Two Essays on Docility

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Two Essays on Docility  (1940) 
by Mortimer Adler
From the The Commonweal (April 1940)

1. Docility and Authority[edit]

In his Treatise on Temperance, Saint Thomas discusses the virtue of studiousness and the vice of curiosity. The virtuous pursuit of learning must not only be moderate, but rightly motivated. Studiositas inclines a man to be serious and steadfast in the application of his mind to things worth learning. In contrast, the zest with which many men devote themselves to scholarship and research seems to express curiosity rather than a virtuous exercise of the desire to know.

Now there is another virtue—not explicitly discussed by Saint Thomas—which disciplines us in the life of learning.[1] Docility is the virtue which regulates a man's will with respect to learning from a teacher. Studiousness concerns a right attitude toward subject matters. If men learned only by discovery—each seeking out the truth entirely by himself—studiousness would be sufficient. But men also learn by instruction; in fact, that is the way most men learn for the most part. Therefore, they must adopt a right attitude toward their teachers, to the instruments as well as to the matter of instruction. It is through docility that we recognize the teacher as a doctor, and respect his authority as we respect that of a physician working for our health.

I place docility in the group of virtues annexed to justice, for it consists in rendering to teachers what is their due. As we owe piety to God as the source of our being, and to our parents as the source of our becoming, so docilitiy is a kind of piety toward teachers as among the sources of our learning. There is also an element of gratitude in docility, responsive to the charity of teaching; and an element of humility, because through docility we are rightly ordered to our superiors. We cannot be instructed by our peers, or at least not in the respects in which there is peerage or equality in knowledge. Unlesss the teacher has an authority which comes from greater knowledge or skill, he cannot justly be our master, nor need we be docile as his students.

In order to define the vices of excess and defect—which I shall call subservience and indocility—it is necessary to discuss the nature of the doctoral authority. When Saint Thomas says that "the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest" (Summa Theologia, I, 8, Reply to Objection 2), he is obviously not recommending indocility, for that would belie the practice of his whole life as a respectful and grateful student of Aristotle and Saint Augustine. What he is saying is simply that the weakest ground for affirming a conclusion is the fact that it has been affirmed by another, even if that other be the master of those who know or a father of doctrine. If we affirm a principle that is supposed to be self-evident, without its being evident to us, or a conclusion that is supposed to be demonstrated, without being able to demonstrate it, merely because another man has said it, we are being subservient, not docile. We have acquired an opinion, not knowledge; and if we persist in it through a sort of verbal memory, rather than a truly intellectual penetration of the truth, we have been indoctrinated, not instructed.

But, then, wherein lies the authority of teachers? We must distinguish between the intrinsic possession of such authority and its extrinsic signs. With respect to all all teachable matters, a man has as much authority intrinsically as he is able to speak the truth. Strictly, it is the truth alone which has the authority over our minds in the realm of knowledge as opposed to the realm of opinion. Whereas opinion is an affirmation by the intellect as moved by the will or the passions, knowledge is a motion independent of the will. To know is to judge entirely in the light of reason. The truth as we see it in such light compels our judgment. If the authority of a teacher consisted in nothing but the truth he spoke, then we could justly recognize his authority only to the extent that, by the natural light of our own reason, we could independently discriminate between truth and falsity on the point of doctrine. There would be no need for docility toward him as a man.

The need for docility arises from the supposition that a student lacks knowledge or the skill to get it and that a teacher, having what the student lacks, can help him. Although the student must never accept what the teacher says simply because he says it, neither can he reject it on that ground. In the field of natural knowledge, the student must ultimately make up his own mind in the light of natural reason, but until he is able to do that finally he should try to get all the help he can from those who offer to teach him. Docility is needed, therefore, to dispose him to seek and to use such help wisely and well. If a teacher claims to demonstrate something which the student cannot see at once to be the case, docility requires that the student suspend judgment—neither accept nor reject—and apply his mind studiously to the teacher's words and intentions. He must, with patience and perseverance, continue to submit his mind to instruction, which means nothing more than that he suffer the teacher to continue cooperating with his own active intellect.

