We turn to the Great Books so that the encounter with them might do for us what they did for past generations. We turn to them as world makers, that they might aide us in understanding the world they were instrumental in bringing about, our world…

“Today, is greatness
still possible?’ ~Nietzsche[1]

“Ideas do not decay, but people’s
understanding of them can decay.” ~Stringfellow Barr

“St. John’s is a college’s college,
for it is the archetype of liberal education,
the pure thing.” ~David Boroff [2]

 “…In the future men will point
to St. John’s College and say that there was
the seed-bed of the American Renaissance.” ~Walter Lippmann[3]


To everyone: Welcome! To our new freshman in particular: a special Welcome! Tonight I would like us to become reflective. I would like us to ask ourselves one question: why do we do what we do?

Let me first say something about the title of tonight’s talk “Four Sides of a Cube, Or, Why a Certain Question Needs to Be Asked Again and Again.” (The subtitle will be addressed in the body of the talk.) I understand that people are wondering whether I know how many sides a cube has. Let me assure you I understand that cubes do not have four sides. I was asked to give the title of the dean’s lecture for public relations purposes at the beginning of the summer. However, I had not yet written the talk at the beginning of the summer. To be accommodating, I gave a title I had been toying with, even though I couldn’t be certain that it would even apply to the final version.

The subject of this talk is the origin of “the New Program of St. John’s College.” Its origin is multifaceted, so I thought it appropriate to choose as its image a many-sided figure. I’m not saying, however, that it has six sources – see… What is important is not the six but the four, that is, I’ll be speaking about some of the sides, not all of them. In particular, this talk will be deficient in at least two respects: I will not speak about all the important ways in which the project of the St. John’s Program has been conceived, nor can I anticipate other important self-understandings of the college still to be articulated. Thus the original idea was an attempt to capture the limited nature of my efforts tonight. Besides, “Four Sides of a Cube” is a far more felicitous formulation than “N-2 Sides of a Polyhedron.”

I. A Question Needs to be Asked:

That voices,
‘grown voicless from long silence,’
might once again be heard. ~Dante[4]

It is a curious paradox of human inherence that we often get so involved in an activity that we lose sight of the original reasons for the undertaking. In our case we are, with youthful vigor, about to throw ourselves headlong into the work of the program… with great rewards no doubt, but at the risk of losing sight of the whole. So before we rush headlong and immerse ourselves in our over-full curriculum, it would do us well to sit back, seek some distance, and consider anew the reasons for our doing what we are about to do.[5]

That is one of the purposes of a dean’s lecture: to provide an opportunity for reflection about our enterprise as a whole. However, instigating such reflection should not be one person’s responsibility alone. At various times during our stay in Santa Fe, each of us needs to consider again and again, for him or herself, the purpose, origin, and benefit that comes from this unique form of education.

But how are we, who are about to rush headlong and be submerged in a wealth of particulars to attain that perspective and distance, that generality we call “objectivity?” How might we glimpse again something of the forest of which we are but a tree? “Summer” is a good way. It too gives us distance. However it is often too effective in retrieving us from shortsightedness. It tends, rather, to be a great eraser. So perhaps my function tonight needs also to be to remind us of what is at risk of being erased with time.


Well, I was rummaging around the attic of the college this summer and found some interesting historical documents in the dusty trunk of our past. Attached to these documents were authors’ names perhaps unknown to you, or only distantly: Erskine, Maritain, Meiklejohn, van Doren, Adler, McKeon, Hutchins etc., and those better known: Barr, Buchanan, Klein, Wilson, Brann. A few of these documents, I thought, might provide a good place for us to begin to reflect anew about why we do what we do, indeed why we are the way we are. But first I need to offer this caveat.

St. John’s College by its very pedagogy seeks to go to the roots of things. But what are its roots? These can be both historical and non-historical (eidetic, noetic, transcendental, trans-temporal, unhistorical). This evening I will consider a few of the express historical ones. But in doing so I only want to provide us with an occasion for further thought. By doing so I do not presume that our history provides the sufficient account for our being. In so saying, though, I do admit that history—something we at the college find ourselves uncomfortable addressing—can be helpful, if in a limited way. These historical documents are presented as a means by which broader and deeper questions may be highlighted, and its context, a way in which the felt urgency and weighty immediacy of these might again be brought to the forefront of our attention. As such it is presented in the service of philosophy, of bringing the taken for granted to light and of bringing the unquestioned presuppositions under renewed scrutiny. Again, my intention in giving what appears a history lesson is not such, but as an occasion for thought, that the voices of the past might speak to us in the present and aid us in thinking about our future.

Given this, let me now say that the New Program of the college was formed out of an atmosphere of historical crisis and the establishment of this small college with its unique form of education was thought the proper and urgently needed response to those world crises.

II. To Bring Us Back To Ourselves:

“To be an American is to downplay
history in the name of hope, to ignore
memory in the cause of possibility.” ~Cornel West[6]

60 years ago (now 80+), in what has to be one of the most extraordinary reports by a college president to a board of visitors and governors, the first president of the New Program at St. John’s, Stringfellow Barr wrote the following in May 1941.[7] His concern in his report is the prospect for continued liberty of the democratic peoples, specifically for our own, whose liberty at that very moment was threatened on two fronts by a world crisis (World War II). He steps back and seeks to put events into a longer perspective: “Maybe Patrick Henry meant by liberty what Montesquieu… meant: ‘In governments, that is in societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.’ … Liberty was conceived by our forefathers as the precious right to act justly towards other men.” Along with Henry and Montesquieu, Mr. Barr wonders whether we must not think differently about the word “liberty” than we normally do, think of it as a positive power rather than a negative notion, as freedom to exercise good judgment and act responsibly and not merely freedom from external constraints.

