The following column was published in The Observer on Thursday, October 16, 2014.
“I will always consider the possibility that I might be wrong.” So states the commitment to humility in the Center for Social Concerns’ “Virtues of Discourse” pledge. As one of the seven “virtues” in the pledge, humility means, “When I realize that I have been wrong, I will readily acknowledge it.”
This might bring to mind the humble Socrates, who was confounded when the oracle at Delphi announced that none was wiser than he. Conscious that he was “not at all wise,” Socrates thereafter began a search to find a man of greater wisdom. In his search, he discovered that “those with the best reputations seemed … nearly the most deficient … while others with more paltry reputations seemed to be … more fit in regard to being wise.”
In his devotion to the god, the founder of the Western philosophic tradition found himself “in ten-thousandfold poverty” after giving up everything in pursuit of wisdom. Reading about Socrates can be awkward at a nationally ranked university with a $9.8 billion endowment.
Socrates could find no man of true wisdom, and he concluded that perhaps the oracle wished to teach that the wisest man was the man who knew he did not know. Today, the Socratic pursuit endures, scattered throughout DeBartolo, the Basilica and occasionally even the dorms. While the politicians, the poets and the artisans were blindly followed in Socrates’ time, today students blindly follow the published professor, the laboratory results and the Princeton Review.
Yet Socrates does not condemn the practice of obedient following. When he first heard the words of the oracle, he wondered: “Surely he is not saying something false, at least; for that is not sanctioned for him.” Trusting in the oracle, he sought to understand.
Thus, the philosopher’s search is not the search for facts, but the act of faith seeking understanding. The key is not the right proof, but the right teacher. The core of man’s desire to know is not the desire to know all the workings of heaven and earth, but to find a master who properly will guide our wonderings. The fool will seek the property rights of the Fount of Truth, but the philosopher will go to the Fount and drink.
We follow so that we can know. Trust is the requisite for knowledge. Faith is the foundation for reason. As students, we come to Notre Dame because we believe she will have teachers and guides who will be reliable in the pursuit of our future selves. We listen to the mathematics professor because we trust he will teach truthfully. We may not understand every word, but we take his words as true, write them down and do our best to internalize them.
Mary is well versed in this practice. Christianity understands her as the greatest philosopher and theologian. In the life of Jesus, she exemplifies the philosophic disposition. She “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She teaches: “Do whatever he tells you.” She is called the Seat of Wisdom. She is the second-highest point on Notre Dame’s campus after the Basilica.
Through Christianity, the philosopher moves his trust from the oracle to Christ, who taught: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” This teacher thus becomes our guide and the truest foundation of reason. And he transforms our relationship to our guide, saying, “I no longer call you slaves because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Socrates calls the truth his master, but the Christian calls the Truth his friend.
So the foundation of reason is no longer simple obedience, but friendship. James Schall has emphasized the importance of friendship, saying, “Friendship stands at the core of human and, yes, divine reality. No subject stands closer to the heart of a 20-year old student than that of the proper meaning and practice of friendship, of how it is gained and of how it is lost. If we get that issue wrong, we will get life itself wrong.
When the Virtues of Discourse ask me to “always consider the possibility that I might be wrong,” I am asked to consider two possibilities. Either I have misunderstood my guide and friend, or I am mistaken as to whom I should trust. The friend of Christ, however, need only consider the former. As St. Jerome teaches, “A friendship that can end was never true.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.