. The risk of existence, our existence, includes, besides that which the monk whispered into his drowsy friend’s ear at Matins at Mount Saint Agnes, an Augustine confessing, seeking the “immutable light.” It includes an Aquinas reminding us that happiness is not fully in this life. Boswell was not wrong to wonder if some days can ever be better because he was in the sober presence of mourning that prevented him from placing the Kingdom of God on this earth, something Flannery O’Connor warned us not to do.

In the end, Aristotle was right when he said that he “who understands everything himself is best of all.” Chesterton was right when he affirmed that “thanks are the highest form of thought and gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” None of these teachers have ever met. The mystery is how one person whom I never met, through recountings down the ages of how many others whom I also have never met, could shed light on each other, eventually to enlighten me. Surely this mystery has its origin in Augustine’s “immutable light,” in the Good which, when possessed, gives us joy. The Socrates who told the jury at Athens that he did not know whether death was evil also knew that what was evil he must not do. This is the same Socrates to whom Diotima replied generously, “I will teach you.” Diotima taught him that love, if it is to be love, must be everlasting.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 1995, Vol. 37, No.4). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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