Note: Each year the graduating class elects one of its members to present the Senior Address at Commencement. This year’s speaker, James W. Thompson of Amherst, N.H., will be teaching as Glendale Preparatory Academy in Glendale, Ariz., starting this fall.
Freedom and Unity
by James W. Thompson (’12)
May 12, 2012
Fr. Buckley; Mother Assumpta; dear faculty; members of the Board, friends and benefactors of Thomas Aquinas College; parents, relatives, and friends; and my beloved classmates:
During my years here at Thomas Aquinas College, I have on many occasions felt myself burdened with great responsibility, such as during exams or when writing and defending my senior thesis, as I am sure you have as well. I have always approached such occasions with some misgivings about whether I was up to the task; but never as much so as now. Before my accountability was only to myself, since all my efforts, however important the occasion, represented myself and no one else; but today I am faced with the task of representing not only myself but all of you, my classmates, a task that is as grave a responsibility as it is a great honor.
And I know that this is a responsibility that I must, in some measure, fail to fulfill. For, while in God all perfections are brought into one, in His creatures they cannot be so united, but jostle each other out just as the material bodies of those creatures do when attempting to occupy the same space. And so I am quite unable to present at once all the different and often contradictory perfections of you, my classmates. I cannot bring together the abstract rationality of Phil Knuffke with the impassioned exuberance of Bridget Lynch, the inspiring self-confidence of Colin O’Keefe with the earnest humility of Marie Donovan, or the intense studiousness of David Freer with the effortless brilliance of Josh Altic. (And our class could offer a list of oppositions that could rival any the Pythagoreans could contrive.) I cannot represent all of these people together any more than I could share the space behind this podium with them (and it is not my pride but my materiality that prevents it). And so, at least in this way, I know that I cannot represent you, a failing for which you must forgive me, for it stems from my being human rather than Divine.
But if there are many things that, however diverse, have something in common, then they can be brought together, even by human power. And the fact that we are all standing here together today to celebrate our graduation surely signifies a more than accidental unity. (I should hope so, because otherwise it wouldn’t be worth sweltering in these robes.) I know this is a unity that we did not share when we first came together here as freshmen; indeed it does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that we were as far from it then as we were distant in time from this day.
We all remember our first classes, where we set off in search of truth like knights-errant, forging bravely into the wild on our solitary quest (a quest which may have seemed to many of our friends and relatives to be as illusory and foolhardy as the exploits of Don Quixote). But perhaps not truly solitary. For the most significant encounter during these early days was not the expected meeting with the great minds of the works we were studying, but with the other students who were on the same mission as we were and seemed to see think themselves just as well equipped for it as we were.
“If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!”
— St. Catherine of Siena
Granted, we had known that there would be other students besides us (this was the discussion method after all), but we had most likely expected to encounter a polite and responsive audience for our own thoughts and insights, listening with rapt attention and only replying with affirmation and support. But what we met was something quite different; something not made of such malleable stuff as we had expected; something with its own shapes and motions, inexplicably resistant to our attempts to direct it; something wriggling and kicking and very much alive. Such were the minds of our fellow students, inexorably resilient and unceasingly at odds with ourselves and each other, and this not through any malice but quite by natural necessity. For living beings, unlike the inanimate materials of an artificial edifice, cannot be united simply by being forced together, and far more is required than local proximity to make them truly one. Nor can this come about by the strongest of them forcing the others to follow its will (as many of us may have been attempting to do during these early days, whether we intended to or not), since this would be to buy unity at the price of life.
Rather, union must come from something higher than all and yet common to all, a good which they strive for together and cannot attain alone, and which can be enjoyed by all without suffering any diminution. The first step is the realization that this end cannot be reached without help. And while we may at first be annoyed with those who stand in the way of our train of thought and cause it to come to a screeching halt, we will later forgive the delay and count it a blessing when we realize that the particular track we were rushing along so merrily would have led us over a cliff.
Next comes the discovery that the good to be had is not in the reaffirmation of our own opinions, but in coming to possess something new; not in making something our own but in enjoying it with others, the goodness of it growing rather than diminishing with each new share claimed. And, as Aristotle says, in every community among those with a common end there is not only justice but friendship as well.
