Knowing for Its Own Sake
Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Comments of
Rev. Kurt Pritzl, O.P.
Dean, School of Philosophy
The Catholic University of America
May 14, 2004
You who have just become members of Phi Beta Kappa, the most distinguished honor society in the country, have come to this honor on the basis of your past accomplishments in the liberal arts, although this ceremony is an ?initiation? and takes place at the time of ?commencement.? ?Initiation? and ?commencement? betoken beginnings and the future, and this is right. We celebrate what you have accomplished here at Catholic University, but now too you are ready?the whole future is ahead of you, a future to be blessed by all that you can do with your education. Whatever your plans and aspirations, however, the details of that future cannot be seen or predicted with much accuracy.
When I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as a junior at Marquette University in 1973, it never occurred to me that some day I would have the privilege myself to give the address at a Phi Beta Kappa initiation. On that occasion a justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court spoke. I do not remember a thing he said, but I do remember that his son sat next to me; slept, indeed snored, through the entire talk; and, as if by magic, woke up the very moment it ended and applauded enthusiastically.
It is important?essential?in life to know when to rest and when to bound into action. Aristotle understands the essential component of every instance of knowing to be the human soul?s resting with an object, with some reality attained by the mind or the senses. The essence of an instance of knowing something is not all the action or movement that may have been necessary for that event of cognition to have happened, or that will follow from it, but that sheer moment of awareness, of recognition, of registration, of taking in, on the part of the mind or the senses, that just is knowing that reality out there. The philosopher Yves Simon points this out in a beautiful way with respect to the most basic type of knowledge, namely sensation, the event of seeing something, hearing something, and so on. ?Unlike movement,? Simon says, ?sensation is an activity by way of rest. It is the first image of eternal life.?[i] Christians have often called heaven ?the beatific vision?: no more struggle, no more action and movement to fulfill longings and overcome frustrations and realize dreams. Heaven is the perfect fulfillment and complete rest of seeing God. The delight we take in seeing something or hearing something beautiful, apart from aiming to do anything at all, is an image and foretaste of heaven, Simon intimates. People who have regained their sight or are losing their hearing understand the delight of seeing or hearing anything at all.
To talk about knowing as resting with something known is to point to the fact that we humans can know for its own sake. We need knowledge to do things in the world, from getting across the street to getting to Mars, and if we do not do things in the world we do not survive. We so quickly move from knowing something to doing something with that knowledge, that we can forget (1) that at the heart of every act of knowing is sheer rest or lack of movement and (2) that we humans are capable of knowing for its own sake, not just knowing for the sake of some other goal or purpose (making some money; curing a disease; getting a date).
This is such a memorable occasion. It is your graduation or the graduation of someone you love. You who are graduating have excelled here at Catholic University, so much so that you have been initiated into Phi Beta Kappa. Among all the memories you will carry from this day, I hope there is room for this, for something of what I am trying to express in this talk. Know for its own sake. Go out and live your lives. Do all sorts of things, even great things. Have goals and work toward them. Strive and struggle and carry on, as inevitably you must. But never forget that you can enjoy knowledge for its own sake, and do it. Contemplate things out of sheer wonder, for no other purpose, whatever they are. From time to time break out of the limited and limiting outlook and horizon of getting something done.
Our human ability to do this?to know for its own sake?is exactly what you are being honored for today. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa recognizes outstanding achievement in the liberal arts, that is, in studies and disciplines of all types found worthy in themselves and not for what we can do or effect with them. Thus by urging you to keep in your life knowing for its own sake, I am just asking you to become more and more what you already have become through your education here. Let me mention, however, two specific reasons for actually living contemplative lives and not just pursuing goals all the time.
 Your happiness and freedom depend on your practicing knowing for its own sake. Greek philosophers recognized that human beings have all sorts of needs that can be alleviated by knowledge. To the extent, however, that we are using knowledge to meet some need?to provide food or shelter, to cope with disease, to defend ourselves against attack?we are in bondage to that need. Our mortal condition is such that these needs never go away. In fact, for all the progress of science, the application of knowledge to our needs arguably makes our bondage worse. Now we need to worry about nuclear holocaust, global warming, and, soon enough, possibly disastrous consequences of tinkering with our genetic structure. The Greek philosophers saw, however, that not godlike mastery of nature but sheer knowing for its own sake is the godlike activity open to us. It is godlike, precisely because it is done for its own sake and not in response to a need. Our moments of knowing for its own sake, of enjoying some piece of knowledge just to know it, are divine moments, just because they are not responses to some worry or limitation.
The black Muslim activist Malcolm X describes in his famous Autobiography how in prison he taught himself to read by copying out the dictionary in notebooks, starting at the letter ?A.? He become a voracious reader, noting: ?No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.?[ii] He describes how he would stay up all night in his cell crouching near the door to get some light to read. He adds ?months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.?[iii] Such is the power of knowing things for their own sake.
 Unless we keep wonder, contemplation, knowing for its own sake in our lives, we will not let the realities around us sink it and register in our souls. And without the realities around and outside of us sinking into our awareness and registering in our souls?unless we rest with things and stay quiet a bit and let them tell us what they are like?we are thrown too, too much back upon ourselves when we make decisions and take action in the world. The Czech literary critic Erich Heller says of the poet Rilke and the philosopher Nietzsche that they do not ?praise the praiseworthy. They praise. They do not believe the believable. They believe. And it is their praising and believing itself that become praiseworthy and believable.?[iv] This, in the end, is a sad, isolating, and frustrating way to live?loving our loving, rather than some other person for herself or himself; believing in believing, rather than trying to get the believing right; glorifying our choosing, rather than the worthiness and goodness of what is chosen.
One of my favorite novels is Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Middlemarch is about Dorothea Brooke, who has all the natural gifts of intellect, character, and spirit to do great things in the world. The novel considers why, due to social and cultural circumstances, Dorothea does not achieve anything historically important, and it ends with these words:
?Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like the river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.?[v]
Each of us will rest someday in some tomb. That is our mortality against which we do battle through our knowledge and science. Each of us will add to the greater good of the world, or detract from it, by what we do with the gifts of mind and intellect given to us, whether our deeds are known widely or not. On this earth speeches get forgotten and even lives. Yet there is a rest different from the rest inside unvisited tombs. It is the rest of an altogether different kind: the rest and contemplation that the human mind and senses have in what they know. This kind of rest?union with the realities around us in sheer knowing?is freeing, whatever the prison, as Malcolm X in prison discovered, and it is an image and taste of a life beyond this mortal one we share but for a time, as Yves Simon finds even in the simplest act of sensory awareness.
Is this too much to make of your initiation into Phi Beta Kappa, the premiere honor society of any kind, but the premiere honor society honoring the liberal arts? Is it too much to make of your graduation with high honors from Catholic University, of the sacrifices that you, your parents, your families have made for your education? In Plato?s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus leave the bustle of the city to converse about love. They walk along the river Ilisus and find a spot to talk. Socrates says: ?By Hera, it really is a beautiful resting place. The plane tree is tall and very broad; the chaste-tree, high as it is, is wonderfully shady, and since it is in full bloom, the whole place is filled with its fragrance. From under the plane tree the loveliest spring runs with very cool water?our feet can testify to that. . . Feel the freshness of the air; how pretty and pleasant it is; how it echoes with the summery, sweet song of the cicadas? chorus!? (230b) The cicadas are in chorus for your initiation and commencement. I hope that you listen to them.
Congratulations and God bless you.
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Revised: May 14, 2004
All contents copyright © 2004.
The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.
[i] Y. R. Simon, ?An Essay on Sensation,? in Philosophy of Knowledge: Selected Readings, ed. R. Houde and J. Mullally (Chicago, 1960), p. 64.
[ii] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley (New York, 1966), p. 173.
[iii] Malcolm X, p. 173.
[iv] Quoted by Lucy Beckett in her review of Roger Scruton, Sex and the Sacred in Wagner?s Tristan and Isolde, in The Times Literary Supplement, April 9, 2004, p. 24.
[v] George Elliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford, 1986), p. 825.