By Michael J. Letteney (’88)
Note: Dr. Letteney is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College. The following text is the transcript of a lecture he presented on August 24, 2012, as part of the the St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series, endowed by Barbara and Paul Henkels.
In the Parts of Animals, Aristotle relates an anecdote about the philosopher Heraclitus, who:
[w]hen the strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present.
In a similar vein, Aristotle invites his reader to investigate with him the internal anatomy of the most ignoble animals, since “each and all,” he suggests, “will reveal to us something natural and beautiful.” Thomas Aquinas College clearly takes this invitation to heart by asking each first-year student to dissect and carefully describe a sheep’s heart. Very soon the environs of this campus will be filled with freshmen, armed with butterfly nets and kill jars, in search of beetles, flies, and other vermin; these specimens, so collected, will be compared one to other and then arranged according to a plan devised by the student himself. These field researches are meant to complement their readings of J. Henri Fabre’s study of the instinctive behavior of insects. From this it is clear that the College goes to some pains to introduce its students to the natural history of nature’s more ignoble animals.
It might come as a surprise, then, to discover that the College does not include in its curriculum a course dedicated to the historical study of nature’s most sublime animal, man. While the great works of history are indeed read throughout the four years of the Seminar, the fact that they are so placed suggests that they are less important than other parts of the program such as grammar and the natural sciences. The Bulletin of Information confirms this suggestion, stating that: “[h]istory itself will not make a well-ordered mind.” How is the description of the digestive tract of the cuttlefish a fitting object for the student of liberal education, whereas Herodotus’ breathtaking retelling of the battle of Thermopylae is given but a passing nod in the Freshman Seminar?
Following the thread to the passage from the Parts of Animals with which we began, an answer comes to the fore: in contemplating the intestine of the cuttlefish, we are confronted with a striking illustration of the divine art:
For if some [members of the animal kingdom] have no grace to charm the sense, yet even these, by disclosing to intellectual perception the artistic spirit that designed them, give immense pleasure to all who can trace links of causation, and are inclined to philosophy.
Catholic liberal education, as we shall see, is principally concerned with knowing God insofar as this is possible to human reason assisted by the light of faith. The historian’s objects, however noble and amazing they may appear to us, are in the last analysis singular events, and as such do not afford a sufficient degree of intelligibility for their comprehension. Aristotle so distinguishes the poet from the historian precisely on the grounds of universality:
[P]oetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.
I will return to this statement later in the lecture. For the present, I would like to explore two difficulties occasioned by this response, both of them having to do with God’s knowledge of the self-same events. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God is perfectly aware of the very least details of this world; Our Lord advises His disciples to fear not: “Are not five sparrows,” He asks, “sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.” Indeed it would be absurd to think that God did not know such things, since this would imply an imperfection in His knowledge. Still, one wonders how these individuals can be intelligible to God on the one hand, and yet not to us? Why is not the human mind likewise perfected by knowing the precise follicle count of a given individual, Mr. Coughlin for instance? That is the first difficulty.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel gives rise to a second, closely related to the first. Granted that the historian’s concern is with particulars, with what individual men have said and done, and that Catholic liberal education is principally concerned with God; still, since God Himself is so solicitous about individual men in their particularity, why should not at least a part of liberal education be directed to the same? Indeed, Hegel presses this very question in the Philosophy of History:
It was for a while the fashion to profess admiration for the wisdom of God, as displayed in animals, plants, and isolated occurrences. But, if it be allowed that Providence manifests itself in such objects and forms of existence, why not also in Universal History?
The Christian certainly holds that God’s providence embraces all of creation, from the lowliest worm to the acts of man, as St. Paul declares in the Letter to the Ephesians: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” And so one wonders why it falls to the student of liberal education to carefully trace out the paths of God’s handiwork in the natural order, and not to attempt the same in the sphere of human action?
I intend to argue that history is not an essential part of liberal education considered as such, that is, generically, and this because of the limited intelligibility of historical events. Put simply, the knowledge of singulars, so far as this is accessible to natural light of reason, is not perfective of the human intellect, which perfection is the primary goal of liberal education. Moreover, while it is true that we can see that providence governs all things including human affairs, natural reason by itself is incapable of knowing with certainty the meaning of any historical event. That being said, the study of history can be of assistance in supplying the student with experience and exemplars that are beneficial in the acquisition of ethics and political science.
Liberal education insofar as it is denominated catholic, however, necessarily includes the study of sacred history. One of the central truths of the Christian faith is that God became man in order to redeem mankind from the debt incurred by Adam’s transgression; this is born out in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This doctrine is proposed for our belief not as an edifying story, but as a real historical event; and so St. Peter writes in his second letter:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
Scripture itself supplies the narrative of salvation history, and through the ages the fathers and doctors of the Church have reflected on this history, the most stunning reflection being of, course, St. Augustine’s City of God.
What I intend to show is that by understanding the distinctive mode in which God apprehends particulars, the faithful who read the Scriptures informed by the light of the faith have certitude regarding Adam’s fall, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and other such historical particulars. Moreover, we are certain, not only that they occurred, but also we have some insight as to why they have happened; that is to say, we have some insight into God’s providential plan. I will begin by saying a few words about Catholic liberal education, and then a more lengthy discussion about the nature and purpose of history. With these distinctions in place, we will be able to see to what extent history belongs to an educational program so defined.
II Catholic liberal education
The word ‘education’ is derived from the Latin root of e-ducere. The prefix is the preposition ex or e, which means out of, or from; and ducere is a verb which means to to lead, conduct, guide, direct, and so on. From this we gather that education is not simply the direction of the student to knowledge, but it is a direction from something. From what? The first answer that comes to mind is from the condition of not knowing, that is, ignorance. While I think there is something right about this answer, a deeper meaning is suggested by St. Thomas in his Disputed Question on the Teacher. The teacher does not impart knowledge to the student in the manner of a simple transference, as when I lend my son Anthony a book or a sleeping bag – which I know from experience that I will never see again. The student, according to St. Thomas, already knows in a way the knowledge that he seeks in that he knows the starting points of the sciences, that is the common conceptions and principles on which they are founded. These first principles are not inborn in us, but rather we acquire them by the light of reason applied to experience. Through his words the teacher leads the student from the things that he knows to the conclusions that are contained potentially in these principles; indeed, the good teacher leads the student along the same path that he himself has followed to see this truth.
