History and Catholic Liberal Education

By Michael J. Letteney (’88)

Note: Dr. Letteney is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College. The following text is the transcript of a lecture he presented on August 24, 2012, as part of the the St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series, endowed by  Barbara and Paul Henkels.


I Introduction

In the Parts of Animals, Aristotle relates an anecdote about the philosopher Heraclitus, who:

[w]hen the strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present.[1]

In a similar vein, Aristotle invites his reader to investigate with him the internal anatomy of the most ignoble animals, since “each and all,” he suggests, “will reveal to us something natural and beautiful.”[2] Thomas Aquinas College clearly takes this invitation to heart by asking each first-year student to dissect and carefully describe a sheep’s heart. Very soon the environs of this campus will be filled with freshmen, armed with butterfly nets and kill jars, in search of beetles, flies, and other vermin; these specimens, so collected, will be compared one to other and then arranged according to a plan devised by the student himself. These field researches are meant to complement their readings of J. Henri Fabre’s study of the instinctive behavior of insects. From this it is clear that the College goes to some pains to introduce its students to the natural history of nature’s more ignoble animals.

It might come as a surprise, then, to discover that the College does not include in its curriculum a course dedicated to the historical study of nature’s most sublime animal, man. While the great works of history are indeed read throughout the four years of the Seminar, the fact that they are so placed suggests that they are less important than other parts of the program such as grammar and the natural sciences. The Bulletin of Information confirms this suggestion, stating that: “[h]istory itself will not make a well-ordered mind.”[3] How is the description of the digestive tract of the cuttlefish a fitting object for the student of liberal education, whereas Herodotus’ breathtaking retelling of the battle of Thermopylae[4] is given but a passing nod in the Freshman Seminar?

Following the thread to the passage from the Parts of Animals with which we began, an answer comes to the fore: in contemplating the intestine of the cuttlefish, we are confronted with a striking illustration of the divine art:

For if some [members of the animal kingdom] have no grace to charm the sense, yet even these, by disclosing to intellectual perception the artistic spirit that designed them, give immense pleasure to all who can trace links of causation, and are inclined to philosophy.[5] 

Catholic liberal education, as we shall see, is principally concerned with knowing God insofar as this is possible to human reason assisted by the light of faith. The historian’s objects, however noble and amazing they may appear to us, are in the last analysis singular events, and as such do not afford a sufficient degree of intelligibility for their comprehension. Aristotle so distinguishes the poet from the historian precisely on the grounds of universality:

[P]oetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.[6]

I will return to this statement later in the lecture. For the present, I would like to explore two difficulties occasioned by this response, both of them having to do with God’s knowledge of the self-same events. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God is perfectly aware of the very least details of this world; Our Lord advises His disciples to fear not: “Are not five sparrows,” He asks, “sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”[7] Indeed it would be absurd to think that God did not know such things, since this would imply an imperfection in His knowledge.[8] Still, one wonders how these individuals can be intelligible[9] to God on the one hand, and yet not to us? Why is not the human mind likewise perfected by knowing the precise follicle count of a given individual, Mr. Coughlin for instance? That is the first difficulty.

The passage from Luke’s Gospel gives rise to a second, closely related to the first. Granted that the historian’s concern is with particulars, with what individual men have said and done, and that Catholic liberal education is principally concerned with God; still, since God Himself is so solicitous about individual men in their particularity, why should not at least a part of liberal education be directed to the same? Indeed, Hegel presses this very question in the Philosophy of History:

It was for a while the fashion to profess admiration for the wisdom of God, as displayed in animals, plants, and isolated occurrences. But, if it be allowed that Providence manifests itself in such objects and forms of existence, why not also in Universal History?[10]

The Christian certainly holds that God’s providence embraces all of creation, from the lowliest worm to the acts of man, as St. Paul declares in the Letter to the Ephesians: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”[11] And so one wonders why it falls to the student of liberal education to carefully trace out the paths of God’s handiwork in the natural order, and not to attempt the same in the sphere of human action?

I intend to argue that history is not an essential part of liberal education considered as such, that is, generically, and this because of the limited intelligibility of historical events.[12] Put simply, the knowledge of singulars, so far as this is accessible to natural light of reason, is not perfective of the human intellect, which perfection is the primary goal of liberal education. Moreover, while it is true that we can see that providence governs all things including human affairs, natural reason by itself is incapable of knowing with certainty the meaning of any historical event. That being said, the study of history can be of assistance in supplying the student with experience and exemplars that are beneficial in the acquisition of ethics and political science.

Liberal education insofar as it is denominated catholic, however, necessarily includes the study of sacred history. One of the central truths of the Christian faith is that God became man in order to redeem mankind from the debt incurred by Adam’s transgression;[13] this is born out in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This doctrine is proposed for our belief not as an edifying story, but as a real historical event; and so St. Peter writes in his second letter:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.[14]

Scripture itself supplies the narrative of salvation history, and through the ages the fathers and doctors of the Church have reflected on this history, the most stunning reflection being of, course, St. Augustine’s City of God.

What I intend to show is that by understanding the distinctive mode in which God apprehends particulars, the faithful who read the Scriptures informed by the light of the faith have certitude regarding Adam’s fall, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and other such historical particulars. Moreover, we are certain, not only that they occurred, but also we have some insight as to why they have happened; that is to say, we have some insight into God’s providential plan. I will begin by saying a few words about Catholic liberal education, and then a more lengthy discussion about the nature and purpose of history. With these distinctions in place, we will be able to see to what extent history belongs to an educational program so defined.

II Catholic liberal education

The word ‘education’ is derived from the Latin root of e-ducere.[15] The prefix is the preposition ex or e, which means out of, or from; and ducere is a verb which means to to lead, conduct, guide, direct, and so on. From this we gather that education is not simply the direction of the student to knowledge, but it is a direction from something. From what? The first answer that comes to mind is from the condition of not knowing, that is, ignorance. While I think there is something right about this answer, a deeper meaning is suggested by St. Thomas in his Disputed Question on the Teacher. The teacher does not impart knowledge to the student in the manner of a simple transference, as when I lend my son Anthony a book or a sleeping bag – which I know from experience that I will never see again. The student, according to St. Thomas, already knows in a way the knowledge that he seeks in that he knows the starting points of the sciences, that is the common conceptions and principles on which they are founded. These first principles are not inborn in us, but rather we acquire them by the light of reason applied to experience. Through his words the teacher leads the student from the things that he knows to the conclusions that are contained potentially in these principles;[16] indeed, the good teacher leads the student along the same path that he himself has followed to see this truth.

A good example of this is found in Euclid’s Elements. Euclid begins the study of geometry by setting out the principles of his science -- definitions, postulates and common notions; these are proposed without any argumentation – the student is expected to accept them as true based on his own experience with the objects of geometry. In the subsequent Propositions, Euclid shows the conclusions that follow logically from these beginnings.[17] The student is said to learn to the extent that he sees the proposition following necessarily from these self-evident principles. And in this way the student is perfected, that is, completed as a knower. St. Thomas adds, however, that “[i]f someone proposed to another what is not included in self-evident principles or is not shown to be [so] included, he will not cause knowledge, but perhaps opinion or belief.”[18]

From this analysis we can gather the following conclusions. The educator aims primarily at perfecting the mind of the student by leading him from the things that he already knows to knowledge of the unknown.[19]

What makes an education liberal? In the Metaphysics Aristotle looks to the marks commonly attributed to the wise man in order to ascertain the nature of wisdom; among these one in particular is especially relevant to our question:

[O]f the sciences, that which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more the nature of wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results.[20]

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes theoretical from practical knowing in virtue of their ends and their objects. Knowing is practical when it is ordered to some doing or making, and thus is concerned with things that can be otherwise; and so the art of carpentry is ordered to the production of tables, chairs, and the like, things which can exist but need not. Theoretical knowing, on the other hand, has as its end truth, and thus is concerned with things “whose principles cannot be otherwise.”[21] The geometer, for example, seeks to demonstrate the properties that belong to triangles as such; the conclusions he arrives at are true eternally. Practical knowledge, insofar as it is ordered to something beyond itself, is less choice worthy than theoretical knowledge.[22]

From this we can see that wisdom aims at theoretical knowledge. But there are many theoretical sciences: mathematics, natural philosophy, and theology. With which of these will the wise man be principally concerned? Aristotle observes that the things most worth knowing are precisely those which are the most knowable in themselves. Now, since we know a thing by grasping its cause or causes, the first and ultimate cause of the universe would be the most knowable of all things.[23] The wise man, therefore, seeks to know as far as possible the first principle of all reality, namely God.

These precisions help us to see what is meant by liberal education. “That man is free” says Aristotle, “who exists for himself and not for another.” Because he is free, he can direct his actions to ends that he finds intrinsically worthwhile, and in this way he cultivates a rich and complete life. The slave, in contrast, spends his life in service to another; the fruits of his labor are not his own. Education is liberal when it is sought for its own sake; it is the kind of education that the free man would choose. For this reason, liberal education is primarily theoretical, since the good of theoretical knowing is nothing other than the perfection of the intellect.[24] And while such an education aims to cultivate every theoretical science, it is especially concerned with theology, since this science arrives at causes that are the most perfective of the human mind.

Now while such an education is primarily theoretical, it does properly include the practical sciences of ethics and politics. This inclusion is perhaps clear from the fact that the free man directs himself; to do this well, he will need a clear knowledge about the end of human life, and the appropriate means to achieve this end.[25] It is the sciences of ethics and politics that address such questions. Moreover, unlike the productive arts, such as carpentry and sewing, which terminate in matter outside the agent, say in the manufacture of a chair or a quilt, the actions associated with prudence terminate in the agent himself.[26] In this way we see a certain likeness between the theoretical sciences, which are desirable in their own right, and the practical sciences of ethics and politics, which are ordered to activities that are perfective of the human soul itself, and come to rest therein.[27] The productive arts, in contrast, are oriented to the perfection of matter, and in this way are servile in character; accordingly they are alien to the mission of liberal education.

We finally come to Catholic liberal education. In the Prosologion, St. Anselm attempts to prove God’s existence using principles that are accessible to the believer and non-believer alike. In the “Preface” he tells us that he initially planned to entitle his work “Faith Seeking Understanding” [Fides quaerens intellectum]; from the remarks that follow we see why this is an appropriate description of his project:

I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.[28] 

The theologian’s task, he says, begins in faith, that is, with the firm conviction and love of those truths that have been proposed for our belief by the Church. The theologian tries to understand as far as possible these truths, realizing that reason will never be able to fully penetrate the deep mysteries of the faith; still, precious beyond measure is the insight provided by this arduous endeavor. Catholic liberal education is the systematic attempt to implement St. Anselm’s project of faith seeking understanding. The entire curriculum has as its end the study of divinely revealed truths, and this end provides the order and unity of the different parts of the program. Faith thus both begins and ends the enterprise of Catholic liberal education.

III The historian’s task

Having sketched the nature of Catholic liberal education, I now investigate the nature and purpose of history; for this I turn to a very wise historian, Herodotus. He opens his history of the war between the Persians and the Greeks with the following statement:

I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report,[29] and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.[30]

“I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history.” The possessive adjective “my” is significant. The report that Herodotus tells is with few exceptions derived from other sources.[31] His narrative begins with events that happened well before his birth;[32] and though he was contemporaneous with the great battles in which his History culminates, it is unlikely that he himself was an actual eyewitness.[33] From this we can see that there are two levels of historical narration. The first is comprised of first hand reports of what happened; the second is a representation of what happened based on many such first hand reports. Herodotus’ history actually draws from both these narrative levels. So when Herodotus speaks about my History, it really is his own seen in contradistinction from these first hand reports on the one hand (first level narratives) and other second level histories that recount the same events included in his own narrative.

Perhaps one might think that I have overstated the case regarding the proprietary character of The History. Herodotus’ history differs from his predecessors’ narratives only in being more comprehensive – it includes all the facts of the earlier efforts and more. Neither the facts themselves, nor their order belong to Herodotus any more than they do to the Persian chroniclers that he cites as one of his sources. On this view, the historian’s task is simply the comprehensive description of the past arranged in chronological order.