Unless there were extrinsic signs of authority, which marked the proper objects of docility, the student would be unable to direct himself properly with respect to available instruction. Such signs are not wanting. Assuming that an educational system is wisely administered, those who hold the office of teacher are signified as having sufficient authority for the grade of student allotted to them. Unlike the political office, which has a certain authority in itself even when held by a bad man, the doctoral office is truly emptied whenever students who have exercised docility discover its occupant to be unworthy. If the de facto rule of a usurping despot is tyranny, the de facto pressure of an inadequate teacher can only be effective as indoctrination, and that, as we have seen, is a kind of violence. Docility requires the student, nevertheless, to respect the office of the teacher until his incompetence is unmistakably revealed.

There are other extrinsic signs. Quite apart from his office, a teacher may command respect because of his past performances. A teacher who has succeeded in bringing us to the light many times in the past despite our intransigence, is one who deserves our patience in the present instance where we are still in the dark. This is the mark which honors the great teachers of all times. In the tradition of European learning, some men have been the teachers of many generations, of many epochs. The fact that these men are so generally honored by the tradition as great teachers—men who both know and can communicate—is the most compelling extrinsic sign of an authority to which we must respond with docility.

I have elsewhere developed the distinction between dead and living teachers. The living teachers—the local embodiments of learning—are seldom the great teachers. The great teachers are usually dead, though, in another sense, they are eminently alive for us as teachers through their books. Books are instruments of instruction, and obviously call for docility in those who would learn from them, as much as living teachers do. The virtue is essentially the same, whether exercised toward the book of an absent teacher or toward the ministrations of one who is present. When I speak of a "great teacher" or a "great book" I mean one who merits the extrinsic marks of teaching authority because possessing that authority intrinsically, by virtue of a great store of knowledge and great power to disseminate it.

It would be a mistake for those of us who are teachers to suppose that the problem of achieving docility is a problem only for our students. To the extent that we, too, are students, the moral problem exists for us as well. It exists for anyone and everyone who is actively engaged in the life of learning. Those who understand the obligations of that life do not give up learning when they begin to teach. On the contrary, a good teacher is usually one who is himself an active student of the subject matter in which he gives instruction. Authority and docility will be combined in him, for he is both a teacher of those who know less than himself and a student of the masters of his subject matter. One might even guess that there will be a certain proportion between his attainment of authority and his exercise of docility.


I want to consider the problem of docility as it exists for all of us, whether we be merely students in the early stages of our education, or teachers who have realized the need to continue study. The problem, it seems to me, has significant implications for education under modern cultural conditions, precisely because modern culture is so ambivalent about tradition. In its horror of subservience, the modern mind tends to the opposite vice of brash indocility. On the other hand, those who deplore modernism and try to combat it too often return to the first extreme, mistaking subservience for docility.

The opposition of these extremes is the prevailing tension between the mood of secular and Catholic education. These two systems of education have contrary vices, each a reaction to the other—too little or too much respect for traditional authorities. I might add that the attitude which is characteristic of secular or Catholic faculties toward the great teachers of the past is reflected in the attitude of secular or Catholic students toward their living teachers. The one is usually indocile, the other subservient. (The subservience may be merely outward. I speak only of appearances.)

The temper of a culture with respect to its intellectual tradition underlies its educational efforts. If docility is indispensable to sound educational policy and practice, we must rectify the culture itself in terms of this virtue. How shall this be done? We are frequently told that historical scholarship is the way. We are told that the proper study of philosophy, and even science, is impossible without thorough historical orientation. Both modernism and its equally bad opposite, "modern scholasticism," spring from corrupt history, or the lack of historical insight. In their enthusiasm, the exponents of history as the magic open sesame tend to identify the historical attitude with docility. They soon become infected with historicism, which is simply the error of making historical scholarship, truly enough a necessary condition of rectitude in learning from the past, into a sufficient condition.

I propose, therefore, to examine the service of history in the life of learning, by considering its relation to the achievement of docility. But before I can discuss these larger implications of the problem, it is necessary first to consider docility from the point of view of the individual person who is trying to be virtuous in his attitude toward teachers and books.

For most of the moral virtues, the mean between the extremes of excess and defect is a subjective mean. The mean in the case of courage, lying somewhere between foolhardiness and cowardice, is not objectively ascertainable, and as such the same for all men. It is rather a mean that is relative to the individual temperament of each man who tries to be courageous, a mean which a man's own prudence must appoint after due consideration of the conditions of his life, the complexion of all his natural tendencies, and the circumstances of particular acts.