A good example of this is found in Euclid’s Elements. Euclid begins the study of geometry by setting out the principles of his science -- definitions, postulates and common notions; these are proposed without any argumentation – the student is expected to accept them as true based on his own experience with the objects of geometry. In the subsequent Propositions, Euclid shows the conclusions that follow logically from these beginnings. The student is said to learn to the extent that he sees the proposition following necessarily from these self-evident principles. And in this way the student is perfected, that is, completed as a knower. St. Thomas adds, however, that “[i]f someone proposed to another what is not included in self-evident principles or is not shown to be [so] included, he will not cause knowledge, but perhaps opinion or belief.”
From this analysis we can gather the following conclusions. The educator aims primarily at perfecting the mind of the student by leading him from the things that he already knows to knowledge of the unknown.
What makes an education liberal? In the Metaphysics Aristotle looks to the marks commonly attributed to the wise man in order to ascertain the nature of wisdom; among these one in particular is especially relevant to our question:
[O]f the sciences, that which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more the nature of wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes theoretical from practical knowing in virtue of their ends and their objects. Knowing is practical when it is ordered to some doing or making, and thus is concerned with things that can be otherwise; and so the art of carpentry is ordered to the production of tables, chairs, and the like, things which can exist but need not. Theoretical knowing, on the other hand, has as its end truth, and thus is concerned with things “whose principles cannot be otherwise.” The geometer, for example, seeks to demonstrate the properties that belong to triangles as such; the conclusions he arrives at are true eternally. Practical knowledge, insofar as it is ordered to something beyond itself, is less choice worthy than theoretical knowledge.
From this we can see that wisdom aims at theoretical knowledge. But there are many theoretical sciences: mathematics, natural philosophy, and theology. With which of these will the wise man be principally concerned? Aristotle observes that the things most worth knowing are precisely those which are the most knowable in themselves. Now, since we know a thing by grasping its cause or causes, the first and ultimate cause of the universe would be the most knowable of all things. The wise man, therefore, seeks to know as far as possible the first principle of all reality, namely God.
These precisions help us to see what is meant by liberal education. “That man is free” says Aristotle, “who exists for himself and not for another.” Because he is free, he can direct his actions to ends that he finds intrinsically worthwhile, and in this way he cultivates a rich and complete life. The slave, in contrast, spends his life in service to another; the fruits of his labor are not his own. Education is liberal when it is sought for its own sake; it is the kind of education that the free man would choose. For this reason, liberal education is primarily theoretical, since the good of theoretical knowing is nothing other than the perfection of the intellect. And while such an education aims to cultivate every theoretical science, it is especially concerned with theology, since this science arrives at causes that are the most perfective of the human mind.
Now while such an education is primarily theoretical, it does properly include the practical sciences of ethics and politics. This inclusion is perhaps clear from the fact that the free man directs himself; to do this well, he will need a clear knowledge about the end of human life, and the appropriate means to achieve this end. It is the sciences of ethics and politics that address such questions. Moreover, unlike the productive arts, such as carpentry and sewing, which terminate in matter outside the agent, say in the manufacture of a chair or a quilt, the actions associated with prudence terminate in the agent himself. In this way we see a certain likeness between the theoretical sciences, which are desirable in their own right, and the practical sciences of ethics and politics, which are ordered to activities that are perfective of the human soul itself, and come to rest therein. The productive arts, in contrast, are oriented to the perfection of matter, and in this way are servile in character; accordingly they are alien to the mission of liberal education.
We finally come to Catholic liberal education. In the Prosologion, St. Anselm attempts to prove God’s existence using principles that are accessible to the believer and non-believer alike. In the “Preface” he tells us that he initially planned to entitle his work “Faith Seeking Understanding” [Fides quaerens intellectum]; from the remarks that follow we see why this is an appropriate description of his project:
I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.
The theologian’s task, he says, begins in faith, that is, with the firm conviction and love of those truths that have been proposed for our belief by the Church. The theologian tries to understand as far as possible these truths, realizing that reason will never be able to fully penetrate the deep mysteries of the faith; still, precious beyond measure is the insight provided by this arduous endeavor. Catholic liberal education is the systematic attempt to implement St. Anselm’s project of faith seeking understanding. The entire curriculum has as its end the study of divinely revealed truths, and this end provides the order and unity of the different parts of the program. Faith thus both begins and ends the enterprise of Catholic liberal education.
III The historian’s task
Having sketched the nature of Catholic liberal education, I now investigate the nature and purpose of history; for this I turn to a very wise historian, Herodotus. He opens his history of the war between the Persians and the Greeks with the following statement:
I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.
“I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history.” The possessive adjective “my” is significant. The report that Herodotus tells is with few exceptions derived from other sources. His narrative begins with events that happened well before his birth; and though he was contemporaneous with the great battles in which his History culminates, it is unlikely that he himself was an actual eyewitness. From this we can see that there are two levels of historical narration. The first is comprised of first hand reports of what happened; the second is a representation of what happened based on many such first hand reports. Herodotus’ history actually draws from both these narrative levels. So when Herodotus speaks about my History, it really is his own seen in contradistinction from these first hand reports on the one hand (first level narratives) and other second level histories that recount the same events included in his own narrative.
Perhaps one might think that I have overstated the case regarding the proprietary character of The History. Herodotus’ history differs from his predecessors’ narratives only in being more comprehensive – it includes all the facts of the earlier efforts and more. Neither the facts themselves, nor their order belong to Herodotus any more than they do to the Persian chroniclers that he cites as one of his sources. On this view, the historian’s task is simply the comprehensive description of the past arranged in chronological order.
This view of history is clearly mistaken. First, Herodotus observes at several junctures that his sources are not always consistent. Sometimes Herodotus will retail the several competing accounts of what happened, and then select the one he finds most probable; other times he is simply content to observe that there are multiple versions of the same event without explicitly delineating them. Further, there are some facts that he deliberately chooses not to report. Regarding the native commanders of Xerxes’ expeditionary army, Herodotus writes:
I do not record the names of these [commanders] because it is not necessary for the purposes of my History. For those native leaders of each people are not worthy of mention. There were, for each people, as many leaders as there were cities and these native leaders did not serve as generals but were as much slaves as the soldiers were. But the Persian generals, who had supreme power and commanded each of the nations – these I have already recorded.
