Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 96 (October 1999): 17-21.
(Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from a convocation address presented at Hillsdale College last October.)
I begin with a statement you will agree is true, after which you’re on your own: mine is a more interesting circumstance at this moment than it can possibly be for you. What a fascinating coincidence: you, green in the fall wood of October; I very near the sere and yellow leaf.
Your greening time is for me a fall which speaks hope of an eventual fullness for you, against an old fallenness deeper than the calendar year can now mean for you—especially if you have forgotten your old scion Adam. For me, the sumac and maple and poplar leaves are turning variously and most gloriously toward brown. But here you are at the spring of what I know, better than you, must be a turning year.
And so, in partial celebration of my own fortunate fall, two poems which eventually—not now—may give you delayed pleasure within your own turning world. First "The Scholars," by William Butler Yeats.
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbor knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?
But then also "Blue Girls," written by John Crowe Ransom.
Twirling your blue skirts, traveling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
In this interval between whatever restless tossing in the green year and that future state of becoming yourself old and contrary, I urge you now, in my coughing words, to a healthy skepticism, a skepticism, that is, unyielding to cynicism. Not a balance easy to keep, especially if we—you or I—lose anchor in a steadying truth: each of us is limited more deeply by our mortality and our ignorance than is accounted for by our talking about blue girls or coughing scholars. This healthy skepticism is a difficult deportment to learn, but through it we come to terms with our limit as this person to the truth of things, especially the truth about myself as person. The truth of things: the multitudinous mystery of creation itself which draws us to know, raising in us willy–nilly a desire to understand. And then perhaps—or so we must desire—we may become wise in a valid progress as this person—as "myself."
Meanwhile we stand and sway, always in danger of the winds of the world, but the more endangered—because we are persons and not trees. We are tempted to presume beyond knowledge or understanding. At the most dangerous point, we presume to a comprehension absolute: a comprehension of whatever our gift of intellect rests upon at the moment. What we easily forget is that understanding accommodates us to an uncertainty, to an accepting of limits to our omniscience. By limit we are prevented—except as a self–induced and self–defeating illusion—from an absolute comprehension of any thing, including even ourselves. For comprehension is a property reserved to the nature of the Creator God, as are omnipotence and omniscience.
This danger of presuming to an absolute comprehension is spoken to by folk wisdom seldom heeded, most especially by those of us who cough in ink. It ain’t what we don’t know that makes us ignorant. It’s what we do know that ain’t true.
Thus a Nobel Prize–winner in genetics, Richard Dawkins, tells us what he doesn’t know. We are as persons, he says, only "lumbering robots" whose genes have "created us body and mind." There lies hidden in this direct quote, however, a royal we: Dawkins does not assume himself thus described. Rather he stands at a transcendent point, above both genes and body and mind, in a presumption of containing by his pronouncement an absolute comprehension of the nature of man. Thus he becomes an excellent illustration of what I shall call the provincial mind. Alas, his is an intellectual malady conspicuous among our intelligentsia: the modernist mind presuming intellectual autonomy beyond limit.
I recommend a motto for you to place over your study desk, lest you yield to the temptation of this provincialism of our Nobel Prize–winner. It will nevertheless, if you abide by it, risk your own Nobel Prize, though a nobler prize may prove in the offing. The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands. The wise man speaking these words does not mean to excuse you or me from knowing what others have thought. What concerns him is that we not confuse those mediate ends with the larger ends of understanding, toward that even larger end whereby we may be considered—by others—as wise.
What concerns Thomas Aquinas—our motto being his—is that we remember that truth is the measure of our knowledge, not our knowledge the measure of truth. This is not an inversion recent to us. Protagoras, the Greek sophist of the fifth century b.c., declared man the measure of all things. It is a pronouncement which Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, returns to again and again in his struggle to establish with irrefutable argument truth’s independence—in his attempt to discover rationally the unmoved mover, the cause of creation itself. Forgetting which is the measure and which the measured, our education becomes a preparation for some game show such as Jeopardy, though more likely Wheel of Fortune. One is morally responsible to hold to this distinction of truth as precedent to knowing, as opposed to the presumption of our Nobel geneticist that he is the authorized determiner of truth. In the end he distorts the very genuine knowledge he possesses as geneticist, for which he received that prize, but from which he has lost the understanding that life is a mystery at last which defies our absolute comprehension. For we are not, though we may sometimes pretend to be, God.