The mean of docility is subjective in this sense. The definition of docility as the right amount of respect for the authority of teachers (or books) is by itself insufficient to determine action. It is a truth too remote from the exigencies of practice to direct us in the particular decisions we have to make. In this particular case—with this teacher or book, in view of my temperamental weaknesses, my tendencies to be indolent or impatient, and in connection with this point of doctrine abut which I have strong feelings—what is the right amount of respect due those who are trying to instruct me? There is the practical question. And I cannot cultivate the habit of docility unless I can decide such questions prudently time after time as they arise.

Aristotle gives us two practical rules to guide us in the casuistry of applying moral principles to particular cases of action.

As it is difficult to hit the mean exactly, we must take the second best course, and choose the lesser of two evils, and this we shall do best in the way we have described, i.e., by steering clear of the evil which is further from the mean. We must also observe the things to which we are ourselves particularly prone, as different natures have different inclinations, and we may ascertain what these are by a consideration of our feelings of pleasure and pain. And then we must drag ourselves in the direction opposite to them; for it is by removing ourselves as far as possible from what is wrong that we shall arrive at the mean, as we do when we pull a crooked stick straight (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 9).

Let us consider the second suggestion first. If by temperament we tend to be impatient of authority, we should pull ourselves in the direction of subservience, for by so doing we shall be going toward the mean. If our temperament is of the opposite sort, we should struggle against our reluctance to exercise an independent judgment. Such counteraction of our natural weaknesses assists us to make a prudent determination of the mean relative to ourselves.

But if the mean of docility is hard to hit exactly, which is the better error to make, the worse vice to avoid, subservience or indocility? I, for one, cannot answer this question absolutely, that is, without any reference to circumstances. But it can be answered relatively by considering the generality of cases of different type. Thus, I would say that for modern culture generally the aim should be to avoid indocility; for Catholic students, in contrast to those in our secular colleges, the motion should be away from subservience; and, in general, it is worse for those who are in the early stages of study to be indocile than subservient, whereas, on the contrary, for those who are mature and who should assume a responsibility of independent judgment proportionate to their competence, it is worse to be subservient.

The casuistical questions which a man faces in trying to be docile are more difficult than those which arise in the field of other moral virtues; but these are always the most difficult questions, not only for each of us to decide for ourselves, but for anyone to prescribe ways of answering for others. Perhaps, therefore, the best thing I can do is to put down some of the considerations which weigh heavily with me when I am trying to read a book with docility.

In the first place, I try never to forget that the only ultimate factor which can decide my judgment—whether I shall agree or disagree with the author who is my teacher—is the natural light of my own reason. Remembering this, I will not assent to anything I do not see, be it principle or conclusion or the reasoning from the one to the other. I know, of course, how often I have failed to abide by this precept, how often I have adopted, for example, statements by Aristotle or Saint Thomas, because of emotional predispositions rather than intellectual light. I respect them so much as teachers that I have often permitted them to indoctrinate me—the fault being mine, not theirs, the respect being excessive, rather than right. For many years, I affirmed, and repeated to my students as if I knew it to be true, the Aristotelian error about natural slavery. If it is the error I now see it to be, it could not have been a truth I saw. As I review my own life on this point, I realize that I never did see the point. I merely accepted it because Aristotle had spoken.

In matters of natural knowledge, no human authority should prevail against the light of your own reason. But we know that our thinking is fallible. We know how often we suffer the illusion that we see the truth, only to discover later that we have judged too soon. Hence the second maxim I try to follow is this: one should suspend judgment long enough to be sure that one really understands what the teacher is trying to say before agreeing or disagreeing with him. Life being short, and the responsibility for making up one's mind on important questions being urgent, how long is long enough? This is a matter which everyone must determine for himself in conscience. If to disagree rashly leads to indocility, to agree without reservation, without making the effort to be sure one really knows what is being agreed to, is subservience. Docility demands sufficient suspension of judgment so that when I judge I shall be acting in the light of reason, and not in terms of passionate devotion or equally passionate opposition to the author I am reading.

