Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Personal Aside: Fr. Ernie’s Back with More On How We Discern Truth.


Just before Christmas vacation, in early December, 1948, Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB…the terror of the Philosophy Department: intolerant of error, mercurial when answers were faulty… entered our classroom at Saint John’s University in an apparent rare sunny disposition—but whose visage glowered over to apparent anger: darkness with storm, lightning and thunder, after…to our astonishment…one of our number raised his hand and asked what was never, ever volunteered before: an initial question…before the lecture began…which seemed to disparage Aquinas! We hunkered in our student chairs (with the armrest attached, used for note-taking). How in the world did anyone ever…ever…decide HE—not Ernie—would start the class with a question? More than that: an insolent-sounding one!

“Father, Greg Senta’s my name: Would you tell us what Saint Thomas contributed on his own after he inherited the concept of natural law and intellectual certainty from Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine? What did he contribute—or…” we were terrified…”or did he merely refine the answers of all those up to Augustine?”

That was the first time I paid any attention to Senta. He had a baby face but drastically prematurely graying hair. He leaned his chin on his open hand and awaited the answer.

Long-long silence. Ernie’s preference of Aquinas over Augustine was what we learned when we first entered as freshmen! Lord God Almighty! The silence was unendurable. Ernie went to the board and slowly erased all the mathematical numerals from the preceding calculus class. We judged his temper was building to the point of explosion. Silence. Senta sank in his seat—as did all of us, pretending to concentrate on our notes.

With our heads down, we pondered: What in the name of God possessed Senta to ask a question of Ernie…a hostile question at that… when the routine for many years was always the other way around—Ernie asking us while we trembled? We could not believe our ears! It implied Aquinas was a user, one who had rolled to immortality on the cerebral achievements of others—particularly Augustine! Heresy! Why did Senta ask it? We’ll be in for it now, all of us. Senta will be graded with an “F” no matter what he does in the future: that was Ernie’s grading system! Why did Senta do it?

Then I surmised I knew what it was. Senta was a reckless plunger. He had taken a daring and utterly self-serving gamble to fasten his identity in Ernie’s mind, so when grading time came, Ernie would know him. Ernie knew none of those in his classes, beginning in 1930…certainly knew none of us whatsoever, he often passing us in the hall with his eyes focused straight ahead, ignoring us, as he sorted the doctrines of Heraclitis, Paramenides and Melissus. In fact a student of Ernie’s for four straight years went just before graduation to thank him for his teaching—and Ernie was mystified. No one had done this before. There was no appreciation for the compliment, either. Just brusque non-recognition.

Yes, that’s what it was: Senta was embellishing his name purposely with this gamble. It was a wildly foolish, reckless experiment. And a desperate chance. Ernie could wheel around and say “Mr. Senta where have you been in these three months in this course when I meticulously stated that with the legacy Saint Thomas converted into an intellectual treasure-house for the West? I would think you have disqualified yourself, I say DISQUALIFIED YOURSELF, from participation by asking such a vapid question, Mr., Mr., Mr. Gregory Senta!” Which would mean a string of “Fs” as far as the eye could see, requiring Senta to transfer to Godfrey Diekmann’s courses (where he would indubitably receive Bs for cerebral skepticism.

But the desperate nature of Senta’s gamble! The kid would get an “F” and deservedly at the end of the semester, Ernie forming an indelible conclusion that Gregory Senta was a braying ass and so poison the well even with Godfrey…the kid leaving school and becoming a dissolute existentialist in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre, smoking funny cigarettes, consorting with Simone de Beauvoir, dating her homely adopted daughter Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir and dabbling in concepts of Being and Nothingness on the Left Bank of Paris.

Now the erasing stopped and Ernie turned slowly toward us, walked over to Senta, stalked more like it, in his long black Benedictine monk habit, immaculate white roman collar.

“Mr. S-s-s-.” The student said bravely “Senta.”

“Mr. Senta—that is a prescient question.”

Now all of us who earlier trembled for Senta…even admired him for his guts…instantly hated him. Before asking the question, he had been one of us—now he was peremptorily elevated to first among equals: more than that--our superior. After the lecture Ernie did what reportedly he had never done before in 29 years of teaching. He walked Gregory Senta down to the Benedictine faculty room where Ernie poured…poured by himself…two cups of coffee for them both in the abbey’s Styrofoam cups for them both. The next week the student newspaper was informed that Gregory Senta had been nominated by Ernie to membership in The Philosophical Society which was peopled mainly by pre-Divs and beginning novices.

“Mr. Senta has indeed asked a prescient question and without disparaging this class I wondered why someone hasn’t asked it before.”

We scribbled and thoroughly hated Gregory Senta, the memory continuing well into our middle age when at an alumni reunion I was introduced to a porky little man who occupied a middle-level position with the Minneapolis transit authority, Gregory Senta.