But, then, in a moment of dark reflection, he adds: “Perhaps liberty is not the word in 1941 to bring us back to ourselves[8]…. Perhaps justice… might rouse an echo in our hearts, might move our wills. Certainly, the word democracy does not seem [any longer] to have roused or moved.” In addition to the significant events abroad, equally significant changes had already taken place at home in our language.[9] Words, and not just words, fundamental ideas had over time lost their meaning. Liberty. Justice. Democracy. Such words, it was thought, no longer moved the heart and will in 1941, that is, even in a time of grave world crisis. (And now?)

He continues: “Hitler and Mussolini repeatedly declared, long before the shooting began, that democracy was decadent…. It was [the French philosopher] Jacques Maritain who pointed out that the ‘moderate Machievellianism’ of the democracies could never defeat the all-out Machievellianism of Hitler.” This leads Mr. Barr to a painful prospect: “It is just possible that democracy, as we have known it and practiced it and preached it, really is dead, and that Hitler is proving it.” Remember this is 1941, the middle of the European campaign, whose outcome at this point was in no way clear. But, Mr. Barr continues, “What [Hitler] cannot teach, because it is not true, is that the ideas [that] once made democracy great are also decadent. Ideas do not decay; yet people’s understanding of them can decay…. And literally [and here he means ‘literally’] as sure as shooting, a free republic cannot defend itself against aggressive tyranny unless its citizens understand those ideas which make men free and guard their freedom. No free republic can fight off tyranny unless its citizens love…more than ‘their cut.’”[10] Let me repeat one sentence: “Ideas do not decay; yet people’s understanding of them can decay.”

The question here is the underlying reason for our political vulnerability. Mr. Barr’s suggestion is that: “…It is the loss of those [very democratic] ideas which has paralyzed the will of the American Republic in 1941, as it had… the will of the people Hitler has already subjugated. If this Report numbers the consequences of that loss [to a board of visitors and governors],” he continues, “it is because of the inescapable connection between the decay of liberal education and the decay of liberal government.[11] These same forefathers of ours who could use words like “justice” and “liberty” and make them carry meaning, were deeply aware that no government by “reflection and choice” [Hamilton’s famous phrase in Federalist Papers, #1] could hope to stand unless citizens received the sort of liberal education that would enable them to reflect well and choose by the light of understanding.

Further, “…the task of disciplining and strengthening the intellectual powers of men [and women]… [has been] delegated to the colleges of liberal arts…” that they might reflect and choose well. Given this, Mr. Barr cites the St. John’s College Charter, which sets this out as a first principle:

Whereas, Institutions for the liberal education of youth in the principles of virtue, knowledge and useful literature are of the highest benefit to society, in order to train up and perpetuate a succession of able and honest men [and women] for discharging the various offices and duties of life, both civil and religious, with usefulness and reputation, and such institutions of learning have accordingly been promoted and encouraged by the wisest and best regulated States: Be it enacted….

The reason that this responsibility cannot be accomplished by political means and has, rather, to be delegated to the colleges, Mr. Barr observes, is that “Ultimately… freedom is internal, and ultimately it is based on a discipline that is equally internal. Today [in 1941],” he says, “we do not possess that internal discipline in a measure adequate to guarantee [for long] our liberties…. [But] if we lose at last our power to govern ourselves, we shall forfeit the right to do so.”

He then elaborates: “…In an important sense, the Bill of Rights is negative…. Nowhere does it, can it, or should it tell us either the list of things we ought to do or how to do them. That, in the opinion of our ancestors, was the [proper] business of liberal education. That, in their opinion, was an arduous process; for it is harder to develop in men [1] their native powers of self-control, [2] their native powers of thinking through, [3] their native powers to follow up with courageous and just action than it is to tug and drive them with club and carrot. Tyrants forbid citizens to do their duty as free men. Free government permits them to do it. Liberal education enables them to do it.”

Then Mr. Barr offers this extraordinary test of an education: “Regardless of [the] social contacts or courses that pretend to be commercially useful, [we must ask:] [1] do our colleges prepare [us] to make fearless and responsible decisions under a Constitution like ours and [2]—equally important, if only recently relevant—does their preparation give [us] anything that would stand by [us] in a concentration camp? A genuine discipline in the liberal arts would meet both tests,” he says.


There are many things that are noteworthy about this President’s report. Most conspicuous is the extraordinary expectation for liberal education, and by extension for this small college, and, by extension further, for us individually. As presented here, ideas are a principal source of human strength, both political and individual. (They are not “mere ideas.”) And the loss of those ideas with their proper understanding results in a loss of strength—“paralysis of the will”—that shows itself in our being excessively vulnerable to external force.[12]

According to Mr. Barr, liberal arts colleges have a political obligation, implicitly delegated, to complete the work of republican governments. Specifically it falls to them to complete our understanding of freedom and thereby to strengthen us from within. For the seat of freedom is ultimately in the individual, and this interior a government of external laws can go only so far to touch. It is rather for the schools, specifically certain kinds of schools, to “train up” and “discipline”’ us. It is through them that ideas like freedom come to their full meaning, in this case come to mean more than narrow self-interest and we, in turn, come to love more than “our cut.” Education in this sense would be enabling, encouraging, and finally ennobling. This process, he says, is arduous; remember that word, arduous.

To accomplish this, liberal education promises to “bring us back to ourselves.” As our languages tend to become empty of original significations, so our culture and our lives too become but shadows of their former selves. Mr. Barr sees liberal education as reversing this unfortunate historical process and restoring meaningful signification to speech and thence to life. These extraordinary remarks need to be explored further.

III. Impaired by History:

“It is dangerous to be an heir.” ~Nietzsche[13]

For those who may not remember, let me review the background. For those who do not know, let me try to represent again the magnitude of the crises. Simply put, there are times—too, frequent, to be sure—when life becomes so overwhelmingly complex, not to say, disorienting, and indeed precarious, that it is necessary to step back and reflect, that is to think things through from the beginning.