Some facts are worth mentioning, others not; indeed, almost certainly The History contains but a small portion of his total researches. When I come home each evening from school, my wife faithfully asks “How was your day?” And typically I will respond that “it was good,” or “not so good,” as the case may be. This is not the answer she wants – she wants details: what I did, who I sat with at lunch, what we spoke about, did I see my children, did I talk to them, what did they say – the list of questions could be extended. But she doesn’t want to know everything that I did; for example, she is not in the least bit interested in which shoe I put on first. A full and comprehensive report of all that I did in a single day would be both uninteresting and unilluminating; what my wife is after are the important or significant facts of my day. And so it is with Herodotus’ History: he will select from among the multitude of collected facts only those that are somehow necessary for his story. Clearly he must have some principle or principles guiding his selection.
Although there are probably many such principles at work in The History, the two most fundamental to any history are intimated in the passage with which we began. One reason Herodotus writes The History is so that “those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, [might not] fail of their report.” The principal event of The History – the conflict between the Greeks and Persians -- is highly significant, first in terms of its magnitude – Xerxes’ army of 1.7 million men is described as draining entire rivers in its march towards Greece. And also in terms of the consequences this war had for both nations; Xerxes’ ambition was nothing less than the enslavement of the entire world. This is an eminently suitable subject for historical reflection; by way of contrast, a day in the life of tutor is not likely to be of much interest to anyone outside the immediate circle of his family, and even there I have my doubts.
In the opening passage of The History Herodotus indicates that he will explain “the reason why [the Greeks and barbarians] fought one another.” The historian’s task is not simply to describe what happened in the past, but to explain why it happened, and this is to specify the causes on which the event depends. In The History Herodotus seeks the causes not just for the origin of the war, but more importantly for its outcome, that is, why the Greeks were ultimately victorious. And this bears directly on the question of selection. We are not surprised to see included in his history descriptions of the superior armor and battle tactics of the Greeks over their barbarian counterparts; these differences are seen to be rooted in a more fundamental difference: the Greeks are free, the barbarians slaves. Herodotus takes pains to describe the various customs and institutions of the barbarian peoples, presumably because this too is revelatory of the causes undergirding the war and its outcome. In his search for causes, Herodotus often has recourse to the agency of the gods; accordingly, great attention is given to oracles, dreams and coincidental events.
Going back to our original distinction between first and second level narratives, the following precisions seem to be in order. History begins and ultimately terminates in the descriptions given by those who observe the events as they are happening; they describe what they see, and these descriptions provide the factual basis that measures the historian’s explanations. Sight, however, does not reveal the true causes of the reported facts. This is where the second level historian steps in. Having selected a suitable object of inquiry, that is, some significant event or person, he gathers together the available facts and selects from them those that are relevant to explain why the event or person came to be thus. The second level historian, accordingly, is a story teller, weaving together the multifarious historical facts into an intelligible picture. This selection is largely determined by the kind of causes the historian thinks are operative in human affairs. The story he tells will be largely a function of his commitments to larger questions about the nature of man and his place in reality. Someone skeptical about the gods would tell a very different story about the Greek-Persian conflict than we find in Herodotus’ history, even if both historians had at their disposal the very same evidence. The example Mr. DeLuca gave in my seminar on Herodotus was this: if the historian thinks that Freud’s theory of psychology is right, the history he writes of Cyrus will likely focus on the early episodes of his life – the trials and tribulations of his potty training, his relationship to his parents, and so on. The facts of history, such as they are, are open to many different theoretical looks, some more illuminating than others, no doubt; none of them alone, however, is sufficient to reveal all the causes at play in the phenomena. That is why I think it significant that Herodotus describes The History as my history.
In light of the foregoing, I think history, in its fullest sense, is discourse that describes and explains the development of some significant past event or person. This definition of history, I contend, is implicit in the opening statement of Herodotus’ History.
Herodotus indicates that he writes The History so “that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being.” The motivation here seems to be primarily that of piety. The “great and wonderful deeds, wrought by both the Greeks and the barbarians,” insofar as they are beings of the past, exist now only in memory, which memory is liable to fade or vanish altogether unless carefully preserved. Following a suggestion by Soren Kierkegaard, the historian may be described as a kind of lover, one who “contends night and day against the craftiness of oblivion” so that others too “may admire the hero as he does.” To preserve this memory, it is not enough to sing about it: oral tradition does not faithfully preserve the past – it amplifies, embellishes, and distorts these past events so that they become the stuff of legend rather than a report of what was. The memory must be committed to paper: by writing it down, the reported facts become stable. So Herodotus feels duty bound to preserve in writing the memory of these great deeds of the past and by so doing inducing in his reader a similar admiration for them.
But the historian’s task is not simply to arouse our wonder and admiration; he also intends to explain and in this we see that the immediate purpose of reading history is speculative – one wants to know – to the extent that this possible -- why the Greeks won the war. In the Poetics Aristotle explains that one reason we take great delight in works of poetic imitation is that it presents an opportunity to learn. I take it that the same argument applies to the reading of history. In tracing out the historian’s interpretation of some great past event, the reader is learning at least a possible explanation for it, and this activity is naturally pleasant.
In addition to this speculative objective, there are many practical advantages to reading history, of which I will present just three. First the reading of history obviously enlarges our experience and thereby enables the reader to make better, more informed decisions regarding future actions. Thucydides speaks to this end of reading history:
The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content.
Second, since history deals with the actions of men, it necessarily supplies the student with exemplars of virtue, which both inspire and guide the student in his own efforts towards moral excellence. In the Offices, Cicero describes the heroic action of the Roman consul Regulus, who, in order to fulfill an oath, willingly returned to the hands of his enemies, the Carthaginians, where he expected and received a slow and tortuous death. This story made such a strong impression on me when I first read it as a Sophomore that having returned to my dormitory well after curfew, undetected by any prefect, I felt compelled the next morning to turn myself in. For this I was campused for two weeks – and this for a first infraction! Dr. McLean, the Assistant Dean at the time, reasoned that in comparison with what befell Regulus, I was getting off lightly.
So it is clear that historical examples can be inspiring. They can also be useful. In defining virtue, Aristotle says that it is “a habit concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” Notice that the prudent man is included in the very definition of virtue. History can provide the student with concrete illustrations of the prudent man making choices, illustrations according to which the student can model his own actions.
To this last advantage, it might be objected that while the study of history might be of some assistance in the cultivation of the moral life, it is certainly not indispensible. Virtue, after all, begins in the home, and without this formation in good habits it is unlikely that the reading of history would have any salutary effect on the student. This seems right: it would be a mistake to try to learn the craft of basketball by watching the NBA – there is no substitute for the discipline and skills acquired by working under the tutelage of a coach. Still, what the aspiring player can learn by watching the very best is that excellence is possible, albeit very rare. Similarly the reading of history provides the rightly disposed student with examples of moral excellence that they are not likely to encounter in their day to day experience.