“The question is an extraordinarily prescient one from which to base this lecture. Augustine [354-430] integrated legal philosophy and theology insisting that theological-Catholic considerations not only permeate all of law and legal theory but constitute the foundation of true law and jurisprudence. Following Augustine, Thomas…far more creative than Augustine, far more gifted… understood and affirmed order in the universe—something which I am sure Mr. Senta appreciates and which all of you SHOULD appreciate. Gentlemen, the world is not a product of chance. No, it was created by a loving God whose existence and attributes we can demonstrate and who ordered His creation in accord with His design. God, the Creator, has a plan for this world. Thomas calls it a universal rational orderliness that he said is characteristic of the whole universe. This law, the divine reason’s conception of things is called…is called…what, Mr. Gregory Senta! Your hand is raised again: It is what?”

We prayed Senta this time would overreach and get it wrong. Sadly, no.

“The Divine Law, Father.”

“Yes-yes! The Divine Law or `lex aeterna.’ Thank you Mr. Senta! Now just as the maker of an automobile has built into it a certain nature—it drives, does not grind meat, does not float in the water—God has built a certain nature into man to follow if he is to achieve his final end, happiness with God in heaven. Just as the automobile maker gives directions for the car’s use so that it will achieve its end, God has built a certain nature into man to follow so he achieves his end…the end which is—class?”

We all parroted meekly: “Eternal happiness with God in heaven!”

“And where are the directions found—directions in the automobile manual so to speak—where are the directions found for man to follow so he achieves his end, Mr. Gregory Senta?”

God, will we never hear the end of this?

“Revelation and natural law,” chirruped Senta. Pleased, Ernie swung on his heel to go to the board, giving Senta time to stick out his tongue and waggle his ears with both hands at us, the 1940s equivalent of The Finger. We were thunder-stuck at this gesture, a wild, reckless gamble that Ernie wouldn’t see. We hated him yet grateful he had put Ernie in a good mood.

“Correct! Mr. Gregory Senta!” enthused Ernie with his back to us as he scribbled these words on the board, “come to this desk after class, will you? Thomas called it the divine law. The divine law is needed because of the uncertainty of human judgment, particularly, Thomas said, on `contingent and particular matters, different people form different judgments on human acts’ so that different and contrary laws result. So that man can know without any doubt what he ought to do and what he ought to avoid, it is necessary for man to be directed to such proper ends by a law given by God—it being certain that such a law cannot err.”

There followed 38 minutes of exultation for a beneficent God who gave us Aquinas. Then--.

“Now I shall give Mr. Senta a rest. In addition to the eternal law and divine law of revelation there is, Mr. Roeser, what law? Correct! But of course it is an easy answer…as we have often discussed and by rote repetition has made an impact on Mr. Roeser: NATURAL LAW. This exists because man is a rational creature and has a share of the external reason which constitutes a natural inclination to do a proper act and end…with the result that this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law. This, then, in response to your very prescient question, Mr. Senta, is the beginning formulation of Saint Thomas…and I thank you, sir, for you have stirred my passions so that I developed this lecture quite apart from the one I was prepared to give…so thank you, Mr. Senta! Aha, Mr. Senta’s hand is up again. What further prescient question do you ask now, Mr. Senta?”

God, will it never end? Surely this time Senta, giddy with triumph, will put his foot in it. But no. He asked a devastating question—once again taking the chance that he…like all of us…should have known the answer without asking: “Father, how can we know natural law?”

“Aha, you have read my mind, Mr. Senta! How is this natural law known? What are its commands? Here again from the Angelic Doctor. We first distinguish the speculative reason from the practical reason. The object of the speculative reason is KNOWLEDGE—the object of the practical reason is CONDUCT. The first principle of the speculative reason is…class? Anyone? No one. The first principle is that of CONTRADICTION. One cannot BE and NOT BE at the same time under the same aspect.

“Gentlemen, the hour is late. Let me say that next time we SHALL HAVE an examination and we SHALL NOT have an examination. Aha, you say: that is not feasible. And of course it isn’t. So now I shall not contradict myself. Next time we SHALL INDEED have an examination on all this so that the principle of contradiction shall be observed. But before we go: what is the first self-evident principle of the practical reason? What? None of you know it? Cannot even hazard a guess? It is that `good is to be done and evil is to be avoided.’ See you next week and my admonition to all of you is:

“Do good and avoid evil. Now you may come to this desk, Mr. Senta.”

As we walked down the corridor, I caught up to Senta’s roommate. Did he know Senta would do this?

“Yep. Don’t worry. He told me he was going to do it. He’s an ex-GI, after all…saw a lot of action during the war: the battle of the Bulge. But he told me he won’t do it again. You see, he doesn’t have to. His reputation is made with Ernie. But I would advise you not to try it any more than I would.”

Don’t worry.


  1. Perhaps Greg Senta's first question during the Battle of the Bulge might have been "Where in hell are these krauts com'in from"!

    Your illustration depicts two german soldiers (helmets are the clue) overrunning an American halftrak.

    Ease off on Greg if he really was up there.

  2. Tom, this was a pleasure to read. Thanks.