World War I was such a time; World War II was another. In particular these two global crises raised new specters and threats hitherto only “a mere idea.” The wars themselves introduced horrific new strategies: mustard gas, saturation bombing of non-combatant populations, and was soon to introduce atomic weaponry, Gulags and Auschwitzes. The human carnage of these wars was unprecedented. The inhumanity of man seemed to have reached new heights. The horrific novelty and inhuman efficiency with which human beings were scientifically slaughtered, disabled, vaporized and turned into smoke took away our breath and exposed at the same time, for all to see, the human ambiguity of capitalism and commercialism, of science and technology that seemed only to aid and abet the basest inhuman ends. This paralleled the rise of mass society, with its dilution of human dignity in seas of numbers (and its concomitant statistical methodologies with their indiscriminate tendency toward low denominators). Along with these came worries about the strength of the democracies themselves and their traditional vulnerabilities, their tendencies to mediocrity, their reduction of judgment to opinion polls, and their taking false comfort in empty words and abstractions.[14] Could we muster sufficient wherewithal to withstand the new threats? All this led many to despair, discouragement, and loss of a future prospect; it led others, however, to wonder about the causes and their appropriate responses.

At such times of crisis, certain things come to the fore.[15] We learn what it means to be historical beings, that is, beings that have a past, beings who carry that inheritance into the present. One author writes: “…Since we happen to be the results of earlier generations, we are also the results of their aberrations, passions, and errors, even crimes; it is not possible quite to free oneself from this chain.[16]” We thus came to wonder not just about the atrocious deeds of othersnot just about the horrific excesses of the Axis powers—but about ourselves and our own humanity. People questioned our traditions, our values, our world. It appeared that our European culture had lost its moral strength and center. Words such as “nihilism,” “decadence,” “cynicism,” and “relativism” were used and, sorry to say, seemed to carry meaning. People spoke of “the onset of barbarism” (Lippmann), of an “abyss” into which we all seemed to be headed (Hutchins), and these were not discounted as hyperbole or hype media.[17]

We faced, in short, “…the problem of restoring the health of a people which [had] become impaired by [its own] history.[18]” Could we rise above the all-consuming historical circumstances?[19] What could, in Mr. Barr’s words, “stand by us” in such times?

IV. Indigestible Knowledge Stones:

“The free mind must be its own teacher.” ~Scott Buchanan[20]

Looking back, the question was asked what provided the ground for those who made this way of life of ours possible to begin with, the Founders? Thus some looked again at the education that stood under those who made us who we are. Could the Jeffersonian hope (or the Platonic dream) concerning liberal education as the right defense against human disorder and conflict still stand?

It was the conviction of Jefferson and the American Founders that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”[21] Jefferson argued further that the vulnerabilities and excesses of democracy could be moderated by liberal education:

Experience hath shown that, even under the best forms [of government], those entrusted with power have in time… perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate [educate], as far as practicable, the minds of the people… to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that… they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes… whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.[22]

But as we saw others and ourselves “‘paralyzed” before the onslaught of the Axis powers, this very conviction came into question. Was liberal education “standing by us”? And if not, how were we to reinvigorate those institutions that, it was believed, once provided a bulwark against such threats?

In 1936 one of the founders of the college posed the same question. “How can we hope to improve the state of the nation?” he asked. He gave this Jeffersonian reply: “We can do so only if some [educational] institutions can be strong enough and clear enough to stand firm and show our people what the higher learning is. As education, it is the single-minded pursuit of the intellectual virtues… the pursuit of truth for its own sake… the preparation of men and women for their life work.”[23]

Why did this education disappear?” he wondered. “It [was] the education of the Founders [after all].[24] It held sway until fifty [that is, a hundred +] years ago.[25]” The innovations that changed the face of American education were established in the nineteenth century: the university system with its concomitant elective system (Elliot) and lecture system. It led to a “service station” (Hutchins) (or perhaps better, “convenience store”) conception of education, a system that served many masters and appealed to many appetites except finally the most important one, the new learner.

Co-opted by the professions, the elective system had over the years been complemented by fewer and fewer “foundation” or “core” courses.[26] One was required to choose one’s major earlier and earlier in order to meet ever more pre-professional demands. As such education no longer aimed at making us more thoughtful, more responsible, more human, but, rather, simpler, preoccupied with our basic desires (food, sex, entertainment devices), and more useful, preoccupied with the acquisition of entry level skills and other pre-professional requirements, oblivious to our neighbors, our future, our deepest human potential. With no common curriculum standing under these “choices,” we come away with no common foundation, with the result that what we have in common finally is not the mutual concern with the deepest human questions. “Choice” proved yet another empty word.

The “delivery system” that conveyed the matter of education was the lecture method. After years of sitting passively listening to others, however, one comes away, not surprisingly, a passive learner. Others talk at us, giving us prepackaged, preinterpreted, and predigested information. But how can what is digested by others be nourishing for us? “In the end,” one of our program authors writes, “modern man drags an immense amount of indigestible knowledge stones around with [them].”[27] Talk about indigestion! And because the fruits of others’ thoughts are delivered to us without at the same time making us anymore able to think these thoughts for ourselves, we do not come away transformed or enabled by the experience. The mode of acquisition being external, our grasp cannot but be so.[28] One is largely a hearer, seldom a thinker. What we’ve learned rarely becomes “our own” but “remains someone else’s.”[29]

The traditional, general functions of education were thus not being fulfilled. Being essentially pre-professional, the existing system can serve us well only if we are willing to accept the reduction of ourselves to job skills.[30] The plainest indication that the American education had failed us: one leaves “the hallowed halls of academia” with no developed sense of one’s own potential.[31] We are thereby deprived of our ownmost selves and our nation of its informing foundation. One has not been enabled as an individual or citizen.