IV The intelligibility of history
My task in this lecture is to show the proper place of history in Catholic liberal education. So far we have considered generally the nature of Catholic liberal education and history. Now it is time to draws these threads together, and to do this I must first clarify the kind of knowledge that one may reasonably expect from the study of history.
I argued above that the historian above all seeks to explain some significant event in the past; he does this by telling a story that shows how this event came to be and why; the details of this story must conform, or at least be consistent with the most reliable reports supplied by eyewitnesses. Let’s begin with the facts. From the vantage point of the student of history, these have to be accepted on trust; as Aristotle points out, when contingent things “pass from observation it is not known whether they exist.” Insofar as history treats of the past, the events in question are no longer objects of immediate sense knowledge; and for the reader of history, these events most likely never did fall under his observation. Now you might object that this dependence on human testimony is not peculiar to history but belongs to every intellectual endeavor outside of mathematics; few if any of us have performed Fabre’s ingenious experiments on the Pine Processionary caterpillars, and for all that we can read his report and learn something about the instinctive behavior of these animals.
Now while it is true that in both cases, the historian’s and the natural scientist’s, we are inclined to accept as true whatever factual evidence the author supplies, the two are not strictly analogous. Fabre does indeed report the facts of the individual animals that fall under his observation, but the reader is perfectly at liberty to repeat the very same experiments to see whether or not the facts are as reported; and so the evidence he offers has a certain universal character independent of the Fabre’s personal testimony. The case is otherwise with the reported facts of history; there is no way for me to see the French Revolution for myself. And while it is quite impossible to perfectly replicate all the conditions that issued in this event, even if this could be done there is no reason to think that the event would transpire precisely in the manner it did in 1779. The principal players involved in the original event are free agents – they could have made very different choices, resulting in a very different state of affairs. Thus the reader’s relation to the facts of history is irreducibly a matter of faith. This does not mean it is unreasonable to take such reports as factually true – without evidence to the contrary our presumption is that eyewitness testimony is credible. What it does mean is that the reader of history cannot properly call his own what he learns from the historian.
Putting aside this difficulty, are the causal accounts offered by the historian worthy of the title ‘knowledge,’ assuming the facts to be as reported? First, let’s consider the state of the evidence itself. St. Thomas says that it is the very nature of history never to arrive at the term of investigation. My colleague Mr. Coughlin illustrates this point nicely. “The number of events,” he says, “which occur every day to every person is simply beyond calculation. It would take us years to record all the events of the last hour, and then events of the hours spent recording would themselves go unrecorded.” As we pointed out earlier, the first order reports are necessarily sketchy; that being the case, how can you be sure that some critical event or action has not been overlooked? How would you know? Perhaps the key to understanding how my day went really does depend on grasping which shoe I put on first! It is not hard to imagine scenarios where this fact would be decisive.
Further the second order narratives are highly selective; the historian’s approach to his subject is certainly not exhaustive. Another set of eyes on the very same facts would very likely shed fresh light on the subject. For example, Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war is largely silent about the role women played in the conflict. Does this mean their involvement was negligible and therefore insignificant? [I can see the men of Blessed Serra nodding affirmatively, none of whom have any girlfriends, I might add]. My own experience with human affairs would suggest otherwise. My point here is not to suggest that Thucydides’ history should be replaced by a feminist interpretation of the Peloponnesian war – Good Heavens no! I think it is best reflection on this theme, “a possession for all time,” as he had intended it to be. What I am arguing is that it is not the last word on the subject: the facts that undergird this history, incomplete as they are, are not fully explained by any one historical interpretation. Just as the first order reports of historical phenomena are never complete, so also second order interpretations of the phenomena are never final – you can always see more.
What is the status of the explanations proposed by the historian? Do these cause the student to know? After all, the natural scientist deals with individuals that come to be and pass away, which he tries to understand by tracing out their principles, causes and elements. How is the historian’s relationship to his respective phenomena any different? As an approach to this question, consider what happens in a geometrical demonstration, for example the proposition that every triangle has interior angles equal to two rights. To prove this Euclid will set out a particular triangle, ABC, and reasoning about this individual triangle he shows that it has the requisite property; and then he makes the startling conclusion that every triangle has this angle sum. The triangle on the board, or in my imagination, is a particular species of triangle, a scalene triangle, say; what allows him to attribute this property to equilateral and isosceles triangles? If we attend closely to Euclid’s argument, we see that none of the steps depend on the particular species of triangle used to exemplify the demonstration; if it did, this would vitiate the argument. Similarly, nothing in the reasoning process hangs on the size of this triangle, or its color, or its location. So the geometer, attending only to what belongs to triangle as triangle, is entitled to conclude that this property belongs to all triangles, and it does so necessarily. Accordingly, Aristotle says that the objects of scientific knowledge are things that cannot be otherwise. Similarly, the natural scientist, though he has before his eyes concrete individuals, attends to those properties and activities that belong to its nature, a nature which is found in every other animal of the same kind; it is for this reason that Fabre’s experiments are repeatable. This nature, insofar as it is shared by many, is universal, something one said of many. Obviously, what belongs to the individual as such is not included in this nature, since this would exclude its communicability with other individuals.
Now it is obvious that the historian is precisely concerned with the individual as individual; his task is not to explain what a revolution is, or what man is, but why the French Revolution of 1779 occurred, or how this particular man, Adolph Hitler, came be the chancellor of German in 1933. These events are accidental wholes; there is not an underlying essence here for the mind to abstract. We recognize that these events are contingent, they could have happened otherwise, the chief ground of this contingency being the freedom of the human will. After his failed coup in 1923, the co-called Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler is said to have contemplated suicide; had he so chosen, it is certain he would not have become chancellor ten years later. The events the historian tries to explain are not inevitable; their occurrence reposes on causes that operate freely and so are not fully intelligible to the human mind.
Now it might be thought that human freedom only introduces indetermination with respect to future actions. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle points out:
What has already taken place is not now an object of choice, e.g., no one now chooses to have captured Ilion. Nor does anyone give advice about something past, but about future and contingent events. It is not possible that what has taken place did not occur. Therefore Agathon was right, for God lacks only this – to undo things already done.