There are a number of factors I consider in estimating the delay of judgment proper in a given case, the amount of effort to understand which should precede making up my mind. One is the degree of extrinsic authority that tradition has accorded the teacher. I should be less impetuous in judging Aristotle and Saint Thomas than in the case of some nineteenth, or even sixteenth century scholastic textbook. If there is a probable correlation between the extrinsic signs of authority and its intrinsic possession, then certainly it is sound to say that the more authority a teacher seems to have, the more pause he should give you. This maxim should operate in the case in which you are, for whatever reason, inclined to disagree, as well as when you are favorably predisposed. Here, too, my biography is full of faults. So much of what David Hume says was repugnant to my reason fairly early in my study of philosophy, that I tended to reject him in entirety without due consideration of the extrinsic authority he certainly has in a large area of the modern tradition. I now know that I went astray here, failing through indocility to see the contribution of Hume's positivism for the understanding of empirical science, as through subservience I have parroted errors from Aristotle and Saint Thomas.

The rule of practice must, therefore, be sharpened on both its edges, for it must cut both ways. Wherever I am emotionally, or even intellectually, inclined to agree, I should suspend judgment before concurring, lest I merely indoctrinate myself. Wherever my disposition is of the contrary sort, I should hesitate to disagree, lest I reject without understanding what greater patience would have made intelligible and acceptable to my mind. And, in both cases, my conscience must determine the degree of patience due the author by reference to the marks of extrinsic authority he bears. I must add here that, in addition to the reputation which tradition has conferred, the degree to which I have come to feel his authority because of his previous successes as a teacher in my own life ought also to be considered.

This first factor is qualified by two others. On the one hand, I must take into account my own position in the scale of learning. Thus, in a given subject matter I may have achieved competence to a greater or less degree. In proportion as I have competence—which means, in proportion as I approach peerage with the great teachers in that field—I am entitled to make up my mind more quickly. What would be indecent impetuosity in the beginner may be protracted deliberateness in the learned. On the other hand, I must know myself as a creature of passions and prejudices in order to make due allowance for every sort of waywardness that could interfere with a prudent determination of the mean of docility in this case, as conditioned not only by the author's authority in relation to my knowledge, but also by my idiosyncrasies in relation to the author.

In this process of casuistry, it makes a difference whether I am a student being instructed by living teachers, or at once a teacher of students as well as a student of the dead masters. If I am in that middle position—which should be the position of every good teacher, modest enough to recognize his limitations—the duty of docility is more heavily incumbent upon me, for I have the obligation to exhibit it in my teaching, as well as practice it in my studying. I shall return to this point in a later discussion of the bearing of docility on the role of the teacher.

One other thing makes a difference. When I am dealing with the great teachers of the past, I must bridge the gap of time. The continuity of tradition is not perfect. I must be deeply conscious of my own place in cultural time, in order to realize that the author I am reading lived and thought in a different climate of opinion. If my cultural location confers certain advantages on me, I am not indocile if I take advantage of the superiority which modern birth gives me over the greatest teachers of the ancient and medieval past. If I exaggerate that advantage, I am, of course, lacking in true docility; but a vicious subservience results equally from minimizing it.

This last point raises the whole question about the dependence of docility, in an individual teacher, in an educational system, or in a whole culture, upon the cultivation of a historical sense—a sense of the present as moving into the future, as well as a sense of the present growing out of the past. This point, too, I shall discuss in a subsequent essay.


2. Docility and History[edit]

The attainment of docility is, as we have seen, a personal problem which each of us must solve in his private life of learning. But there is also an institutional problem of docility, involving the curriculum and administration of studies in an educational system. I am thinking of the two points which in my prior article were left for further consideration. The first has to do with the relation between living teachers and dead ones (books) as instruments of instruction. The second concerns the precise place of scholarship, and historical orientation generally, in learning from the past.

The curriculum of St. John's College, Annapolis, has generated controversy bearing on both these points. Some critics have questioned the advisability of placing the great books in the hands of the young, without definite instruction by living teachers that explicitly discriminates between true doctrines and false. When such critics follow out the implication of the amendment to the St. John's plan, they usually end up by suggesting lecture courses, textbooks, and manuals, devised for putting blinders on the students and leading them along the straight and narrow path to the truth. This is not an amendment of the St. John's plan, but an abolition of it. It substitutes the way of indoctrination for the discipline of docility.

Other critics have wondered whether the paraphernalia of historical scholarship can be so cavalierly dispensed with. The program of getting the tradition to reveal its secrets by going directly to the books seems to underestimate the importance of the philological approach to past cultures. Even though the books are read in chronological order, little effort seems to be made to place each book precisely in its cultural setting, to read the mind of each author as a product of complex historical determinations. Paradoxically, an educational program which exudes so profound a respect for the past seems to have little or no respect for the historical methods by which men try to relive the intellectual life of prior epochs.