V. A Bridge Across Becoming:

“The manner of forming [one’s] ideas
is what gives character to the human mind.” ~Rousseau[32]

What, then, can be done? In 1936, the same inspiration for St. John’s declared: “The times call for the establishment of a new college….”[33] But what would a college look like that took such concerns to heart? It turned out that the new college would not be very new (indeed one of the oldest), and the new pedagogy and new curriculum would have very old roots, indeed antedating the American Founders themselves.

To speak paradoxically, the new college would have a program that advocated primary education, as opposed to derivative, secondary education. It would seek above all to be freeing (that is, liberal) by being an enabling education, making available to each of us both our intellectual inheritance and our own individual intellectual resources. It would seek, in short, “to bring us back to ourselves.” It would do this by re-enfranchising the learner, by making “open discussion” the arena of learning, and by seeking to create “a habitual vision of greatness” (Whitehead) by having us cut our teeth on the best our traditions have to offer.[34]

Let me mention one unsettling fact concerning education. No matter how good one’s professor, no matter even how great even a great book, no one else can learn for you. Indeed, Plato went so far in his dialogue Meno to try to prove that teaching is impossible. This is not to say that learning is not possible, quite the contrary. If there is anything that is effective here, it is learning. Hence the learner, not the knower, has to be the center of our pedagogic efforts.

Above all learning is an activity and as an activity is developed and further actualized by the doing of it.[35] Hence for us it becomes the question, not the answer, that should be the principal instrument of learning, and discussion, not lecture, that should be its venue. So too, the focus is on the arts of acquisition (not possession), the arts of reflection and discovery that traditionally are called “the liberal arts.” These are all in the service of the habits of originality, of non-dependence, of developed self-resourcefulness. Only thereby do we become active agents in our own education. Here others may be of assistance, but only as guides, not professors[36], the advanced learner modeling the educational virtues of openness, perseverance, honesty and humility before the work.

What is most conspicuous about this form of education is its lack of lectures… except this one. By design, we refuse to “talk down,” that is to categorize, to have someone decide beforehand how what is to be discussed is to be discussed. Further, what is equally curious about a lecture is that, more often than not, one is presented only with the results of someone’s thinking and not with the process itself that led to those results. This leads to the very odd and unhelpful circumstance that knowledge is decoupled from its origin, from discovery, from the vital, originative questions that led thereto, in short, from the process of learning.[37] But if we are interested in learning how to learn, and not just what is to be learned, then we have to focus our attention on the conditions of learning, for it is the process that is enabling.[38]

By contrast we seek to discover why and how someone thought as he or she did.[39] We seek to place ourselves inside the thought of the thinker, to live their question (Haggard), to become their question. We seek to go to that place in a thinker’s thought where all the thought-vectors and implications are discoverable by us. A tutor might be of assistance here in helping one to discover “the way in” (Townsend), although once there, it is up to us to think it through for ourselves. In short, we suggest that one very good way to learn how to think is to deeply rethink, retrospectively and prospectively,[40] the thought of those who have provided models of extraordinary thoughtfulness. This process holds out the promise, too, of genuine wonder and real discovery[41] that the thought might become ours in an authentic and transformative way and not remain “someone else’s.”

Moreover, because the question at hand has not been pre-decided or moved off the table by some intermediate authority, or because we’ve not yet fallen into that easy cynicism that avoids a question by dismissing it, our discussions are not precluded from being substantive and consequential, and we, the participants, prevented from accepting the full responsibility for thought. “The exclusion of the truth question from students’ classroom experience, and consequently from their studies,” a former dean wrote (Brann), “has a devastating effect: It turns all… studies into a high-class game….[42]” That truth might matter should not be denied us as a possibility, she urged.

The discussion mode, further, has this additional, very important advantage. While thinking might in the end be one’s own, that is be a private matter, learning does benefit in a fundamental way from joint effort and mutuality. “Let us learn together,” Socrates says frequently; let us help each other articulate, clarify, and develop one another’s ideas. What we learn in the process of discussion is the primacy of the idea over one’s personal commitments (and individual ego), something difficult to learn by oneself. We learn that we sometimes have to forsake our self-interest and our own misbegotten ideas in favor of the possibilities opened up by discussion, if, that is, the argument warrants it. (By contrast, a lecture always seems to carry with it a tinge of proprietorship.) Aristotle says that there are certain things, especially about oneself, that we can only learn from others.[43] Learning about the selflessness of learning may be one of those things. This new openness, moreover, serves us not only in joint inquiry, but as a model for selfless, private reflection as well. Only then are we truly ready, ready to listen and ready to read, only then are we open to another, a fellow learner, a friend, or the greatest of great books.

VI. The Way of Great Books:

We turn to great books, then, not just because they were once meaning giving and provided foundations for different ways of life. We are not interested in the past as past.[44] We turn to them rather that the encounter with them might do for us what they did for past generations. We turn to them as world makers, that they might aide us in understanding the world they were instrumental in bringing about, our world.[45] We turn to them that we might confront the whole of our world, its mathematical and natural scientific underpinnings, no less than its humanistic ones. (Here mathematics and science are not “handmaidens.”) We turn to them, as well, to face “the great errors as well as the great truths.[46]” On the one hand, they might provide a model for thinking well and deeply, and hence be not just something to replicate but to advance. On the other, they provide us with an opportunity to think differently, in the thinking through of which, the “determinate negation” (Hegel) might provide us with a hint of where thought might constructively go. In short, we turn to them to engage our fullest inheritance in the fullest way.