Past events are indeed necessary, but not in the same way that geometrical propositions are. In the aforementioned example, the attribute “having an angle sum equal to two rights” belongs to triangles because of the very nature of what a triangle is, and for this reason the proposition is necessary; Boethius calls this simple necessity. In the proposition “Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C.” the predicate does not belong to the subject because of subject’s essential nature, as a property flowing from Caesar’s essence; rather this proposition is necessary on the condition that Caesar did in fact cross the Rubicon in this year, it being impossible to affirm and deny the same thing of the same subject. Boethius calls this hypothetical necessity. In the latter case, the mind does not see why the subject and predicate are so joined, only that they are so connected.
The historian will attempt to render these facts intelligible by appealing to the motives behind the agent’s choice. But it is very difficult to know the motivations of others, even when they explicitly declare them. The upperclassmen are familiar with Tacitus’ unflattering portrayal of the Roman emperor Tiberius; at every turn the historian points out that behind emperor’s seemingly fair minded speeches and decisions lurk the most sinister of intentions. Tacitus looks to Tiberius’ actions at the end of his life to confirm his initial surmise of the man’s duplicitous character; this is not an unreasonable interpretation. But the facts are certainly open to other interpretations; a man’s later actions are not always consistent with his earlier character -- people change. This is not to say that Tacitus is overstepping the limits of historical analysis in his searching out Tiberius’ secret thoughts and intentions; it is not possible to understand the why of human actions without bringing motives into consideration. My point, rather, is to underscore the inherent fragility of such interpretations; at best they can rise only to the level of probable opinion.
Now why is poetry more universal than history? They seem very much a like – both deal with individual human actions, one looks to what really did happen, the other to the kind of thing that might happen. The poet imitates the actions of men with the purpose of producing in his audience a certain pleasure; in the case of tragedy it is elicit the catharsis of fear and pity. He does this by devising a plot which is a combination of related incidents and actions, having a beginning, middle and end. These different incidents and actions, in themselves singulars, are unified and hence made intelligible by the poet’s ultimate goal of inducing a certain catharsis. Aristotle likens a well told story to the organic unity of a living animal, all of whose parts are ordered to its proper function. Just as the removal of some part of the animal, its spleen say, will seriously impair or even destroy the organism, so also a good plot must “represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposition or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole.” Above all the poet should look to the probability of the incidents in the story – what the characters say and do must seem likely; Nora Torvald’s steely declaration of independence at the end of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House doesn’t ring true to my ear – it doesn’t fit the character’s voice. The incidents themselves should follow a probable sequence; as Aristotle observes, there is a great difference between something happening because of this, and something happening after this. The probability of the various incidents moves the plot forward to its ultimate resolution; a plot is episodic when the only apparent connection between two consecutive scenes is that one comes before the other.
The stories told by the historian do not enjoy the kind of unity found in a well devised plot; Aristotle observes that:
A history has to deal not with one action, but with one period and all that happened in that to one or more persons, however disconnected the several events may have been.
The historian has to report the facts as he finds them and often these appear disconnected and random; we see this especially in coincidental events – Aristotle gives the example of the sea-fight off Salamis and the battle with the Carthaginians in Sicily, both of which happened on the same day, though in entirely different theatres of conflict. Similarly, one event often follows the next with no apparent connection between them. The historian tries to mitigate this defect by reporting those events that are significant for his story, but this in itself does not ensure an intrinsic connection of two consecutive events. Xerxes’ armada is crippled by a hurricane just before the land battle at Thermopylae; these are both significant events in Herodotus’ history, but apparently quite independent of one another. The episodic character of history can never be entirely eliminated. Further historical events seldom issue in satisfying conclusions; the words of the Preacher come to mind: “Under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance happen to them all.”
From this we see that while poetry and history both consider human actions in their particularity, the stories told by the poet are more intelligible and therefore more universal than the historian’s narratives. What is meant by “universal” here is not quite the same as what we find in the sciences, though there is a likeness. The mathematician grasps the essence of a circle by abstracting from all the individuating characteristics encountered in particular circles; this nature, so abstracted, is predicable of many. The poet crafts his plot so as to exclude those aspects of human action that obscure or detract from the goal of his story, the resolution of the action, so that the complete story will produce in the audience the appropriate catharsis. The characters in the play are not universals: there is only one “Emma Woodhouse.” What we recognize is their intrinsic plausibility – Emma is a very believable character, one has no trouble in supposing that such a person might exist; in that sense, we say these characters are true. Moreover, their actions in the story are consistent with their character. By way of contrast, the agents of history are often puzzling, behaving in ways that we would not have thought possible.
Finally, the difficulty inherent in deciphering human intention is perhaps less acute on the poet’s stage than in the theatre of the world. In order to achieve his proper effect, the poet must engage our sympathies with his characters. Our ability to sympathize with a character, however, depends critically on forming a fair estimation of their true motivations in a relatively short span of time; if by the end of the play, Oedipus remains a cipher, the audience will not experience a catharsis of fear and pity and the poet will have failed in his task. Accordingly, the poet will have his characters say and do things that help reveal his character. This does not mean that the poet necessarily aims at perfect clarity regarding his character’s intentions; as an imitation of life, it should reflect the ambiguities we experience in our own dealings with other people. Still, in the final analysis, the good poet wants his characters to be understood, and will provide the reader with sufficient evidence to make this judgment. In his “Life of Alexander” Plutarch indicates that character is often best revealed in seemingly insignificant actions:
[S]ometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.
The biographer has to search out these subtle indicators of character, which by their very nature are less likely to find their way into the historical record. The poet, however, creates such moments precisely for this purpose. Here too, then, we see another way in which poetry is more intelligible than history.
V Providence in secular history
Herodotus reports that the Persians suffered a serious defeat at both Plataea and Mycale, separated geographically by the Aegean Sea, on the very same day. In this he sees the unmistakable hand of providence. Herodotus is certainly not alone among historians in appealing to divine agency to explain the events of history. But to what extent can we know God’s providential plan?
God’s governance of the world is shown to us first of all in the activities of natural bodies that lack reason and will, namely that such bodies act always or for the most part for the sake of an end. Aristotle’s argument that nature acts for an end reposes an analogy between art and nature; in Physics II.8 he writes:
Further, where there is an end, all the preceding steps are for the sake of that. Now surely as in action, so in nature; and as in nature, so it is in each action, if nothing interferes. Now action is for the sake of an end; therefore the nature of things also is so.
To put it succinctly, the argument seems to be this. Natural and artistic processes are similar in that in each we see a series of steps whose terminal stage is end-like or beneficial. The tacit premise here, I take it, is that in both series the steps follow an economical sequence, economical in the sense that nothing is done that is superfluous to the end achieved. Therefore, since what explains the economy of means in artistic productions is the end which the artisan intends, similarly, what explains the economy of means in the natural process is likewise the resultant end; to illustrate this, he appeals to the instinctive behavior of birds and spiders, whose constructions are both highly complex and extremely beneficial to the respective natural agents. If we grant this principle, then it is not too hard to see that there must be a providential God; as St. Thomas points out his commentary on this chapter in the Physics:
[I]t ought to be said that nature is of the number of those causes that act for the sake of an end; and this strongly prevails on the question of providence. For, those things which do not know the end, do not tend towards an end unless they be directed by something that does know, as the arrow by the archer. And so, if nature acts for the sake of an end, it is necessary that it be ordered by some intelligent agent, which is the work of providence.
Things are less clear when we avert our attention from the activities of spiders and sparrows and consider the actions of men. There the good and best does not appear to obtain always or for the most part; in this life the wicked often prevail. Nor when it does is there a clear order of sequential events culminating in this good such as we find in artistic productions; Tacitus offers these sobering reflections regarding the inconspicuous role played by Claudius in Rome prior to his ascendancy as emperor; he writes:
The more I think about history, ancient and modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem. In public opinion, expectation, and esteem no one appeared a less likely candidate for the throne than the man for whom destiny was secretly reserving it.
Looking at the matter inductively, the evidence does not strongly indicate that a providential governor orchestrates the events of human history. It seems to me, rather, that the philosopher, having arrived at the conclusion that an all good, and all powerful creator directs the entirety of creation, concludes that such a principle must be at work even in the affairs of men, despite the evidence to the contrary. In other words, we see that God is behind the events of history in having grasped universally that God, the creator of all things, directs all things to the good.
Natural reason is sufficient to see the fact of providence in history. But is it capable of seeing into God’s particular reasons for the things that happen? Lady Philosophy, in her discourse with Boethius, cautions against making such judgments; “it is not fitting,” she says, “for men to understand intellectually or to explain verbally all the dispositions of the divine work.” If it is difficult to know with certitude the motives of other human beings, how much more so to make the same inquiry regarding God’s plans? Scripture confirms Lady Philosophy’s warning; speaking through the voice of the Prophet Isaiah, Our Lord tells his people:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
The thoughts of other men are hard to fathom because hidden; still, for all that they remain human thoughts and so are in principle intelligible to us. Things stand otherwise with the divine mind; here it is primarily the sublimity of His thoughts and plans that obscures our vision. To see this, we need to compare God’s apprehension of the singulars that fall under His providential dispensation with our own consideration of the same. In setting out the different marks of the wise man, Aristotle observes that “the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them individually.” As we have noted earlier, the human mode of knowing is by way of abstracting the universal from the individuating principles that divide one sensible individual from the next. The individual as individual does not perfect the intellect, nor is it possible for us to grasp all the individuals that fall under a given universal, since these are potentially infinite in number. This sort of limitation is reflected in the man of practical wisdom; as St. Thomas points out:
[A]mong men, the higher one is in ruling the more his ordinances extends to more universal matters alone, whereas he leaves the particulars to be dispensed by lower rulers.
The truth of this remark is perhaps best seen by considering the so-called micro-manager: he attempts to govern the activities of his employees in the minutest details, with the predictable results of inefficiency and disharmony in the work place. One shudders to think what would happen to this community were Mr. Cain to implement such a misguided policy. As a good governor, knowing full well his own limitations, Mr. Cain wisely delegates responsibilities to his subordinates, the head prefects and activity directors, who in turn manage the more particular operations of student life.
God, however, does know the singular as such. His knowledge, of course, is not derived from things, but rather in knowing Himself, He knows how each thing can imitate His perfection, and through this knowledge He creates all the things that are. Now the human artisan brings into existence a particular artifact, a chair for example, by shaping natural materials in conformity with his universal idea of what a chair should be; his apprehension of the materials is through another faculty, the senses. But since God is the cause of each creature in the totality of its being, He must know sensible creatures both in their formal and material principles. Thus God knows not only human nature, but every single attribute belonging to each man arising from matter, even the act of being enjoyed by the hair on Mr. Coughlin’s head, however faint this may be. Thus we see that it does not belong to the perfection of science to be ignorant of the singular as such; this, rather, is a limitation due to our abstractive mode of knowing from sensible particulars. From this we can see the resolution to our first difficulty raised at the start of this lecture. God’s knowledge of contingent things results from His superior mode of knowing. For men, we can know with certitude the contingent singular only insofar as it falls immediately under our sense powers; it is by another, more superior power, the intellect, that we grasp what is formal and therefore universal in the particular. But as St. Thomas observes “the perfections which are found divided among inferior beings exist simply and unitedly in God. God [accordingly] knows both [the formal and material principles in contingent things] through His own simple understanding (intellectus).”
So what do we say about the hair count of a given individual – is it or is it not a perfection for me to know this? The example is complex: the number could very well change in the time it takes to tally up the sum. Let’s take an easier example. Mr. Baer often wears colorful ties; suppose I saw the tie he wore yesterday and made an effort to remember this. Hence I know the fact that on Thursday, August 23, Mr. Baer wore his blue Dodger tie. I take it that the sense powers of both the eye and the memory are completed by these activities; and since every perfection is good, this sense knowledge, considered absolutely, is something desirable. But if you ask me if this fact is worth knowing, I would have to say: “not as much as other things.” Certainly the universal propositions of Euclid’s Elements are more worthy objects of knowledge. Since I have only so many hours in the day to learn, my time is better spent pursing these nobler objects; moreover my capacity to retain the objects of sense experience is also limited. If time were not so precious, and the “attic” of my brain were of infinite expanse, then this fact, and indeed all the facts of history, or almost all of them, would be worth knowing. Given our human limitations, liberal education seeks to introduce the student to those facts that are most directly pertinent to the cultivation of the liberal arts and sciences, like the digestive tracts of cuttlefish.
Similar remarks are in order regarding God’ providential plan. Unlike the highest human rulers, whose governance properly reaches only to the universal ends of the community, God’s ordinances “extend even to the smallest matters” such that “even the most isolated and insignificant” thing is arranged by Him according to a fixed order. Without a special revelation, this plan remains a mystery to God’s intellectual creatures. While we can know in general way that whatever happens must be for a good reason, we can never know with certitude the particular significance of each event. Suppose a great blessing were to befall a man that everyone recognizes as just. We might be inclined to think that the Lord is rewarding him for his goodness; and that very well might be the case. But for all we know, this man’s justice is a fragile habit that would fail were he to be tested. Job, in exasperation, tells his friends that” if He [God] comes to me, I will not see Him, and if He goes away, I will not understand Him.” Commenting on this passage St. Thomas observes how incomprehensible divine wisdom can be:
Sometimes God permits either trials or even some spiritual defects to befall some men in order to procure their salvation as is said in Romans 8:28: “For those who love God, everything works for the good.” In this way, then, God comes to man, by procuring his salvation, and yet man does not see Him since does not perceive His benefits; conversely, God does not take from many men His manifest benefits which nevertheless turn to their destruction; therefore it is said that God withdraws from a man in such a way that the man does not understand that He is withdrawing.
The Book of Job reveals how precarious it is for men to pronounce judgment on the significance of God’s dispensations; significantly, the disagreement between Job and his friends does not come to an end until God speaks from the whirlwind: it belongs to God alone to know the “secrets of his wisdom” [Job 11:6]. And so while it is true that there exists an intelligible order to history, this side of the grave we can only speculate what this order might be. Only God’s knows whether such speculations are true.
Let me essay the conclusions that we have reached thus far. Catholic liberal education aims primarily at inculcating in the student knowledge about the highest things, especially God. The philosopher can know that every thing in the universe is subject to God’s providential plan including human history. But that is as far the philosopher’s knowledge reaches.
The secular historian, through a judicious selection of the available materials recorded by first hand observers, tries to construct a narrative that explains the causes behind some significant historical event. These explanations do not rise above the level of probable opinion, and this for two reasons. First, with few exceptions, the facts on which these narratives are based must be accepted on faith – the student of history is seldom in a position to verify for himself whether or not the facts in question are true. Second, because the historian’s explanations inevitably reduce to the choices and motivations of the acting historical agents, the events in question are neither necessary nor can we be fully confident that agents were acting according to the intentions assigned for them by the historian. Therefore, secular history, considered a speculative discipline, will not be a formal part of Liberal education, whose end is knowledge, rather than opinion. We saw above, however, that while liberal education aims primarily at a speculative good, it also includes secondarily the practical sciences of ethics and politics. Since these sciences depend on a great deal of experience, which the young naturally lack, the study of history can be extremely helpful by supplying the student with paradigmatic illustrations of ethical choices and their consequences.
Finally, since, as Aristotle observes, the liberally educated man is one who is “critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge,” not as an expert, but as one who can form his own judgment about the “goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition,” a man so educated ought to be able to read history in this manner. To this end it necessary that a liberal arts curriculum should include at least some history, not so much for the content of the history itself, but to develop the appropriate skills of reading history critically. For this reason, the College wisely includes some of the best historical studies in its evening seminars.
VI Sacred history
In this last part of the lecture I will argue that unlike its secular counterpart, sacred history does belong as an integral part of Catholic liberal education. The seniors, no doubt, are aware of a difficulty that attends my thesis. In the first question of the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas considers an objection that sacred doctrine is not a science on the grounds that it treats of singulars such as “the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the like.” St. Thomas replies that sacred doctrine does not treat of singulars principally, but either as moral exemplars or to establish the authority of Scripture’s authors. I have always been puzzled by this reply. Our Lord too is a singular man; His nativity, passion, death, resurrection and ascension – all of these are historical events. These seem to be more than just edifying examples or miraculous events to establish the authority of the evangelists; these are the very things the faithful meditate upon; surely the theologian also must find in them suitable objects for contemplation. Yet St. Thomas’s response would seem to exclude such events from the speculative scope of the theologian. In the past, like so many on this faculty, I would turn to Marc Berquist for guidance, especially on questions dealing with thought of St. Thomas. Sadly, I had to look for counsel elsewhere – I went to Mr. O’Reilly. He too was at a loss about how to square St. Thomas’ reply with the central mysteries of the Christian faith. We were both stumped, and I was beginning to get more than a little worried. And then Mr. O’Reilly remembered a letter he had seen, written by Mr. Berquist to Thomas Waldstein (now Pater Edmund), on this very problem. What follows is essentially Mr. Berquist’s response in the order in which he himself thought through the problem; I should add that Mr. Berquist was not altogether satisfied with the answer – he said it was at best a partial resolution. Perhaps in the Q & A we can explore how one might complete it.
The first step in Mr. Berquist’s argument has already been established earlier in this lecture. He points out that the objection is based on a view of science taken from the standpoint of human knowing; “God’s science,” he says, “which is most perfectly science, knows the material singular as such.” So much is familiar ground.
Second, “sacred doctrine is a participation in God’s knowledge, that is, more precisely, it a science sub-alternate to the science of God and the blessed.” The principles of sacred doctrine are made known to us by revelation, and accepted as true in virtue of the light of faith, a light more certain than the natural light of reason. That God is a trinity of persons is seen with perfect clarity by God and blessed; in this life this proposition remains a mystery, although we assent to its truth with unshakeable conviction. Thus sacred doctrine occupies a middle position between the perfect knowledge enjoyed by God, and the kind of knowledge afforded to unassisted human reason. The same distinction applies to the knowledge of material singulars: “[sacred doctrine] will fall short of God’s perfect comprehension, but exceed the knowledge of singulars provided by properly human knowledge.”
Mr. Berquist first explains how revealed knowledge of singulars falls short of God’s perfect comprehension. Revelation, which is the source of sacred doctrine, comes to us by way of human language. But words signify things by way of common conceptions abstracted from sensible particulars. For this reason “the words which signify these conceptions cannot communicate to the mind what is unique to the material singulars as such.” For example, if I tell you that my son Danny is adorable, you all know what is signified by the term “adorable,” though most probably have not met Danny in person. The concept here is universal, and as such prescinds from those aspects of Danny’s adorableness that belong him as an individual. Even if I were to specify the way in which he exemplifies this characteristic, say the way he sucks his thumb while twirling his hair with his other hand, even this description is expressed in terms that are universal in meaning; as such they do not express all the concrete richness – the “thisness” -- of his action. This personal knowledge, says Mr. Berquist, is unique and incommunicable, and so cannot be taught. Therefore, Scripture will not be able to communicate to us Christ’s human nature in its material singularity. The Apostles who lived with Jesus necessarily know Him better than their words can ever say; but even their knowledge of Christ’s individuality falls far short of that enjoyed by God. Our senses attend only to the surfaces of things; and the knowledge they produce is limited by the perspective, attention and time under which the senses operate. God sees each thing from all sides, outside and within, and at every moment of its existence; there is no thought or feeling that escapes His notice.