I would like to consider these two points, not only as they bear on the St. John's curriculum, but in their educational implications generally.

The critics who fear a shallow eclecticism, or, what is worse, sophistry and skepticism, as the inevitable result of making the great books the students' only teachers, cannot be lightly dismissed. Their error lies not in their insistence that sound educational policy requires living leadership, but rather in their misconception of the role the living teacher should play. The tradition of great books contains both truth and error, mixed in varying proportions in different cases. This holds for ancient and medieval authors, as well as moderns. The student who reads both Plato and Aristotle and does not recognize the obligation to decide between them on crucial points is not learning from the past, but merely about it. The same can be said for issues which put Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas on opposite sides. The objective is to know the truth about God, man, and nature, and the ends of human life, not what anyone, however great his authority, thought about these matters. The deviation from a right aim is even greater if it be supposed that students should become acquainted with the sheer diversity of opinions on major questions in order to become, through the conflict of authorities, emancipated from authority itself.

There are two extremes here. One position, which may be taken by some of the exponents of the St. John's plan, is to make the living teacher merely a liberal artist, merely a dialectician, whose only office is to sharpen the student's wits as a reader of the books. While I would certainly insist that it is the teacher's business to cultivate in every way the student's skill in reading—analytically, interpretively, critically—I would also insist that that is not enough. For, as Plato teaches us, dialectic cannot be distinguished from sophistry as an intellectual method. It differs only on a moral count—in virtue of its use as a means toward the truth. If the reading of the great books is merely for the sake of making liberal artists of the students, they will end by being sophisticated, but not learned or wise.

At the opposite extreme is the position, embodied in much of Catholic education, that the shortest way to the truth is the best. Why take the long and devious path that leads through the great books, with all their difficulties and conflicts, if a living teacher can present the right doctrine in lectures supported by textbooks written by himself or his colleagues; or if he can assign a textbook and get the students to repeat what it says instead of doing that himself in lectures? If the great books should be read, let the teacher do that in the course of his own education or in the privacy of his study. Let him cull the truth from the errors, and feed the young the unblemished fruits.

Here the opposite error is made. Students who are not trained in the liberal arts—and apart from the discipline of reading great books they cannot be—are incapable of the activity of being taught. They are entirely given to the passivity of being indoctrinated. They are not trained to be docile, for docility is required only in the active exercise of one's intellectual powers. Only when independence of judgment is encouraged (more, demanded), must docility be cultivated. Textbooks and lectures elicit memorization and, with it, instill subservience. Furthermore, the supposition that the living teachers are the refinery through which the riches of the past are purified before they reach the student in the form of lectures and textbooks is open to question. Teachers are usually the product of the educational system in which they serve in their turn. If the system is one in which they do not read great books with their students, it is unlikely that their teachers read great books with them. Hence it is likely to be the case that their lectures or textbooks are condensations or repetitions of other textbooks and lectures, rather than magnificent renditions of the tradition.

The solution, as always, is a union of the half-truths drawn from the extremes. The living teacher must not only be a disciplinarian of the liberal arts; he must also argue for the truths and against the errors that he himself has found, or finds, in the books he reads with his students. He must be both doctor and docile. The assumption is that the person who conducts a reading seminar is more mature than his students—more skilled in reading, and hence able to initiate them into its intricacies, as well as more learned in doctrine, and hence competent to discover the truth to those who seek it in the books. The living teacher is truly a mediator between the novices in learning and the masters of knowledge, through being himself in a mean state between them. On the one hand, he participates in the role of teacher through possessing more of the knowledge the great books contain, than do his students. To this extent, he has some authority in his own right, is entitled to instruct and deserves docility from them. On the other hand, he participates in the role of student through being still engaged in the search for knowledge at its fountainheads. To this extent, he must exhibit docility to his students, for only by manifesting it in his own practice of the liberal arts, can he genuinely persuade his students to follow in his footsteps.