Consideration of these “originative authors” (Brann), moreover, places us at a unique vantage point, at the point of the emergence of an idea, when a question is still open—not yet bound by inherited fences—which then can yet serve as models of deep inquiry where fundamental presuppositions are in question.[47] Lastly we turn to “Great Books” because they give us an opportunity to unabashedly think “great thoughts,” thoughts that seem least bound by time and space.[48] “If you live yourselves in the history of great men [human beings],” one of our authors says, “you will learn from it a highest commandment, to become ripe [yourselves] and to flee the paralyzing educational constraints of the age….”[49] We seek to join thinkers at “the height of their humanness” (Steadman) as they seek intimations of something more than transitory (something unhistorical)

An encounter with the fullest and deepest of our traditions thus promises much: that by exercising our minds, unmediated—mano à mano—with the most challenging thinkers, we might develop proportionately; that by experiencing original thought in the making, our capacities for original thought too might be inspired; that as we are taken to new heights, we might discover places “where we have not gone before” and develop new capacities to ascend thereto; that in facing the toughest of the tough human questions, we might thereby be strengthened; that as we are introduced to the whole range of what our authors deem worthy of responsibility, so will our own sense of our responsibility grow; that in learning how very complex the world and its correlate, the world of thought, is, so we might be brought to become ever more self-resourceful (“sophisticated” in the good sense); and, lastly, in doing all this ourselves, we might, in the most fundamental way, be “brought back to ourselves” and achieve a heightened fullness of independence, hitherto unrealized…. This is the promise of a liberal education such as ours. It is still for us to make it real.

Such was the promise of the New Program at St. John’s that one of the foremost commentators of the day even waxed… well, you tell me: “I venture to believe that [a rebirth of learning] is true [happening],” he wrote, “and that in the future men will point to St. John’s College and say that there was the seedbed of the American Renaissance” (Lippmann). Ummm…. But as we said, that is the promise. It is still up to us to make it real. Ah, and here too is the rub.

VII: ‘The Silent Artillery of Time:’

 “It is for us the living, rather,
to be dedicated here to the unfinished work
which they who fought here
have thus far so nobly advanced.” ~Abraham Lincoln[50]

We have looked back this evening at some of the circumstances that brought the college’s founders to entertain a bold venture: to think the aims of education through from the beginning and to introduce the New Program in 1937. But that was 64 years ago [now 80+ years]. And time, we’ve learned, takes its toll on human understanding.

There is a passage in a speech by the young Abraham Lincoln (1838) that casts light on this question of the recessive quality of time past.[51] He too is looking back that he might understand better the prospect for his day. With the urgency of the formative revolutionary war period past, with the reality of immanent conflict long gone, with there being no external threat uniting us in a heightened awareness of what we value, in short, in his word, with the “passions”[52] of the Founders receding—he is reflecting on events 60+ years prior—Lincoln is compelled to raise the question of the perpetuation of our [political] institutions. In short, he had to take up as a question his new generation, what, in earlier times, might have been taken for granted.

The problem, as he sees it, is that the founding passions of the prior revolutionary period are not, indeed cannot any longer serve as the motivating passions of the present and subsequent generations. As he graphically brings us to realize, the history that once touched every family—the testimonies of limbs mangled and scars from wounds yet visible—what he calls, movingly, “the living histories”—this living evidence was no longer available to his generation. This vivid evidence had given gravity, clarity of purpose, and a sense of common destiny to the generations immediately following the war. But, he notes, “what invading foemen could never do, the silent artillery of time has done….” His question thus becomes: What can provide for his and later generations what these “the living histories” did for earlier ones?

Lincoln’s response is that we must become reflective, thoughtful proponents, not passive perpetuators, of what is best in our inherited tradition. He compares our inheritance to an ancient temple that, the worse for time, is no longer able to stand in its original glory. He says, now that “the pillars of the temple of liberty… have crumbled away, that temple must [inevitably] fall… unless we, their descendents, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the sold quarry of sober reason…. Unimpassioned reason must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense” (43). Descendents thus have a responsibility not unlike that of Founders. A re-founding must necessarily follow a founding if what was once valued is not to become irretrievably “past.” It can only be perpetuated and thought lasting if its reason for being what it is becomes an explicit subject of thought and reflection, and thence actively and self-consciously reaffirmed and promoted. In human things, inertia and custom are never enough to sustain them. Nor is it for us.

It is now more than 60 years [80] since the beginning of the New Program. These reflections on the temporal predicament of foundings—the loss of the original principle of vitality, of the founding inspiration, of the intense feelings of shared origination and destiny—puts our present circumstance at the college into a deeper perspective. We do not have a revolutionary war nor a world cataclysm threatening our shores, that is some external motive forcing us to think hard about why we do what we do. [Note: This lecture was given 12 days before 9/11.] Quite the contrary, “the silent artillery of time” does its work of putting the original motivation and clarity of purpose at a distance from us—making it past—lulling us into unreflectively perpetuating what has come down to us. But, Lincoln advises us, every new generation[53] has to take up the question of its foundations, otherwise the “pillars of the temple” weaken.

VIII. A Sad Tale:

“Much harm is caused by
thoughtless transplanting.” ~Nietzsche

One can see this problem of inheritance in another way. The same commentator mentioned above (Lippmann) tried to capture our predicament in the following tale:

Once upon a time I knew an old gentleman who had inherited from his father, who had made it, a great and noble organ. The old gentleman tended it with pious care and on the slightest provocation he would play it with resounding eloquence. And then in the course of time he died, and his son inherited the house and the organ, with all its intricate pipes. The son liked the organ, too, and had learned to play it, though he played it somewhat apologetically in the presence of his family….

…So he used the organ less and less, but it still pleased him to think that the great and noble organ was there, and if ever he needed it to withstand the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune, he could rely upon it to fortify his spirit. And then, one day things did go very badly with him, and feeling that he must play the organ again, he sat down to it [but] found to his dismay that something had gone wrong inside and that he could raise no sound except the most horrid wheezing and groaning. Obviously, the organ needed to be repaired. But unlike his grandfather who had made it or his father who had often taken it apart and put it together again, he had not the slightest notion of how an organ works.

