The Catholic University of America

Class of 2015 Convocation
Daniel R. Gibbons
Sept. 14, 2011


An Invitation to the Hermetic Mind

  Daniel Gibbons

Daniel R. Gibbons, assistant professor of English and director of undergraduate studies in English, addresses the Class of 2015.

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At the risk of repeating what others have said, let me also welcome you, the class of 2015, to the Catholic University of America. For a brief time – these four years will pass before you know it – you have joined a remarkable community of scholars devoted to the pursuit of excellence across the whole span of human knowledge. You have four years to fully enter into that community. Don’t waste it. The Catholic University of America is a rare university where it is not forbidden to seek and to speak of truth, and to love what you find of it here. But to love something, you have to see its beauty. One of the greatest failures of this age is the loss of a sense of the beauty of truth. For so many, truth has come to seem like dry data at best, and at worst a tool of oppression. Soon enough, the world will be in your hands, and soon enough you will be passing it on to your children. Will you be prepared to renew the world, to make truth’s beauty shine out in the darkness?

But who am I to issue such a grave exhortation? When Dr. Brennan invited me to speak with you today, I will admit that I was a little surprised. I have only been teaching at CUA for a little over two years, and I don’t have any especially prodigious achievements of wisdom or holiness to balance out the fact that – in the world of professors – I am really just a rookie. In a university so full of distinguished teachers and scholars, it seemed strange to me that I would be asked to speak to you on behalf of the academic community on this solemn occasion, though I was certainly honored. Perhaps Dr. Brennan’s invitation to me was a spark of heavenly charity, following Christ’s teaching that ‘the last shall be first’ – for I am surely the least of the many great minds who have gathered with you in this majestic basilica to welcome you into this community and to invite you into a new way of life.

I ask that you remember that word – “invite”: an invitation is all that you are guaranteed of here – and really for the rest of your life from here on out. No matter how capable your professors are, no matter how many gifts you have received from your family, from the intellectual and cultural history of the human race, from the spiritual bounty of the Catholic Church, and from our heavenly Father, it is entirely up to you to accept the invitation and to cultivate whatever gifts you have received. Nobody is going to stop you if set out here at CUA to squander your inheritance, but if you do, I think we all know how the story goes – you will end up so hungry in mind and spirit that you will be willing to eat the food of pigs.

I hope that lesson will be familiar to you from Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. But today – as you are embarking on what I hope will be one of the greatest journeys of your life – I want to speak to you about another old story, another man who wandered far from home, and a rather different herd of pigs. I pray that it will not be counted as sacrilege if I speak with you for a while on this holy ground about a profane tale sung by pagans long ago.

I take some hope that I will not endanger my soul and yours from the example of St. Basil the Great. St. Basil argued that pagan literature, if taught properly, could be most helpful for the edification of young Christians. Let me share a little of what he wrote about it – please bear with me if this quote is a little long – I think it’s worth it to take the time to really listen to his words:

Into the life eternal the Holy Scriptures lead us, which teach us through divine words. But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings… in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors. Thus we imitate those who perform the exercises of military practice, for they first acquire skill in gymnastics and in dancing, and then in battle reap the reward of their training. We must needs believe that the greatest of all battles lies before us, in preparation for which we must do and suffer all things to gain strength. Consequently we must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul's salvation. Just as dyers prepare the cloth before they apply the dye, be it purple or any… so indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore…

St. Basil sees education not as the mere acquisition of the kinds of skills that will allow us to make money and live comfortable lives, but as an initiation and a preparation. Education is initiation because, if properly pursued, it provides us with more than units of knowledge that we can cash in in the workplace – it makes us part of something bigger than ourselves: a community of scholars all working to perceive more clearly the mind of God as it is inscribed in the whole of creation. If you seize the opportunity, you will become part of a great conversation that began before recorded history and continues even today as we ponder the deepest human questions with unquenchable curiosity. If you enter that conversation, you will become part owner of it – and it is a precious pearl indeed – but before we can join a conversation without making fools of ourselves, we first have to listen well to learn what has already been said. And thus, education is a preparation. For St. Basil, it is also a preparation because he sees that the battle between light and darkness is ever raging, and that, if the children of light do not build up every sinew of mind and spirit, they will be swept aside like pawns when they step into the field of battle. St. Basil goes on to say later that not just any pagan literature will be useful for us – he agrees with St. Augustine that much pagan literature is so base that it is at best a waste of precious time – but only those works that are imbued with a genuine vision of what St. Basil calls “the true virtue” – the kind of wisdom that shines a light across the ages. Among these, I would argue, is Homer’s Odyssey.

Now, as you will have discovered from reading The Odyssey, Odysseus is rarely a paragon of Christian virtue. And perhaps you feel that that long old poem is only distantly related to what you plan to spend most of your time studying while you are in college. I am not here today to explain why The Catholic University of America asks its incoming students to read The Odyssey. My goal is to invite you to spend the next four years becoming the sort of person who will no longer need my explanation.

To help articulate what I mean by that, I would like to take a little time to ask of Homer’s Odyssey, and of you, a few practical questions that have arisen in my teaching of first-year students both here at CUA and at other universities that welcome students with a wide range of interests and abilities. I think it doesn’t hurt to ask ourselves whether it really makes sense to require students to read a pre-determined set of difficult old books like The Odyssey. Can Homer really tell us anything about how we should be teaching, learning, living and working now, in the 21st century, in a world so different from the bronze-age Greece depicted in Homer’s epics? While there are many examples of teaching and learning in The Odyssey – and remember that the very term “mentor” comes from the name of one of Homer’s characters – I would like to focus on Odysseus’ encounter with the god Hermes on Aiaia, the island inhabited by the beautiful sorceress Circe.

Remember that, after landing on the strange island and discovering Circe’s house, Odysseus and his crew decide to send half of the crew to investigate. Then comes one of the more memorable incidents in the poem: Circe charms the men into eating and drinking with her, lacing their wine with strange herbs that make them forget about their true home, and then she transforms them into pigs. This striking scene should be familiar enough to anyone who has read the poem, but something about the story is often forgotten – can you remember exactly how Odysseus is able to rescue his friends?

But how could we forget that critical moment? Half of his Ithacan companions metamorphosized into pigs. Hot-blooded Odysseus charging up from the beach, ignorant and alone, to the house of Circe, with strong compulsion upon him. And then the god Hermes standing in his path like a graceful young man, bearing not only Moly, the pale flower with dark roots – hard for men to unearth – but also good counsel. Hermes calling out: “Where are you going now, unhappy man, trekking over the hills alone in unfamiliar country?” Odysseus intercepted, pausing there to arm himself with good medicine from the gods.

It is that pause that strikes me, the unlooked-for interception in the moment before the act that turns doomed bravado into true hope for salvation for Odysseus and his men. Hermes’ interruption serves not merely to prevent a rash act, but to convert rashness into true heroism. It is a fruitful distraction. Hermes redirects Odysseus into a course of action that not only defangs Circe, but also liberates his companions from their brutish state. So, what Aristotle would, in a later age, call virtue – thumos [spiritedness] tempered by right purpose and good judgment – emerges out of interruption of what had seemed to Odysseus to be the most clear and direct path to his goal.

We might say that Odysseus would not have been able to be himself if he had not stopped to talk with Hermes. If he had charged forward to assault Circe’s house, he would have ended up rooting for acorns with his squealing bestial companions. But to remain himself as he was there on the shores of Circe’s island was also not good enough. He needs to become something new in order to become himself. To get to the place where he belonged – to his son, his wife, and his life back in Ithaca – Odysseus needs to wander out into unfamiliar country, to make a false start. He needs a conversation about botany, a lesson in the secret oaths of the gods, and an entirely new way of fighting the battle – let’s call it the way of Hermes. The hero finds his greatest excellence – the Hermetic wisdom that allows him to defeat Circe’s cunning magic – in a temporary frustration of the warlike excellence that he thought he could use to win the fight.

This is both mysterious and banal. It is not much for me to stand up here like Yoda and croak Zen koans: Odysseus must abandon the fight in order to win the battle. The hero must change in order to become himself. But if we are paying attention, these paradoxes can make us mindful of an important idea that lies at the root of the kind of liberal arts education that The Catholic University of America is inviting you to pursue. This is the idea that great skill is worse than useless to us if we lack the wisdom to use it well; that what you learn in college is less important than who you become.

But let’s not forget Odysseus and his men, stranded there on Circe’s island.

The point that I have been getting at here is that Hermes’ crucial interruption of Odysseus’ assault on Circe’s house can illuminate our thinking about what a college education is for. If you think you already know what a college education is for, and that it has nothing to do with old books – and especially if you have come to CUA looking for a four-year ticket into a lucrative professional job – then I would say you are especially in need of a conversation with Hermes.

Now, a clever young person – let’s call him Agon – who is… let’s say… unenthusiastic… about studying difficult old books like The Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, and Augustine’s Confessions should probably argue at this point that books like that are just a distraction from his real educational goals, from real life, and even from the important work of making the world a better place – and shouldn’t all good professors praise their students for wanting to avoid distractions from their studies? Shouldn’t we praise a student who wants to get right to work making the world a better place? Of course we should. And we should applaud the spiritedness of Agon, his desire to plunge right into the fight against the darkness that St. Basil described.

However, what Homer can help us to see – and I think it is the same thing that St. Basil saw – is that there is a crucial distinction between noble boldness and truly virtuous action. I think we should admire the boldness of Odysseus, charging up to Circe’s house alone, hoping to rescue his friends. Hermes does not come to him while he is just sitting around waiting for something to happen to him. Odysseus rouses himself to take the crucial first steps toward heroic action, even if he is ignorant of where those steps will really lead him. You, too, have taken crucial first steps. However, the mere fact that you are charging into battle does not mean that you know how to win, just that you may have what it takes to hear the voice of Hermes. It is up to you to decide whether you will stop, listen, and become new, or whether you will just charge headfirst into the pigsty.

So, I hope that, over the next year – and the next four years – you will come to agree with me that one of the virtues of reading distracting books like The Odyssey is the very fact that they are distractions. They distract you from your majors and distract your professors from their specialized research. Homer shows us that the hero sometimes needs to be interrupted, distracted by things that may at first seem unconnected to the battle before him, but turn out in the end to be an invitation into the wisdom of Hermes. Likewise, CUA requires you, her students, to grapple with difficult books that often have little or no obvious connection to your majors, but have everything to do with equipping you to resist the charms and snares that you will face in your life, both in college and beyond. The bankers, brokers, and investors who have thrown the whole world into economic disaster worked very hard to achieve their goals and were extremely skilled at their specialized professions. What they were missing was the right kind of interruption. They did not hear a quiet voice calling them to stop and question whether the big schemes they were pursuing with such cleverness and energy were really just recipes for economic self-destruction.

So, what I urge you to consider today is the possibility that encountering interruptions like these, just as you are getting started on your journey toward a life of practical work, is good – not in spite of the fact that they distract you just when you are getting started, but because they do, and because they are just the right kind of distraction.

I’m not saying that all distractions are good. We may be living in the most distracted era in human history. In the next four years, there will be endless events, clubs, parties, personal crises, political causes, text messages, and Facebook updates striving to distract you away from the quiet conversation of the Hermetic mind. Not all of these things are bad, but in the midst of all the noise, don’t miss the invitation to be distracted away from all the whistles and bells, away from the big drama in the dorm and the big plans for the weekend, and even sometimes to be distracted away from doing big things in the world; don’t lose this brief opportunity to be distracted INTO wisdom.

Hermes asks: Where are you going now, unhappy man, trekking over the hills alone in unfamiliar country? And I ask: where are YOU going now? Will you charge forward alone in this unfamiliar country, or will you take the time to stop for a conversation with Hermes?

Now, let me admit as I come to a close that all this has been a very nice analogy for a professor to make. The way I have told the tale, we teachers stand godlike, gracefully intervening with timeless wisdom to prevent our students from charging foolishly into their professions unprepared. Graciously bestowing upon our students the gifts of our venerable wisdom. And I’ll admit that I do think this is true… but only as true as your professors are wise.

And I guess you will have to decide whether you think we are...

But one thing is for sure: the sword of Hermes cuts both ways. We professors need to be distracted into wisdom just as much as you do. We are Hermetic, but we are sometimes also Odyssean. Be polite and don’t waste time with laziness. Listen carefully and respect what your professors have to offer you. But never be afraid to distract us in the right way. Overflow our office hours, ask difficult questions in class, challenge us to look at the foundations of our knowledge again with fresh eyes, to explore the timeless human questions one more time with you. And if Hermes doesn’t come to you, you may just need to hunt him down. I think I saw him the other day, lurking around McMahon Hall… but I think his office got moved…

Let me close by inviting you again to use your brief time here not just to be a student, but to become a scholar. Stretch and strengthen your souls, search out the beauty of truth – as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “Give beauty back!” -- and listen to Hermes when he calls. And if we listen well, perhaps we, like Odysseus, will learn new ways of turning pigs back into men.