This is what brought us together as a class, this common striving for a good and the common enjoyment of it. And the oneness that we have does not come simply from coming and going together to the same classrooms or matriculating at and graduating from this school in the same years, but can truly be called a friendship. I quote Aristotle again to say that “loving is the virtue of friends”; and though up to now I have used many metaphors and figures of speech, I assure you that I speak simply, precisely, and literally when I say that I love you all, my dear classmates, and I know that, at least in this, I can be sure that I speak for all of us.
And yet I also know that — had I attempted to the give this speech in a conversation or a classroom without the protection offered by the position of class speaker — I would have been justly interrupted in my discourse long before now by one of you taking on the role of the proverbial “conscientious objector.”
“Mr. Thompson,” he says. “You speak of us all being united by the pursuit of some common good, and yet you have not given us any hint of what this good is besides the fact that it is attained together and enjoyed together. What is this magical good that you keep speaking of?”
I, somewhat taken aback, reply to this objector, saying “I thought that, above all else, would be obvious. After all, we attend a school to pursue a liberal education together; it is to this education that I was referring, and I only failed to mention it for fear of making my speech too long and redundant.”
“That,” retorts the objector, “is only to push the question back a step. Why is this liberal education we have attained a good, and why is it a good that we are all able to share in together? Does not the name liberal suggest more the breaking of bonds rather than the binding together of a multitude?”
“I will attempt to answer your question,” I respond. “But in so doing I must take a cue from Aristotle and abandon the dialogue format since it is inefficient and it’s losing its novelty.”
The objector was, indeed, correct in attending to the word “liberal” when trying to determine the good of the education we have received here over the last four years. The word, of course, means free, and therefore seems to beg further qualification; the natural question is “free from what”?
Does a liberal education give us what Socrates was always seeking to give to his students (or help them to recollect for themselves), a freedom from misconceptions about our own knowledge of the world, eventually coming to the realization that we, in fact, know nothing? Or is it an even more radical shaking of our foundations, showing us that there is no absolute reality, as Nietzsche and his fellow moderns would have it, and granting us the greatest and most terrible freedom of all: to make of the truth what we will?
Surely it cannot be either of these if it is to be a good. For the former, the shattering of our complacency and the clearing away of our false opinions so that we come to see our own ignorance, is but the beginning of something good. It makes room for real knowledge, but is of no value if we stop with it, just as one does not level a building unless he means to erect a better one in its place; no one simply takes joy in the rubble. A sense of wonder at the incommensurability of the truth with our power of knowing it is sometimes appropriate and necessary, especially in such subjects as theology (or perhaps Mr. Quackenbush’s Senior Natural Science class), but is not, simply speaking ,our goal. And the idea that the truth is something we create excludes our attaining any good at all unless it be a kind of self-reflection — a worthy achievement to be sure, but not a resting place unless we believed that we ourselves were the greatest thing there was to be known; only if we believed that we ourselves were God. And if I am looking for a good on account of which we, the many, can be united by pursuing it, it cannot be this total self-absorption, which would draw us into ourselves and more completely away from one another than the bitterest conflict.
So it might seem impossible that any act could be simultaneously freeing and uniting. In pursuing a liberating education are we not all like lines radiating out from the same center each in our own different direction, growing ever further apart? And yet it may in fact be possible to bring the two together, paradoxical as it might seem. Perhaps the surface which we are traveling on is in fact a sphere, and all the radii which appear to be fleeing each other by one who sees the world as flat will in fact come around to meet again in the same point. Perhaps our inability to see that something can be both liberating and conjunctive is from a similar lack of the proper perspective, and we should take a further removed point of view by looking at the nature of men in general, how they are united and divided, and in what way they are free.
The way in which men are divided from each other, at least most obviously, is by their corporeal nature, their limitation to this place and this time and not any other. And within these we are further limited by material circumstances which they bring with them, relying on our surroundings for survival and progress. Indeed one might say that the ability to move through space or time is entirely contingent on our current place or time giving us the wherewithal to do so, making these two our omnipotent masters. Likewise we seem to be just as determined when it comes to our thoughts and desires, for what can we know but what we come into contact with, and what can we pursue but what presents to us the most attractive appearances? All these restrictions will then determine who we can and cannot come into contact with, and our union with one another is like that of cellmates or partners in a chain gang attached to one another at the ankle by the cord of our particular worldly circumstances.