This view of history is clearly mistaken. First, Herodotus observes at several junctures that his sources are not always consistent.[34] Sometimes Herodotus will retail the several competing accounts of what happened, and then select the one he finds most probable; other times he is simply content to observe that there are multiple versions of the same event without explicitly delineating them.[35] Further, there are some facts that he deliberately chooses not to report. Regarding the native commanders of Xerxes’ expeditionary army, Herodotus writes:

I do not record the names of these [commanders] because it is not necessary for the purposes of my History. For those native leaders of each people are not worthy of mention. There were, for each people, as many leaders as there were cities and these native leaders did not serve as generals but were as much slaves as the soldiers were. But the Persian generals, who had supreme power and commanded each of the nations – these I have already recorded.[36]

Some facts are worth mentioning, others not; indeed, almost certainly The History contains but a small portion of his total researches. When I come home each evening from school, my wife faithfully asks “How was your day?” And typically I will respond that “it was good,” or “not so good,” as the case may be. This is not the answer she wants – she wants details: what I did, who I sat with at lunch, what we spoke about, did I see my children, did I talk to them, what did they say – the list of questions could be extended. But she doesn’t want to know everything that I did; for example, she is not in the least bit interested in which shoe I put on first. A full and comprehensive report of all that I did in a single day would be both uninteresting and unilluminating; what my wife is after are the important or significant facts of my day. And so it is with Herodotus’ History: he will select from among the multitude of collected facts only those that are somehow necessary for his story. Clearly he must have some principle or principles guiding his selection.[37]

Although there are probably many such principles at work in The History, the two most fundamental to any history are intimated in the passage with which we began. One reason Herodotus writes The History is so that “those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, [might not] fail of their report.” The principal event of The History – the conflict between the Greeks and Persians -- is highly significant, first in terms of its magnitude – Xerxes’ army of 1.7 million men is described as draining entire rivers in its march towards Greece.[38] And also in terms of the consequences this war had for both nations; Xerxes’ ambition was nothing less than the enslavement of the entire world.[39] This is an eminently suitable subject for historical reflection; by way of contrast, a day in the life of tutor is not likely to be of much interest to anyone outside the immediate circle of his family, and even there I have my doubts.

In the opening passage of The History Herodotus indicates that he will explain “the reason why [the Greeks and barbarians] fought one another.” The historian’s task is not simply to describe what happened in the past, but to explain why it happened, and this is to specify the causes on which the event depends. In The History Herodotus seeks the causes not just for the origin of the war, but more importantly for its outcome, that is, why the Greeks were ultimately victorious. And this bears directly on the question of selection. We are not surprised to see included in his history descriptions of the superior armor and battle tactics of the Greeks over their barbarian counterparts;[40] these differences are seen to be rooted in a more fundamental difference: the Greeks are free, the barbarians slaves.[41] Herodotus takes pains to describe the various customs and institutions of the barbarian peoples, presumably because this too is revelatory of the causes undergirding the war and its outcome. In his search for causes, Herodotus often has recourse to the agency of the gods;[42] accordingly, great attention is given to oracles, dreams and coincidental events.

Going back to our original distinction between first and second level narratives, the following precisions seem to be in order. History begins and ultimately terminates in the descriptions given by those who observe the events as they are happening; they describe what they see, and these descriptions provide the factual basis that measures the historian’s explanations. Sight, however, does not reveal the true causes of the reported facts. This is where the second level historian steps in. Having selected a suitable object of inquiry, that is, some significant event or person, he gathers together the available facts and selects from them those that are relevant to explain why the event or person came to be thus.[43] The second level historian, accordingly, is a story teller, weaving together the multifarious historical facts into an intelligible picture. This selection is largely determined by the kind of causes the historian thinks are operative in human affairs. The story he tells will be largely a function of his commitments to larger questions about the nature of man and his place in reality.[44] Someone skeptical about the gods would tell a very different story about the Greek-Persian conflict than we find in Herodotus’ history, even if both historians had at their disposal the very same evidence. The example Mr. DeLuca gave in my seminar on Herodotus was this: if the historian thinks that Freud’s theory of psychology is right, the history he writes of Cyrus will likely focus on the early episodes of his life – the trials and tribulations of his potty training, his relationship to his parents, and so on. The facts of history, such as they are, are open to many different theoretical looks, some more illuminating than others, no doubt;[45] none of them alone, however, is sufficient to reveal all the causes at play in the phenomena. That is why I think it significant that Herodotus describes The History as my history.

In light of the foregoing, I think history, in its fullest sense, is discourse that describes and explains the development of some significant past event or person.[46] This definition of history, I contend, is implicit in the opening statement of Herodotus’ History.

Herodotus indicates that he writes The History so “that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being.” The motivation here seems to be primarily that of piety. The “great and wonderful deeds, wrought by both the Greeks and the barbarians,” insofar as they are beings of the past, exist now only in memory, which memory is liable to fade or vanish altogether unless carefully preserved. Following a suggestion by Soren Kierkegaard, the historian may be described as a kind of lover,[47] one who “contends night and day against the craftiness of oblivion” so that others too “may admire the hero as he does.”[48] To preserve this memory, it is not enough to sing about it: oral tradition does not faithfully preserve the past – it amplifies, embellishes, and distorts these past events so that they become the stuff of legend rather than a report of what was.[49] The memory must be committed to paper: by writing it down, the reported facts become stable. So Herodotus feels duty bound to preserve in writing the memory of these great deeds of the past and by so doing inducing in his reader a similar admiration for them.

But the historian’s task is not simply to arouse our wonder and admiration; he also intends to explain and in this we see that the immediate purpose of reading history is speculative – one wants to know – to the extent that this possible -- why the Greeks won the war.[50] In the Poetics Aristotle explains that one reason we take great delight in works of poetic imitation is that it presents an opportunity to learn.[51] I take it that the same argument applies to the reading of history. In tracing out the historian’s interpretation of some great past event, the reader is learning at least a possible explanation for it, and this activity is naturally pleasant.

In addition to this speculative objective, there are many practical advantages to reading history, of which I will present just three. First the reading of history obviously enlarges our experience and thereby enables the reader to make better, more informed decisions regarding future actions.[52] Thucydides speaks to this end of reading history:

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content.[53]

Second, since history deals with the actions of men, it necessarily supplies the student with exemplars of virtue, which both inspire and guide the student in his own efforts towards moral excellence.[54] In the Offices, Cicero describes the heroic action of the Roman consul Regulus,[55] who, in order to fulfill an oath, willingly returned to the hands of his enemies, the Carthaginians, where he expected and received a slow and tortuous death.[56] This story made such a strong impression on me when I first read it as a Sophomore that having returned to my dormitory well after curfew, undetected by any prefect, I felt compelled the next morning to turn myself in. For this I was campused for two weeks – and this for a first infraction! Dr. McLean, the Assistant Dean at the time, reasoned that in comparison with what befell Regulus, I was getting off lightly.

So it is clear that historical examples can be inspiring. They can also be useful. In defining virtue, Aristotle says that it is “a habit concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”[57] Notice that the prudent man is included in the very definition of virtue. History can provide the student with concrete illustrations of the prudent man making choices, illustrations according to which the student can model his own actions.[58]

To this last advantage, it might be objected that while the study of history might be of some assistance in the cultivation of the moral life, it is certainly not indispensible. Virtue, after all, begins in the home, and without this formation in good habits it is unlikely that the reading of history would have any salutary effect on the student. This seems right: it would be a mistake to try to learn the craft of basketball by watching the NBA – there is no substitute for the discipline and skills acquired by working under the tutelage of a coach. Still, what the aspiring player can learn by watching the very best is that excellence is possible,[59] albeit very rare. Similarly the reading of history provides the rightly disposed student with examples of moral excellence that they are not likely to encounter in their day to day experience.[60]

IV The intelligibility of history

My task in this lecture is to show the proper place of history in Catholic liberal education. So far we have considered generally the nature of Catholic liberal education and history. Now it is time to draws these threads together, and to do this I must first clarify the kind of knowledge that one may reasonably expect from the study of history.[61]

I argued above that the historian above all seeks to explain some significant event in the past; he does this by telling a story that shows how this event came to be and why; the details of this story must conform, or at least be consistent with the most reliable reports supplied by eyewitnesses. Let’s begin with the facts. From the vantage point of the student of history, these have to be accepted on trust; as Aristotle points out, when contingent things “pass from observation it is not known whether they exist.”[62] Insofar as history treats of the past, the events in question are no longer objects of immediate sense knowledge; and for the reader of history, these events most likely never did fall under his observation. Now you might object that this dependence on human testimony is not peculiar to history but belongs to every intellectual endeavor outside of mathematics; few if any of us have performed Fabre’s ingenious experiments on the Pine Processionary caterpillars, and for all that we can read his report and learn something about the instinctive behavior of these animals.

Now while it is true that in both cases, the historian’s and the natural scientist’s, we are inclined to accept as true whatever factual evidence the author supplies, the two are not strictly analogous. Fabre does indeed report the facts of the individual animals that fall under his observation, but the reader is perfectly at liberty to repeat the very same experiments to see whether or not the facts are as reported; and so the evidence he offers has a certain universal character independent of the Fabre’s personal testimony. The case is otherwise with the reported facts of history; there is no way for me to see the French Revolution for myself. And while it is quite impossible to perfectly replicate all the conditions that issued in this event, even if this could be done there is no reason to think that the event would transpire precisely in the manner it did in 1779. The principal players involved in the original event are free agents – they could have made very different choices, resulting in a very different state of affairs. Thus the reader’s relation to the facts of history is irreducibly a matter of faith. This does not mean it is unreasonable to take such reports as factually true – without evidence to the contrary our presumption is that eyewitness testimony is credible.[63] What it does mean is that the reader of history cannot properly call his own what he learns from the historian.

Putting aside this difficulty, are the causal accounts offered by the historian worthy of the title ‘knowledge,’ assuming the facts to be as reported? First, let’s consider the state of the evidence itself. St. Thomas says that it is the very nature of history never to arrive at the term of investigation.[64] My colleague Mr. Coughlin illustrates this point nicely. “The number of events,” he says, “which occur every day to every person is simply beyond calculation. It would take us years to record all the events of the last hour, and then events of the hours spent recording would themselves go unrecorded.”[65] As we pointed out earlier, the first order reports are necessarily sketchy; that being the case, how can you be sure that some critical event or action has not been overlooked? How would you know? Perhaps the key to understanding how my day went really does depend on grasping which shoe I put on first! It is not hard to imagine scenarios where this fact would be decisive.[66]

Further the second order narratives are highly selective; the historian’s approach to his subject is certainly not exhaustive. Another set of eyes on the very same facts would very likely shed fresh light on the subject. For example, Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war is largely silent about the role women played in the conflict. Does this mean their involvement was negligible and therefore insignificant? [I can see the men of Blessed Serra nodding affirmatively, none of whom have any girlfriends, I might add]. My own experience with human affairs would suggest otherwise.[67] My point here is not to suggest that Thucydides’ history should be replaced by a feminist interpretation of the Peloponnesian war – Good Heavens no! I think it is best reflection on this theme, “a possession for all time,” as he had intended it to be. What I am arguing is that it is not the last word on the subject: the facts that undergird this history, incomplete as they are, are not fully explained by any one historical interpretation. Just as the first order reports of historical phenomena are never complete, so also second order interpretations of the phenomena are never final – you can always see more.

What is the status of the explanations proposed by the historian? Do these cause the student to know? After all, the natural scientist deals with individuals that come to be and pass away, which he tries to understand by tracing out their principles, causes and elements. How is the historian’s relationship to his respective phenomena any different? As an approach to this question, consider what happens in a geometrical demonstration, for example the proposition that every triangle has interior angles equal to two rights. To prove this Euclid will set out a particular triangle, ABC, and reasoning about this individual triangle he shows that it has the requisite property; and then he makes the startling conclusion that every triangle has this angle sum. The triangle on the board, or in my imagination, is a particular species of triangle, a scalene triangle, say; what allows him to attribute this property to equilateral and isosceles triangles? If we attend closely to Euclid’s argument, we see that none of the steps depend on the particular species of triangle used to exemplify the demonstration; if it did, this would vitiate the argument. Similarly, nothing in the reasoning process hangs on the size of this triangle, or its color, or its location. So the geometer, attending only to what belongs to triangle as triangle, is entitled to conclude that this property belongs to all triangles, and it does so necessarily. Accordingly, Aristotle says that the objects of scientific knowledge are things that cannot be otherwise. Similarly, the natural scientist, though he has before his eyes concrete individuals, attends to those properties and activities that belong to its nature, a nature which is found in every other animal of the same kind; it is for this reason that Fabre’s experiments are repeatable. This nature, insofar as it is shared by many, is universal, something one said of many. Obviously, what belongs to the individual as such is not included in this nature, since this would exclude its communicability with other individuals.[68]

Now it is obvious that the historian is precisely concerned with the individual as individual; his task is not to explain what a revolution is, or what man is, but why the French Revolution of 1779 occurred, or how this particular man, Adolph Hitler, came be the chancellor of German in 1933. These events are accidental wholes; there is not an underlying essence here for the mind to abstract. We recognize that these events are contingent, they could have happened otherwise, the chief ground of this contingency being the freedom of the human will. After his failed coup in 1923, the co-called Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler is said to have contemplated suicide; had he so chosen, it is certain he would not have become chancellor ten years later. The events the historian tries to explain are not inevitable; their occurrence reposes on causes that operate freely and so are not fully intelligible to the human mind.

