New England

Understanding First Principles 


By Dr. Paul K. O’Reilly
President, Thomas Aquinas College
2024 President’s Dinner
May 15, 2024


Congratulations, seniors, for completing four years of, in my view, one of the most demanding academic programs anywhere. Let us reflect together on what we have accomplished.

If we are honest about these last four years, a good number of specific things that we have studied have been forgotten. Do we recall the proof to show the interior angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles — in all its details? Do we recall Socrates’ argument in the Republic that the soul cannot undergo corruption? What about the details of the crown experiment in Natural Science?

And that is just Freshman Year.

If we have forgotten much, does that mean we have wasted our time? Not at all.

“You may forget many details of what you learned here, but your understanding of first principles will remain with you for a lifetime; it will form you, your families, and your communities long after graduation.”

If we think about how to find the center of a circle, and prove it is the center, I suspect you could figure that out. That alone shows that you have not forgotten what is central: the principles that one must know in order to demonstrate that property and the method for doing so.

You may forget many details of what you learned here, but your understanding of first principles will remain with you for a lifetime; it will form you, your families, and your communities long after graduation.

Over these past four years, you have considered the proper beginnings of mathematics, the distinction between poetry and history, the principles and methods of the natural sciences, the beginning and order of natural philosophy, of ethics, and of politics, and the beginning and end of theology, to name a few. You did this actively: by reading the fundamental texts before class and discussing them in class under the guidance of your tutors. You also considered these things according to the natural order of knowing.

The result of these efforts is best put by one of our founders, Mr. Mark Berquist: “That you should make … a beginning [in the way of judgment], and make it well, is the chief purpose of your education here.”

What you may not have noticed along the way is the kind of judgment you were developing. That judgment was formed by studying the great minds, about the highest things, with the guidance of tutors, in an order that is rational.

As our founding president, Dr. Ronald McArthur, put it: “When we fail to respect and follow the natural order of learning, we can never verify our views, or, more importantly, find that we may be wrong. Should we wish to maintain our positions, we can only will them to be so, and sneer at those who disagree with us.”

In addition, you have formed intellectual and moral habits. These habits are made secure by friendships of the best kind. And your efforts have been perfected with the sacramental life at the College.

To further quote Dr. McArthur: “If the intellectual custom which surrounds us is good, the intellect has a chance to become directed towards the truth, a chance to lead a properly intellectual life. If, however, the custom is bad, the intellect will be misdirected from the beginning, and its chance of following the right path is close to non-existent.”

It is the human condition to forget. Angels do not forget things, but we do. An infallible memory is not essential to good judgment, but understanding first principles is, because, with an understanding of these principles, you can recall and articulate what is essential. Without such an understanding, all you have is memory — and that will fail you because memory without understanding is just words.

Again, from Dr. McArthur:

Our only hope lies in reflecting on our starting points by asking ourselves the essential questions about the suppositions of our disciplines, which means confronting the greatest thinkers, not as historical personages who express the view of a given culture, but as writers who think beyond any time and place. We must read their works as they wrote them and consider their positions as they thought them, and never partake in the easy historical judgments which seek to interpret the writer from our allegedly superior vantage point, [our current] century. … Only in this way will the philosophical life be restored, and only in this way can we escape the tyranny of our starting points, which, even when they are true, must not be accepted without constant reflection.

You have made a good beginning here over the past four years. It is my hope that you will go out to spread the good news to many who have not been given the blessings you have received and so have lost their way. You are needed more than ever.