Graduate Institute Commencement Address, Summer 2010
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the honor of being invited to offer this commencement address to the graduating students. Feeling the gravity of this honor, I thought I’d play it safe and stick to things sacred: I would like to offer you a reflection on the St. John’s Seminar, in light of the parable of the sower in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Like Ms Higuera in her convocation address, I offer my reflections with trepidation in the awareness that tutors are rather like rabbis, in that two discussing the meaning of any sacred thing will always have at least three opinions between them—so says the Talmud. In any case, knowing that many of my fellow tutors agree that Seminar is the heart of the Program, I offer my reflections on what I believe to have been at the heart of your studies at St. John’s as you leave them to return to the world.
Sometimes when I am trying to persuade either a student or myself that a bad seminar was not wasted labor, I recall that the Latin root of the word seminar means a seed-bed: a scattered conversation may well be scattering seeds, I say, and who knows which might in due season bear unexpected fruit? In the ancient way of sowing, seed is scattered and allowed to germinate and then the best seedlings are selected and cultivated. Modern agriculture dramatically increases yields by means of methodical sowing of seeds in linear rows of targeted holes, followed by mass fertilization, cultivation, and extraction. The result is the lifeless tomato you can buy for pennies per ounce at your local supermarket. The St. John’s Seminar seems to cling to the ancient way of sowing. Tutors eschew the suggestion that there is a St. John’s “method” for doing Seminar. The College has living customs and usages rather than formalized methods and measures. Seeds are broadcast and nature is trusted to surprise us with specimens of rare excellence and unexpected beauty. Of course, the soil is kept well fertilized with a rich compost of failed attempts, but a really good tomato is worth it—don’t you think?—even if you can’t get it for pennies on the ounce.
This image of the St. John’s Seminar as a seed-bed puts me in mind of Matthew’s parable of the sower, which reads as follows:
One day a farmer went out sowing. Part of what he sowed landed on a foot-path, where birds came and ate it up. Part of it fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprouted at once since the soil had no depth, but when the sun rose and scorched it, it began to wither for lack of roots. Again, part of the seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked it. Part of it, finally, landed on good soil and yielded grain a hundred- or sixty- or thirtyfold. Let everyone heed what he hears!
This parable makes me ask of Seminar, what is the seed sown in Seminar and who sows it?
A pious answer leaps to mind: the great books are the seed, the great minds that wrote them the sowers, and our seminar conversations the field of their sowing. The Latin root of the words “concept” and “conception” lead me to extend the analogy further to animal procreation: Seminar is inseminated by the ideas, questions, or teachings of great books. However, the daemon of the place, famously indicted for impiety, gives me pause before this seeming piety: Plato’s Socrates reminds us in the Phaedrus that great books cannot reply to our questions. If the life of a St. John’s seminar is in asking and replying to questions, how do these mute imitations of live speech speak to us? How does the dead speech of dead men generate live conversation?
Of course, one could wonder this about seeds as well. I like asking in Freshman Lab whether the seeds produced by living things are themselves living things. And I like it when a student before ever reading Aristotle responds that a seed is not life but the potential for life. Then I like to ask, “Potential for life in the way that water has the potential to be taken in by a living cell and incorporated into the fabric of its being, or in the way that the living cell has the potential to grow and reproduce”? When a student with a vague tone of triumph parries my question with the reply, “Neither of those ways,” I like to say in a vaguely quizzical tone, “Okay, in what way, then?”
In what way, then, are the books alive for us and enlivening of our conversation? If they cannot listen to us or reply to what we ask, how can they dialogue with us or we with them? Sometimes in Don Rags or paper conferences I suggest that a student think of the book or author as a dialogue partner and speak to it as to a fellow conversant rather than about it as an object of discussion. But this way of imagining our relation to the books is at best a heuristic device for turning attention away from conventional opinions about the books to the books themselves and the things themselves the books are talking about. Truth is, the books talk to us only so far as we make them talk to us.
After all, is it not only by our selecting out parts of the text and framing them with our own questions or remarks about them that the books come alive for us and become enlivening of our conversations? Likewise, is it not only by bringing our readings of the texts to bear on the things themselves, as well as the things themselves to bear on the text, that we attain to any true being? If the books are imitations of living speech and thought, then they are at best stilllife models of living things. They are not the things themselves we want to understand, let alone sources of the things themselves. If mistaken as objects of contemplation, our models become idols commanding reverence rather than paradigms pointing to originals. A fascination with models is little better than a fascination with shadows.
So what keeps our Seminar conversations about great books from being mere shadows of models of things? What keeps the walls of our seminar rooms from being our cave walls? Is it the aim of our seminar conversations to turn away from all shadows and ascend from our textual models of things to the things themselves? Here again I am given pause before seeming piety. First of all, I see that the books we read are hardly in accord with one another in what they say about things themselves: if the reading list is a collection of models, it is a very motley collection; and if of seeds, then our seminar gardens would grow into impassible thickets. Furthermore, I see that neither our texts nor our conversations do away with shadows in the sense of images. After Jesus tells his parable of the sower, his disciples ask him why he speaks in parables. He replies, “[B]ecause they look but do not see; they listen, but do not hear or understand.” Is this why our authors speak to us in parables? Why answer the question about justice with fashioning a city in speech that might never be, or a state of nature that need never have been? Why fashion images of an inferno, or of a paradise lost, or of a brave new world or a brave new consciousness? Why do our models offer us images? Are their images a way of putting questions to us about the things themselves? Images select out perceptible characteristics of beings and arrange them into a kind of icon of natures perceivable only by understanding. They speak to us only in relation to the thing and its nature; without the thing, they are dumb idols.
