A Roman procurator once asked a Jewish carpenter a short but profound question: “Quid est veritas?” The Answer was standing there before him, but he either could not – or perhaps would not – acknowledge that which was before his eyes. This is a common failing of those in authority. Power tends to corrupt the human heart – and whether it perverts the intellect or the will, the result can be equally disastrous, both for the ruler and the well-being of those entrusted to his care, a responsibility which inexorably comes with all authority. But when that responsibility is neglected, to whom can the people turn? When those who ought to be the servants of all, and above all the servants of truth, choose instead to abuse their power for their own egos and the satisfaction of ephemeral desire – often under a deceptive rhetorical guise of safety, liberation, and fulfillment – how can the truth prevail? It seems a hopeless situation; and were it not for the abundance of seemingly hopeless situations that have nonetheless borne the greatest fruits of Western civilization, one could easily mistake the appearance for a reality. It has been characteristic of human history that the vilest deceptions tend to reveal the greatest truths; the most gruesome violence gives birth to the most profound respect for life; and the worst oppressions lay the foundations of the most truly free societies.
But the generation of these fruits will not occur on its own. Good human beings cannot sit back and allow the tyranny of unthinking ideological commitments—be they progressive or conservative, “left” or “right”—to mute the voice of reason or to suppress the proclamation of the truth.
Yet today, the truth is everywhere undermined. Tradition—a word many find almost embarrassing to say—is readily cast aside, and the truths it espouses are buried and forgotten. But truth, regardless of where or how it is discovered, is immutable. It is therefore incumbent upon those fortunate enough to have perceive these truths to exhume the values of tradition and make it the foundation for further revelation of the truth—not to insist upon its exclusive possession and denigrate or ignore others—in order to illumine the path of humanity throughout not only Western civilization, but the whole world.
This reclamation of tradition and the continued pursuit of truth – the clarifying of our path forward by discerning the signposts in our past – wherever, whenever, and however it is found, is the goal of every course which I teach.
I have learned that teaching is best served by increasing one’s own knowledge through constant study and possessing an ardor for the good of one’s students in the concrete: the professor must engage the students not simply as bodies in the seats, but as human persons with complex backgrounds and diverse futures. Students cannot learn philosophy in a vacuum. The professor must know not only his own field, but something of his students’; he must know not only life in the confines of academia, but as it unfolds outside the university. Thus, while studies of personhood, metaphysics, epistemology, and medieval philosophy are fascinating in their own right, they need to be taught in a way which is pertinent to daily life.
This lesson was particularly hammered home in my first semester teaching. I was not prepared for the apathy towards philosophy, and towards truth, of the average college student. I found my students to have unconsciously and unreflectively adopted the attitude that empirically-verifiable scientific fact alone constitutes what can be definitely asserted as “true”. I heard, moreover, professors in other disciplines deriding philosophy to their students as “mere opinion”. Unthinking skepticism and nihilism have sapped students of the hope for truth.
What I have discovered over the past three years in the classroom, however, is that one does not need to defend philosophy or preach its merits. It speaks for itself: even when the students are confused by what they are reading, the value of the philosophical approach to considering human experience is not difficult to appreciate. Inducing students to thoughtful examination of reality, knowledge, truth, and their relationships with the world is a challenge to be sure – and I assign challenging readings and papers – but a challenge which speaks to every human being with its own voice, whatever his or her state in life: “Est enim homini naturale quod appetat cognitionem veritatis” – “It is natural to man that he desires knowledge of the truth” (Thomas Aquinas, De malo, q.9, a.1, c.).