Annapolis Office of the President
"Friendship in Freedom"
Remarks on the Occasion of the Inauguration of Dr. Michael McLean as President of Thomas Aquinas College
President Christopher B. Nelson of St. John's College, Annapolis
February 13, 2010
Distinguished Guests. Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am honored and happy to be here for this occasion. I am also delighted to return to the campus I last visited as a member of an accrediting team looking upon the College when its laboratory designs were still in formation and when the beautiful Chapel was still a dream of yours. The Library was the College’s latest edifice, but the classrooms were always its highest form.
St. John’s and Thomas Aquinas are sister colleges in the best sense. We are family by virtue of certain common foundations, and we are attached by many bonds of friendship.
There is a beautiful prayer to friendship that closes Plato’s dialogue “The Phaedrus”. Phaedrus and Socrates have conversed together to try to understand how one might achieve harmony and balance in the soul by directing that soul to a love of the beautiful. Socrates concludes with this prayer to the gods:
Friend Pan and however many other gods are here, grant me to become beautiful in respect of the things within. And as to whatever things I have outside, grant that they be friendly to the things inside me. May I believe the wise man to be rich. May I have as big a mass of gold as no one other than the moderate man of sound mind could bear or bring along.
Socrates then asks:
Do we still need something else, Phaedrus? For I think I’ve prayed in a measured fashion.
To which Phaedrus responds:
And pray also for these things for me. For what friends have, they have in common.
I beg the pardon of this company for opening with a pagan prayer, but I mean it to reflect a truth that I think all of us would embrace at our two colleges, a truth also that I think must be embraced by all colleges in this country who value a liberal education. It requires some reflection on what it might mean to say that what friends have, they have in common.
I ask first whether this little maxim means that friends share what they have, or that they ought to share what they have. Today, I give you half of the lunch I packed for us both, and tomorrow you will share yours with me. But the food we eat is hardly common to us both; quite the opposite, it is rationed out separately to each of us, albeit equally. We may each have an equal share in a good thing, but not a common good. So it is with all sorts of goods, earthly goods; what I give to you in the spirit of sharing with a friend is something I will no longer have after giving it. I will have less of it after sharing it than I did before, however good and generous my act of friendship has been.
What then are the things that could be common to friends? What kinds of things can truly be held in common without having to be shared or meted out among friends? I suppose things of the soul are of this nature, things that belong to the heart, the spirit, or the mind, things that belong to our inner lives. We both may love a common object without our having to share that love as we might share the expense of a gift to the loved one. My love doesn’t grow less because you love too. And of course, if we should actually love one another, that love is surely greater and stronger for its being reciprocated and reinforced over and over. Surely this is the teaching of the Lord about the love of our neighbor and the love of our Lord.
So it is also with things of the intellect. When I learn something you have shared with me, it does not pass from you to me like milk from a pitcher; you have lost nothing, and yet I have gained something that is now common to us both. The sum of what is common to us has just grown; it has not been redistributed. And should we together go about learning something new, we will each be richer for what we come to have in common.
Why, though, do we say that these ‘things in common’ belong to ‘friends’? I think it must have something to do with the reason we seek these common things. We are moved to love something because it is beautiful, or to love someone because he or she is beautiful to us. We seek to know something because we believe that this knowledge will be good for us, perhaps also that it can be turned to good in the world about us. These things we have in common are beautiful and good things, and we wish beautiful and good things for our friends.
Both of our colleges exist for this purpose: to provide a place and countless opportunities for our students to pursue together the common goods of the intellect and of the soul. We make many an effort to put into practice the conviction that we learn best when we learn with others, who like us, wish to increase the common good.
We each have a common curriculum that has us all reading books that are worthy of our attention, even of our love --- books written by men and women who were themselves model learners. These books help us understand what it means to be human, how little we know in the face of the knowable, and how imperfect we are in the presence of the divine. Each of these reminders serves as a spur to learning, as it is the knowledge of our ignorance that quickens the desire to know, and the knowledge of our imperfection that makes us want to be better.
It is the project of all of us in higher education who care about our students that we give them the tools they require to struggle with the big questions in life that will help to free them to live lives worth living. It will be our friends, your friends, some of whom are standing close by, some of whom are long since deceased but nonetheless remain contemporary to us, and some of whom are standing in the wings, ready to give our love, encouragement and support to this wonderful College and its new President to engage in this gloriously human project, offering its students the opportunity to enjoy a liberal education.
I offer this one last observation from a living friend of mine: “Our friends are doubly our benefactors: They take us out of ourselves and they help us to return, to face together with them our common human condition.” I have already experienced this benefaction from members of this College community over the years, and I hope to offer the same to all of you on behalf of your friends at St. John’s College and your friends within the wider community of higher education. We offer our friendship in the hope that it may provide you the same kind of nourishment, because “what friends have, they have in common.”
My congratulations to this community on its selection of Dr. McLean as its new president! And my fond, best wishes to you, Dr. McLean, that you may serve this community well!