The books cannot ask opening questions. A seminar leader asks an opening question, but I can personally testify that he has no control over where it may lead. So who leads Seminar? I am tempted piously to take up Socrates’ suggestion that we follow the logos wherever it leads us. However, is not this leading logos itself but an image? Am I supposed to believe that although no single member of the conversation leads it, the conversation as some sort of collective being or emergent phenomenon has a motion and direction of its own? I for one cannot believe this of logos in the sense of human speech. Logos in the sense of speech is but an image of logos in the sense of thought. So the question becomes for me, Can our thoughts lead us? Do our thoughts have motions and directions of their own for us to follow? Well, I can believe that my own act of thinking is a kind of motion capable of a kind of direction—to speak in images—but it doesn’t seem quite right to say that my thought leads itself, especially when it is an inquiring thought about an existing nature.
But there is also logos in the sense of reason, reason both in those thinking and in the things they are thinking about. My reasoning is led by a desire to find out reasons why things are as they are. The reason why a thing is as it is has left its trace and trail in its effects, its image as it were in the thing. This reason in the thing is at once the source of its intelligibility for me and the source of my understanding it. Like a great book, a Seminar conversation in pursuit of the reasons why beings are as they are is enlivened by the life of the things it pursues. A conversation that stops at the text of the great book stops at a dead letter—its enlivening spirit comes only from a living nature. A great book is a model of live inquiry—it knows how to question an existing thing about its nature and how to understand the wordless reply.
When his disciples ask Jesus to explain the imagery of his parable of the sower, he replies as follows:
The seed along the path is the man who hears the message about God’s reign without understanding it. The evil one approaches him to steal away what was sown in his mind. The seed that fell on patches of rock is the man who hears the message and at first receives it with joy. But he has no roots, so he lasts only for a time. When some setback or persecution involving the message occurs, he soon falters. What was sown among briers is the man who hears the message, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of money choke it off. Such a one produces no yield. But what was sown on good soil is the man who hears the message and takes it in. He it is who bears a yield of a hundred- or sixty- or thirtyfold.
It is interesting to me that Jesus identifies the various seeds not simply with the message spoken but with the kinds of hearer. The message spoken is one; it becomes many in the many hearers.
The seed fallen on the path is an image of a hearer who does not understand the message he heard. What stands in the way of his understanding it? It is the not the evil one. The evil one does not interfere with the sowing of the seed, but approaches afterward and can steal it away because of the hearer’s not understanding. What prevents the hearer’s understanding what he hears? What is it we are not doing when we do not understand what we are hearing?
The seed fallen on rock patches is yet another sort of hearer; he receives what he hears with enthusiasm but then loses heart when he confronts some setback or persecution. [Remind anyone of Seminar?] I wonder, does this enthusiastic hearer understand what he hears? Is his problem that his understanding proves ineffectual, or that his enthusiasm does not come from understanding? The parable says that he lacks roots. Of what are roots an image? After reading a book or hearing a conversation with enthusiasm, what do I need to do to set down roots?
The third sort of hearer germinates the seed he takes in and generates roots, but fruitlessly, because worldly care and concupiscence choke what begins to grow in him. The briers seem like an environmental problem, but care and desire do not seem to me external things. They are relations to external things, but their source is internal. Although it may seem to this man that he is choked from without, it seems to me that he chokes on the cares and desires within him. Take care what you care about.
Jesus says that the one who yields abundant fruit in due season is the hearer who both hears the message and takes it in. This hearer is good soil. Does his taking in what he hears signify even more than merely understanding it? Unlike the first sort of hearer, both the hearer that withers and the hearer that chokes at first understand what they hear. Does this fourth sort of hearer not merely understand what he hears but make the seed his own by cultivating it? What makes him good soil for nourishing seed? What seemingly wasted labor makes good compost for good soil to bring forth fruit from seed in due season?
In your work here at the College, much seed has been sown in you, of sundry sorts. Only time will tell which you have taken in, which you will choose to cultivate, and which will bear fruit in due season. Although you are returning to a world beset with thieves, persecutors, and cares, I think the real dangers to your not bearing fruit are within. If you take care always to sow good seed in good soil, an enemy may well come by night and sow bad seed among your good, but the prudent farmer will allow his wheat to mature amid the weeds, patiently waiting for the harvest time to gather all in and separate weeds from wheat and chaff from grain. It seems to me that in the end we are the sowers of our own souls, when we with enthusiasm take in what we understand and nurture it with patience, even amid weeds. For a thought to become mine, I must conceive, generate, and cultivate it within myself. A thought on its own is a lifeless form of thinking; it requires a live act of thinking to come to life. The form can be common to many; the living act must be each one’s own.
Let me conclude these reflections with a prophetic admonition: if you continue to think for yourself, to probe and to ask why, verily I say unto you, you will suffer setbacks and persecutions. But I believe that the kingdom you should care about most is within you, and it is the place where understanding may yield such fruits of justice and happiness as are possible for us in a world beset with injustice and unhappiness. To quote the daemon of the place, “In heaven perhaps a pattern is laid up for the human being who wants to see and found a city within himself on the basis of what he sees.”
And who knows when the heavenly logos might come down among us, and speak to us in parables that require us not only to listen but to hear, not only to look but to see, if we are to understand?
Thank you again for inviting me to give this commencement address. My very best wishes for your going forth from us back into the world.