The solution thus avoids two errors: the fallacy of supposing that a curriculum which makes the great books the major teachers must completely exclude doctrinal judgments on the part of the minor teacher; and the mistake of making the minor teacher the chief source of doctrine, permitting him to masquerade as a major teacher, usurping an authority not rightly his. The latter error is made by any educational program which substitutes manuals and lecture courses for the great books. It forces a teaching personnel, that might be able to function well as mediators, to exceed their powers, to offer themselves as repositories of learning. It cannot breed docility, failing so signally to exhibit it, for the pretense by which the minor teacher becomes an oracle instead of a medium is a counterfeit made possible only by subservience or indocility.

What I have said of this second error applies equally, though perhaps differently, to Catholic and secular institutions. If the first error is made at St. John's, then the program is subject to one of the charges brought against it. I wish to argue only that that error is entirely accidental to the program. That being so, there is no excuse for Catholic educators in not separating essence from accidents, and not adopting what is fundamentally sound in the St. John's plan.


With respect to the role of historical scholarship, there are also two false extremes. For the sake of sharpening the point within the brief scope of this article, let me consider the relation of history to the study of philosophy. For one thing, the problem of docility is much more acute in seeking philosophical wisdom than in acquiring scientific knowledge; and this is related to the fact that textbooks are much less pernicious in science than philosophy. For another thing, the history of philosophy—if fact, the history of culture, and of science also—appears to have a certain philosophical significance which the student of philosophy cannot well ignore. The student of science suffers less from ignorance of general cultural history. Hence, education in philosophy is a good field for the examination of the relation between docility and history.

At one extreme are those who claim that history is irrelevant to the study of philosophy. Curiously enough, these are usually the same people who try to teach philosophy systematically, out of textbooks or manuals. Philosophical knowledge consists of a set of doctrines which are timelessly true and which, therefore, can be expounded without any regard for the historical accidents of cultural time and place. If I understand them correctly, the students of M. Gilson have attacked the simplemindedness of this position as a root cause of error and superficiality in modern scholasticism. But, it seems to me, they go to the opposite extreme, and in doing so go further than their leader himself. They commit the error of historicism. Though all they affirm is that history is an indispensable instrument in the discovery of philosophical truth, they become so enamored of the instrument that in practice, if not in theory, they subvert the end to the means. The philological study of texts, the delineation of affinities between minds separated by centuries, the tracing of streams of influence and divergence—all these things become more important than bare philosophical argument.

I am extremely sensitive to the difference between scholarly competence and expertness in philosophy, to the difference between seeking to penetrate the truth by thinking, and seeking to get inside the minds of other men, to think their thoughts by acts of historical imagination. Partly this may be due to my own acknowledged incompetence in historical scholarship. Life being short, I have made what seemed to me an inevitable choice between scholarship and philosophy. I doubt if anyone's energies are ample enough to permit an adequate devotion to both. To take eminent examples, Gilson and Maritain, it seems to me, have made opposite choices, though each, of course, enjoys some competence in the other's field.

But my sensitiveness here is due even more to the fact that I have seen so many young men start out to become philosophers and end up as historians or philologians. I would say that they gave up the harder task for an easier one. Truly it is easier to "speculate" about what Aristotle thought, even if such speculation must be supported by the most careful adduction of evidences, than it is to speculate, as Aristotle did, about the nature of things. (Perhaps this is why many philosophy departments in both secular and Catholic universities direct their doctoral candidates into fields of historical research rather than encourage "young men" to undertake genuine philosophical work.) Not only is it easier, but one's fundamental intellectual integrity is less affected. To have one's scholarship corrected does not get into one's soul as much as to have one's philosophical judgments refuted. Those who substitute scholarship for philosophy avoid sticking their necks out in a way that invites serious intellectual challenge. The scholar may have his own philosophical opinions, but he usually manages to bury them in his interpretation of other men's thought. He has effaced himself behind what other men stood for and thus avoids standing too openly for anything himself.

Observe that I marked the word "speculate" when I spoke about historical research. For this, it seems to me, is speculation in the sense of conjecture, not speculation in the sense in which philosophy is speculative knowledge. In fact, history at its best stands to philosophy, as opinion does to knowledge. No matter how perfectly all the historical techniques are employed, it is impossible to know with certitude what Aristotle or Plotinus thought about anything. In contrast, the philosophical thought of Aristotle and Plotinus is either certainly true or false. It is either knowledge or not knowledge, but never probable opinion. The reason why cultural history is opinion should be obvious. It is an effort to reach a decision about the singular mind of a particular man in terms of such contingent and inadequate data as written documents. To indulge in scholarly disputes about what a dead philosopher meant by his words seems to me a poor substitute for philosophical controversy about a truth in issue. For if agreement is reached in the one case, the disputants rest only in opinion; whereas in the other they share a common knowledge.