Aquinas, of course, understands a largeness in his use of the term philosophy, now largely lost, as when we award a degree of "doctor of philosophy" in badminton or basketball. St. Thomas is concerned with the metaphysical journey proper to each of us, according to our intellectual gifts, so long as we are guided in that journey by a love of truth, where the truth is loved as the measure of our progress as a person. His argument takes as its premise our given nature: the person, he holds, is an intellectual soul incarnate. It must follow that science and art are disciplines of intellect (to each according to his gifts) when they are properly proportionate to each person’s desire for perfection—whether one discover his calling to be that of teacher or farmer or bricklayer or poet.
Along your way here you will discover remnants of that older understanding of human nature as it is relevant to your intellectual responsibilities, perhaps finding that residue scattered through your college catalogue in descriptions of courses. They survive, in spite of Charles W. Eliot’s intentional reduction of philosophy from its larger, classical sense. As President of Harvard from 1869 into our century, he was interested in educational specialties as the final end of formal education. At Harvard, he instituted what you now know as an "elective" system tailored to your "major." His restructuring has by now filtered down, infecting educational programs even unto kindergarten, I fear.
At his retirement President Eliot preached a sermon to Harvard theological students called "The Religion of the Future." A few of his doctrinal points are sufficient to suggest why one might call him the Socrates of the Religion of Provincialism, the prime doctrine of which is the specialization of intellect as man’s final earthly end. Now that new religion, he says, "will not be based on authority, either spiritual or temporal," given that "the tendency towards liberty is progressive, and among educated men is irresistible." Among its principles: it will allow "no personifications of the primitive forces of nature," nor any "worship, express or implied, of dead ancestors, teachers, or rulers." Nor will "the primary object . . . be the personal welfare or safety of the individual in this world or the other . . . but service to others, and . . . contributions to the common good." It "will not be propitiatory, sacrificial, or expiatory." (These terms are specific rejections of orthodox Christianity’s belief in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.) Nor will this religion of the future "perpetuate the Hebrew anthropomorphic representations of God." The only God allowable, then, must be the god called the social State.
President Eliot’s somewhat distant relative, Thomas Stearns Eliot, was in summer school at Harvard at the time, attempting to complete a poem you know as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" along with some others. These early poems, if carefully read, reflect his own alienation as a "progressive" intellectual—the "educated" person President Eliot envisages as the true disciple of his new religion. It will be but a few years later, however, that the poet, as a skeptical and liberated intellectual, will become cynical about existence itself, especially about his own. He will experience a nervous breakdown, which he himself will come to understand at last as rather a spiritual crisis, out of the intellectual provincialism he drank in at Harvard.
T. S. Eliot is that rare intellectual in our century who escaped provincialism. May you prove so as well. But in this moment of your strange arrest out of the world, you are impinged upon by many intellectual provincials. That is why I counsel a healthy skepticism—healthy in that you must not throw out those truths about genetics, for instance, because of the geneticist’s own provincialism. With such safeguard, you may journey toward becoming a philosopher, a lover of wisdom through an openness to the truth of things. You may thus keep green a youthful desire to understand, however old you are by the world’s measure, and whatever the "major" appearing on your transcript—which by the larger modernist world will be taken as the health report on your conditioned mind, asserting officially the inoculations that have been formally exercised upon your intellect. At least, that tends to be the assumption about transcripts, an assumption with which you will have to come to terms after you leave this small Eden.
Indeed, that is an apt description of the nature of education itself: a coming to terms with the truth of things in resisting the general shallowness of our intellectual world. At its deepest level, that means coming to terms with your particular, discrete intellectual limits, whereby you are this person and no other. For it is in this accommodation that you perfect your dignity as a person. A person born to fullness, not the digital counter suggested by the term individual. An accommodation to limit through concepts measured by the truth of things. To refuse that responsibility to limit is to choose provincialism. This is a term I need now to address directly, appealing to a poet who knows both bald scholars and blue girls. The poet and critic Allen Tate speaks helpfully to my point when he says:
When the regional man, in his ignorance, often an intensive and creative ignorance, of the world, extends his own immediate necessities into the world, and assumes that the present moment is unique, he becomes the provincial man. . . . For provincialism is that state of mind in which regional men lose their origins in the past and its continuity into the present, and begin every day as if there had been no yesterday. . . . [I]t is a difference between two worlds: the provincial world of the present, which sees in material welfare and legal justice the whole solution to the human problem; and the classical–Christian world, based upon the regional consciousness, which held that honor, truth, imagination, human dignity, and limited acquisitiveness could alone justify a social order however rich and efficient it may be.