Sacred doctrine, however, does teach us things about human history that cannot possibly be known by the secular historian. Faith gives us the assurance that certain events recorded in Scripture really did happen, beginning with the first man, Adam. Concerning the doctrine of original sin, Pius XII writes:
[T]he faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.
Adam’s first sin lies at the heart of the Christian religion. If this did not really happen, then the mission of the Word becomes unintelligible; as St. Paul says, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died in vain.” Scripture clearly teaches us about this event, both in the Old Testament and in the New; through the supernatural gift of faith we assent to this fact with unwavering certitude. The student of secular history, in contrast, must put his trust in human authorities, which are not only fallible but are sometimes deliberately misleading. This is one advantage that sacred history has over secular.
The second is that the author of the Scripture is also the author of history itself. For this reason, the student of sacred history can be certain that the facts selected really are significant, although he might not see their significance so clearly in every case. In this way the Scriptures resemble the narrative structure of a well contrived plot, where the poet arranges the incidents and characters so as to lead to a fitting conclusion. On the road to Emmaus the Risen Christ tells two of His disciples:
“O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Here our Lord teaches that the Scriptures form an intelligible unity in which the words and deeds recorded in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New. Thus the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes that the Levitical Priesthood, prescribed by the Mosaic Law, was a “shadow of the good things [to come],” namely of Christ the high priest, who through His perfect sacrifice makes expiation for the sins of God’s people. The significance of Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek becomes readily apparent; and we can see, albeit dimly, why so much attention is directed to the rites of sacrifice in the Book of Leviticus. The events and institutions of the Old Testament thus become intelligible when seen in the light of faith, a light which shares in God’s own knowledge of these things.
Plutarch might speculate on the possible cosmic significance of Julius Caesar for the Roman Commonwealth, but he has no way of knowing whether his guesses correspond with God’s own secret reasons. Through revelation these reasons, some of them at least, are declared. The Patriarch Joseph tells his treacherous brothers to fear not, “for you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive today.” This is not a mere conjecture on his part: God reveals things to Joseph through dreams, including the very dream that incited his brothers to kill him. The student of sacred doctrine, following the history of Joseph and his brothers, can see the hand of providence gathering the sons of Israel into Egypt, where their descendants will become slaves as foretold to Abraham. And this servitude they recognize as foreshadowing the slavery of sin, a slavery that is not abolished until the coming of Christ, the second Moses, who liberates mankind by His grace and truth, thereby fulfilling the law given by the first Moses. In other words, unlike the philosopher, who knows only the fact of divine providence, the faithful have some insight into the true reasons for the events unfolding in sacred history. In attending to the sufferings of Job, for example, we know that he is a righteous man, that these tribulations are not sent as punishment for some sin he committed, but rather to test his virtue.
Finally, returning to the difficulty raised above, the objection lists the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to illustrate the kind of singulars that concern sacred doctrine. Mr. Berquist points out that “the Patriarchs are not considered for the same reason that the Incarnation is; indeed, their significance is chiefly with respect to the Incarnation.” While it seems doubtful that the Patriarchs are included in sacred doctrine only as examples, the way one might bring in Socrates or Pericles to manifest a point in political philosophy, they can at least serve this purpose; and perhaps that is enough to answer the objector’s difficulty. [I think that this is the part of his response with which Mr. Berquist was not altogether satisfied]. Regarding the man Jesus Christ, while it is true that he is an individual, His passion and resurrection are the universal causes of our redemption, justification and eventual glory. There is a text from St. Thomas to support this reading. In his Commentary on Boethius’ De trinitate, an objection is raised that the Catholic faith should not be called universal on the grounds that what we hold by faith are the truths of certain individual events, such as the passion and resurrection of Christ. Thomas replies that “we believe these individual events as universal remedies for the liberation of the whole human race.” In a similar way, Adam’s first sin, though particular, is nonetheless the universal cause of man’s sinfulness; as St. Paul says, “for as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Mr. Berquist includes Mary, the Mother of God, as a historical particular whose universal significance is secured by revelation and sacred doctrine. Adam names his wife ‘Eve’ because she was destined to be the mother of all living things; perhaps Mary, the second Eve, is likewise the universal spiritual mother of all who live by the grace of her Son.
In this lecture I want to explain the place of history in Catholic liberal education. Before I enunciate my thesis, I should clarify the scope of my consideration. By “history” I have in mind the narrative descriptions of the great men of the past, their deeds, their institutions, and their customs such as we find in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides. The term ‘history’ has a much wider scope than this; Aristotle has a treatise entitled History of Animals which contains descriptions of various animals, their parts, and their behaviors; he intended this to serve as the foundation for his treatise The Parts of Animals in which he begins to explain the various phenomena described in the History. In current nomenclature the History of Animals would be a part of what is called natural history, which is a necessary prelude to the life sciences. Thus, if biology belongs to a liberal arts curriculum, -- and it does -- so also would natural history.
There is also a more restricted sense of history which looks to the development over time of some particular idea or discipline; and so there are histories of scientific concepts such ‘force’ and ‘energy,’ as well as entire disciplines such as architecture and physics. Although such studies do not abstract entirely from the human authors of these mental artifacts, the focus tends to be on the artifacts themselves; you might say that here the idea or discipline is the principal actor in stories told by these specialists. As in the case with natural history, so here too I think a case can be made for the inclusion of these specialized historical studies – some of them at any rate -- in a liberal arts curriculum. A sign of this is that almost the entire natural science program here at Thomas Aquinas College is historical in tenor; this is not accidental. But I will not make that argument in this lecture. Even here, however, I would want to insist that we are not studying the history of science as history, but as offering a suitable experiential basis for reflecting on the natural sciences and their principles, which is a properly philosophical consideration. I have restricted my scope so as to keep my comments tonight within reasonable limits.
American Catholic liberal education would include the study of principal documents of the American founding.
Indeed, even in our own case it is difficult to be sure what our true intentions are; good actions are by their very nature praiseworthy. One hopes that we are doing the right thing for the right reason, but it is not always clear. Significantly, in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the last tempter encourages Beckett to:
Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,