Jesuits in training, PHILOSOPHY, 1954–57
Handmaiden to theology, said Thomas Aquinas
We were on to West Baden (College), Indiana, that “distillery of knowledge,” we sang in mock salute—and “the coming of the philosophic mind.” As juniors we had been warned about that by a veteran priest who had just preached a short retreat, in which he spouted poetry which he had by heart—clearly the result of a lifelong habit. He was a rough-looking guy, onetime coal miner, we heard, with hands to show it and a gentle, understated manner.
A number of us ate the poetry up and caught up with him on the relaxed day after the retreat, he on a bench on a pleasant spring day, we sitting or standing nearby, and pumped him about the poetry. He was modest about his memorizing ability but said or implied he hadn’t his old enthusiasm for it, which he attributed to the study of philosophy, that “philosophic mind.” That transformation lay in wait for us.
COSMIC SHIFT Where there had been beauty, there would be truth, or at least a way to grapple with it. Instead of John McGrail and Cicero on friendship, there was Tommy Byrne and “minor logic,” a study of the basics of argument—minor as distinguished from epistemology, the frontal assault on how we know things.
Tommy, a wiry little guy, personable and friendly, verbal to a fault, taught in Latin. He possessed absolute mastery of the syllogism and was dedicated to getting us through the course. He worked hard, delivered energetically, and was available for discussion in his room. An excellent technician, he plunged into the major, the minor, the inexorable conclusion—if A and B, then C, hah!—and everything in between, taking us with him as if we too could breathe under water.
I would go to his room and ask him about something I didn’t get, emulating St. John Berchmans, S.J., patron of Jesuit students in training. He would respond generously, and I would leave inundated, gasping for air. It was a harbinger. In the juniorate I had moved in familiar territory. In philosophy I had to grope. A dark night of the intellect loomed before me. With the intellect in the dark, the soul would not be doing so well either.
We also had metaphysics, that bedrock of Scholastic philosophy, what Thomas Aquinas had helped off to a roaring start 700 years earlier. Metaphysics got to the essence (and existence) of things, or was billed that way. I didn’t get the point of it until we spent time two years later on positivism, which I took to be its polar opposite and from which I got the point of metaphysics. (Some things you get only by exposure to their opposites.)
Or so it seemed at the time. It was one of my two or three more or less philosophical insights in the three years. Not bad when you think about it. And we had epistemology, cosmology, natural theology, ethics. Each attacked me in turn when I was supposed to be attacking them. The middle of any course became the point when I stopped hearing “we will get to that” about things I didn’t understand and began hearing “when we covered that” about things I still didn’t understand.
I missed those subjects and predicates all in a row, those Latin and Greek word endings that made all the difference, those linguistic puzzles that had answers I could figure out. I missed the drama, the characterization, the dialogue, the good, true, and beautiful in glorious, deathless classical and Shakespearean packages. Where was truth, for that matter, the supposed payoff for those who no longer had time for beauty? It was hidden deep within those damn syllogisms. I had entered Doctor Dryasdust time.
— More to come, from Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968 —