Now it might be thought that human freedom only introduces indetermination with respect to future actions. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle points out: 

What has already taken place is not now an object of choice, e.g., no one now chooses to have captured Ilion. Nor does anyone give advice about something past, but about future and contingent events. It is not possible that what has taken place did not occur. Therefore Agathon was right, for God lacks only this – to undo things already done.[69] 

Past events are indeed necessary, but not in the same way that geometrical propositions are. In the aforementioned example, the attribute “having an angle sum equal to two rights” belongs to triangles because of the very nature of what a triangle is, and for this reason the proposition is necessary; Boethius calls this simple necessity. In the proposition “Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C.” the predicate does not belong to the subject because of subject’s essential nature, as a property flowing from Caesar’s essence; rather this proposition is necessary on the condition that Caesar did in fact cross the Rubicon in this year, it being impossible to affirm and deny the same thing of the same subject. Boethius calls this hypothetical necessity. In the latter case, the mind does not see why the subject and predicate are so joined, only that they are so connected.[70]

The historian will attempt to render these facts intelligible by appealing to the motives behind the agent’s choice. But it is very difficult to know the motivations of others, even when they explicitly declare them.[71] The upperclassmen are familiar with Tacitus’ unflattering portrayal of the Roman emperor Tiberius; at every turn the historian points out that behind emperor’s seemingly fair minded speeches and decisions lurk the most sinister of intentions.[72] Tacitus looks to Tiberius’ actions at the end of his life to confirm his initial surmise of the man’s duplicitous character; this is not an unreasonable interpretation. But the facts are certainly open to other interpretations; a man’s later actions are not always consistent with his earlier character -- people change.[73] This is not to say that Tacitus is overstepping the limits of historical analysis in his searching out Tiberius’ secret thoughts and intentions; it is not possible to understand the why of human actions without bringing motives into consideration. My point, rather, is to underscore the inherent fragility of such interpretations; at best they can rise only to the level of probable opinion.[74]

Now why is poetry more universal than history? They seem very much a like – both deal with individual human actions, one looks to what really did happen, the other to the kind of thing that might happen. The poet imitates the actions of men with the purpose of producing in his audience a certain pleasure;[75] in the case of tragedy it is elicit the catharsis of fear and pity.[76] He does this by devising a plot which is a combination of related incidents and actions, having a beginning, middle and end. These different incidents and actions, in themselves singulars, are unified and hence made intelligible by the poet’s ultimate goal of inducing a certain catharsis. Aristotle likens a well told story to the organic unity of a living animal, all of whose parts are ordered to its proper function. Just as the removal of some part of the animal, its spleen say, will seriously impair or even destroy the organism, so also a good plot must “represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposition or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole.”[77] Above all the poet should look to the probability of the incidents in the story – what the characters say and do must seem likely;[78] Nora Torvald’s steely declaration of independence at the end of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House doesn’t ring true to my ear – it doesn’t fit the character’s voice. The incidents themselves should follow a probable sequence; as Aristotle observes, there is a great difference between something happening because of this, and something happening after this. The probability of the various incidents moves the plot forward to its ultimate resolution; a plot is episodic when the only apparent connection between two consecutive scenes is that one comes before the other.

The stories told by the historian do not enjoy the kind of unity found in a well devised plot; Aristotle observes that: 

A history has to deal not with one action, but with one period and all that happened in that to one or more persons, however disconnected the several events may have been.[79]

 The historian has to report the facts as he finds them[80] and often these appear disconnected and random;[81] we see this especially in coincidental events – Aristotle gives the example of the sea-fight off Salamis and the battle with the Carthaginians in Sicily, both of which happened on the same day, though in entirely different theatres of conflict.[82] Similarly, one event often follows the next with no apparent connection between them. The historian tries to mitigate this defect by reporting those events that are significant for his story, but this in itself does not ensure an intrinsic connection of two consecutive events.[83] Xerxes’ armada is crippled by a hurricane just before the land battle at Thermopylae; these are both significant events in Herodotus’ history, but apparently quite independent of one another. The episodic character of history can never be entirely eliminated. Further historical events seldom issue in satisfying conclusions;[84] the words of the Preacher come to mind: “Under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance happen to them all.”[85]

From this we see that while poetry and history both consider human actions in their particularity, the stories told by the poet are more intelligible and therefore more universal[86] than the historian’s narratives. What is meant by “universal” here is not quite the same as what we find in the sciences, though there is a likeness. The mathematician grasps the essence of a circle by abstracting from all the individuating characteristics encountered in particular circles; this nature, so abstracted, is predicable of many. The poet crafts his plot so as to exclude those aspects of human action that obscure or detract from the goal of his story, the resolution of the action, so that the complete story will produce in the audience the appropriate catharsis. The characters in the play are not universals: there is only one “Emma Woodhouse.” What we recognize is their intrinsic plausibility – Emma is a very believable character, one has no trouble in supposing that such a person might exist; in that sense, we say these characters are true. Moreover, their actions in the story are consistent with their character. By way of contrast, the agents of history are often puzzling, behaving in ways that we would not have thought possible.[87]

Finally, the difficulty inherent in deciphering human intention is perhaps less acute on the poet’s stage than in the theatre of the world. In order to achieve his proper effect, the poet must engage our sympathies with his characters. Our ability to sympathize with a character, however, depends critically on forming a fair estimation of their true motivations in a relatively short span of time; if by the end of the play, Oedipus remains a cipher, the audience will not experience a catharsis of fear and pity and the poet will have failed in his task. Accordingly, the poet will have his characters say and do things that help reveal his character. This does not mean that the poet necessarily aims at perfect clarity regarding his character’s intentions; as an imitation of life, it should reflect the ambiguities we experience in our own dealings with other people. Still, in the final analysis, the good poet wants his characters to be understood, and will provide the reader with sufficient evidence to make this judgment. In his “Life of Alexander” Plutarch indicates that character is often best revealed in seemingly insignificant actions:

[S]ometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.[88]

The biographer has to search out these subtle indicators of character, which by their very nature are less likely to find their way into the historical record. The poet, however, creates such moments precisely for this purpose. Here too, then, we see another way in which poetry is more intelligible than history. 

V Providence in secular history

Herodotus reports that the Persians suffered a serious defeat at both Plataea and Mycale, separated geographically by the Aegean Sea, on the very same day. In this he sees the unmistakable hand of providence.[89] Herodotus is certainly not alone among historians in appealing to divine agency to explain the events of history.[90] But to what extent can we know God’s providential plan?

God’s governance of the world is shown to us first of all in the activities of natural bodies that lack reason and will,[91] namely that such bodies act always or for the most part for the sake of an end. Aristotle’s argument that nature acts for an end reposes an analogy between art and nature; in Physics II.8 he writes:

Further, where there is an end, all the preceding steps are for the sake of that. Now surely as in action, so in nature; and as in nature, so it is in each action, if nothing interferes. Now action is for the sake of an end; therefore the nature of things also is so.[92]

To put it succinctly, the argument seems to be this. Natural and artistic processes are similar in that in each we see a series of steps whose terminal stage is end-like or beneficial.[93] The tacit premise here, I take it, is that in both series the steps follow an economical sequence, economical in the sense that nothing is done that is superfluous to the end achieved.[94] Therefore, since what explains the economy of means in artistic productions is the end which the artisan intends, similarly, what explains the economy of means in the natural process is likewise the resultant end;[95] to illustrate this, he appeals to the instinctive behavior of birds and spiders, whose constructions are both highly complex and extremely beneficial to the respective natural agents. If we grant this principle, then it is not too hard to see that there must be a providential God; as St. Thomas points out his commentary on this chapter in the Physics:

[I]t ought to be said that nature is of the number of those causes that act for the sake of an end; and this strongly prevails on the question of providence. For, those things which do not know the end, do not tend towards an end unless they be directed by something that does know, as the arrow by the archer. And so, if nature acts for the sake of an end, it is necessary that it be ordered by some intelligent agent, which is the work of providence.[96]

Things are less clear when we avert our attention from the activities of spiders and sparrows and consider the actions of men. There the good and best does not appear to obtain always or for the most part; in this life the wicked often prevail.[97] Nor when it does is there a clear order of sequential events culminating in this good such as we find in artistic productions; Tacitus offers these sobering reflections regarding the inconspicuous role played by Claudius in Rome prior to his ascendancy as emperor; he writes: 

The more I think about history, ancient and modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem. In public opinion, expectation, and esteem no one appeared a less likely candidate for the throne than the man for whom destiny was secretly reserving it.[98]

Looking at the matter inductively, the evidence does not strongly indicate that a providential governor orchestrates the events of human history. It seems to me, rather, that the philosopher, having arrived at the conclusion that an all good, and all powerful creator directs the entirety of creation, concludes that such a principle must be at work even in the affairs of men, despite the evidence to the contrary. In other words, we see that God is behind the events of history in having grasped universally that God, the creator of all things, directs all things to the good.

Natural reason is sufficient to see the fact of providence in history. But is it capable of seeing into God’s particular reasons for the things that happen? Lady Philosophy, in her discourse with Boethius, cautions against making such judgments; “it is not fitting,” she says, “for men to understand intellectually or to explain verbally all the dispositions of the divine work.”[99] If it is difficult to know with certitude the motives of other human beings, how much more so to make the same inquiry regarding God’s plans? Scripture confirms Lady Philosophy’s warning; speaking through the voice of the Prophet Isaiah, Our Lord tells his people: 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.[100] 

The thoughts of other men are hard to fathom because hidden; still, for all that they remain human thoughts and so are in principle intelligible to us. Things stand otherwise with the divine mind; here it is primarily the sublimity of His thoughts and plans that obscures our vision. To see this, we need to compare God’s apprehension of the singulars that fall under His providential dispensation with our own consideration of the same. In setting out the different marks of the wise man, Aristotle observes that “the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them individually.”[101] As we have noted earlier, the human mode of knowing is by way of abstracting the universal from the individuating principles that divide one sensible individual from the next. The individual as individual does not perfect the intellect, nor is it possible for us to grasp all the individuals that fall under a given universal, since these are potentially infinite in number.[102] This sort of limitation is reflected in the man of practical wisdom; as St. Thomas points out: 

[A]mong men, the higher one is in ruling the more his ordinances extends to more universal matters alone, whereas he leaves the particulars to be dispensed by lower rulers.[103] 

The truth of this remark is perhaps best seen by considering the so-called micro-manager: he attempts to govern the activities of his employees in the minutest details, with the predictable results of inefficiency and disharmony in the work place. One shudders to think what would happen to this community were Mr. Cain to implement such a misguided policy. As a good governor, knowing full well his own limitations, Mr. Cain wisely delegates responsibilities to his subordinates, the head prefects and activity directors, who in turn manage the more particular operations of student life.

God, however, does know the singular as such. His knowledge, of course, is not derived from things, but rather in knowing Himself, He knows how each thing can imitate His perfection, and through this knowledge He creates all the things that are. Now the human artisan brings into existence a particular artifact, a chair for example, by shaping natural materials in conformity with his universal idea of what a chair should be; his apprehension of the materials is through another faculty, the senses. But since God is the cause of each creature in the totality of its being, He must know sensible creatures both in their formal and material principles.[104] Thus God knows not only human nature, but every single attribute belonging to each man arising from matter, even the act of being enjoyed by the hair on Mr. Coughlin’s head, however faint this may be.[105] Thus we see that it does not belong to the perfection of science to be ignorant of the singular as such; this, rather, is a limitation due to our abstractive mode of knowing from sensible particulars.[106] From this we can see the resolution to our first difficulty raised at the start of this lecture. God’s knowledge of contingent things results from His superior mode of knowing. For men, we can know with certitude the contingent singular only insofar as it falls immediately under our sense powers; it is by another, more superior power, the intellect, that we grasp what is formal and therefore universal in the particular. But as St. Thomas observes “the perfections which are found divided among inferior beings exist simply and unitedly in God. God [accordingly] knows both [the formal and material principles in contingent things] through His own simple understanding (intellectus).”[107]

So what do we say about the hair count of a given individual – is it or is it not a perfection for me to know this? The example is complex: the number could very well change in the time it takes to tally up the sum. Let’s take an easier example. Mr. Baer often wears colorful ties; suppose I saw the tie he wore yesterday and made an effort to remember this. Hence I know the fact that on Thursday, August 23, Mr. Baer wore his blue Dodger tie. I take it that the sense powers of both the eye and the memory are completed by these activities; and since every perfection is good, this sense knowledge, considered absolutely, is something desirable. But if you ask me if this fact is worth knowing, I would have to say: “not as much as other things.” Certainly the universal propositions of Euclid’s Elements are more worthy objects of knowledge. Since I have only so many hours in the day to learn, my time is better spent pursing these nobler objects; moreover my capacity to retain the objects of sense experience is also limited.[108] If time were not so precious, and the “attic” of my brain were of infinite expanse, then this fact, and indeed all the facts of history, or almost all of them, would be worth knowing.[109] Given our human limitations, liberal education seeks to introduce the student to those facts that are most directly pertinent to the cultivation of the liberal arts and sciences, like the digestive tracts of cuttlefish.

Similar remarks are in order regarding God’ providential plan. Unlike the highest human rulers, whose governance properly reaches only to the universal ends of the community, God’s ordinances “extend even to the smallest matters” such that “even the most isolated and insignificant” thing is arranged by Him according to a fixed order.[110] Without a special revelation, this plan remains a mystery to God’s intellectual creatures. While we can know in general way that whatever happens must be for a good reason, we can never know with certitude the particular significance of each event. Suppose a great blessing were to befall a man that everyone recognizes as just. We might be inclined to think that the Lord is rewarding him for his goodness; and that very well might be the case. But for all we know, this man’s justice is a fragile habit that would fail were he to be tested.[111] Job, in exasperation, tells his friends that” if He [God] comes to me, I will not see Him, and if He goes away, I will not understand Him.” Commenting on this passage St. Thomas observes how incomprehensible divine wisdom can be: 

Sometimes God permits either trials or even some spiritual defects to befall some men in order to procure their salvation as is said in Romans 8:28: “For those who love God, everything works for the good.” In this way, then, God comes to man, by procuring his salvation, and yet man does not see Him since does not perceive His benefits; conversely, God does not take from many men His manifest benefits which nevertheless turn to their destruction; therefore it is said that God withdraws from a man in such a way that the man does not understand that He is withdrawing.[112] 

The Book of Job reveals how precarious it is for men to pronounce judgment on the significance of God’s dispensations; significantly, the disagreement between Job and his friends does not come to an end until God speaks from the whirlwind: it belongs to God alone to know the “secrets of his wisdom” [Job 11:6].[113] And so while it is true that there exists an intelligible order to history, this side of the grave we can only speculate what this order might be. Only God’s knows whether such speculations are true.[114]

Let me essay the conclusions that we have reached thus far. Catholic liberal education aims primarily at inculcating in the student knowledge about the highest things, especially God. The philosopher can know that every thing in the universe is subject to God’s providential plan including human history. But that is as far the philosopher’s knowledge reaches.[115]

The secular historian, through a judicious selection of the available materials recorded by first hand observers, tries to construct a narrative that explains the causes behind some significant historical event. These explanations do not rise above the level of probable opinion, and this for two reasons. First, with few exceptions, the facts on which these narratives are based must be accepted on faith – the student of history is seldom in a position to verify for himself whether or not the facts in question are true. Second, because the historian’s explanations inevitably reduce to the choices and motivations of the acting historical agents, the events in question are neither necessary nor can we be fully confident that agents were acting according to the intentions assigned for them by the historian. Therefore, secular history, considered a speculative discipline, will not be a formal part of Liberal education, whose end is knowledge, rather than opinion.[116] We saw above, however, that while liberal education aims primarily at a speculative good, it also includes secondarily the practical sciences of ethics and politics. Since these sciences depend on a great deal of experience,[117] which the young naturally lack, the study of history can be extremely helpful by supplying the student with paradigmatic illustrations of ethical choices and their consequences.

Finally, since, as Aristotle observes, the liberally educated man is one who is “critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge,”[118] not as an expert, but as one who can form his own judgment about the “goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition,” a man so educated ought to be able to read history in this manner. To this end it necessary that a liberal arts curriculum should include at least some history, not so much for the content of the history itself, but to develop the appropriate skills of reading history critically. For this reason, the College wisely includes some of the best historical studies in its evening seminars.[119] 

VI Sacred history

In this last part of the lecture I will argue that unlike its secular counterpart, sacred history does belong as an integral part of Catholic liberal education. The seniors, no doubt, are aware of a difficulty that attends my thesis. In the first question of the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas considers an objection that sacred doctrine is not a science on the grounds that it treats of singulars such as “the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the like.”[120] St. Thomas replies that sacred doctrine does not treat of singulars principally, but either as moral exemplars or to establish the authority of Scripture’s authors.[121] I have always been puzzled by this reply. Our Lord too is a singular man; His nativity, passion, death, resurrection and ascension[122] – all of these are historical events. These seem to be more than just edifying examples or miraculous events to establish the authority of the evangelists; these are the very things the faithful meditate upon; surely the theologian also must find in them suitable objects for contemplation. Yet St. Thomas’s response would seem to exclude such events from the speculative scope of the theologian. In the past, like so many on this faculty, I would turn to Marc Berquist for guidance, especially on questions dealing with thought of St. Thomas. Sadly, I had to look for counsel elsewhere – I went to Mr. O’Reilly. He too was at a loss about how to square St. Thomas’ reply with the central mysteries of the Christian faith. We were both stumped, and I was beginning to get more than a little worried. And then Mr. O’Reilly remembered a letter he had seen, written by Mr. Berquist to Thomas Waldstein (now Pater Edmund), on this very problem. What follows is essentially Mr. Berquist’s response in the order in which he himself thought through the problem; I should add that Mr. Berquist was not altogether satisfied with the answer – he said it was at best a partial resolution. Perhaps in the Q & A we can explore how one might complete it.

The first step in Mr. Berquist’s argument has already been established earlier in this lecture. He points out that the objection is based on a view of science taken from the standpoint of human knowing; “God’s science,” he says, “which is most perfectly science, knows the material singular as such.”[123] So much is familiar ground.

Second, “sacred doctrine is a participation in God’s knowledge, that is, more precisely, it a science sub-alternate to the science of God and the blessed.” The principles of sacred doctrine are made known to us by revelation, and accepted as true in virtue of the light of faith, a light more certain than the natural light of reason.[124] That God is a trinity of persons is seen with perfect clarity by God and blessed; in this life this proposition remains a mystery, although we assent to its truth with unshakeable conviction. Thus sacred doctrine occupies a middle position between the perfect knowledge enjoyed by God, and the kind of knowledge afforded to unassisted human reason. The same distinction applies to the knowledge of material singulars: “[sacred doctrine] will fall short of God’s perfect comprehension, but exceed the knowledge of singulars provided by properly human knowledge.”[125]

Mr. Berquist first explains how revealed knowledge of singulars falls short of God’s perfect comprehension. Revelation, which is the source of sacred doctrine, comes to us by way of human language.[126] But words signify things by way of common conceptions abstracted from sensible particulars.[127] For this reason “the words which signify these conceptions cannot communicate to the mind what is unique to the material singulars as such.”[128] For example, if I tell you that my son Danny is adorable, you all know what is signified by the term “adorable,” though most probably have not met Danny in person. The concept here is universal, and as such prescinds from those aspects of Danny’s adorableness that belong him as an individual. Even if I were to specify the way in which he exemplifies this characteristic, say the way he sucks his thumb while twirling his hair with his other hand, even this description is expressed in terms that are universal in meaning; as such they do not express all the concrete richness – the “thisness” -- of his action.[129] This personal knowledge, says Mr. Berquist, is unique and incommunicable, and so cannot be taught.[130] Therefore, Scripture will not be able to communicate to us Christ’s human nature in its material singularity.[131] The Apostles who lived with Jesus necessarily know Him better than their words can ever say; but even their knowledge of Christ’s individuality falls far short of that enjoyed by God. Our senses attend only to the surfaces of things; and the knowledge they produce is limited by the perspective, attention and time under which the senses operate. God sees each thing from all sides, outside and within, and at every moment of its existence; there is no thought or feeling that escapes His notice.

Sacred doctrine, however, does teach us things about human history that cannot possibly be known by the secular historian. Faith gives us the assurance that certain events recorded in Scripture really did happen, beginning with the first man, Adam. Concerning the doctrine of original sin, Pius XII writes: 

[T]he faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[132] 

Adam’s first sin lies at the heart of the Christian religion. If this did not really happen, then the mission of the Word becomes unintelligible; as St. Paul says, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died in vain.”[133] Scripture clearly teaches us about this event, both in the Old Testament and in the New; through the supernatural gift of faith we assent to this fact with unwavering certitude. The student of secular history, in contrast, must put his trust in human authorities, which are not only fallible but are sometimes deliberately misleading. This is one advantage that sacred history has over secular.

The second is that the author of the Scripture is also the author of history itself. For this reason, the student of sacred history can be certain that the facts selected really are significant, although he might not see their significance so clearly in every case. In this way the Scriptures resemble the narrative structure of a well contrived plot, where the poet arranges the incidents and characters so as to lead to a fitting conclusion. On the road to Emmaus the Risen Christ tells two of His disciples:

“O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.[134]

Here our Lord teaches that the Scriptures form an intelligible unity in which the words and deeds recorded in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New.[135] Thus the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes that the Levitical Priesthood, prescribed by the Mosaic Law, was a “shadow of the good things [to come],” namely of Christ the high priest, who through His perfect sacrifice makes expiation for the sins of God’s people.[136] The significance of Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek becomes readily apparent; and we can see, albeit dimly, why so much attention is directed to the rites of sacrifice in the Book of Leviticus.[137] The events and institutions of the Old Testament thus become intelligible when seen in the light of faith, a light which shares in God’s own knowledge of these things.[138]

Plutarch might speculate on the possible cosmic significance of Julius Caesar for the Roman Commonwealth, but he has no way of knowing whether his guesses correspond with God’s own secret reasons. Through revelation these reasons, some of them at least, are declared.[139] The Patriarch Joseph tells his treacherous brothers to fear not, “for you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive today.”[140] This is not a mere conjecture on his part: God reveals things to Joseph through dreams, including the very dream that incited his brothers to kill him.[141] The student of sacred doctrine, following the history of Joseph and his brothers, can see the hand of providence gathering the sons of Israel into Egypt, where their descendants will become slaves as foretold to Abraham.[142] And this servitude they recognize as foreshadowing the slavery of sin,[143] a slavery that is not abolished until the coming of Christ, the second Moses, who liberates mankind by His grace and truth, thereby fulfilling the law given by the first Moses.[144] In other words, unlike the philosopher, who knows only the fact of divine providence, the faithful have some insight into the true reasons for the events unfolding in sacred history.[145] In attending to the sufferings of Job, for example, we know that he is a righteous man,[146] that these tribulations are not sent as punishment for some sin he committed, but rather to test his virtue.[147]

Finally, returning to the difficulty raised above, the objection lists the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to illustrate the kind of singulars that concern sacred doctrine. Mr. Berquist points out that “the Patriarchs are not considered for the same reason that the Incarnation is; indeed, their significance is chiefly with respect to the Incarnation.”[148] While it seems doubtful that the Patriarchs are included in sacred doctrine only as examples, the way one might bring in Socrates or Pericles to manifest a point in political philosophy, they can at least serve this purpose; and perhaps that is enough to answer the objector’s difficulty. [I think that this is the part of his response with which Mr. Berquist was not altogether satisfied]. Regarding the man Jesus Christ, while it is true that he is an individual, His passion and resurrection are the universal causes of our redemption, justification and eventual glory. There is a text from St. Thomas to support this reading. In his Commentary on Boethius’ De trinitate, an objection is raised that the Catholic faith should not be called universal on the grounds that what we hold by faith are the truths of certain individual events, such as the passion and resurrection of Christ.[149] Thomas replies that “we believe these individual events as universal remedies for the liberation of the whole human race.”[150] In a similar way, Adam’s first sin, though particular, is nonetheless the universal cause of man’s sinfulness; as St. Paul says, “for as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”[151] Mr. Berquist includes Mary, the Mother of God, as a historical particular whose universal significance is secured by revelation and sacred doctrine. Adam names his wife ‘Eve’ because she was destined to be the mother of all living things;[152] perhaps Mary, the second Eve, is likewise the universal spiritual mother of all who live by the grace of her Son.[153]



[1] Aristotle, Parts of Animals I.5, 645a17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bulletin of Information (2011-2012), p. 16.

[4] A battle in which a handful of free Greeks decisively repulsed a hoard of barbarian invaders, invaders whose mission was nothing less than the enslavement of the entire Western world.

[5] Ibid., 645a7.

[6] Poetics 9, 1451b5.

[7] Luke 12:6.

[8] Cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae I, q. 14, art. 11: “For even the Philosopher considers it incongruous that anything known by us should be unknown to God; and thus against Empedocles he argues that ‘God would be most ignorant if He did not know discord.’”

[9] To know such things is indeed possible, and they stand to us as perfections, but not of the intellect but of the sense power.  Cf., ibid., and I, q. 86, art. 1: “Our intellect cannot know the singular in material things directly and primarily [directe et primo].  The reason for this is that the principle of singularity in material things is individual matter; whereas our intellect [. . .] understands by abstracting the intelligible species from such matter.”

[10] G. Hegel, Philosophy of History, p. 15.

[11] Ephesians 1.9.  Cf. Wisdom 8:1: “She [Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well”; see also Metaphysics I.2: “it belongs to the wise man to order.”

[12] In this lecture I want to explain the place of history in Catholic liberal education.  Before I enunciate my thesis, I should clarify the scope of my consideration.  By “history” I have in mind the narrative descriptions of the great men of the past, their deeds, their institutions, and their customs such as we find in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides.  The term ‘history’ has a much wider scope than this; Aristotle has a treatise entitled History of Animals which contains descriptions of various animals, their parts, and their behaviors; he intended this to serve as the foundation for his treatise The Parts of Animals in which he begins to explain the various phenomena described in the History.[12]  In current nomenclature the History of Animals would be a part of what is called natural history, which is a necessary prelude to the life sciences.  Thus, if biology belongs to a liberal arts curriculum, -- and it does -- so also would natural history.

There is also a more restricted sense of history which looks to the development over time of some particular idea or discipline; and so there are histories of scientific concepts such ‘force’ and ‘energy,’ as well as entire disciplines such as architecture and physics.  Although such studies do not abstract entirely from the human authors of these mental artifacts, the focus tends to be on the artifacts themselves; you might say that here the idea or discipline is the principal actor in stories told by these specialists.  As in the case with natural history, so here too I think a case can be made for the inclusion of these specialized historical studies – some of them at any rate -- in a liberal arts curriculum.  A sign of this is that almost the entire natural science program here at Thomas Aquinas College is historical in tenor; this is not accidental.  But I will not make that argument in this lecture.  Even here, however, I would want to insist that we are not studying the history of science as history, but as offering a suitable experiential basis for reflecting on the natural sciences and their principles, which is a properly philosophical consideration.  I have restricted my scope so as to keep my comments tonight within reasonable limits.

American Catholic liberal education would include the study of principal documents of the American founding.


[13] Newman, in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, cautions against picking out just one idea as being the central or leading idea: “Sometimes an attempt is made to determine the “leading idea,” as it has been called, of Christianity, an ambitious essay as employed on a supernatural work, when, even as regards the visible creation and the inventions of man, such a task is beyond us.  Thus its one idea had been said by some to be the restoration of our fallen race, by others philanthropy, by others the tidings of immortality, or the spirituality of true religious service, or the salvation of the elect, or mental liberty, or the union of the soul with God.  If, indeed, it is only thereby meant to use one or the other to group others around it, no fault can be found with such a proceeding; and in this sense I should myself call the Incarnation the central aspect of Christianity, out of which the three main aspects of its teachings take their rise, the sacramental, the hierarchical, and the ascetic.  But one aspect of Revelation must not be allowed to exclude or to obscure another” [pp. 35-36].

[14] 2 Peter 1:16.

[15] See Oxford English Dictionary, “to educate.”  Stem of educare = to rear, bring up (children, young animals), related to educere = to lead forth (see “Educe”), which is sometimes used nearly in the same sense.   “Educe” = (3) to bring out, elicit, develop, from a condition of latent, rudimentary, or merely potential existence.  “Hell is not so much induced, as educed out of men’s filthy lusts and passions”; “Chaos was that ancient slime, out of which all things were educed’; “Anaximenes found the original element in air, from which, by rarefaction and condensation he educed existences” (W. Hamilton, Metaphysics, I.4, 105).  This last example ties in quite nicely with St. Thomas’ article on the teacher, where he argues to the correct notion of the teacher by distinguishing it from Anaxagoras’ theory of matter that “all natural forms are in act, lying hidden in matter, and that a natural agent does nothing but draw them from concealment out into the open. [. . .]  Similarly, some also have said that the knowledge of things is con-created with the soul and that through teaching and the external helps of this type of knowledge all that happens is that the soul is prompted to recall or consider those things which it knew previously.  Hence, they say that learning is nothing but remembering” [De veritate, qu. 11, a. 1].  Anaximenes’ view, of course, is closer to Aristote’s own postion regarding prime matter.

[16] Cf. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics I.1: “ All teaching and all intellectual learning come about from already existing knowledge” [71a1].

[17] Cf. Aristotle, Prior Analytics I.1: “A syllogism is speech/discourse in which, when certain assumptions are made, something other than what has been assumed necessarily follows from that fact that the assumptions are such.” [24b19].

[18] De veritate, qu. 11, art. 1.  In this way is true teaching is distinguished from the kind of teaching offered by the sophist; see Plato, Protagoras, 313d-314c.

[19] Education should be distinguished from enculturation; see J. Newman, The Idea of the University:  “Stuffing birds or playing stringed instruments is an elegant pastime, and a resource to the idle, but it is not an education; it does not form or cultivate the intellect.  Education is a high word; it the preparation for knowledge and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation.  We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight.  We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them in our sleep or by haphazard” [p. 121].

[20] Metaphysics I.2, 982a14.

[21] Nicomachean Ethics VI.1a6.

[22] Cf. Metaphysics II.1: “and a thing has a quality in a higher degree than other things if in virtue of it the similar quality belongs to the other things” [993a25].  In the case of production, I desire both the end, and the means, but the latter in virtue of the former.

[23] “[A]nd the first principles and causes are most knowable; for by reason of these, and from these, all other things are known, but these are not know by means of the things subordinate to them”  [Ibid].

[24] See J. Newman, The Idea of the University,  p. 100: “liberal education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.  Everything has its own perfection [. . .] which is an object of pursuit.”  See also, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, p. 36: “When knowledge is desired from a theoretical motive, it is desired for the sake of the knower as such, that is, for the perfecting of his understanding.  But human understanding cannot be perfected by knowledge of an order which it has itself produced as, e.g., the order in an artifact or in a constitution.  Such an order, since it is the effect of human intelligence, is to that extent inferior to man; but nothing is perfected by reflecting within itself that which is inferior to it.”

[25] Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.2, 1094a18: “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake [. . . ] clearly this must be the good and the chief good.  Will not knowledge of it, then have a great influence on life?  Shall we not, like archers, who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should.”  See also, A Proposal for Catholic Liberal Education, p. 39.

[26] Cf. Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, VI, n. 1151: “There is a difference between action and making.  [. . .]  Action is an operation remaining in the agent, like seeing, understanding, and willing.  But making is an operation passing into external matter to fashion something out of it, like constructing and sawing.  Since habits are distinguished according to the object, it follows that the habit that is active by means of reason, i.e., prudence, is differentiated from the habit that is productive through reason, i.e., art.”  The perfections corresponding to these operations are likewise distinguished their relationship to the soul of the agent; St. Thomas makes this clear in his comment on Metaphysics IX.8: [W]hen some product results from the activity of potency, the activity perfects the thing being produced and not the one performing it.  Hence it is in the thing being produced as an actuality and perfection of it, but not in the one who is acting.  But when nothing else is produced in addition to the activity of the potency, the actuality then exists in the agent as its perfection and does not pass over into something external in order to perfect it; for example, the act of seeing is in the one seeing as his perfection, and the act of speculating is in the one speculating, and life is in the soul (if we understand by life vital activity).  Commentary on the Metaphysics IX, l.9, nn. 1864-65.  See also R. Smith, “The Liberal Arts: Definition and Division,” p. 80.

[27] St. Thomas continues: “Hence it has been shown that happiness also consists in an activity of the kind which exists in the one acting, and not of the kind which passes over into something external; for happiness is a good of the one who is happy, namely, his perfect life.  Hence, just as life is in the one who lives, in a similar fashion happiness is in the one who is happy.  Thus it is evident that happiness does not consist either in building or in any activity of the kind which passes over into something external, but it consists in understanding and willing.”  Ibid., n. 1865.

[28] St. Anselm, Prosologion, p. 115.

[29] Grene, p. 13: “Herodotus sets himself against the power of time.  Time is the destroyer, Herodotus the preserver, of what man has created.  [. . .]  Second, what he is bent on presenting in his fight with time, as it concerns the hostility between the Greeks and barbarians, is the kleos, what men say and hear about the subject.  In Homer, kleos means the glory that the hero’s great deeds have attracted to themselves, and it remains for his descendants to enjoy as the quintessence of their ancestor.  However, in the history of the Greek language the word has a broader application than “glory” as we understand it.  It is nearer “report.”  [. . .]  It is connected with the words that mean “talk out” and “to be heard.”

[30] Herodotus, The History, 1.1.

[31] Herodotus, ibid., 1.140: “These things [customs of the Persians] I know surely about them, for I speak from personal knowledge.”  See also, ibid., 2.99: “So far it is my eyes, my judgment, and my searching that speak these words to you; from this on it is the accounts of the Egyptians that I will tell to you as I heard them.”

[32] He traces the beginning of the conflict to Croesus, King of Lydia, who predated Herodotus by almost 80 years.

[33] Herodotus did not witness Xerxes cross the Hellespont into Europe; see ibid., 7.55.

[34] Tolstoy insists that that this is the rule rather than the exception: “Make the rounds of a whole army right after a battle, even on the second or third day, before the reports have been written, and ask all the soldiers, the senior and the junior officers, how it went; they will tell what all these men experienced and saw, and you will form a majestic, complex, infinitely diverse, oppressive, and vague impression; from no one, least of all the commander in chief, will you learn how it went” [“A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace, p. 1220].  Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but our experience with traffic accidents, which so often give rise to varied and conflicting reports from the drivers and third party witnesses, suggest that the phenomena Tolstoy describes is not unusual or restricted to combat situations.

[35] Ibid., 1.95: “I will write my account according to the evidence of those Persians whose desire is not to make solemn miracles of everything that concerns Cyrus but to tell the very truth.  But I know three other ways to tell the story of Cyrus.”  Thucydides makes a similar complaint: “My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eyewitnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other” [The Peloponnesian War, 17].  And Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome., p. 128: “So the avenging of Germanicus ended.  Contradictory rumors have raged around it among contemporaries and later generations alike.  Important events are obscure.  Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of error are magnified by time.”

[36] Ibid., 7.96.

[37] Again, Tolstoy would certainly insist on this point: “A historian and an artist, describing a historical epoch, have two completely different objects.  As a historian would be wrong if he should try to present a historical figure in all his entirety, in all the complexity of his relations to all sides of life, so an artist would not fulfill his task by always presenting a figure in his historical significance” [ibid., p. 1219].  See also C. DeKoninck, “On the Philosophy of History,” p. 9: “I will suggest another platitude concerning documents: they are not all equally significant, or suggestive.  I would say that the suggestive formality of a document is the formal object of historical science.  The historian will therefore make a choice of his material.  The suggestive value of a document may be obvious, but this is mostly not the case.  And this is where the historical sense comes into play, and the genius of the historian.  Documents show a certain convergence to be explained by a theory.”

[38] Cf. Histories, 7:20: “This was far the greatest host of any we have heard of [. . .] nor as great was the expedition of the Atreidae against Troy.  All these forces, and whatsoever others might be added to them, could not together equal this single one [1.7 million men, 1207 triremes].

[39] Cf. ibid., 7.8: “if we subdue them and their neighbors [. . .] we shall show to all a Persian empire that has the same limit as Zeus’ sky.  For the sun will look down upon no country that has a border with ours, but I shall make them all one country, once I have passed in my progress through all Europe.  [. . . ]  So those who are innocent in our sight and those who are guilty will alike bear the yoke of slavery.”

[40] See ibid., 9.62-9.63.

[41] See ibid., 5.78.

[42] Cf. ibid., 2.3: “When I do mention the gods, it will be because my history forces me to do so.”

[43] The case of biography is a little different.  The subject of biography is generally a person of great significance, and in this way it agrees with the account given of narrative history.  It differs, however, in that the biographer’s principle of selection are those episodes in the man’s life that are revelatory of character.  Further, there is a natural beginning and end of a man’s life; in narrative history much prudence is needed in knowing where to begin and where to end the story.  Tolstoy goes so far as to say that there are no true beginnings in history: “there is not and cannot be a beginning to any event, but one event always continuously follows another” [War and Peace, p. 822].

[44] As Charles DeKoninck explains, the principles that guide the historian’s selection are borrowed from another science: “a historian of the stamp of Thucydides must know political science and be guided by it.  The knowledge of different types of states and what is proper to each enables him to select, from the multitude of things that happen those events that different types of states and the definition of revolution is something that only political science can give.  Once these notions are supplied they can be used to illuminate history.  Thus, it is not history but another discipline that guides the selection of facts” [“Note on History,” p. 2].  The same holds true of judging the quality of a given history; see note 123.

[45] Nietzsche would have it that only great men have the right to interpret the past: “Only from the standpoint of the highest exertion of your noblest qualities will you discern what is worthy of being known and preserved, what is great in the past.  Like is known by like!  Otherwise you will draw the past down to yourselves.  Do not believe any historical writing if it does not issue from the hand of head of the rarest mind” [On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History, p. 37].

[46] This account of history essentially agrees with that of Glenn Coughlin in his  “History and Liberal Education,” p. 18: “A history of plumbing fixtures is simply less of a history, because it explains less, than the history of the Catholic Church or even a biography of Churchill.  In the light of the foregoing, perhaps we are not too far off if we define history as a causal account of significant past events.”

[47] This should be contrasted with detached professional scholar that Nietzsche so effectively criticizes in the Advantage and Disadvantage of History, p. 31: “Let assume a man working on Democritus; I always have the question at the tip of my tongue: why not Heraclitus? Or Philo? Or Bacon? Or Descartes? – and on at random.  And then: just why a philosopher?  Why not a poet, an orator?  And: why especially a Greek, why not an Englishman, a Turk? [. . . ]  But it is [. . .] a race of eunuchs; one woman is like the next to the eunuch – and so it is a matter of indifference what you do as long as history itself is preserved nice and “objective,” namely by those who can never themselves make history.”

[48] S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 15.  The passage is worth citing in full: “just as God created man and woman, so he created the hero and the poet or orator.  The poet or orator can do nothing that the hero does; he can only admire, love and delight in him.  [. . .]  He is recollection’s genius.  He can do nothing but bring to mind what has been done, can do nothing but admire what has been done; he takes nothing of his own but is zealous from what has been entrusted.  He follows his heart’s desire, but when he has found the object of his search, he roams about to every man’s door with his song and speech so that all may admire the hero as he does, may be proud of the hero as he is.  This is his occupation, his humble task; this is his faithful service in the house of the hero.  If he remains true to his love in this way, if he contends night and day against the craftiness of oblivion, which wants to trick him out of his hero, then he has fulfilled his task.”

[49] Livy speaks to this in the “Preface” to The Rise of Rome, p. 3: “Events before the city as founded or planned, which have been handed more as pleasing poetic fictions than as reliable records of historical events, I intend neither to affirm nor to refute.”  See also “Preface” of Book 6: “written records – the only reliable guardian of the remembrance of past events.”

[50] Cf. J. Neumayr, “Plutarch, Aristotle, and the Nature of Poetry,” p. 325: “If the poet’s interest in such objects [actions, with agents who are necessarily either good or bad men] is such, then he would necessarily share a certain relation with the historian, psychologist, or moral philosopher, and all others whose scientific interests pertain to human actions, emotions, etc., in some respect.  These people, according to the modes of their several sciences and disciplines are each seeking a kind of adequatio with the objects, that is, some kind of speculatively true understanding of the these objects.”  See also, C. Dekoninck, “The Philosophy of History,” p. 12: “Why study history?  We might give two reasons.  The obvious one is hat from the past we might draw lessons for the future.  This reason is true, but it is merely pragmatic.  I think that there is a more profound one.  The study of the past is worthwhile just for the sake of knowing it.  We might study history just as we study pure mathematics.”

[51] “[T]o be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning – gathering the meaning of things, e.g., that the man there is so and so; for if one has not seen the thing before, one’s pleasure will not be in the picture as an imitation of it, but will be due to the execution or coloring  or some similar cause” [Poetics, ch. 4, 1448b13].

[52] Hegel’s linear view of human history leads him to dismiss out of hand the possibility of learning from the past in any meaningful way: “Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history.  But what experience and history teach is this – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.  Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that is conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone.  Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help.  It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past.  The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present.  Looked in this light, nothing can be shallower than the oft-repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples during the French Revolution.  Nothing is more diverse than the genius of those nations and that of our own times” [Philosophy of History, p. 6].  He does allow that history can supply the young with suitable moral examples, which is the second practical advantage outlined below.

[53] The Peloponnesian War, p. 16.  Cf. Thucydides treatment of the Mytilene rebellion, in which the orator Diodotus – literally ‘gift of the gods’ -- persuades the Athenians to revoke their unjust decision, not on the grounds of justice, but that of expediency.  In this we have a very instructive lesson in how to persuade a democratic assembly. 

Hobbes, who translated Thucydides history into English, found confirmation of his view of man in a state of nature in the latter’s depiction of the Athenian Plague and the Corcyrean Civil War.   

Gibbon too makes an appeal to utility in his Decline and Fall of the Rome Empire, p. 437: “This awful revolution [of the Roman Empire in the West] may be usefully applied to the instruction of the present age.  It is the duty of a patriot to prefer and promote the exclusive glory of his native country; but a philosopher may be permitted to enlarge his views, and to consider Europe as one great republic, whose inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation.”  He subsequently argues that as a matter of fact, modern Europe is most likely not primed for another collapse, largely due to the invention of gunpowder: “Cannon and fortification now form an impregnable barrier against the Tartar horse, and Europe is secure from any future irruption of Barbarians; since, before they can conquer, they must cease to be barbarous.  Their gradual advances in the science of war would always be accompanied [. . .]  with a proportionable improvement in the arts of peace and civil society” [ibid., p. 441]. 

And De Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, p. xii: “Moreover, I have tried not merely to diagnose the malady of which the sick man died but also to discover how he might have been saved.  In fact, my method has been that of the anatomist who dissects each defunct organ with a view to eliciting the laws of life, and my aim has been to supply a picture that while scientifically accurate, may also be instructive.”

Nietzsche points out the elusive character of using the past as a strict guide for future action: “And yet – at once to learn another new thing from the same example – how flowing and elusive, how imprecise would such a comparison be!  How much that is different must be overlooked, how ruthlessly must the individuality of the past be forced into a general form and have all its sharp edges and lines broken for the sake of agreement, if the comparison is to have that powerful effect!  Fundamentally what was possible once could only be possible a second time if the Pythagoreans were right in believing that with the same conjunction of the heavenly bodies the same events had to be repeated on earth down to the minutest detail” [The Advantages and Disadvantage of History, p. 16].  In order to imitate the past, says Nietzsche, we effectively have to distort it – to approximate, generalize and finally equate differences” – that is, to treat it unhistorically.  In doing this, he adds, you are in effect ignoring the actual disparity of motives and occasions, these being the causes of the monumental effect.

[54] Cf. Livy, The Rise of Rome, p. 4: “The special and salutary benefit of the study of history is to behold the evidence of every sort of behavior set forth as on a splendid memorial; from it you may select for yourself and for your country what to emulate, from it what to avoid, whether basely begun or basely concluded.”

[55] See Offices., pp. 138ff.

[56] See G. Coughlin, “History and Liberal Education,” p. 35: “And we can also find in history examples to follow.  Some of the greatest leaders, and many lesser ones, have been inspired by the examples of Brutus or Alexander. We need to see in a concrete way what a virtue, e.g., courage, looks like in order to pursue it; we are not so much moved by speeches or books telling us why we should be good or that such and such is a virtue.  We learn practical things mostly by imitation, and history is an abundant source for examples.”

[57] Nicomachean Ethics., II.6, 1106b36.

[58] Nietzsche proposes this as a genuine aim of the study of history: “History belongs above all to the active and powerful man, to him who fights a great fight, who requires models, teachers and comforters and cannot find them among his associates and contemporaries” [The Advantages and Disadvantages of History, p. 14].

[59] See G. Coughlin, “History and Liberal Education,” p. 35: “The great advantage of history, which advantage balances and perhaps overbalances the advantage of literature, is that it is factual; the student is more inclined to think that the historical tale is more “true to life” than the fictional, even though it is not always so.”

[60]Further, as Tacitus points out, our familiarity with virtue and vice with few exceptions is restricted to a particular political regime; in our case, we see these as they are conditioned by democracy.  What the historian can reveal is how they are expressed in different regimes, in a monarchy or aristocracy for example.  By seeing the various modalities of the different virtues and vices, we are in a better position both to judge what belongs to each essentially, and in which regime the good life is most likely to flourish. Cf. Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, pp. 172-73: “I am aware that much of what I have described, and shall describe, may seem unimportant and trivial.  But my chronicle is quite a different matter from histories of early Rome.  Their subjects were great wars, cities stormed, kings routed and captured.  Or, if home affairs were their choice, they could turn freely to conflicts of consuls with tribunes, to land- and corn-laws, feuds of conservatives and commons.  Mine, on the other hand, is a circumscribed, inglorious field.  Peace was scarcely broken – if at all.  Rome was plunged in gloom, the ruler uninterested in expanding the empire.  Yet even apparently insignificant events such as these are worth examination.  For they often cause major historical developments.  This is so whether a country or city is a democracy, an oligarchy, or an autocracy.  [. . . ]  When there was democracy, it was necessary to understand the character of the masses and how to control them.  When the senate was in power, those who best knew its mind – the mind of the oligarchs – were considered the wisest experts on contemporary events.  Similarly, now that Rome has virtually been transformed into and autocracy, the investigation and record of these details concerning the autocrat may prove useful.  Indeed, it is from such studies – from the experience of others – that most men learn to distinguish right from wrong, advantage and disadvantage.  Few can tell them apart instinctively.”  From what I have said above, it is clear that I think Tacitus has overstated the utility of historical studies; but with the proper qualifications, what he says has merit.

[61] The Bulletin holds this out as being one of the principal concerns in the Seminars devoted to history: “The histories used in the Seminar give rise to the questions about the nature of historical knowledge” [p. 15].

[62] Nicomachean Ethics, VI.3, 1139b20.

[63] Archaeological evidence can help confirm eyewitness reports but they cannot replace them.  Thucydides offers a thought experiment regarding the equivocal character of such evidence: “For I suppose that if Sparta were to become desolate, and only the temples and the foundations of the buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power.  And yet they occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnesus and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies outside.  Still, as the city is neither built in compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy.   Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is” [The Peloponnesian War,1.10].  See also C. Dekoninck, “On the Philosophy of History,” p. 9: “[T]he universe itself is improving its records, that it tends to preserve its own past in an objective manner.  [. . .]  The advent of man is the greatest source of historical documents.  Not so much by the traces of intelligence in carved stones, arms and debris of huts, etc.  It is the advent of man the historian that constitutes the greatest of all historical documents.  Man constructing monuments to honor heroes and conquests.  Herein he is fighting the destruction of time.  The world is striving to escape oblivion, and free itself of the past, by furnishing documents for the future.  Henceforth there will be intelligent communication between the past and the present.  [. . .]  In this perspective we see that the universe tends to embrace itself in mind, and to be present to itself with all its past.”

[64] Commentary on the De anima, I.1, n. 6: “Et dicit ‘historiam,’ quia in quaedam summa tractat de anima, non perveniendo ad finalem inquistionem omnium quae pertinet ad ipsam animam, in hoc tractatu.  Hoc enim est de ratione historiae.”  See also, C.Dekoninck, Introduction to the Study of the Soul, XII: “Isn’t it for this reason that Aristotle call his treatise “history of the soul?”  We can name it thus insofar as it is of the nature of history not to attain the term of the research.”  See also Commentary on the Metaphysics I.1, n. 36: “in general we all consider those especially to be wise who know all things, as the case demands, without having a knowledge of every singular thing.  For this is impossible, since singular things are infinite in number, and an infinite number of things cannot be comprehended by the intellect.”

[65]“History and Liberal Education,” p. 16.

[66]Suppose there was a small but highly poisonous brown recluse spider that would have climbed harmlessly out of my right shoe in the time it would take to tie my left, if only I had put this one on first.  Gibbon, with his typical irony, comments on the peaceful reign of Antonius, lamenting its deleterious consequences for the historian: “Antonius diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth.  His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind” [The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p. 82].  This melancholic note is echoed again at the beginning of Anna Karenina, where the Tolstoy observes that all happy families are the same, but the unhappy ones are each unhappy in their own way.

[67] It might be supposed that Thucydides’ silence simply reflects the prevailing attitude of 5th century (B.C.) Greek society regarding the place of women in the affairs of state.  But how do you explain incorporation Herodotus’ extensive treatment of women in The Histories written shortly before Thucydides’ great history?

[68] See St.Thomas, On Being and Essence, ch. 4, n. 56: “It is false that the nature of man, as such, has existence in this singular thing, because if existence in this singular thing belonged to man as man, man would never exist outside the singular thing.”

[69] Nicomachean Ethics VI.2, 1139b5.

[70] See. Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy, V, pr. 6, p. 117; see also G. Coughlin, “History and the Liberal Arts,” pp. 22-23.  This distinction is often brought home to me in my dealings with my wife.  She has me employed in various home improvement projects; naturally she takes a great interest in my handiwork, and during her frequent inspections she will sometimes point to some apparent imperfection and ask: “Did you see this?”  My reply is always the same: “No, but I do now, in fact, it is all that I can see.”  Experience has taught me that hers is a leading question; my response typically is this: “Listen Marilyn, what is done is done.  Not even God can undo the past.”  And she’s perfectly willing to concede this metaphysical nicety, pointing out that all the same, it could have been done differently – it didn’t have to be done this way,” implying thereby that even now it can be fixed.  She clearly sees the distinction between simple and hypothetical necessity.

