….The title I have chosen for this commencement address is taken from St. Augustine, Cantare amantis est, loosely translated, “Only the Lover Sings.”
The great German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a little book in 1988 on the subject of “Art and Contemplation,” with the same title, Only the Lover Sings — so my reflections today are not entirely original, by any means.
I noticed that at least one of this year’s graduates wrote her thesis on the subject of “joy,” so I hope these thoughts will resonate with you in some small way as you celebrate the joy of your graduation day.
I would like to begin my remarks by taking us back in history to the origins of this college, which opened its doors for the first time in the fall of 1971. This date should go down in history as a significant benchmark in the renewal of Catholic education in the modern West. What the first founders of this college envisioned when they began this bold educational project, is now bearing tremendous fruit in schools, colleges, and educational endeavors across this country and beyond.
I first heard about Thomas Aquinas College when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas in the early 1970s and a student of what was then called the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program. I graduated from high school in 1973, and in a few weeks from now, I will be attending my 50-year high school reunion in the suburbs of Kansas City, where I grew up. I was not yet a Catholic when I showed up as a freshman at KU. My main interests at the time were basketball and the Grateful Dead, and KU had them both! But God had other designs.
Providentially, I enrolled in the Integrated Humanities Program as a freshman. By the middle of my junior year, I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. If I were to distill it down to one thing, in addition to the power of supernatural grace, what converted me to the Catholic Church was a “great books” liberal arts education.
The IHP, as it came to be known, was taught by three remarkable professors: Dennis Quinn, Franklyn Nelick, and John Senior. It is interesting to note that the IHP also opened its doors at the University of Kansas in the fall semester of 1971 as a college within the college.
As it turned out, the third of these three professors, John Senior, who eventually became my godfather, was a dear friend and colleague of Dr. Ronald McArthur, the founding president of Thomas Aquinas College. In the ’70s I remember Dr. Senior mentioning a new upstart college in California, a new college devoted to the renewal of the great traditions of philosophy and western liberal education.
In preparing my remarks for this address, I was able to obtain a treasure trove of letters from the TAC archives between John Senior and Ronald McArthur, and several of the other founders of TAC — names like Mark Berquist and Jack Neumayr — dating back to 1968. In this cache of letters, one discovers the early fermentation process of what would one day become the vintage wine of Thomas Aquinas College and the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program. They are pure gold. These fellow co-conspirators were engaged in a bold project that would have a lasting impact on the renewal of the liberal arts in the West.
The one and only visit I ever made to TAC before now was for a wedding of the daughter of one of my KU classmates in June of 2009. I believe it was the very first wedding celebrated in the new Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. I told my buddy I would do the wedding under one condition: that he would arrange for me to meet Ronald McArthur, who at the time was 85 years old and still teaching seminars! Born within a year of each other in the mid-1920s, John Senior and Ronald McArthur were contemporaries. Senior died in 1998, and McArthur passed away in 2013.
“What the first founders of this college envisioned, when they began this bold educational project, is now bearing tremendous fruit in schools, colleges, and educational endeavors across this country and beyond.”
Well, my friend made good on the deal, and late in the evening, the night before his daughter’s wedding, the two of us sat down at the outdoor patio on campus with Dr. McArthur and a bottle of wine and listened to the wisdom of this giant of a man — and he was literally a giant at 6’5”. We sat up until 1:00 a.m. listening to Dr. McArthur tell us story after story about our old professor and his dear friend and colleague! Truly the stuff of legends, and I shall never forget the conversation we had that night out under the stars.
As you might imagine, these great men and profound thinkers didn’t always see eye to eye on what is wrong with modern higher education. Dr. McArthur would argue that the problem with higher education is a “crisis of reason.” He would say that young college students don’t know how to think logically anymore. They need to be immersed in the perennial philosophy of the ages. They need to learn the wisdom of St. Thomas.
John Senior, who had great love for St. Thomas and was steeped in Thomistic philosophy, would respond, “Well, Ron, I don’t disagree with you. We are certainly living in an age that suffers from a crisis of reason. Objective truth is no longer being taught in our colleges. But more than a ‘crisis of reason,’ we are suffering from a ‘crisis of imagination.’ Young people today have lost the sense of wonder. They don’t have any poetry in their souls.”
And, thus, the argument would go. But because they were such good friends and because they loved each other dearly, they could have these debates about serious subjects and still remain close friends. To listen to Dr. McArthur speak about his good friend and close colleague and the conversations they would have about the permanent things, with a sparkle in his eye and a smile on his face, brought us to tears not a few times that evening.
But in the end, like all things Catholic, it’s never an “either/or” argument, but a “both/and” situation. Yes, we do have a crisis of reason today and, yes, we do have a crisis of the imagination.
But John Senior’s strong conviction always centered on the idea that one precedes the other, that before one can begin to engage in the arduous task of philosophy, one must first be “reborn in wonder.” In fact, when the three KU professors chose a motto for the Integrated Humanities Program, they chose a Latin phrase, Nascantur in Admiratione – “Let Them Be Born in Wonder.”
In letter to Ron McArthur dated January 9, 1969, John Senior wrote these words: “Liberal education, then, begins in wonder and aims at wisdom. But music, in the ancient sense, begins in delight and ends in wonder; while gymnastic (in the Greek sense of the word) begins in the sensible experience and ends in delight. Since students entering college are in a state neither of wonder nor delight, they need ‘pre-liberal’ education.”
The point that Senior was making was that the cultivation of the imagination, in some mysterious way, precedes the cultivation of reason.
In that same 1969 letter, John Senior went on to write, “The discipline traditionally assigned the task of training the soul to the condition of wonder is ‘music,’ in the wide and ancient sense of those activities governed by the nine Muses — daughters of memory, without which intelligence and will have no material from which to work.”
The IHP professors would often talk about “education by the muses.” This was why learning and memorizing poetry was so important to the Integrated Humanities Program. In a very Thomistic sense, Senior would posit that “no intellectual knowledge is possible without the prior work of the imagination, and the imagination cannot work without sensation. The muses, then, between delight and wonder, preside over the virtue of ‘acuity;’ they sharpen the imagination, so it sees things distinctly.”
Senior went on to write in another letter to McArthur: “The seven liberal arts are a rational examination of the causes of what music presents, which is another way of saying that wonder is a condition of science.” I would add that this is what St. Augustine is getting at in his little phrase, “only the lover sings.”
My conversion to the Catholic Church, as I recall it now, it came about primarily through the love and friendship of my classmates and our mutual love and desire for truth, goodness, and beauty through what we were studying: poetry, history, music, philosophy, theology, art, architecture, and dance. This was what the professors meant when they spoke about “education by the muses….”
From Thomas Aquinas College