Honors Convocation Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
Great Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 13, 2016
Thanks, Dr. Abela. I congratulate the students honored today. We are proud of you. I thank your parents for their hard work in raising you, their generosity in sending you to this University, and their prayers for you.
You are here because you have remarkable intellectual gifts, and over the last four years you have used them well. You have cultivated your minds to be rigorous and critical. These qualities will serve you well.
To a point.
It’s important to critically evaluate the arguments of others and, perhaps more important, our own. Long before the philosopher Paul Ricoeur had coined the term “hermeneutics of suspicion” in reference to Freud and Nietzsche, St. Augustine had already observed that, “All sin is a lie.” Augustine knew that our prideful tendency to elevate ourselves above God completely distorts our perception of reality.1 St. Paul reminds us that the “wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”2 Critical thinking helps us to evaluate the wisdom of the world and our own wisdom, to identify the hidden premises in our thinking, and to correct our clouded vision.
But critical thinking can discard truth as well as unmask falsehood. Today it’s fashionable to deconstruct any and all ideas as the product of some prejudice—as Marxist or capitalist, conservative or liberal. Or to discover the ulterior motives of a thinker: The will to truth, as Nietzsche said, is really just will to power.3 The danger of maintaining a critical distance from all ideas is that it doesn’t allow us to get close to the truth.
Just as important as critical thinking for the life of the mind is the virtue of docility. Docility comes from the Latin word docere, to teach. Literally it means to be teachable. It’s the habit of being open to learning from others.
Aquinas and Aristotle thought docility was a practical necessity. We cannot be experts in all things, so when it comes to making decisions we have to trust the wisdom of others.4 When we are sick we need to trust our doctor to diagnose our ailment and to prescribe the right course of action. When we are lost, we need to ask a local for directions. When you file your taxes for the first time, you will probably need the advice of your mom and dad (or an otherwise certified personal accountant).
They thought it particularly important to listen to the wisdom of the old. When we make decisions about a course of action we need to know the particular facts of the matter and what our ultimate goal should be. We learn both these things from experience, not textbooks. “Therefore,” Aristotle said, “we ought to attend to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of experienced and older people . . . not less than to demonstrations because experience has given them an eye to see aright.”5
At this point, you might suspect that my “claim to truth” is just another example of “will to power.” I am older than you and am telling you to listen to your elders. But learning requires an element of trust. “Knowledge linked to a word,” Pope Francis said, “is always personal knowledge; it recognizes the voice of the one speaking, opens up to that person in freedom and follows him or her in obedience.”6
But docility does not mean blind obedience. The child who believes his mother when she says that the stove is hot is not a dupe. His experience has taught him that his mother loves him and her word is to be trusted. We call the university we attend our “alma mater,” our nourishing mother, because we trust that our professors are feeding us on the truth.
I hope you have been well nourished during your time at Catholic University. And I hope you continue to seek out good and wise teachers to whom you will listen and from whom you can learn.
Congratulations, once again, to all of you. It has been a joy to see you grow the past four years. I expect you to accomplish great things. God bless you.
1 Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, ch. 13
2 1 Corinthians 3:19
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (New York: Random House, 1966), VI.211, p. 136.
4 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, q 49, a 3.
5 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI, Ch. 11; 1143b10
6 Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 29.