Audio file

The Order and Harmony of Catholic Liberal Education

by Michael F. McLean, Ph.D.
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Matriculation 2015


The College’s founding and governing document, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education (AKA “the Blue Book”), — the document written by the founders of the College to articulate and explain the College’s educational mission — speaks of literature and its role in the program:

The greatest works of literature, insofar as they appeal to the imagination and move the affections, are peculiarly accessible to the young, while at the same time they present or imply profoundly important views of human life and of reality as a whole…

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which we read and discussed with some of the College’s benefactors earlier this summer, and which you freshmen will read in the first semester, exemplifies this point.

As the Blue Book suggests, part of a playwright’s greatness consists in the thematic content of his works — the questions or issues posed by the words and deeds of the characters. In short, what the playwright gets you to think about, not ignoring, of course, the emotional movement which is his principal purpose.

In the case of Oedipus Rex we wonder, among other things, about whether Oedipus is culpable for killing his father and marrying his mother, having done so ignorant of the fact that it is actually his father he is killing and his mother he is marrying. We also wonder what Sophocles is suggesting about the role of the gods in the events of the play in light of the repeated references to “oracles” and to “fate” — “I was fated to lie with my mother,” says Oedipus, “and I was doomed to be murderer of the father that begot me.”

We don’t necessarily look to the poets or the playwrights for the full truth about these matters, as grateful as we are to them for the pleasure we have experienced and for the fact that they have been the source of our wonder.

The College’s founders, again in the Blue Book, call wonder “the proper human motive for higher education.” “The proper satisfaction of wonder is knowledge of the causes,” they continue, and knowledge of the highest causes is “human wisdom if attained through the light of the natural capacity of human reason … and wisdom without qualification if it comes through the study of God in light of what He has revealed about Himself.”

To pursue the highest wisdom about the issues raised in Oedipus Rex, Catholic liberal education turns to philosophy and theology, just as you freshmen will do in the later years of your studies here, and just as our benefactors did in their seminars this summer.

Again, the Blue Book: “Theology will be both the governing principle of the whole school and that for the sake of which everything is studied … the sequence of courses will be designed to introduce you to every essential part of the intellectual life … and will be structured in detail, basing itself upon the natural order of learning and taking as examples and guides the work of the best minds in each of the disciplines …”

And so in the Junior Year you will look to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics for the classic treatment of the voluntary, the involuntary, and the chosen. Not only does Aristotle’s discussion shed light on the particular case of Oedipus but it also sheds light on the principles that lie at the root of our criminal-justice system and the judgments we make about rewards and punishments.

We look to the theologian, in this case St. Thomas Aquinas, who is our patron and whose works we study carefully in the Junior and Senior Years, to clarify that the divine presence in human action, contrary to the impression left by Oedipus Rex, need not be compulsory and that there is more to human-divine interaction than struggle, force, and malevolence. St. Thomas explains that any human effect depends at once on the power of God and the power of man. Moreover, he explains that God’s causality is always exercised on us “according to our measure,” as he says, “which means that we act voluntarily and not as forced.” Finally, he explains that, while God can produce all natural effects by Himself, His use of secondary causes speaks to the immensity of His goodness.

St. Thomas’s treatment of these matters sheds light on the questions raised by Oedipus Rex and illustrates one final principle that the College’s founders emphasize in the Blue Book: “philosophy, under the Christian dispensation,” they write, “is not only worthy of pursuit for its own sake, but as a handmaid or help to theology.” Repeatedly in his discussion of the mysteries of God’s causality, the dispensation of His grace, and His role in our lives, St. Thomas invokes the aid of philosophy.

It is philosophy, for example, which teaches that the power of a lower agent depends upon the power of the proximate higher agent and finally on the power of the supreme agent. It is philosophy, too, which teaches that it is proper to man, and to every rational creature, to act voluntarily and to control his own acts. Finally, it is philosophy which teaches that knowledge precedes the movement of the will and, accordingly, that divine help must precede the movements our will toward the ultimate end.

The order and harmony of Catholic liberal education, an education which you freshmen are about to begin, is a beautiful thing both to behold and to experience. In my example, you have seen how a work of imaginative literature read early in the program sets out some problems and how those problems are addressed in an orderly way by the higher disciplines of philosophy and theology. As the Blue Book says, this is an education which “begins in wonder so that it might end in wisdom.”

In this particular case, the wisdom finally attained is that God is always and intimately present to us, that He loves us eternally, that He intends our good, and that he offers all of the help we need to attain our supernatural end — perfect enjoyment, not of some created good, but of Himself. Greater understanding of matters like these is the very purpose of Catholic liberal education; attaining the reality signified in this case — the enjoyment of God — is the very purpose of life itself.