Convocation 2007: Would you die for Socrates?

by Thomas More College on September 29, 2007

On Sept. 14, the students and faculty of Thomas More College—including the largest freshman class in the history of the school—gathered to solemnly mark the beginning of a new academic year with the annual rite of Convocation. Events began with a Mass celebrated by the Bishop of Manchester, His Excellency John J. McCormack, a liturgy ornamented by the carefully-drilled members of the College’s St. Cecilia Choir chanting psalms and hymns. The bishop gave an upbeat sermon, thanking our students for making the commitment of Faith entailed in choosing a solidly Catholic college, and encouraged them to seek in the materials of their study the seeds of their future vocations as Christians. (He also made a pitch for specifically priestly and religious vocations—an endeavor Thomas More College encourages among its students through its St. Jean-Marie Vianney and St. Katherine Drexel scholarship funds, which will repay the school loans of our graduates who persevere in such vocations.)

After Mass, students gathered for dinner, then re-assembled under a tent for convocation, the traditional academic ritual initiating the year’s studies.  After entering in procession garbed in caps and gowns, faculty and administrators presented addresses intended to set the tone for the year of study ahead.  Dean Mumbach, one of the co-founders of the College, began by invoking Pope Benedict’s address at Regensburg in 2006, in which he reaffirmed the central role of human reason as intrinsic to the fulfillment of Providence.  Dr. Mumbach said, “Most of us like to think that we would die for love of country, freedom, Faith, family, friends (however fervently we hope it never comes to that).”  She suggested that by citing the centrality of reason in the articulation and life of Faith “Pope Benedict has given witness that we should be willing to die for Socrates. And, by implication, for Homer, for More’s Utopia, for Augustine’s Confessions, and for Shakespeare’s plays.  In risking his own life and, perhaps more tellingly, even his reputation, Pope Benedict revealed part of the hidden foundation of our own privilege of study, learning, and teaching at our institution, its foundation in academic freedom.”  She explained that St. Thomas Aquinas and our long tradition owed its existence to in part to Socrates, to Aristotle, to Homer; and it would be a sin of untruth, not to say ingratitude, if he did not acknowledge their place in our life.  Considering that Socrates himself had died to allow us to share in the life of reason, of logos, it must have seemed to Pope Benedict that the least he could do in response would be to risk his own life and reputation for Socrates. Would we do otherwise?”

Dr. William Fahey, Provost of the College, rose next. He noted that this day was the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, a strangely appropriate date to begin the academic year.  For pagans and many moderns, the Cross is nothing but a sign of torture and defeat.  Students at Thomas More should remember St. Paul’s remark: the crucifixion was a “moria,” as sign of Christian “folly” for the ancient critics of Christianity.  At Thomas More College, we understand and embrace folly, in particular the folly of the Cross. For we understand that the Cross and only the Cross gives meaning to suffering. The best of the ancients understood that some wisdom could come through suffering.  Some, like Jocasta (of Oedipus Rex) tried to avoid the knowledge that comes through suffering (“May God keep you from the knowledge of who you are!” she spoke to her son). The most noble of them accepted suffering, but often fashioned it into something self-centered and ultimately limiting. (“It was Apollo, my friends, who brought my bitter sorrows to completion, but the hand that struck me was none but my own!” remarks Oedipus at the play’s conclusion). But suffering, though a stimulus, cannot be the end for man. Suffering will not produce an enduring society or the highest expressions of our humanity. Those who live a sacramental life, and thus can see with a sacramental vision, know that the suffering of the Cross has only part of its meaning on Good Friday. The suffering of Good Friday is always, for the Christian crowned by the joy of Easter Sunday. So to, in the little round of our daily lives, our suffering must be understood as only part of the journey, a journey that ends in true leisure and joy.

The faculty address, by the College’s main classical languages teacher Mrs. Debora Enos, explored the etymological roots of the word “nostalgia.”  The word comes from two Greek roots, nostos (home) and algeo (pain, grief, distress), which suggests that nostalgia is by no means always a bad thing. We crave a place of security, safety, and certainty—and the quest for those things sends us, as it sent Odysseus, through elaborate byways that transform us and bring us home as deeper and wider men than we were when we set out. This is precisely how the journey of higher education, and lifelong learning, should work, Enos suggested. Learning is not the accumulation of information, but the transformation of the self through the experience of encountering great minds and ideas. To illustrate this simile, she read a poem by Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) entitled “Ithaka,” which included the lines:

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way”

President Nelson concluded the evening with an erudite exploration of the meaning of “magnanimity,” or greatness of soul, which Aristotle used to describe great men—and its transformation through centuries of Christian reflection. One needs something of this quality of greatness of soul even to undertake a liberal arts education, Mr. Nelson explained—since such an endeavor requires the student to explore a variety of viewpoints, consider at once the part and the whole, and respect the variety of opinions without veering away from the Truth. Mr. Nelson explained how the meaning of a “great soul” shifted in the Christian context, in the hands of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the 19th century theologian Archbishop Ullathorne, who added to Aristotle’s great-souled man the quality of humility—only a great soul knows how small it really is, compared against God. Mr. Nelson ended with John Henry Newman’s eloquent picture of the great-souled (magnanimous) man as the ideal product of a liberal education, the person fully developed in his qualities, open to Truth, and grateful for all he has been given.

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