As this year’s seniors take their last exams and prepare to walk across the stage on Saturday morning, I’m led to think about the effect of this whole unique education at Wyoming Catholic College on them. How will it all come together—all the theology and philosophy, the literature and history, the Latin, music, and fine arts, the outdoor trips, the math and science?
It is not simply a matter of knowledge but of habitus. As Jacques Maritain explains in Art and Scholasticism, a habitus is by no means a “mere mechanical bent and routine.” It is the opposite of a habit in that sense. Maritain describes a habitus as an “intrinsic superelevation of living spontaneity, [a] vital development which renders the soul better in a given order and which fills it with an active sap.” The student who has truly seized upon the truth now has within him “a quality which proportions the intellect to, and makes it commensurate with, such or such an object of speculation, a quality which elevates it and fixes it as regards this object.” Like bodily fitness, this habitus has been acquired through exercise and use (either of the intellect or of the moral character), and Maritain calls it a “metaphysical title of nobility.” It’s hard to stop quoting such splendid language: “The man who possesses a habitus has within him a quality which nothing can pay for or replace; others are naked, he is armed with steel: but it is a case of a living and spiritual armor.”
After the finals, the celebrations, and the many bittersweet leave-takings, our seniors will remain in possession of this or that habitus, depending on which disciplines or lines of inquiry truly drew their souls into “superelevations of living spontaneity.” All of our students take the same classes and read the same great books over the course of their four years at Wyoming Catholic College, but this hard-earned knowledge clearly takes on a unique form in the soul of each student. The more deeply the student has engaged the work, the more that form will be capacious and wisely anticipatory of new knowledge and experience, but also ever-incomplete, like a constitution realized in the unfolding of history—or the Word becoming flesh in the development of the Church.
How will this “constitution” cohere in the memory? Obviously, there will be hundreds of recollections, but some memories will emerge more clearly and symbolically in the sorting-out that time accomplishes. I cannot say what it will be for the students, but in the history of the West, one such image has emerged as iconic for the kind of education that we offer. It is especially apt when the whole Western tradition—the source of light and liberty for the world—ironically remains under attack by the academy that ought to celebrate and defend it.
In Book II of the Aeneid, Aeneas tells Dido, Queen of Carthage, the story of his escape from burning Troy. Once he realized the futility of trying to fight the Greeks who were sacking his city, he tells her, he took on his back his father, the aged Anchises, who carries their household gods, and then he led by the hand his son Ascanius as they escaped the flames. We can easily translate the image: Aeneas carries the living treasures of the tradition, and at the same time protects the future that he leads by the hand. In this sense, each of our students is Aeneas. We enliven our students’ capacities to found a good city in the world they will confront. This dynamic education—both religious and worldly—is incarnational, uniquely malleable in enabling them to confront contemporary problems.
The reason that an image like that of Aeneas has such extraordinary power is that the action of the poem and the density of symbolic inclusiveness moves us beyond what we can easily conceptualize. All of Homer’s Iliad lies behind this scene, as do the rest of the Aeneid and the long history of Rome. One image condenses many things—the meaning of Troy, the virtue of pietas, the particular fate of Aeneas, the origin and future of Rome, the tragedy of Dido as the audience of this narration, the destiny of Carthage, and so on—into one unforgettable scene.
I suspect that in ten or twenty years, the whole curriculum, now fresh in the minds of the seniors, will resolve into a few densely symbolic images like this one, each of them capable of bringing the whole experience of mind, body, and spirit back in the transformations of memory. May this education add luster to the “living and spiritual armor” that they wear into the greater world to sustain the great past and brighten the time to come.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Die neue Rüstung” (1858) by Franz Eduard Meyerheim, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.