In Tate’s terms, we discover that we are born provincial, the infant engaging in its present moment so that it may survive; in that very engagement, though, it may meet love, if fortunate in the larger circumstances in which it is raised. It is by a discovery of the power of its own will that the infant, and then the child, may be tempted to turn provincial, away from the regional nurturing by family and community. Any parent who has endured one or two adolescents will know at once my distinction. The adolescent is not likely to understand it until he must deal with his own children.
With grace and a right will, the provincial may recover an ordinate relation to limits—may become a provincial recovering to a regional health. That is, because we are finite creatures, wisdom in us requires our concern for our region of creation, though we must recognize as well that we are at large in creation, on a journey toward an ultimate and uncreated end. We are always required to respond in this moment to this impinging reality of this time and this place. Such impingements bear in them always other times and places to which we supply the ambiguously abstract term history. We discover thereby our membership in a community with the living and the dead, coming to terms as we may with our limited gifts as we journey in the light of tradition. Our responsibility as intellectual creature? To sort tradition by the light of the truth of things.
Reality requires of us that we perfect our given nature. We are each an intellectual soul, yet we are incarnate; our intellects understand only by putting together and taking apart particular things. As a result, we struggle to recover our simplicity of nature, that created simplicity of our personhood, through discursive intellectual labor. This is the labor proper to the stewardship of our gift as this person. It is a labor necessary since Adam.
Ours is nevertheless a simple, not a divided, nature, though we may easily divide ourselves against ourselves for reasons Genesis and not genes best explain. Our limited intellects are discursive, lacking that angelic, intuitive gift of knowing which Milton has an angel explain to his Adam in Paradise Lost. As simple created persons, existing through grace and existing by limit, we have as our only freedom from limit a capacity of will to reject all limit—all creation. That becomes the principle whereby we embrace nothingness as preferable to a consent to our own givenness.
You will find in your literature one direction this rejection may take—in Hamlet a famous soliloquy beginning "To be or not to be," for instance. But our post–Hamlet world has largely gone another way, choosing a usurpation of all limit by presuming our finite intellects to be autonomous and thereby capable of their own transcendence. They are absolute unto themselves, rising above being mere robots determined by genes, as our geneticist implies in words largely emptied of truth. We lesser souls meanwhile breathe in the exhaust from his burning of reality by his will. We may become giddily inclined to will a transcendence of our own, gaining an illusion of intellect as if jet–propelled by will above the limits of creation. Thus are we possessed by that destructive intellectual heresy called angelism.
This heretical presumption is a religion of its own, at present the dominant religion of the Western world. It feeds on a distortion of our desire for a perfection of the gifts within our limits. Angelism demands instead a perfection beyond all other perfections within creation, declaring a relativism to which we would be God; it assumes that intellect is the sole agent of our perfection. Like old Adam, then, we are restless in our limitedness. Nietzsche persuaded us that freedom from created limit is our proper end. Nietzsche tempts us to believe ourselves capable of moving beyond being mere men, becoming supermen on the way to becoming gods, by our will to power. If, on the other hand, we understand the virtues of a regional deportment, we may rather be pulled away from such a willful angelism by a desire in accord with reality, in an openness to a surrender beyond the arrogant presumption that the self is the only god. We may reach in this recovery an accommodation with that inexorcizable ghost of intellectual uncertainty.
Education is a beginning of this resolution, a gradual recognition of recovery from the temptation to that provincialism which Tate describes; a reorienting of our desire for fulfillment as persons in a regionalism allowing us openness to creation. It is an openness Thomas Aquinas—or the later T. S. Eliot—would call love. That is the address to the truth of things which we call understanding, allowing us a level of perfection in our particular, limited gifts. It is allowed through grace, insofar as we remove obstacles to grace. We may even at last come to practice the virtue of prudence, learned in relation to a humility which initially opens us to creation and thence to its Creator. Here lies the prospect of the fulfillment of our limited gifts as person. That is, we become a loving person. We no longer confuse our presumption of truth with truth itself, knowing that truth is always independent of our presumption. We become, this is to say, a person becoming. In an older phrase, we are homo viator: a person in pilgrimage toward a perfection of the peculiar limit to our gifts as this person—Saul or Paul, Mary, Martha, or Elizabeth.
Marion Montgomery, poet, novelist, and critic, is author, most recently, of The Truth of Things: Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality.