Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands. —St. Thomas Aquinas

We as academicians are “lovers of wisdom” first and last, and should we not be so, we would be serving under false pretenses as professors of higher education. To love wisdom is not, of course, to be wise, as if our beginning were our end. To love wisdom is to desire and labor toward wisdom through the gifts of intellect, each according to his gifts. Without that enveloping desire, whatever our specialty, we are at best technicians and not teachers.

What we discover instead at this moment of our history, and virtually in any place, is a chaos of thought and action disturbing as never before to “higher education.” We are required, therefore, to conduct ourselves in the fashion of Thomas Aquinas. Not, to be sure, that we possess his peculiar gifts—would that we did—but we are obligated to commit ourselves to his openness to the truth of things. This is something we may do as theologians or philosophers or poets or scientists or administrators or whatever our particular calling. The diversity of gifts, St. Thomas points out, answers to the diversity of the truth of things, which are themselves diverse actualities. In respect to the diversity of gifts, there attends no significance of virtue in the calling, only in the answer we give by our action. Within complex reality, the truth suited to our particular gift is to be found, and seeking it, then, becomes our calling.

And in the discrete soul’s exercise of the gift of its calling, it is the intellect of that soul which out of its own depths most immediately answers the calling. That alone makes intelligence the true soul food on the soul’s journeying. By intelligence here I mean truth possessed by intellect, in which respect St. Thomas says of it that truth is the “good of the intellect.”

It was not long ago reported to us by that complacent guardian of the popular mind, Time magazine, the promise of a new homunculus such as must make human intellect outmoded in the very next moment. “Artificial Intelligence,” popularly recognized as AI, is now a sign as common to us as E=MC^2 or DNA. But AI is now so advanced, Time reports with excitement, as to require a new term: “Artificial Life.” Now, largely because the term life is so indecisive a term in our decade that no one seems to know what it means, the attempts at definition are increasingly debated, but less often with words than through radical physical action and counteractions under various banners such as abortion or euthanasia.

As for this artificial life, first advanced as artificial intelligence, one might take some comfort, though not much, from Roger Penrose’s recent book, The Emperor’s New Mind, subtitled Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. Penrose calls the question on presumptions about artificial life and he does so from his authority as physicist. Even if one is uncomfortable with the position from which he calls the question, it is the right question. (I suggest, with mischief intent, but not malice prepense, that he might profit from “three or four books on metaphysics,” as Keats realized he might possibly do.) Penrose’s own premise is his acceptance on faith of evolutionist theory as the central truth about being, as revealed by finite intellect. though he recognizes a degree of confusion in that theory, which confusion he takes to be occasioned by its use of “anthropomorphic terms.” Still, he is willing to accept them metaphorically, he says. We must observe that his reading of metaphor as analogy is that of attribution, which is to say an assignment of likeness in unlike things made by finite intellect, and not seen as intrinsic to the things compared. One might even suppose that Penrose, like some modernist poets—for instance, Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams—intuitively recognizes that the anthropomorphic language he holds suspect is suspect precisely because it is attributive, though often supposed by unwary poets to be merely descriptive of reality. Both Pound and Williams are cautious about metaphor.

Using attributive metaphor, the scientist flirts with fancy, as Penrose fears he may be doing, escaping the inherent difficulty by asserting it to be “merely metaphor” and so not to be taken too seriously by rational intellect. But even Penrose’s argument depends upon attributive analogy in support of his faith in evolutionary determinism, an analogy whose ultimate source is finite intellect. One may well conclude, therefore, that his faith is quintessentially founded in anthropomorphism, whether expressed metaphorically or not. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? In that intellectual position, metaphor aside, what is supposed is that the actuality of that being which St. Thomas defends—man as intellectual creature—is only the actuality of a machine, a body-mind, the cause of which is ambiguous at best. For at the heart of Penrose’s faith is his commitment to existence as mechanistic, though it is evident he is uncomfortable in that faith.

It is also out of this same anthropomorphic but significantly modernist faith, however, that the definition of life is made to fit the term artificial intelligence, whose promise to the popular mind seems to be our final release from the residue in our thought associated with the “puritan work ethic.” What a happy slave—this Artificial Life! And our possessing this “artificial life” absolves us of guilt over our possessiveness. I say guilt, a more acceptable term because anchored in the history of mankind, in the errors of our immediate fathers and not in our nature as fallen persons. Historical error bears psychological effect, suited to expiation by the therapy of action. By such good work one expiates oneself, with a little help from one’s friendly therapist. Sin, on the other hand, if taken as actual, suggests circumstances to the soul beyond self-expiation. Above all, we must set aside Original Sin. That is what less enlightened ages spoke of, not being so advanced as we in psychological intricacies.

So, then, what a happy slave this artificial life will make, justifying us as happy master over nature. It is obviously not really a person—even that term an outmoded concept, though still haunting to us because entangled in historical guilt. It is rather a mere mechanism. Therefore we may, without guilt, take pleasure in lording it over this new slave, toward accomplishing what the president of a state university recently charged his faculty to pursue: “We must,” he said, “find a way to reprogram nature.” Since this new species of “life” is freed of personhood, we may exercise a tyranny over it, and through it, and at the same time, be freed of any sense of guilt, let alone of sin.

Still, it is at least an artificial life; who could take pleasure in lording it over a mere mechanism? Not even the old discarded Christian God could be content with that relationship to his made creature, man. Such is the tempting mode of our modernist conduct toward existence by gnostic intellect self-transformed beyond reality. Until a recognition comes: in such an arrogant power through pride, the fundamental effect of this gnostic intellectual action is to reduce man himself, even the man commanding the new homunculus. Such is the consequence foretold by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, and Time celebrates our having virtually accomplished that abolition.

Whether in Penrose’s assumption of our nature as evolved or the assumption of the advocates of “artificial life” whom he questions, actual life is put in jeopardy by the submission of the mystery of life to the limits of mechanistic thought. Modernist thought is so weakly founded in the mystery of life as each person knows it—knows it because he experiences it—that abortion and euthanasia must be acceptable forms of process to the popular mind, if that gnostic director of public opinion triumphs and in that triumph engineers the final fillip in the abolition of man. This is, to be sure, a serious, even apocalyptic, assertion. It is intended to underline the point central to our recovery of ordered thought. For ordered thought in relation to truth is the principal responsibility of higher education. What we here recognize, then, is that the meaning asserted in our words is the turning point to intellectual action. And that must take us at last back to our responsibility as intellectual creatures, whose governance the popular mind conceded long ago to institutions of higher education. After which that community progressively abandoned its own responsibility: let the academics teach, we the community will do; theirs the words, ours the action. This was a dangerous concession, because words prove always the most decisive action of intellect.


Modern linguistics, as Etienne Gilson shows us in his Linguistics and Philosophy, assumes the authority of science, but it is able to do so only by denying meaning to our assertions—to our signs, our words. It is thus, through this late manifestation of Nominalism, that modernist linguistics serves as handmaiden, knowingly or not, to the advocates of artificial life. And artificial life does not simply become established as our slave, but itself becomes the means whereby we are in turn enslaved to gnostic ideology. For artificial life then is posited to be the idol of man as a perfection of mechanistic being, to which we are commanded to turn in worship. As idol, artificial life is a dead sign, but the death it reflects is the spiritual death of its perpetrator and its patrons. But such is the reality of actual creation, including even that of wayward man himself, that the meaning in sign (even this meaning of death in the idol of artificial life), like life in animate creatures, persists. And in persisting, it contradicts the meaninglessness asserted by Nominalist linguistics, which asserts emphatically through its own signs that signs have no meaning. Such is the entrapment of Nominalism by reality, though the consequences of this self-entrapment often takes long to recognize, let alone remedy.

It is the remedying of this nonsense with sense, this meaninglessness paraded as meaning, that becomes the first elementary task to those intellects whose calling is a service to the community of mankind through offices of higher education. For the question is not whether signs bear meaning—they do so inescapably—but whether the meaning they bear signifies reality, whether they speak a truth held in the thought of the sign-bearer. The sign is always a present witness, either to a truth or to a falsehood. The steadying point of departure for the mind that loves and seeks truth is to realize first of all this truth about our words. For if we bear false witness, the consequence of that false witness is likely to be unfortunate to community, whether such false witness is the work of a scoundrel or only a fool. To this point Gilson says: “It is truly from the meaning that all difficulties in linguistics are born, just as in biology the most serious difficulties come from the obtrusive idea of ‘life,’ which does not explain anything, but calls attention to that without which the biologist would have nothing to explain.” T S. Eliot, intent on the same discovery about the relation of the word to the reality that yields truth as the proper good of intellect, puts this continuing struggle of “life” in man as a struggling continuum of thought engaging signs:

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

For a while yet, the shock delivered through extremes of attributive analogy, attributive metaphor, may stay somewhat that process of the erosion of meaning. One at least aborts flawed design if one is to succeed on the assembly line, even though one may also encourage the throwaway life “style” which at this moment is strangling the social body within the waste of “life’s” technological processes. Still, a focus of this problem of attributive analogy as destructive of reality we witnessed recently: our attention upon artificial hearts, which was an attention at once disturbed and fascinated. The whole of that evolutionary faith, which is actually a fundamentalist faith supporting most of our intellectual community, turns necessarily upon a limited anthropomorphic metaphor. The problem with such metaphor is that obtrusive truth, truth that derives from existence itself, is deeper than the shallow level of such anthropomorphism. The artificial heart is not a heart, and we know it. Nor do we need a degree in biology to recognize the disparity.

Truth is both persistently and insistently abiding, as deep as being itself, so that thought may not in the end avoid engaging that which it knows, the truth it possesses intellectually, though it may deny the possession—a fatal refusal. Being is fundament to discrete existences, whose recognition by intellect has been progressively denied through attributive manipulations of the accidents of being in an attempt by gnostic intellect to dominate being itself. I speak here of the residual subversiveness of Nominalism in modern thought. In its most immediate aspect, intentionality as the Gnostic’s way of energizing intellect to action is effected by his will, whose precise object, as Eric Voegelin says, is to establish power over being. But the justification of this intentionality requires a reductionist faith in other actual intellects as separate from the reductionist’s. The irony is that such an intellect does not recognize the larger mystery of its own existence, which deterministic evolution cannot explain. Such, however, is the deportment of the activist gnostic intellect. And it would impose its reductionist account of the mystery of life upon the whole of creation, excepting itself, as if creation were itself immanently intentional. It imposes a pseudo-paganism, which hovers at the moment about the latest holy of holies: the gene. In this new faith, genes are somehow most magically committed as intentional, having succeeded Pan and Artemis and Venus and Mars. We have proposed by such science that genes are somehow concerned about their own propagation, desperate to maintain their own immortality, even at the expense of their environmental habitat, the discrete body of this person. One needs no Sartre as theologian for the gene’s justification. The gene will serve itself well enough as explicated by the latest laboratory tests.

Attributive anthropomorphism, refined as genetic ideology, is increasingly pervasive of our new collective thought, namely environmentalism, in which “Nature” becomes its own self-realizing god. Increasingly, man is concluded to be an infection of that god’s body, an infection of the environment: except for man, that world would still be an Eden. One notices how often the myth of Eden creeps back into television’s “nature” programs in which the infection-bearer himself explores remote corners of the earth where an Eden still is perceived to linger, at least until the arrival of the camera. To point to such sentimentality as an extension of “science” is at once to be misunderstood, as if to point to this falseness in a new species of intellectual ideology, which is now largely supported by popular sentiment, were to become thereby an advocate of ravenous exploitation of the world’s body. As if one were thereby sworn enemy to reality itself—a response which more than any underlines the task waiting upon Thomistic realism. For if I declare this new ideology to be only partial and not an inclusive vision, and so insufficiently a vision of all of reality, I risk either the wrath or the ridicule of embarrassed emperors in the kingdom of genes.

Such companions of St. Thomas as remain are challenged to a mutual concern for the truth of how things stand in this present moment, buffeted as that necessity is by conflicting notions that yield false visions of reality when not anchored by our intellectual responsibility to the fullness of reality. At this moment, a casual righteousness pervades the secular intellectual community. Its faith rests in a new deterministic evolutionism whose mystery is the gene and whose method is Artificial Intelligence, in concert leading to “Artificial Life.” The difficulty to the companion to Thomas will be his ordinate regard for mechanisms, genetic or electronic. For the central problem lies not in the knowledge afforded by such discoveries as those which every day multiply out of the virtues exercised by genetic scientists or computer whizzes; these provide fruits suited to sustain intellect on its journey, depending upon our intellect’s digestive powers. The central problem lies rather in what is made of such knowledge in an age when knowledge is mistaken as understanding, and a partial understanding is extrapolated as if it were wisdom.


The immediate task for the companions of Thomas, then, is the making of such distinctions; which is to say, the task requires a rescue of metaphysics for the laborious pursuit of wisdom. The intellect that mistakes knowledge as understanding and understanding as wisdom, by that very miss-taking at least bears witness to a continuing desire for understanding and wisdom. This is a condition justifying hope. One already sees certain attempts toward such recovery. There is, for example, the continuing work of Stanley L. Jaki, which has appeared in such books as Road of Science and the Ways of God and The Origin of Science and the Science of Origin. There are Gilson’s works, especially two late ones recently made available in English translation by John Lyon: Linguistics and Philosophy: An Essay on the Philosophical Constants of Language and From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution. One could compile a considerable bibliography reflecting recent concern to recover a metaphysical view of reality.

What such thinkers have in common—and there are among us powerful thinkers more numerous than have been named—is the recognition that in order to restore intellect to its proper offices, we must recover metaphysics. We must do so, if we are to come to terms with such abiding challenges to intellect as that of meaning in words and life in bodies. Once more, Gilson bears witness to the necessity. The gist of his argument, meticulously presented, is that we know, and know that we know, that life and meaning have real existence, though science can not substantiate that reality because it lies in a dimension of immateriality. Such knowledge baffles “pure” science. “All that is physically real,” he says, “is material and particular.” But the universal, to the contrary,

whose nature we are seeking to understand, is immaterial by definition. It is necessary, therefore, that that which produces it ought to be equally immaterial if one does not wish its production to be quasi-miraculous. But the order of the immaterial, of the nonphysical, is precisely that of the metaphysical. Language, therefore, involves the reality of the metaphysical by the very fact that it involves an element of universality.

Gilson’s is a recognition, let us add, which requires our understanding that language is not fully explicable through any science. As Gilson says at another point, “Whether the linguist wishes it or not, [even] grammar is philosophy.”

This order of the immaterial reality that concerns Gilson is inescapably the arena within which those concerned with higher education are by their calling itself made to dwell. One cannot even deny the existence of that arena without speaking, Gilson says, and that act of speaking attests to the reality of the immaterial. That inescapable condition to intellect, he adds,

is the witness in us of the reality of metaphysics. Although entirely legitimate in itself, the existence of general linguistics raises most serious philosophical difficulties. These result precisely from the fact that one cannot make the physics of language correspond to the metaphysics of thought . . . The Nous [the mind or intellect] creates distinction through language and is itself neither distinct nor confused, but anterior.

And from that recognition, the mystery of language itself devolves. For though there is a materiality to speech that may be measured, so that we speak the word in decibels even as we speak of the word, which is an immaterial but actual thing, the “meaning of the word escapes servitude to space, for it is an act of thought, and thought exists, but in a literal sense it has no place.”

Every truth is such. And so it proves inevitable that language should lead us back once more to the threshold of the immaterial and of the metaphysical. Everything leads to it: biology, as soon as it admits that there are living forms; noetics and epistemology, as soon as they reflect upon the conditions required, by the object known as well as by the subject knowing, in order that science might be possible; linguistics itself, as soon as one accepts language in its relations with the understanding, of which it is at one and the same time the body and the means of exchange. It is difficult not to recognize the presence of metaphysics, even if one refuses to engage it.

Such is the context of intellectual action, even if we refuse to engage it, in those special territories set aside by the social body to be devoted to higher education, the academies. It remains so whether one’s special responsibility is defined in relation to the atomic table or biotechnology or grammar and logic and rhetoric. I recall a remark by that great teacher Donald Davidson, made many years ago. We begin with a class of green students, he said, attempting to teach them the agreement of subject and verb, the importance of clear pronoun reference. And then pretty soon we find ourselves wrestling with them to save their very souls. So suspect is that term soul to our secular age that it may be necessary for us to recast the point. Let us at least say that as patrons of intellect, which is the fundamental justification of institutions of higher education, in teaching grammar or physics or chemistry or biology we are wrestling to recover to the student his potential as an intellectual creature. It is this primary responsibility that the academy has abandoned, and the effect of this abandonment is everywhere inescapable—nowhere more patently than in the collapse of the intellectual community, however much we may rationalize the process through a sentimentality in favor of pluralism.

The responsibility of intellect in community: how easily we escape it through pseudo-rationalizations justifying a plurality of intellect by denying the reality of truth itself. We have systematized the justification, as in most of the current arguments for “multiculturalism” or for a “politically correct” deportment as a legalistic substitute for good manners. In doing so, we but establish the mechanisms of alienation and establish those mechanisms as the required principle of higher education. The clamor for the right to “do one’s own thing” that rose in the 1960s becomes now, not a revolt against the establishment, but the new establishment itself, against which intellect is increasingly required to make a radical revolt. The alternative, alas, is the prospect of community itself as constituted only of an individual, isolated intellect. One is left to commune with oneself.

The dream of such an absolute freedom, put in traditional terms, is the dream of becoming like the gods, as the old serpent encouraged Eve to dream. The consequence must be that isolation which we have lamented for a century now under the title of “alienation.” The accidents attending the disintegration of community, whether in the family, or the society, or in educational institutions, increasingly terrify us. That the terrors are justified needs only our recalling the fundamental cause, which John Milton caught in lines that could serve well as the motto of our political state, itself in turn representative of a secular civilization in rapid decline. They are the lines from Paradise Lost spoken by Satan after God has flung him into Hell:

The mind is its own place and of itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

As philosophers, we must divide those words in quest of the simple truth. With Gilson we say that, indeed, the mind is its own place—or rather let us say that the mind has no place. For that is the more nearly accurate putting of the truth, whereby we avoid the presumption of a declaration, as if the placelessness of mind were determined by our own “creative” assertion through the “being” verb. Given the truth of this mystery whereby man is—that is to say exists by nature as intellectual creature—the very freedom of placeless, timeless mind becomes mind’s greatest temptation. We know from experience that mind is a reality, despite its being immaterial. It exists, though undifferentiated by time or space whereby it might be sensually perceived, leaving us with only the brain as a temporal, spatial organ closest to our struggle to perceive mind sensually. But if it is an immaterial reality, its immateriality does not therefore make it infinite, nor are its powers over time and place sufficient for its full comprehension of, and justification of, existential reality, either that of its own or that of other existences whether material or immaterial. Therefore it cannot make a heaven of hell nor hell of heaven, despite all the Utopian attempts strewn through our history, especially those recent ones from Robespierre to Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Mind, then, is always—this side worldly death—in an in-between context to its being. But that as intellectual community we presume otherwise is inescapable. Eric Voegelin names this presumption of mind as self-empowered to transcendence: it is “modern gnosticism.” What we presume, in this gnostic stance, explicitly or tacitly, is that mind transcends reality by its own action, rather than being included in reality despite this illusion of transcendence by its own will. But reality, both material and immaterial, emerges from an enveloping, causal Love—from I AM THAT I AM, from Being Itself. Modern gnosticism is but a recent version of a most ancient heretical act.


To recover intellect from its gnostic delusions about reality—that is the pressing task for the academic mind, and the task is first of all the recovery of my own intellect from such inclinations. So formidable is this task, it is little wonder that it may seem an impossible one, until we remember that it was ever thus. We only think the task more pressing upon us, think ourselves exceptional in history, because it is we who must now, in this present moment, deal with a responsibility. Our first step is to realize that by the accidents of existence this moment happens to be ours, by the grace of our existing at all. Otherwise, we should declare all history to be concentrated in this moment—as if our intellectual nature were a determined point on history’s continuum. That would be to lose our purchase as created souls in that country of the immaterial which Gilson reminds us of, without which neither life nor thought has meaning. But in consequence of the loss of the concepts of life and thought as being beyond material existence, neither would such a concept as history or community have meaning. Nor will any of those attempts to name high concerns, once held to be realities—truths possessed by intellect and given meaning through our words. We must then, at best, be left with pragmatic—though deterministically inevitable—ethics, but with no moral virtues oriented by the possibility of Beatitude, in which term (beatitude) the be speaks our hope of a perfection of our being, beyond our finite dream but not beyond our realistic hope.

To say that this is our moment by the accident of our existence is to be reminded that what we call the historical context to our intellectual quest for the truth of things is the proximate occasion of confusion to our thoughts about ultimate things. Through such confusion, we mistake mediate for ultimate ends of intellectual actions. We become divided, such is our limit as created intellect, between actions relative to mediate ends and to ultimate ones. Which means we have, as the most decisive concern to our intellectual action as full persons, the task of coming to terms with a relativism anchored in our own given nature. This relativism is one consequent upon our finitude, which means that we are limited with respect to truth as it exists in its absolute source—in that I AM, which is Being Itself.

The point must be emphasized, since for some centuries now we have increasingly been given to relativism of another kind, i.e., the gnostic kind, whereby truth is conceived as something parceled out relatively from the “absolute” position of finite intellect itself. This position is possible only from the assumption that finite intellect transcends truth itself, as opposed to the position that is proper to finite intellect, through which that truth becomes the good of such intellect but in the measure suited precisely to its limits as finite. The distinction at issue here is most important, though most difficult to make clear through words bearing truth. For mind depends upon—depends from—truth, and not truth from mind. The distinction is important because as we come to understand it, we are at last enabled to address mediate and final ends proportionately, without refusing either or neglecting either. The point recognized requires a prayerful vigilance, which T S. Eliot dramatizes in “Ash Wednesday” in his prayer “teach us to care and not to care.” Teach us to engage the mediate circumstances without concluding, by the action of our own engagement, that they are our final end.

The present context of our existential life, then, imposes a certain necessity but also a limit to that necessity, inasmuch as we are called to engage mediating circumstances. We are created free, but existence itself implies limits to our freedom. We are called to engage existence in this present moment while at the same time not to suppose it our ultimate calling. This is to say, by way of recovering hope in a dark moment, that our present moment as history is not ours to redeem. Such is not the final, nor the proper, end to our intellectual action, though we may not be indifferent to quotidian necessities. Our ultimate end is the salvation of our own discrete, specific soul fulfilled of its potential being. We must care, and we must do what we are both able and enabled to do in the circumstances. I remember one of the most moving epitaphs I’ve ever encountered, carved on the tombstone of a beloved wife, in a cemetery in Crawford, Georgia: “She done what she could.” That is what we may pray will be our own epitaph at last—even after a sojourn in the academy, over whose doors there seems at the moment to be engraved the message: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Hope, in the academy, as everywhere else, abides so long as we remember that our true country lies always in an immaterial dimension of our created existence—even though we become threatened in our own actions with an entrapment in history. Our uncertainty about how it is necessary for us to conduct ourselves as relativists of the truth, by which we are able both to care very much and at the same time not care too much, inescapably follows on our recognition of that timeless, placeless dimension of our being which may at last be beyond the accidents of our history, those accidents recorded by dates and even, perhaps, by the words, “He (or she) done what he (she) could.”

