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President McLean’s 2019 California Matriculation Address: “We Have Only one Foot in the Earthly City”

Posted: August 26, 2019


by Michael F. McLean, Ph.D.
President, Thomas Aquinas College
California Convocation
August 26, 2019


You freshmen are about to begin four years of Catholic liberal education. The pursuit of this education rightly requires a certain withdrawal from practical and political affairs for the sake of cultivating the habits conducive to serious thought and quiet contemplation.  

Don’t misunderstand, however — your education will help you think about and better understand the questions faced by citizens of every time and place: questions, for example, about the nature of justice, about the best form of government, and the origin and limits of political power and authority. Your education here will be an education in citizenship because it will help you see the ideas and principles which shape the contemporary world and which form the basis of the political movements, issues, and challenges we face today.  

Considerations of this sort begin, of course, in the freshman year. In Sophocles’ great tragedy, Antigone, Creon articulates a political philosophy and a certain model of citizenship when he says “there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority. It destroys cities, it demolishes homes; it breaks and routs one’s allies … [T]he man the state has put in place must have obedient hearing to his least command when it is right, and even when it is not” (ll. 728ff and ll. 665ff). Countering Creon’s command to refrain from burying her brother, and bringing the question of the relationship between the human and divine laws into clear focus, Antigone says “for me it was not Zeus who made that order. Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below mark out such laws to hold among mankind. Nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws” (ll. 450ff).

In the Republic, Plato takes up Thrasymachus’ claim that “justice is the advantage of the stronger” (338c), develops a general theory of justice, discusses the various kinds of political arrangement, and establishes an order among them. These questions are revisited by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics and Politics, which are read and discussed in the junior year.  

Again in the freshman and sophomore years, historians like Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, and Plutarch depict the strengths and weaknesses of various regimes and political leaders concretely and in great detail and trace the transition from monarchy to republic to tyranny. Poets like Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare put before us images of good and bad leadership, of the rise of cities and political cultures, and of the downfall of kings, princes, and others in authority.  

Modern political philosophers like Machiavelli articulate what are sometimes called pragmatic political philosophies when they say, as Machiavelli does, that “a prince who wishes to maintain the state is often forced to do evil” (ch. 19) and “it will be found that some things which seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one’s ruin, and some others which appear vices result in one’s greater security and wellbeing” (ch. 15). Perhaps more realistic, however, is St. Thomas when he says in his work On Kingship that “the very temporal advantages for which tyrants abandon justice work to the greater profit of kings when they observe justice.”  

Other modern political philosophers (like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau), abandoning the robust sense of the natural law found in St. Thomas, articulate the idea of rights as the basis of political authority and citizenship, and the founders and founding documents of our own country help us understand how rights serve as the principles on which our own specific political arrangements are founded.

Let these examples suffice to make the point: Ours is an education which will help to make you thoughtful, knowledgeable, and productive citizens. The specifically Catholic character of this education, and the preeminence in it enjoyed by Aristotle and St. Thomas, will help you see that human laws should be grounded on natural and eternal laws and that our political arrangements should be ordered to the common good.  

It is important in Catholic liberal education that we begin to think deeply about the management of our temporal affairs and that we begin to cultivate the virtue of political prudence. Aristotle himself emphasizes this when he says at the end of the Ethics, as he is introducing the Politics, “he who wants to make men, whether many or few, better by his care must try to become capable of legislating, since it is through laws that we can become good.”

In conclusion, let me say that our discussion of citizenship would not be complete without making the point, if only briefly, that the political, as I have outlined it here, constitutes only part of our curriculum; that as essential as these things are, they are not the highest things.  

At the end of the Ethics Aristotle famously remarked: “We ought not to listen to those who exhort us, because we are human, to think of human things … we ought rather to take on immortality as much as possible, and do all that we can to live in accordance with the highest element within us; for even if its bulk is small, in its power and value it far exceeds everything.”  

Echoing this thought, St. Augustine reminds us that we have only one foot in the earthly city. The most important work of Catholic liberal education, and of Thomas Aquinas College, is that carried out in its philosophy and theology tutorials and in its chapel and other places of prayer. This work helps to perfect our highest faculty and enables us to grow in wisdom and in faith, hope, and charity. Accordingly, it, too, prepares us for citizenship — but citizenship in the city of God and in the heavenly city to come.

Thank you.


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Dr. McLean at California Matriculation 2019
Patrick Nazeck (’19) -- quote 1

“No one here tells us what to think. We read the great books, look into them deeply, and then discuss them actively in class, which has forced me to take responsibility for my own education.”

– Patrick Nazeck (’19)

Ridgecrest, California

“I am deeply touched by the quality of the intellectual and spiritual formation that you offer. The study of philosophy should lead to a conviction that truth can be known, articulated, and defended. Your college shows that this is possible, and on a high level!”

– Rev. Wojciech Giertych, O.P.

Theologian of the Papal Household