[71] This is a point that Tolstoy drives home repeatedly in War and Peace, namely that the contrast between the texture of real life and the unreal pictures presented by historians based on the rationalizing reconstructions of the actors themselves: “He [Nikolai Rostov] told them about his Shongraben action in just the way that those who take part in battles usually tell about them, that is, in the way they would like to have been, the way they have heard others tell it, the way it could be told more beautifully, but not at all the way it had been.  Rostov was a truthful young man, not for anything would he have deliberately told an untruth.  He began telling the story with the intention of telling it exactly as it had been, but imperceptibly, involuntarily, and inevitably for himself, he went over into untruth.  If he had told the truth to these listeners, who, like himself, had already heard accounts of attacks numerous times and had formed for themselves a definite notion of what an attack was, and were expecting exactly the same sort of an account – they either would not have believed him or, worse still, would have thought it Rostov’s own fault that what usually happens in stories of cavalry attacks had not happened with him” [War and Peace, p. 242].  See also I. Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, p. 17.

[72] Significantly, Tacitus begins his study by declaring his own impartiality as a historian, since in his case “the customary incentives [to indignation or partisanship] are lacking” [Annals, p. 32].

[73] Dolokov’s apology to Pierre just before the Battle of Borodino is an example of such a sudden turn around; see Tolstoy, War and Peace, p. 767.

[74]Indeed, even in our own case it is difficult to be sure what our true intentions are; good actions are by their very nature praiseworthy.  One hopes that we are doing the right thing for the right reason, but it is not always clear.  Significantly, in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the last tempter encourages Beckett to:


Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest

On earth, to be high in heaven.

And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,

Your persecutors, in timeless torment,

Parched passion, beyond expiation. [Murder in the Cathedral, pp. 192-93]


Beckett does desire martyrdom but fears that he is moved by pride and vengeance rather than the love of Christ.  Consequently, if our own motivations are not always perfectly transparent, we should hesitate to accord anything more than probability to intentions the historian ascribes to other men.  For most, the truth of the matter will not be revealed until the final judgment. Even St. Paul hesitates to judge himself; in First Corinthians he writes: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.  I do not even judge myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.  It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” [1 Cor. 4:2-5].  See also C. DeKoninck, “The Nature of Man and His Historical Being,” p. 273: “A man be plainly criminal, fairly tried, rightly judged & condemned to death.  Yet, this judgment can never claim finality, or identity with that of the Supreme Judge.  God alone sounds the heart; God alone plumb the depths of the mind.  The gulf between the Days of the Lord and the Days of man cannot be bridged from this side.  Neque meipsum judico –but neither do I judge myself – says the Apostle.  Correspondingly, the human narratio of a person’s actions can never transcend the field of appearances, no matter how much or how little foundation these may seem to have in reality.”

[75] Cf. Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 23, 1459a18-27: “As for the poetry which narrates, or imitates by means of versified language, the construction of its plots should clearly be like that in a tragedy; they should be based on a single action, one that is a complete whole in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end, so as to enable the work to produce its own proper pleasure with all the organic unity of a living creature.”  Poetry properly aims at he rectification of the appetites which is conducive to acquisition of moral virtue, but is not virtue itself.

[76] Green, p. 2: “For instance, he says that he believes (with some evidence) that Homer knew that Helen had gone to Egypt and had in fact been there all through the Trojan War (2:116).  But, says Herodotus, because Homer found the other version of the story (Helen’s stay in Troy) more suitable to the purposes of poetry, he chose it.”  The intellectual pleasure that one derives from imitation should be distinguished from the proper pleasure of tragedy, which is a cathartic experience of the passions (pity and fear), which is moral and under the ratio of the appetitive; cf. J. Neumayr, “Plutarch, Aristotle and the Nature of Poetry,” p. 313.

[77] Poetics, ch. 8, 1451a30.

[78] Character is for the sake of plot, and the latter is for the sake of the proper pleasure of poetry; cf. Ibid., ch. 6, 1450a15:  “Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life.  In a play, accordingly they do not act in order to portray the characters; they include the characters for the sake of the action.  So that it is the action in it, i.e., its plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy; and the end is everywhere the chief thing.”  According to Mr. Neumayr, the probability of the action helps induce a willing suspension of disbelief, without which it is impossible to experience the appropriate catharsis: “the poet desires a “willing suspension of disbelief” so that the spectator will seriously follow the action; otherwise, if he considers the poem so much nonsense he can easily disengage himself from it emotionally, and having done that, fail to respond cathartically.  Therefore, poetry, in its own way, must be convincing, and with this in mind Aristotle would prefer to see a convincing or probable impossibility than an unconvincing possible” [p. 124].

[79] Ibid., ch. 23, 1459a22.

[80] Tolstoy goes so far as to say “[t]he historian is sometimes obliged, by bending the truth, to bring all the actions of a historical figure under the one idea he has put into that figure” [ibid., p. 1219].  I cannot agree with Tolstoy on this point: the historian’s obligation is first and foremost to report facts which he believes to be true; should he abandon this responsibility, he ceases to be a historian.

[81] See C. DeKoninck, “Note on History,” p. 2: “[The historian] cannot construct the events of his record or rearrange them so that a kind of necessity will appear.  Very often the events that he must record have very little connection between one another beyond the fact that they happened at the same time.  Many of the most important events he records have no intrinsic necessity.  They come about through the action of some great man, who might very well have acted otherwise.  Others are caused by forces that are, at least to us, irrational, like floods and plagues.  With these elements it is impossible to construct a chain of necessity.  Hence, the historian must be content with narration and he cannot properly, as historian, manifest anything.”

[82] Poetics, ch. 23, 1459a22.

[83] Of course we do find such probability in historical events sometimes; cf. Poetics, ch. 9, 1451a30: “And if he should come to take a subject from actual history, he is none the less a poet for that; since some historic occurrences may very well be in the probable order of things; and it is in that aspect of them that he is their poet.”

[84] How often does the overthrow of one tyrant result in the installment of another; see Plutarch, Life of Sylla, p. 633: “This gave the most stupid of the Romans to understand that they had merely exchanged, not escaped, tyranny.”

[85] Ecclesiastes 9:11. 

[86] Cf. C. DeKoninck, “Note on History,” p. 1: “Even in poetry there is still some manifestation.  Events in the life of the rex fictus, Oedipus or another, are ordered according to possibility or probability.  A kind of necessity in the midst of the contingent order is thereby manifested.  The mind forms the events in such a way that the reason is seduced into accepting the probability of the necessity of the order.  There is here a selection and a formation of the personages that constitute them in a certain universality, the proper stamp of the mind.”

[87] See Tacitus, Annals, p. 75: “At about that time also, a junior senator named Aurelius Pius protested that his house had been undermined by the government’s construction of a road and aqueduct.  He appealed to the senate.  The praetors in charge of the Treasury resisted the claim, but Tiberius came to his help and paid him the value of his house.  For the emperor was prepared to spend in a good cause, and kept this good quality long after his others were gone.”  See also Plutarch, Sylla, p. 611: “In general he would seem to have been a very much irregular character, full of inconsistencies with himself; much given to rapine, to prodigality yet more; in promoting or disgracing whom he pleased, alike unaccountable; cringing to those he stood in need of, and domineering over others who stood in need of him, so that it was hard to tell whether his nature had more in it of pride or of servility.”  Alcibiades, once more stripped of command, disinterestedly offers the Greek generals Tydeus, Meander, and Adimantus some good advice, which they disregard to their great lost, and Athens’.  This seems a significant departure from the self-serving individual who spearheaded the Athenians’ ill-fated expedition to Syracuse.

[88] P. 139.

[89] In that the rumor of the Greek victory at Plataea should come to their comrades fighting at Mycale, “so that their army was thereby greatly encouraged and more willing to take its risks with a good heart.” See Histories, 9.100.

[90] See, for example, Plutarch, “The Comparison of Dion and Brutus,” p. 609: “in the malady of the times and the need of a monarchical government, he [Caesar] might be thought to have been sent as the gentlest physician, by no other than a divine intervention.”  Livy’s description of the founding of the Roman Republic clearly has a providential tone throughout; see, for example, the beginning of Book II, P. 71: “Nor is there any doubt that the same Brutus, who won so much glory in expelling Superbus, would have done a grievous wrong to the state if out of a premature desire for liberty he had wrested rule for one of the earlier kings.  The plebs were a mixture of shepherds and adventurers who had fled their own lands.  What would have happened to them when they won immunity if not liberty under the sacred protection of asylum?  Uncowed by the absolute power of a king, they would have begun battling with the senators in a city not their own, before they had become united in spirit by commitment to wives and children and by love for the soil – a love that takes a long time to develop.  The nation, not yet grown up, would have been torn apart by dissension.  But as it was, a calm and moderate exercise of governmental authority fostered and nourished it so that when it matured and grew strong it was able to enjoy the excellent fruits of liberty.”  It is as if Providence had sent the tyrant Superbus at precisely that juncture in Rome’s founding when the people were finally mature enough enjoy freedom; in this we see a good brought about by an economy of means.  In this connection see ibid., p. 54: “It happened by chance that the two of violent temperament [Lucius Tarquinius (Superbus) and Tulia] were not married to one another [because they would later violently murder their spouses, thus manifesting their tyrannical disposition] – or rather, I think, it was owing to the Fortune of the Roman people, whose purpose it was that the reign of Tullius endured long enough to lay a firm foundation for the building of Rome’s national character.”  Tolstoy says that Livy is following “the law of retrospection, which presents all the past as a preparation for the accomplished fact” [War and Peace, p. 709].  As Aristotle says, there is a world of difference between saying one event follows another, and that it happens because of another.

[91] Cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae I. qu. 2, a. 3: “The fifth way is taken from the governance of things.  For we see that some things, which lack knowledge, namely natural bodies, operate for the sake of an end; which is apparent from the fact that they always or for the most part operate in the same way, so as to obtain what is best.”

[92] II.8, 199a9-13.

[93] As Aristotle makes clear in Physics II.2, the significance of “end” here is not that it is the last step in a causal sequence, but that it has the ratio of the good.  He chides the poet who remarked that death is the end for the sake of which a man was born.  “Not every stage that is last,” he says, “claims to the end, but only that which is best” [ibid., 194a34].

[94] Aristotle’s hypothetical examples, which immediately follow the formal argument cited above, support this reading: “Thus if a house, e.g., had been a thing made by nature, it would have been made in the same way as it is now by art; and if the things made by nature were made not only by nature but also by art, they would come to be in the same way as nature” [Physics II.8, 199a13-15; my emphasis].  The focus of this analogy is clearly on the pathways that art and nature respectively follow that results in their respective products.

[95] This point is perhaps clearer in the Parts of Animals: “For the doctor and the builder define health or house, either by the intellect or by perception, and then proceed to give the accounts and the causes of each of the things they do and of why they should do it thus” [I.1, 639b17-19].  In art, what justifies the existence and serial ordination of each step in the artistic process is the intended goal.

[96] Commentary on the Physics II, l. 12, no. 487; see also Commentary on the Metaphysics XII, l. 12, nos. 4632-37.  See also Commentary on Job, p. 130: “that natural things are for the sake of an end is the strongest argument to show that the world is ruled by divine providence.”

[97] Cf. Commentary on Job, pp 171-72: “Job shows the immense profundity of divine wisdom: first, since God provides His benefits to His subjects so profoundly and subtly that it is incomprehensible even to those who receive them, and this is the point of saying ‘If He comes to me, I will not see Him, if He goes away, I will not understand Him.’”

[98] Annals, p. 128.

[99] Consolation of Philosophy, IV, Pr. 6.

[100]Isaiah, 55:8.  Cf. C. DeKoninck, “The Nature of Man and His Historical Being,” p. 274: “None except the Maker of history could narrate to us the life of Peter.  The “sufficient reason” of what happens in this world is not itself of this world; it is not “subjectified” in the things .  As seen in the particular things, and the actions of which it is composed, the world remains itself full of irrationality and absurdity.”

[101] Metaphysics, I.2, 982a9.

[102] See Commentary on the Metaphysics I, l. 2, n. 36: “For this [knowledge of every singular thing] is impossible, since singular things are infinite in number, and an infinite number of things cannot be comprehended.”

[103] Commentary on Job, p. 196.  This is the basis of the principle of subsidarity that stands at the foundation of Catholic social teaching; see Pius XI, “On Social Reconstruction,” p. 40: “just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so, too it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.  This is the fundamental principle of social philosophy. [. . .]  Of its very nature the true aim of social activity should be to help individual members of the social body, but never to destroy or absorb them.”

[104] See De veritate I, qu. 2, a. 5: “the divine knowledge which God has of things can be compared to the knowledge of an artist, since He is the cause of all the works of art. An artist knows his works under the aspect of form.  Now every form is of itself universal; therefore by means of his art, a builder knows, indeed, house in general, but not this house or that house, unless he acquires other knowledge of it through his senses.  But if the artistic form produced matter as it produces form [. . .].”

[105] See ibid.: “The likeness of the thing in the divine intellect is one which causes things; for, whether a thing has a vigorous or feeble share in the act of being, it has this from God alone.”

