Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to participate in seminars with friends and benefactors of Thomas Aquinas College. The theme of the seminars was “The Year of Faith: Marriage and the Family,” an appropriate topic, we thought, in light of our conviction that the traditional view of marriage is solidly grounded in both faith and reason, despite the drumbeat to the contrary we hear from politicians, the courts, the media, and popular culture.
In those seminars we considered three texts. The first, A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen dramatizes, if you will, a modern marriage which comes to an end when a wife and mother abandons her husband and children to pursue her own fulfillment and self-realization. The second, What is Marriage? by Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson presents a cogent philosophical defense of traditional marriage, emphasizing permanence and exclusivity. The third, Familiaris Consortio by Bl. John Paul II, presents a profound theological meditation on the sacramental significance of marriage and its ordination to children, family life, and the sanctification of the partners.
In preparing remarks for today’s Convocation, it occurred to me that in the course of your studies here you will encounter many marriages, not all of which will be examples of Christian fidelity and commitment. In the first month or so alone of your matriculation at the College, you will read of Odysseus’ lengthy extramarital dalliance with Circe and Clytaemestra’s murder of her husband, Agamemnon.
When it comes to family life, you will read of Creon’s entombment of his niece, Antigone; Orestes’ murder of his mother, Clytaemestra, to avenge Agamemnon’s death; and The Republic’s apparent recommendation that children be taken from their parents and raised in common.
All of this, of course, comes well before the junior year, when Othello kills his wife, Desdemona, and Lady Macbeth prods her husband to murder the king. As I recall, there are several dysfunctional marriages in King Lear as well.
It’s not all bad, however. This year, you will also meet Hector’s loving wife, Andromache, and Odysseus’ faithful wife, Penelope. In your senior year, Pierre will marry Natasha toward the end of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and I suspect they will have many children and live happily ever after.
Of greater importance are the exemplary marriages you will observe in Sacred Scripture. For example, Abraham marries Sarah and becomes the father of faith and of God’s chosen people, while Mary and Joseph wed in obedience to the will of God and together provide a home for the savior of the world.
As some of my examples illustrate, not all of the literary works you will read in your four years at Thomas Aquinas College — where we place such emphasis on reading and discussing the greatest works of our civilization — will be immediately edifying or obviously illustrative of the truths of the Catholic faith. In the words of our founding document, however, “the greatest works of literature, insofar as they appeal to the imagination and move the affections, are peculiarly accessible to the young, while at the same time they present or imply profoundly important views of human life and of reality as a whole.”
As you read the works of literature in our program, you must learn to be alert to the circumstances surrounding the central action, the reasons for, and the consequences of the choices the protagonists make. (As Aristotle says, “whenever such-and-such a personage says or does such-and-such a thing, it shall be the necessary or probable outcome of his character.”) You must also consider the overall arc of the characters’ moral development. It is surely one thing for an author to depict horrific or immoral actions as horrific or immoral; it is quite another to depict such actions as admirable or sympathetic.
The reality an author is trying to represent may, in fact, be the reality of evil, together with its causes and consequences. The more truthfully or believably the author presents these things, the more clearly will you be able to grasp his view of human nature, and the more deeply and properly will you be moved by his work. Reading such literature — and, conversely, reading literature which depicts good or admirable actions — can play a very important role in the acquisition of Christian virtue, both moral and intellectual.
It is well to remember also that what you are undertaking at this college is Catholic liberal education, with all that that implies. In the words of our founding document again, “the Catholic, in the very act of his belief, has also found the teachers who will define and explain what he believes, show him its consequences, and rectify his whole intellectual life as well.… [T]he believer embraces at once Christ as the supreme teacher and the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles as altogether truthful and divinely appointed interpreters of His teachings.” At Thomas Aquinas College not all great books or great authors are created equal; our founding document continues, “[many] papal encyclicals make it plain that the perennial wisdom is to be studied through the works of the great masters themselves, and above all through the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.”
While literature plays a vital role in Catholic liberal education, a truly sapiential role is reserved to the philosophical and theological works, including Sacred Scripture, which are the focal points of the College’s curriculum. Always remain open to the movements of mind and heart occasioned by the greatest literature, but let the works read in the philosophy and theology tutorials be your touchstones over the next four years, for they will most dependably lead you closer to God and to a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith, including, by the way, its teachings about the beauty and goodness of sacramental marriage.
Posted: August 23, 2013
“We learn how to find the truth for ourselves, so that for the rest of our lives we will be able to pursue the things that matter most.”
– Danielle Chouinard (’14)
“Thomas Aquinas College is doing on the undergraduate level exactly what should be done. The College's alumni and alumnae prove that with this kind of education you can go on and do anything.”
– Dr. Ralph McInerny (†)
Scholar and Writer