Everything in nature changes—but love strives for the immortal. What keeps the form of a college supple and stable must be love for something essentially unchanging and yet eternally young, the “beauty so ancient and so new”…
Listening to this year’s seniors present their orations last week at Wyoming Catholic College, I found myself subject to meditations both joyful and melancholy. These students have matured wonderfully since they started classes four years ago, which gives me joy, but they are about to leave and start out on their own, and we lose them just at the point (as with grown children) when they have begun to feel like peers in our great, lifelong conversation about meaning and beauty.
In a few months, these seniors will graduate; already the juniors under them are beginning to plan their senior theses and imagine their orations. The college exists as the stable form in this succession of differences: We offer the same courses, slightly altered by different professors, but always keeping the essential shape of the curriculum. One class of students replaces another, not with any exact overlap, but with a whole new set of disparate individuals, each one of whom has his or her own perspective on the common curriculum they undergo.
Several thousand years ago, one of the minor heroes of the Iliad mused upon a similar phenomenon:
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
The college is a slowly growing tree with a distinctive shape, and the successive classes are the generations that bud and grow and fall away. Melancholy hovers around this thought, of course, because ultimately it is not just about classes, but about generations; it is about mortality itself, as the little girl discovers in “Spring and Fall,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem that also uses the age-old imagery of fallen leaves. Think of a university like Oxford, which was already several hundred years old in Chaucer’s time: Its buildings may endure, but its every living member has been replaced countless times, like the generations of leaves in its ancient woods.
In Plato’s Symposium, which every freshman at the College reads, Socrates’ interlocutor Diotima explains that “everything mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been.” Parents leave behind their children, similar to them but never identical, and their children, in turn, leave behind their own children, generation after generation, and the family carries on, renewed but different.
Every transition is full of danger; nothing of continuity is guaranteed. But I’m reminded of a wonderful passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which these seniors read last year in a junior Humanities course. Burke compares the political system of England “with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, molding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression.”
Burke reflects on the whole order of nature in its massive equilibrium. A college like ours hopes to achieve a different kind of “unchangeable constancy.” We want to form and leave behind those who will earn and carry on our educational traditions, men and women with a special cast of spirit and a recognizable watermark of imaginative thought. Again, nothing guarantees this result. Everything in nature changes—but love strives for the immortal, as Diotima argues. What keeps the form of a college supple and stable must be love for something essentially unchanging and yet eternally young, the “beauty so ancient and so new” that St. Augustine praises in the Confessions.
In this sense, the Great Books of the curriculum participate in the mystery of the Logos, the Word made flesh, the Person who has entered time and changed with it, and yet who transcends all time. The lines from Homer or the sentence in Plato have themselves, it is good to remember, been deeply immersed in time and history. Since well before the birth of Christ, they have been lost, recovered, precariously preserved, laboriously copied, parsed, recopied, translated, and endlessly reprinted, all in order to articulate the same unchanging thought to a different age. It is a thought that has already outlasted seven graduating classes at Wyoming Catholic College. I am confident it will outlast this one—and all the generations that follow.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (March 2018).
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