[106] See Summa theologiae Ia, qu. 14, ad 1: “Our intellect abstracts the intelligible species from the individuating principles; hence the intelligible species in our intellect cannot be a likeness of the individual principles, and on that account our intellect does not know the singular.  But the intelligible species of the divine intellect, which is the essence of God, is immaterial, not by abstraction, but of itself, being the principle of all the principles which enter into the composition of the thing, whether these be principles of the species or principles of the individual; hence by it God knows not only the universal, but also the singular things.”  See also, M. Berquist, “Letter to T. Waldstein,” 6/15/2006.

[107] Summa theologiae Ia, qu. 14, a. 11: “Sed perfectiones quae in inferioribus dividuntur, in Deo simpliciter et unite existent.  Unde, licet nos per aliam potentiam cognoscamus universalia et immaterialia, et per aliam singularia in materialia; Deus tamen per sum simplicem intellectum utraque congnoscit.”

[108] Sherlock Holmes deliberately avoids committing to memory any information not immediately connected to himself and his work, including the Copernican theory the planetary system: “You see,” [Holmes] explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.  A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it.  Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.  He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.  It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.  Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.  It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”


“But the Solar System!” [Dr. Watson] protested.


“What the deuce is it to me?”  he interrupted impatiently: “you say we go around the sun.  If we went around the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”  [A Study in Scarlet]

[109]See St. Thomas, De veritate, qu. 2, art. 2, ad 4: “All knowledge, taken in itself, belongs to the class of good things; but it may happen accidentally that the knowledge of certain despicable things is bad, either because it is the occasion of some base action (and for this reason certain knowledge is forbidden) or because some individual might be kept from better things because of certain knowledge; consequently, what is good in itself may harm certain people.  This, however, cannot happen to God.” 

[110] Commentary on Job, p. 194.

[111] The example is from The Consolation of Philosophy, p. 94: “Take, for example, the man so fortunate as to seem approved by both God and men; he may actually be weak in character that if he were to suffer adversity he would forsake virtue on that grounds that it seemed not to bring him good fortune.  Therefore God in his wise dispensation spares the man whom adversity might ruin, so that he may not suffer who cannot stand suffering.  Another man who is perfect in all virtues, holy, and dear to God, may be spared even bodily sickness because Providence judges it wrong for him to be touched by any adversity at all.”

[112] Commentary on Job, p. 172.  The passage continues: “In this way, then, the profundity of divine wisdom appears in the dispensation of its benefits.”

[113] Cf. Ibid., p. 415: “But since human wisdom is not sufficient to comprehend the opinion about divine providence, it was necessary that the debate be determined by divine authority.”  See also G. Coughlin, “History and Liberal Education,” p. 24: “A sufficient account could only be had by looking into the secret plans of the divine mind, and this is not open to us.  A theological historian might claim that so and so did such and such because God planned things that way, and no doubt he would be right.  But one could say the same thing about both acts which are in character and those which are out of character, and about the important acts as well as the trivial ones.  [S]uch a stance is not very satisfying, even though true.”  See also A. DeToqueville, Democracy in America, [Mansfield], p. 12: “Shall I think that the Creator has made man so as to leave him to debate endlessly in the midst of the intellectual miseries that surround us?  I cannot believe this: God prepares a firmer and calmer future for European societies; I am ignorant of his designs, but I will not cease to believe in them [merely] because I cannot penetrate them, and I would rather doubt my enlightenment than his justice.”

[114] De Tocqueville, I suspect, would contest this point.  In Democracy in America [Lawrence] he speaks of the imminent and seemingly necessary course of human history toward equality of condition, and this knowledge is accessible with any special revelation, p. 12: “This whole book has been written under the impulse of a kind of religious dread inspired by contemplation of this irresistible revolution advancing century by century over every obstacle and even now going forward amid the ruins it has itself created.  God does not Himself need to speak for us to find sure signs of His will; it is enough to observe the customary progress of nature and the continuous tendency of events; I know, without special revelation, that the strars follow orbits in space traced out by His finger.”  The two cases, sociology and astronomy, are not entirely analogous.  Unless God changes the laws of nature, the planets will necessarily trace out the paths the astronomer maps out for them.  The future course of mankind is not so determined.  Nietzsche clearly held out hope that a new aristocratic order could, and should, be instituted by a few very free spirits; his Beyond Good and Evil was intended to institute precisely this possible future.  The German national socialists tried to implement a world order according to a vision that resonates in some ways with Nietzsche’s program.  Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibwitz envisions a post apocalyptic future that returns to the heroic/aristocratic virtues of Homer’s Iliad.  The fact that men are fallen together with God’s allowance for even horrific evil, such as we experienced in the Second World War, indicate to me that the differences between sociology and natural science are more fundamental than De Tocqueville seems to think.  And while it is true that he was able to successfully predict the emergence of Russia as a world power, in other areas his predictions have proven less impressive as in the example of American literature.  As Glen Coughlin cogently argues, the objects studied by the historian and natural scientist differ essentially: “The modern scientist assumes that he is getting at the nature of the thing he is studying, however obliquely and imperfectly.  There is, he assumes, due the regularity of phenomena, some nature to be known; our minds are just too dim to see that nature.  [. . .]  But the historian’s problem is not in the weakness of the human mind, but in the nature of the thing he is studying.  In itself, it could be otherwise, for when dealing with men we have always to take into account free-will, and there is no accounting for that” [“History and Liberal Education, pp. 23-24].  See also C. DeKoninck,  “A Note on History,” p. 2: “Like poetry, history deals with objects that are deficient in truth, contingent.  Unlike poetry, history cannot even imperfectly escape the irrationalness in things by constructing them so that they possess an intelligibility supplied by the mind.”

[115]Marc Berquist captures this point well: “A wise philosopher [he says] might come to know that there is a Divine Providence over all things, but he could have no knowledge whatever of the significance of particular individuals and events in the divine plan for creation as a whole (and his conjectures would certainly be mistaken).  [That is why there is no “philosophy of history,” properly speaking]” [Letter to T. Waldstein, 6/15/2006].

[116] Poetry is sometimes described in the tradition as the “least doctrine” [infima doctrina – see Summa theologiae, Ia, qu. 1, a. 9, obj. 1].  Since poetry is more universal than history, this would make history something less than doctrine; see. C. DeKoninck, “A Note on History,” p. 1.  This is true, but it does not mean that such ‘knowledge’ is not worth having at all, only that there are other things that are more knowable in themselves, and consequently, given our finite opportunities, are more deserving of our attention.

[117] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.3, 1095b28: “Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge.  And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general.  Hence the young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aim at is not knowledge but action.”

[118] Parts of Animals I.1, 639a1: “Every systematic science, the humblest and the noblest alike, seems to admit of two distinct kinds of proficiency; one of which may be properly called scientific knowledge of the subject, while the other is a kind of educational acquaintance with it. For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgment as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition.  To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue of his having this ability.  It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject.  For it is possible for a man to have this competence in some one branch of knowledge without having it in all.”

[119] See Bulletin, p. 16: “the discussions [of the histories read in the Seminar] are not limited merely to an interest in historical fact.  These discussions, for example, may involve an analysis of the assumptions used by the writer in establishing and evaluating historical events.  The value of reading history will always depend upon the quality of the reader’s general understanding of reality.  History itself will not make a well-ordered mind, but the cultivated intellect will profit greatly from the study of history.”  Mr. Coughlin again makes an excellent observation in this context: “we can train ourselves, to some degree, in seeing with the eyes of a prudent man by watching Plutarch or Thucydides present what he thinks is primary and what secondary.  For example, having read Thucydides, we see that we ought to be wary of those who would attribute political actions to economics and nothing more.  Though Thucydides does consider economics, he does not think it is the sole or principal driving force behind history.  Thucydides looks to what men say about justice and expediency, what their reasons are for doing what they do. [. . . ]  In reading the really great histories we are led by the hand to judge as the wise man judges, and so led to a beginning of prudence by the example of the author himself.”

[120] Summa theologiae I, q. 1, art. 2, obj. 2.

[121] Ibid., ad 2.

[122] For example, Jesus tells His apostle’s that the Holy Spirit will come to them immediately before His ascension; and in Ephesians 4:10 Paul explains that Christ “ascended far above the heavens, that he might fill all things [with the gifts of the Spirit].”  Here the reason for the ascension seems to have something to do with the subsequent descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church [see John 14:25].  The believer looks to the theologian for insight into this connection.

[123] Ibid.

[124] See Summa theologiae Ia, qu. 1, a. 5.

[125] Letter to Waldstein, p. 3.

[126] “Revelation, which is the source of sacred doctrine, does not come to us through a direct infusion of intelligible forms, but through human language.  It is, as some have said, the world of God in the words of men” [ibid.].

[127]See Aristotle, De Interpretatione, ch.1, 16a3: “Now spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul, and written marks symbols of spoken sounds.  And just as written marks are not the same for all men, neither are spoken sounds.  But what these are in the first place signs of – affections of the soul – are the same for all; and what these affections are likenesses of – the actual things – are also the same.”

[128] Letter to Waldstein, p. 3.

[129] Mr. Berquist’s example: “I know my wife not only as a woman, but as this woman.”  Given the biblical connotations with the verb “to know,” I thought it best to alter the example.

[130] This perhaps explains the paradoxical conclusion of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, where the narrator, Jim Burden, ends by saying that he shared with Antonia “the precious, the incommunicable past” [p. 286]; the entire book seems to be an attempt to communicate this shared experience with the reader.  Mr. Berquist’s point is that such communication must necessarily fall short of the detailed texture of individual experience.  See also, J. Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, where the narrator, Marlow, complains about the ineffable character of the past: “`. . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence.  It is impossible.  We live, as we dream – alone . . .’”  Of course this does not keep Marlow from relating to his companions his encounter with Kurtz.

[131] Mr. Berquist points out that there very well may be “such knowledge of God even in this life, but it will not be by way of sacred doctrine”; see Ia, qu. 1, a. 6, ad 3.

[132] Humani generis, p. 58.  He cites Romans 5:12: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”  And also Conc. Trid., sess. V, can 1-4.

[133] Gal 2:21.

[134] Luke, 24:25-27.

[135] St. Augustine teaches somewhere that the new covenant is hidden in the old, and the old covenant is explained by the new.

[136] Hebrews 10: 1.

[137] Similarly St. Paul explains that the  Mosaic Law was given to manifest our sinfulness [Rom 7:7] and to serve as “our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith” [Gal 3:23].

[138] The connection between Lk 24:25 and Heb 10:1 was first made clear to me in G. Josipovici’s essay “The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles.”

[139] The believer knows definitely why Christ was born: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:16].

[140] Gen 50:19.

[141] Joseph has by now seen the fulfillment of the dream [Gen 42:6], and since interpretation belongs to God [Gen 40:8], Joseph must know that God is with him, directing him to Egypt.

[142] Gen  15:13.

[143] See John 8:34: “Truly, truly I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

[144] See John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  And John 7:17: Did not Moses give you the law?  Yet none of you keep the law.”  And Mt 5:17: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

[145] Cf. G. Coughlin, “History and Liberal Education,” p. 30: “Particular events, like the wars of conquest of the promised land and the exile, are seen in the light of the divine mind.  Since that light is infallible, we can rest assured that the reasons given in scripture for the events narrated are in fact the true reasons.  We thus escape the objection that history is only able to formulate hypotheses which cannot even pretend to approximate some really existing necessary cause.  For though God does not coerce the will, He nevertheless governs every action of men, ordering all things to the good of those who love God.  His knowledge, which we share in by faith, permits us to see the interior reasons for the history revealed to us.”

[146] Job 1:1: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.”  God Himself later repeats this estimation [1:8].

[147] See St. Thomas, Commentary on Job, p. 83: “this was the cause of blessed Job’s adversity, that his virtue should be made manifest to all.”  Job himself seems to have some intimation that this is the point of his sufferings: “when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” [23:10]. 

[148] “Letter to Waldstein,” p. 1.

[149] Commentary on Boethius’ De trinitate, qu. 3, a. 3, obj. 2.

[150] Ibid. ad 3.

[151] Rom 5:19. 

[152] Gen 3:20

[153] See Rev 12:17: “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring [and so they would be her spiritual children], on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”


Michael J. Letteney
Frater Simeon Goodwin, O. Praem.

“At Thomas Aquinas College, I learned that the world makes sense. It was so wonderful to discover that there is a real order in things and that I could understand it.”

– Frater Simeon Goodwin, O. Praem. (’10)

St. Michael's Abbey, Orange County, Calif.

“Thomas Aquinas College is a small college, but its reputation has spread far and wide. Because it lives off the masterpieces of thought and literature emanating from the Christian tradition of the Western world, it provides a first-rate education for a select body of talented undergraduates.”

– Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J (†)