So he looked in the classified telephone directory to find the [repair] service for pipe organs. But there was none in his town, and there was none in his county, and none in his State. But at last at great expense he induced an expert who lived in a distant city to come and inspect the trouble. The expert came, made an examination, said the organ had been a very fine old instrument but that the broken part was no longer made, and that no one knew how to make it, and that, unhappily therefore, the organ could never be played again.

The commentator who relates this sad tale sees it as “…a parable of the history of the free peoples during the past three or four [now five] generations. For they have inherited great and noble institutions from their forefathers who made them. But because they have not inherited the knowledge which enabled their forefathers to make these institutions, they do not really know how to preserve them, and improve them.”

History is therefore an imperfect medium of transmission. Our “inheritance” is only partially conveyed to us. It takes work on our part—remember, arduous work—to realize its fullness. Though a “musical instrument” and even a political institution may be handed down to us, the “knowledge that enabled [one] to make and preserve them” is not so easily handed down. Thus we need to revisit the world makers that we might become able to maintain, and if necessary restore, our institutions in their fullness. So too the college. But again, it is up to us.

IX: Books Unread, A Question Unasked:

“Will the idea of a ‘free man’ persist?” ~Jacob Klein

Our talk this evening has sought to accomplish one “small thing” (as Socrates would say), to have us ask ourselves one question, the question of our origins and reasons for being. Several reasons have been brought forth as occasions for reflection. Even absent a world crisis [Again note: 12 days before 9/11], “the silent artillery of time” by itself—its accretions and loss of evidence, and our neglect, forgetfulness, and indeed even our newness—requires that we each take up this question for our own. For we have only to realize that “To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West, it is not necessary to burn the books [as the Nazis and many others have done]. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.[54]

Along the way, many questions have been raised: Are we fulfilling our delegated responsibility to enable “positive or reflective (Starr) freedom”? Are we restoring meaning and strength to the fabric of language, and indeed to life? Are we providing a basis for “fearless and responsible decisions”? Are we developing our native powers of “self-control, thinking through, and of following up with courageous and just action?” Have we become “worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of [our] fellow citizens?” Are we learning how to learn?[55] (There are others.)

A program was founded in 1937 where such questions have a home. We’ve sought to bring into being a place where clarity about the question is as important as the answer, where insight into the problem is as decisive as the possible solutions, where the conditions of well being accompany considerations of the threats thereto, and where the counter-argument is as alive as the proposed resolution. We have sought, in short, to found a Socratic institution (if that is not a contradiction in terms).[56]

So we ask you tonight to forget “what you think you know” and dedicate yourselves to primary learning, that you might have something indisputably yours and not “someone else’s.”

And we ask you tonight to learn to read well and wisely, that what is worth preserving in our traditions does not “wash up on the sands of time” (Goethe).

And we ask you tonight to join us in our efforts not to allow the past to be unreflectively perpetuated and to pledge yourselves to the unfinished work that these authors so nobly began.

And though this “Sad Tale” was offered as a parable of the state of our education in years past, let it not be applicable to the present. So we ask you tonight as well, not only “to learn how to play the organ,” but to learn how it works, that, should it ever need repair and improvement, you, knowing why it is made the way it is, will not be at a loss to restore it, indeed even to advance its capabilities, that you might play it “with resounding eloquence,” reaching new heights of excellence.

Thank you.[57]

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at St. John’s College in 2001.

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.


[1]  Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #212.

[2]  David Boroff, “St. John’s College: Four Years with the Great Books,” Saturday Review, March 23, 1963, 75.

[3]  Walter Lippmann, “The St. John’s Program,” The New York Herald Tribune and The Washington Post, December 27, 1938.

[4]  Dante, Inferno, I 62-3.

[5]  Others have cautioned me that such a project would likely not prove successful. It will only bring different perspectives to the fore, risking thereby fracturing the functional whole. Or it might lead people to align themselves with one interpretation or another, thus leading some to dissociate themselves from the whole. Or I might fail to give any sense of the whole simply, thus undermining people’s trust in the enterprise. Or, in bringing certain views to the fore, the presentation might seem exclusive. Indeed I may fail in all these ways. I have not anticipated all-important ways of understanding our undertaking, those past or those still to be articulated. Nor have I intended to do so. Hence the title of this talk. The college as we know it today is the result of many visions; many have found a home here.

[6]  Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader, New York, 1999, xix.

[7]  Stringfellow Barr, A Centennial Appreciation of his Life and Work, 1897-1982, edited by Charles A. Nelson, Annapolis, 1997, 109-116.

[8]  Cp. Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, New Haven, 1943/1971.

[9]  Thucydides, The Peloponesian War, III 82-3 and Levine, Profound Ignorance, Plato’s Charmides and the Saving of Wisdom, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lexington Books, 2016, Chapter Two.

[10]  Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversations, Chicago, 1952/1994, 72.

[11] For an extended critique, see Sidney Hook, “A Critical Appraisal of the St. John’s College Curriculum,” The New Leader, May 26 and June 4, 1944, reprinted in Education for Modern Man, New York, 1946.

[12]  Of like mind, Scott Buchanan was brought to wonder whether the financial depression of 1929 was not itself a reflection of a “general decline of the human spirit” (“Awakening the Seven Sleepers,” Scott Buchanan, A Centennial Appreciation of his Life and Work, 1895-1968, edited by Charles A. Nelson, Annapolis, 1995, 9).

[13]  Nietzsche, Zarathustra, First Part, “On the Gift-giving Virtue” (The Portable Nietzsche, Kaufman, 189).

[14]  Eva Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, Chicago, 1979, 139; Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, I xvi; also Hegel, “Who Thinks Abstractly?”, Hegel, Texts and Commentary, translated by Kaufman, New York, 1965, 114-118 and “Preface,” Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface, §33/19.