The high cause of higher education, then, is never a lost cause, any more than it is ever a won cause. But within our acceptance of these conditions to the relative nature of our intellectual gifts, we will find that our good is always supplied at the level of how things stand in truth, in other words, the standing of the thing in itself, within an encircling, enveloping reality of existential creation. And so it is that we recognize what is hopeful within those otherwise disturbing words that speak always to our present moment: “Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof.”

Now, lest it seem as if hope were to be left with the worldly shadow of a forlorn countenance, let us recall a celebratory poet. Not Eliot this time, but Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is the poet who immediately supports academic intellectuals called as they are to witness the truth of things in this present moment of the world. Things—res in all their gloriously shadowed multiplicity. Hopkins celebrates them through poems whose mediate end is his catching an inscape of things in words, he says. That attempt to catch the truth of a thing in words arises out of his response to his own vision of the instress of things. And that instress always speaks beyond material manifestation, speaks to the immaterial reality whereby the thing that is, is in its first place. For Hopkins knows that “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” despite our seeing with our sensual natures that these are “dappled things,” such things as “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout” or “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls,” or for that matter the flashing recalcitrance of eyes in a confused defense against a shared light from the boy or girl or man or woman in the back row of this morning’s class, eyes challenging and so bespeaking an intellect and a soul not yet dead. We wrestle for the beauty possible in things, not only in that “sheer plod” that “makes plough down sillion,” but in the sheer plod that makes us try to reveal that when we say a verb is a word expressing action, being, or a state of being, we are dealing with a reality spoken to through our words that the words must respectfully attend. In this instance of the verb, St. Thomas’ being itself is at issue, or Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things.” That is why grammar is philosophy. It is also, ultimately, theology. Donald Davidson is right, then, about our circumstances in the teaching of even elementary grammar.

Such is the love of wisdom we must support, whose ultimate end is a love of that Creating and Sustaining Love. That is, if higher education is to be rescued to more viable circumstances for the sake of community. We must care, though not too much. And we must accept without despair that we are always on the edge of being lost in a dark wood, a circumstance requiring of us that humility which saves us from presuming that the whole of the wood in which we are lost is dependent upon us absolutely for its light. Eliot says of this moment of our encounter with things that it finds us always in the middle. For we are

not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble.
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure
foothold . . .

That is the abiding moment which abides because all existing things, ourselves included, are momently held, as Dame Julian of Norwich says of the chestnut she holds on her open palm—a chestnut whose fellows are Hopkins’ seen as “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”—and because thus momently held by Love, might in a moment cease to be. That small fruit, a thing in the circumstantial world, will nevertheless because of Love be sustained. For as Dame Julian says in her moment of vision, it “lasteth and ever shall for that God loveth it.”

Her words alone are sufficient reason why we must exercise the special office of our varied callings in the academy, whether we be called biologist or theologian, chemist or poet. Or even philosopher. Only this reminder, once more: in answering that call, we may not rest our hope in the possibility of effecting a present but permanent restoration of the world, for that is to prepare ourselves for despair. Our primary obligation, inherent in the gift of our being—in our life as a discrete person, whatever the gift whereby we may be praised by the world as specialist or expert—is to accept our discrete intellectual gifts in their limits. The gifts, in reality, are suited only to a portion of the largess of creation, and so they are always only relative, for though easily tempted to presume otherwise, we are not God. What we make of gift in the world, at last is not the world, but ourselves, through grace. By our ordinate care, leavened by our not caring in the light of eternity, we will be buoyed by a hope sprung of vision, which vision made Dame Julian cry out to us those words that Eliot chooses in ending the lifetime of his poetry:

All manner of thing shall be well.
And all manner of thing shall be well.

Marion Montgomery, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Georgia, is a poet, novelist, and critic. His most recent books are Men I Have Chosen for Fathers, Virtue and Modern Shadows of Turning, and Trouble with You Innerleckchuls.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift