Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Personal Aside: Ten Ideas that Screwed Up the World.


What’s the Big Idea? Ernie’s Notes Reconstituted.

I’ve related some time back that when I went to college (at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota) in 1946 I was seventeen…one of a handful of kids my age, the remainder of the freshman class being ex-GIs recently mustered out of service, including quite a few who saw action in either the South Pacific or the European theatre. We 17-year-olds were unable to match them, of course, and were intimidated by them. Some were well along in years (by our reckoning), in their 20s, looking for babes and booze of which there was none at our all-male, severely restricted school, also a Benedictine monastery, 1-1/2 miles from the nearest highway, surrounded by 1,400 acres of dense woodland plus two crystal-clear lakes and after you walk to the highway a full sixteen miles to the nearest town of Saint Cloud (population then: 22,000). Stearns county, Minnesota was the most Germanic county in the country and probably the most solidly Catholic as well, part of an ecclesiastical see presided over by a conservative pre-Vatican II bishop who was so powerful that at Lent all the dancehalls shut down since no one went out dancing in deference to the penitential season.

The ex-GIs, some of whom had grey hair, groaned and said Dear God, what have we gotten into? For us aged 17 it was a lark to be away from home and a terrific Saturday night was spent by taking the Johnny bus into St. Cloud, going to a movie, having an ice cream soda and catching the Johnny bus back leaving St. Cloud at 10 p.m., walking the 1-1/2 miles in from, the road to our dormitory where lights out on Saturday night (only) was at midnight (other nights at 10:30 p.m.). Some ex-GIs made the trip, went to the bar at the Spaniol Hotel and got drunk, often missing the Johnny bus, trying to pick up girls (the farm variety were generally disinterested) and chipping in together to get a cab to drive them back to the school where, arriving in the dark, they had to grope their way to their dormitory beds.

The spectacle of some of them tottering around the campus on Saturday night in an inebriated state angered the venerable Abbot-President of Saint John’s, the Right Rev. Alcuin Deutsch, OSB. So he laid down an order. Everyone in the freshmen class…ex-GIs and us 17-year-olds (whom he feared would be corrupted) would have to take four straight years of philosophy and theology—no exceptions. Well, there was one exception. Most of the ex-GIs…and those of exceptional mental acuity… were sent to take philosophy under the Rev. Godfrey Diekmann OSB who was a very clever, late-blooming theological progressive.

The dumb ones like me were directed to take philosophy and theology from the Rev. Ernest Kilzer OSB, an old-guard expert in Thomism. That was my first lucky break and for me it made all the difference. I wrote about Father Godfrey earlier in “Flashbacks.” He anticipated Vatican II and beyond with all the relativism that brought such disaster to the formerly confident Church structure. Many…not all but many…of those who took his courses experienced almost insoluble difficulties with the rubrics of the Church.

For all the ex-GIs and all of us, Abbot Alcuin saved the day. He ordered a general 5-day retreat for all students in 1946, taught by a Fr. James Dismas Clark, S. J. who had just returned from the service as a chaplain where he survived Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. The retreat put on by this man who chose the name Dismas, that of the Good Thief, was experiential and invaluable. As result, Godfrey’s well-intentioned but fallacies notwithstanding, some of those ex-GIs decided to become Benedictines and are in the abbey yet, as white-haired monks walking in single file for early morning Matins, serving God through the day until Compline.

But many who took their courses from Godfrey had difficulties and if they didn’t stray from the Church became skeptics. But those of us who took our lessons from Fr. Ernest, largely, had no difficulties and a good many more became monks than those did with Godfrey…and if not monks the better men of which number I like to count myself. We got superb philosophical ballast which didn’t do a damned thing for our abilities to earn money in the cold, hard materialistic world, but gave us a reassurance that stayed with us all our lives. Here I am almost eighty and while far from an angel or saint…an earthen vessel…having fallen as humans are wont to do…know through Ernie’s dicta the nature of man and sin, forgiveness and redemption. For which I am deeply grateful to his memory as he lies there dead 40 years in the Abbey churchyard.

But despite all Ernie’s genius, I was still only seventeen, an only child, the first time away from home, with lamentable sense of boredom about my studies, a young man who sorely wanted to know the evil world Ernie condemned…at least let us say, to be tempted…in sinful, devil-may-care Saint Cloud (population: 22,000), drinking Glueck stite beer (12%) with a bourbon chaser which made me sicker the first time I tasted it than I ever can imagine it possible to be: causing me to fear first that I would die, then that I might not die.

So I am sorry to say I dawdled somewhat through my studies in philosophy and theology, while thanks to Ernie’s genius and my fear of his examinations, absorbing much more than I imagined (as it turned out) but not keeping my notes after examinations were taken. Hence when I graduated and went out to the world I often bitterly regretted not saving those notes.

Fr. Ernest, began our first year by saying that his course would take us through not just the great ideas and ideals of the Greeks and Thomas but the fallacies that have betrayed the wisdom of the West and have led the world into almost irrecoverable intellectual error.

For decades I yearned for those notes which I had tossed. I read book after book on philosophy and theology through all these years. Some were good, as Mortimer Adler’s (Lillian and I even took Adler’s course on the Great Books), brilliant, taught by the Master himself but none expressed in such cogent force what old Ernie (as we called him behind his back) enunciated.

Well, now, I can tell you that I have found the notes from Ernie’s four years of classes in philosophy and theology. Well—that’s an overstatement. Not exactly. But I have found the next best thing. A book expressed in far more vulgar style than Ernie would but which nevertheless makes Ernie’s points. It is called “10 Books that Screwed Up the World” by Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D. As I read the book and re-read it, I heard Ernie’s authoritarian voice once again. I checked out Wiker. His credentials are superb. He taught at Thomas Aquinas College in California, probably the most academically stringent of all the newer colleges formed to retrace the steps lost by the larger, nominal ones.

Benjamin Wiker…and I, over my lifetime…have read these dreadful 10 books so that you won’t have to. I’ll start reviewing his book tomorrow beginning with the first screwy idea. Never fear, it won’t be boring. I’ll add my own views so as to lighten the discussion (Ernie once told me: Your philosophical depth, Mr. Roeser, is that of a pie-tin!” Your comments eagerly received. And there will also be ample room to discuss politics and public affairs. Tomorrow then comes the first disquisition on “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli [1469-1527]. I know Machiavelli has been stupendously praised for his realism and cynicism. There are dangers to him. Hear Wiker out. And contribute your ideas. I know Dr. Paul Green who reads this blog is himself an expert on Machiavelli who will not agree with us and his erudite words are welcomed as well. Tomorrow then, bright and early, THE PRINCE.

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