And yet despite these considerations we also say that man is free. This is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that everyone recognizes, at least until he is led confused and led astray by the narrow-minded view of the Darwinian natural scientists, that man is by nature essentially distinct from all the beasts, both in his will and his intellect, and this by freedom. Contrary to the picture painted above, this distinction consists precisely in the ability to transcend our individual circumstances, to in some way step outside of place and time. For within our own particular tiny piece of the world, we encounter truths that are not restricted to it but are true at all times and everywhere, and goods which can be desired and pursued regardless of the greatness or smallness of the situation. How it is possible to find eternity and omnipresence in a particular time and place is, of course, a problem that philosophers have struggled with over the centuries (with many of them concluding that is not in fact possible). But the very fact that these men, separated by the twin tyrants of time and place, can still converse with one another on this question seems a strong indication that such a discovery must take place, since where else can these men meet except in eternity?
And from this it is clear why it is that what makes us free also brings us together. By transcending the material bonds which hold us apart, we are able to come together in the truths and goods which are not so bound. The fact that we stand together here today is merely a sign of the fact that we are united by something far more intimate, the timeless goodness and truth which we have together pursued and in some measure attained. And that this should bring us all together is in no way surprising when we consider that it was attained by our conversing with men far more removed from us in time and place, circumstance and disposition, and yet present to us today and everyday, here and everywhere because of their undaunted, unbounded, transcendent, and truly liberal quest for the truth.
What Shall We Do?
This, then, is the source of our oneness as a class, and the reason that I am able, however imperfectly, to speak for all of us on this day by describing and praising it. And yet the occasion for my speech is not simply to celebrate the completion of something past, but also, and perhaps more properly, the beginning of something new. For this time at which we are most united is also, in a bittersweet paradox, the time at which we go our separate ways in the world. And so, even after having identified the good which we have achieved, the question remains: What are we to do with it during the rest of our lives? This is not to suggest that what we have learned has only a utilitarian value, but rather the greatness of it is such that it must impact and transform everything that we meet, or else not come to its full fruition. And so I ask again, what shall we do?
Surely we should not simply look on the many in the world from whom our education has in some way separated us with the happiness which Lucretius felt when viewing a shipwreck safely from the cliffs above, seeing the sailors strive vainly against drowning and delighting in the fact that he was no longer among them. This would be to bend our plowshares of unity into swords of division, forgetting that our own meager freedom from evil and error was only attained by a union with those greater than ourselves. No, we must instead enter the world as the enlightened, re-enter the darkness of the cave in Plato’s Republic, plunging into the darkness boldly because we know the way back to the light, in order to lead others back with us.
And while many of us may pursue this in the most apparent way, by becoming teachers ourselves and sharing our knowledge with others as it was shared with us, this is not the only or even principal means to share the good we have received here. For we can see in our own beloved college how liberality pervades far more than the classrooms.
This school is truly able to transcend its material circumstances in every way. The most obvious of these is financially. Through its optimistic but always justified faith in the generosity of donors, the College has been able to provide its education to all who sought it, regardless of whether their particular financial situation would have ordinarily enabled them to afford it or not. Without this liberality, as well as the immeasurable support of my own parents, of course, I, along with many of us, would not be here.
We see the same transcendence in the incredible accomplishments of our student choir, or those who come together to put on a dance or formal dinner, who, entering with little previous experience and expecting no material reward, have been able to bring forth creations of such remarkable beauty that they call to mind the miraculous building of the ark of the covenant by the unskilled laborers of Israel. Or in the seemingly limitless availability of the tutors to provide answers and assistance to the students, much of it outside of the classroom hours for which they are hired. The fact that each of the groups that I have mentioned would most likely protest that they were only doing what was expected from them is but a sign of the fact that here the extraordinary is commonplace.
A true liberal education will touch every part of whatever life the one who possesses it chooses to live. And the way in which it will show itself the most is not in the greatness of mind, or even excellence of character of its possessor, but in the charity with which they live their lives. For whenever we were taught something during our time here, whether by a tutor, a fellow student or the author of a work, it was not by our teacher dazzling us with the brilliance of his intellectual superiority, but by his charity in helping us to ascend to an equal level, making that superiority no more.
And what can be more free than to love all our fellow men, regardless of their place or character, with a love that overcomes all obstacles and unites inexorably and yet without coercion? This, ultimately, is the fire of which St. Catherine speaks in our class quote, with which we are to ignite the world; this is how we can ultimately be united not only as a class or a school in our study of the true and the good, but as children of the self-subsisting True And Good; this how we can rise together and converge in eternity.
And so, onwards and upwards, Class of 2012, and may God bless you and speed you on your way.