Advent has only just begun but many of us are already thinking of Christmas. In one sense, this is fair enough. Advent is a time of preparation for our celebration of the birth of Christ and it is appropriate that we should be looking forward expectantly to the coming of Our Lord. In another sense, however, the trappings of the pre-Christmas season can be a distraction from the holy and healthy preparation that Advent is meant to provide. Thoughts of the presents we need to buy, the tree we need to choose, the office party we are going to attend, the money we will spend, and the budget we need to balance serve to keep us from the true spirit of the Season.
Without wishing to add to these distractions, I would like to suggest a book that all defenders of authentic Catholic education might want to think about buying for their friends and relations this Christmas. The book in question is The Death of the Soul: Critical Essays on the University by Thomas S. Martin (Chisokudo Publications, 2017).
Professor Martin is a Chair in Philosophy at a large state university, but we shouldn’t let this unfortunate fact put us off the reading of the book. Indeed, in spite of these unpromising credentials he is a thinker who can be trusted. We read in the brief bio on the back cover that Professor Martin and his colleagues in the philosophy department at the University of Nebraska at Kearney “are dedicated to the study of the Great Books.” Those of which Professor Martin teaches include the works of Plato, Aristotle, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard and G. K. Chesterton, as well as the works of those who failed to see things as clearly, such as Locke, Hume, Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre. Professor Martin also teaches the works of Solzhenitsyn regularly, a fact which would be enough in itself to signify his trustworthiness.
As if the foregoing were not sufficient to allay our fears, Professor Martin is an unabashed practicing Catholic whose towering presence (he stands 6’ 7” inches in his stockinged feet) can be seen at the annual G. K. Chesterton Conference, at which he often gives papers spiced with the sort of wit and wisdom of which GKC himself was the indubitable master. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a lengthy passage from Chesterton on the value of tradition serves as the epigraphical curtain-raiser to this volume of essays. This spirit of wit and wisdom, spiced with biting satire, is present throughout the essays in Professor Martin’s book.
In his introduction, Professor Martin roots the purpose of the university in principles established by Aristotle in the latter’s Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics. “Man has two eyes,” Professor Martin writes. “He has an external eye… the quantifiable eye, the scientific eye, which measures everything by size, shape, color, speed and quantity. The second eye is the internal eye, the qualitative eye…. This is the eye of memory and self-examination which is anchored by a conscience and the moral judgment necessary to distinguish between what is just and unjust, good and evil, smoke and mirrors.” The medium of the external eye is the natural sciences, whereas the internal eye sees through the lens of history, literature, philosophy, art, and, of course, scripture. “Deprive a student of either one of his eyes and you have a Cyclops,” writes Professor Martin, “with the myopic vision that makes for a narrow mind.”
Throughout this collection of essays, Professor Martin judges the modern academy with both of his eyes wide open. More often than not he doesn’t like what he sees. His judgment is often scathing and is expressed with epigrammatic succinctness. Thus, in the opening essay, “Post-modernism, or the Age of Dotage”, he writes that “television is for those who lack the imagination to live.”
Then there’s the satire. In an essay entitled “People of Height at Predominantly Short Institutions” he calls on his own university, the University of Nebraska, “as an act of good faith” to “raise the door jambs to seven foot two, place a urinal and a toilet for people of height in restrooms, as well as offer several higher desks and chairs in each classroom.”
“It is evident,” he concludes, “that the vertically impaired have some long-overdue grievances against institutions which are practicing heightism.”
Against these lesser freedoms, expressed as “rights”, which Professor Martin satirizes, he defends the ultimate freedom, the freedom of the will conforming to right reason. Taking his cue once again from Aristotle, he reminds us that a truly free man “uses his soul to rule over his body”:
If the body rules over the soul, the corruptible will be guiding the incorruptible, and this is simply not a good idea…. Slavery is the condition of the body ruling over the soul, of the belly and/or the groin making decisions, as it were, instead of the soul focusing upon principles and living by conviction. A slave is a person who cannot restrain himself before the appetites of the body and the excessive desire for external possessions… It is an old adage, if you cannot control yourself, you will be controlled.
According to this true understanding of freedom, students at modern secular universities are being taught to becomes slaves; and, furthermore, they are being taught to embrace their slavery in the name of superficial and false freedoms. Such is the madness of the modern academy that Professor Martin spurns and scorns and often lampoons in this delightfully incisive and insightful volume. Those wishing to give thought-provoking and truly enlightening gifts this Christmas need look no further.
This essay was first published by the Cardinal Newman Society.
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