[15]  The atmosphere of human crisis refracts and distorts our sense of the whole. Our logical categories get reordered in fundamental ways. For understandable reasons, crises tend to make mere existence (and the question of being) come to the fore and tend to flatten out our sense of the full landscape before us. As survival becomes paramount, so other values lose their standing and dimension of depth. But the question has to be asked in less pressing times: Is that all that life offers?

[16]  Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life [1874], translated by Peter Preuss, Indianapolis, 1980, 22 [hereafter ADHL].

[17]  And, according to Nietzsche, the universities and the higher learning prepared our historical vertigo by undermining what vestiges of a cultural foundation there remained by preaching the modern wisdom: “If the doctrines of sovereign becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and kinds, of the lack of any cardinal difference between man and animal—doctrines which [the author] take[s] to be true but deadly—are flung at the people for one more lifetime in the current mania for education, then let no one be surprised if that people perishes of pettiness and misery, of ossification and selfishness…It may then perhaps be replaced in the arena of the future by systems of individual egoism, fellowships intent on the rapacious exploitation of non-fellows and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity (ADHL, 55).’ The “modern wisdom” thus raised questions in some about the goodness of truth, and whether the old saw that “truth will make us free” is itself true without qualifications. (Cp. Goethe’s distinction between truth and wholeness, and Plato’s view that opinions need to be evaluated in terms of three criteria: experience, prudence as well as reasoning [Republic, IX 582a])

[18]  Nietzsche, ADHL, 25.

[19]  “We must then consider the capacity to perceive unhistorically to a certain degree as the more important and fundamental so far as it provides the foundation upon which alone something right, healthy and great, something truly human may grow (11).” Nietzsche then characteristically adds “The unhistorical resembles an enveloping atmosphere in which alone life is generated only to disappear again with the destruction of this atmosphere.” That the unhistorical is itself transient or historical may seem contradictory, but it is in the service of Nietzsche’s hope that one might  “…give oneself a past from which one would like to be descended in opposition to the past from which one is descended,” (22) for “with an excess of history man ceases [to be man]” (11) ADHL.

[20]  Cp. Scott Buchanan, A Centennial Appreciation.

[21]  Jefferson, Letter to Charles Yancey, Monticello, January 6, 1816.

[22]  “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Thomas Jefferson, Writings, New York, 1984, 365; cp. also “The Rockfish Gap Report:” “Education …engrafts a new man on the native stock, and improves what in his nature was vicious and perverse into qualities of virtue and social worth.” And Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, 38-58

[23]  Hutchins, The Higher Learning in America, New Haven, 1936, 32; also in American Higher Education, A Documentary History, edited by Hofstadter and Smith, Chicago, II, 924-940 (933). Also, “We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those [that] have taken part in the Great Conversation…” (The Great Conversations, 46).

[24]  Cp. Lippmann: “…These men who organized our liberties had followed a course of studies which comes down to us through the [ages].” “They had studied and had been drilled in the Liberal Arts, arts which are called liberal because they were what the liber homo, that is to say the free man, must know if he is to be in fact free.” “We are no longer taught to think as free men have had to learn to think.” “Between ourselves and the sources from which our civilization comes, we have dropped an iron curtain of false progress that leaves us to the darkness of our whims, our vagrant opinions, and our unregulated passions.” “The onset of barbarism must be met not only by programs of rearmament but by another revival of learning.”

[25]  Hutchins, The Great Conversations, 58.

[26]  It is understandable that post-war views of education were fundamentally “practical” or “utilitarian”. But what is not understandable is the subsequent failure to recognize the accompanying loss.

[27]  Nietzsche, ADHL, 24.

[28]  Many of the criticisms of education today are the same ones that led to the founding of the college, and justify its continued existence. See William Whewell (1794-1866): “It is not the Education of a man’s Humanity but an Indulgence of his Individuality” (in American Higher Education, II, 937-8); “It should not give emphasis to the superficial discussions of the current political problems which reflect more than anything else, the deplorable infantilism of contemporary life and thus increase the reigning immaturity of judgment and action” (Klein’s Dean Statement, October, 14, 1950, in A Search for the Liberal College, Annapolis, 1983, 120-1); “The characteristics of students in the protracted Age of Enlightenment are known to every teacher: how multifariously ‘exposed’ to and how little touched by experience; how quick and yet gullible in their ‘sophistication;’ how full of the vocables of rationality and how thin of speech; how stuffed with theory and how emptied of reflection!’ (Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, 125-6).

[29]  Archytas (fifth century BCE.) articulates the fundamental problem of education and its resolution: “When one emerges from a state of ignorance into a state of knowledge, one must either be learning from someone else or discovering the truth for himself. But learning which is from someone else remains someone else’s, while what we discover by ourselves becomes our own” (DK fr. B3).

[30]  Moreover, pre-professional education is essentially concerned with processes and means. Two things follow: 1) our choice of a major is unguided by our studies, and 2) all the wonderful skills and advanced learning remain ambiguous without consideration of to what good ends they ought to be applied (cp. Aristotle, Politics, VII 1337b).

[31]  Perhaps this contributes to why graduates often do not go into fields related to their majors.

[32]  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, translated by Allan Bloom, New York, 1979, 203.

[33]  Hutchins, American Higher Education, II, 940.

[34]  Scott Buchanan, A Centennial Appreciation, 40. Do the puppies grow to become equal to the bone?

[35]   A student once told me of a study that claims that we retain 10% of what we hear, 50% of what we read, but 90% of what we do. Hence the relevance of the St. John’s pedagogy.

[36]   William Darkey, Three Dialogues on Liberal Education, Annapolis, 1979, 124-5. (Names found in parentheses herein are from these discussions.)

[37]   “If there is such a thing as an assimilation of a body of knowledge without previous questioning [and learning]—something we are all familiar with from our early school days [and not only then]—this then has very little to do with learning and even less with thinking” (Jacob Klein, “The Art of Questioning and the Liberal Arts,” The College, January, 1979, 1.

[38]   Levine, ‘I Hate Books,’ or Making Room for Learning, 31st Annual Director’s Convocation Address, Graduate Institute in Liberal Education, St. John’s College, Santa Fe, June 15th, 1997.

[39]  Even within our own history, there were divergent opinions about how to learn from these books. The question turned on the relationship between “philosophic insight” and “historical accuracy.’ In his book A Search for the Liberal College, The Beginning of the St. John’s College Program, Winfree Smith addresses the differences of approach. “[Buchanan] was in no way bound by the inherited works of great thinkers. In some sense, though it seems strange, he did not really respect the authors of the great books; that is, he did not really think it of first importance to try to find out exactly what the authors meant. In Possibility [Chicago, 1927] [there is a section heading entitled] ‘Apology for Historical Piracy.’…. ‘The realism that demands what Kant and Aristotle really meant when they said certain things is quite irrelevant to our purpose.’ He could, therefore, like a pirate, plunder from both whatever might appear as a treasure that would be useful for the development of his own thought” (34). Smith attempts to account for this approach: “[Buchanan] was a man of the post-Cartesian world in that he was seeking methods and formulas and symbolic structure for learning or philosophizing, methods that would…bring together the most diverse worlds of thought and imagination” (35).

By contrast, his successor as dean, Jacob Klein “…saw the continuity of learning…in the developing awareness…of the difficulty of finding such principles and in the effort to overcome the difficulty…. [He saw] Buchanan’s analogies [as]…imaginative…but [as] a specious, and too easy, unity in the face of the perplexities” (106). “Klein thought an absorbing preoccupation with the content of a great book to be a necessary condition of learning” (107). (See Klein’s Dean’s Statement, 1950.) The contrast could not be greater, the one seeking philosophic insight at the expense of historical accuracy (free philosophic insight), the other wondering how one could penetrate to the innermost thought-center if it were not well grounded in the thought itself (grounded philosophic insight). In this regard Klein effected a second founding.

[40]  See Levine, Hand-Me-Downs, or The Traditionalization of Thought, 32nd Annual Convocation Address, Graduate Institute in Liberal Education, St. John’s College, Santa Fe, June 14th, 1998, where Husserl’s influence on the college is considered.

[41]  Klein, The Idea of Liberal Education,” Lectures and Essays, Annapolis, 1985, 162-6.

[42]  Brann, “The American College as the Place for Liberal Learning,” Daedelus, CXXVIII, winter 1999, 162.

[43]  Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IX.

[44]  Smith, A Search for the Liberal College, 38.

[45] “The St. John’s program does not turn away from contemporary America to the dead past of Europe. It turns to the past to discover the living tradition without which the contemporary world is unintelligible” (“What the St. John’s Program is Not,” Radio Address, November 20, 1937, WFBR, Baltimore, in Stringfellow Barr, A Centential Aprreciation, 41).

[46]   Hutchins, Great Conversations, 48. See also his credo: “We do not think that these books will solve all our problems; we do not think that they are the only books worth reading. We think that these books shed some light on all our basic problems, and that it is folly to do without any light we can get. We think that these books show the origins of many of our most serious difficulties. We think that the spirit they represent and the habit of mind they teach are more necessary today than ever before. We think that the reader who does his best to understand these books will find himself led to read and helped to understand other books. We think that reading and understanding great books will give him a standard by which to judge all other books” (37).

[47]   Brann, The Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, 118.

[48]   Cp. Plato, The Republic, VII.

[49]  Nietzsche, ADHL, 38; also, “There will come a time when one will wisely refrain from all constructions of the world process or of the history of mankind, a time when one … considers … once again the individuals who constitute a kind of bridge across the wild stream of becoming” (53) and note 20 above. Cp. also, Plato, Phaedo, 99ff.

[50]   “Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln, A Documentary Portrait Through His Speeches and Writings, edited by Fehrenbacher, Stanford University Press, 1964, 245.

[51]  Speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield [1838],” Abraham Lincoln, A Documentary Portrait, 34-43. The honesty and penetration of this early speech (he’s only 29) and the historical predicament out of which he realized he had to think himself are remarkable.

[52]  Lincoln here simplifies history for the sake of clarity. For it was not simply ‘passion’ that moved the revolutionary generation, but, as Hamilton said in Federalist Papers, #1 and to which Lincoln herein alludes, they were motivated by the “great proposition” that “a people might govern itself” (42). Even so, founding thoughts, no less than founding passions, are subject to the same “silent artillery of time.” There too, their motive power is diminished and, unless rejuvenated, is subject to the same end. “Ideas do not decay, but people’s understanding of them can decay” (Barr).

[53]  “It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which he lives…” (Hutchins, The Great Conversation, 46). “I think that renovation is the mode most essential to the life of tradition” (Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, 174).

[54]   Hutchins, The Great Conversation, 46.

[55]  “The task is too great, human weakness too enormous. But at least we know the magnitude of the problem. And what the student really learns is what learning is, what understanding is” (Klein in Saturday Review, 75).

[56]  In a typical caveat Mr. Klein cautions us not to take the fact of an institution for granted: “…The very institutionalization of liberal education contains a threat to liberal education…. [This]…makes the student serve a kind of routine that inhibits the spontaneity of learning…. [Moreover] in passing on a tradition there may occur, not so much the loss, as the concealment or the blurring of the insights that are at the root of the tradition [the problem of sedimentation as explicated by Husserl]” (Smith, A Search for the Liberal College, 125-6).

[57]  Cp. “Mamun, son of Harun al Rashid,” in William Earnest Hocking, The Self, Its Body and Freedom, New Haven, III.

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