But scholarship and history need not be substituted for philosophy. Therein lies the reconciliation of the two false extremes. So long as the means are properly subordinated to their end, no disorder results from the use of historical scholarship as an aid in the reading of great philosophical books. Just as we correct an error which may occur accidentally in the execution of the St. John's program, by insisting that the reading of books be ordained to the end of acquiring doctrine as well as skill, so we correct the excess of historicism by placing scholarship in the service of an intelligent reading of books. When this ordering of means to ends is clear, historicism is as effectively avoided as eclecticism.

It may be said, however, that it is not historicism, but its opposite, which a program like St. John's must avoid. The problem here concerns the relation between the liberal arts and historical techniques as components in the complex skill of reading books. May I suggest a solution briefly? There are two major steps in reading: interpretation and criticism. One must do one's best to understand an author before agreeing or disagreeing with him. Historical scholarship bears exclusively on interpretive reading; when it is properly subordinated as a means, its end is exegesis; all of its techniques are of service to the grammatical art. But exegesis is not the end; nor is grammar the highest art. Exegesis is for the sake of a fair critical judgment, grammar for the sake of logic and rhetoric. A liberal education must, in short, include historical scholarship as a supplement to grammatical art in reading, and just as surely must it subordinate these techniques to the ultimate purpose for which logical and rhetorical skill is exercised—the independent judgment of a mind about the living truth. When history and grammar dominate the process, docility is confused with the effort to achieve a "sympathetic understanding" of dead men's minds.


There is another aspect of the relation between history and docility. To the extent that we engage in learning from great teachers of the past, a well developed "historical sense"—a sense of the motion of history—gives us the perspective and orientation needed for docility. We in the modern world have this historical sense much more highly developed than any earlier epoch of European culture. We owe it to the technical achievement of modern historical scholarship.

The truth is timeless, but human thought, intricately conditioned by its concrete cultural situation, is dated. Historical relativity cannot be avoided, but through acknowledging the limitations imposed upon any thinker by his time and place, we can disengage the truth from its historical accidents. The imagery which embodies thought, and the language in which it is expressed, are always local. By discerning these externals as belonging to a cultural moment, we can transcend them a little, and find the timeless in the heart of time. The truth itself, whenever it is achieved or however it is embodied and expressed, is not explained by history. But history does explain the errors men have made in the search for truth. The truth our ancestors won belongs to us as much as to them. History helps us to possess it by enabling us to transcend the cultural accidents which separate us from them. The errors our ancestors made are theirs alone. We shall make others, perhaps, but we should not repeat theirs. History helps us to reject such mistakes by showing us their causes in the cultural limitations of past epochs. Aware that we are subject to similar limitations, we should be able to look down at the past without pride.

Historical relativity is greater in some fields of thought than in others, in politics, for instance, more than in ethics, in the philosophy of nature more than in metaphysics. To disengage the political truths of Aristotle and Saint Thomas from the accidents of local imagery and language, as well as from the fallacies that surround them, requires much more historical insight than a similar effort in ethics. Unless we have such insights, we are likely to be subservient, accepting errors because they accompany truth, or we may be indocile, rejecting the truth because of the errors, or because the truth is strangely garbed in foreign dress.

The modern student should be able to attain a greater docility precisely because he has better historical perspective and orientation. The ancient and medieval worlds lacked the historical sense. To the extent that their works reveal them as students of their predecessors, we can see how Aristotle and Saint Thomas suffered from this privation, characteristic of their times. With greater historical knowledge, Aristotle might have been less indocile toward the pre-Socratics, and Saint Thomas might have been less subservient toward Aristotle.

The historical sense is not simply a sense of the past. It is even more a sense of the future, and an awareness of the present as a point in motion between past and future. Through realizing the slow, and often imperceptible, progress of history, we can take advantage of the respects in which our present cultural location elevates us above the past, and at the same time we can appreciate the limitations of the present as we look forward to the future. Thus we can combine gratitude toward the past on whose shoulders we stand, with humility toward the future. Neither fawning nor unduly self-reliant, we recognize ourselves as creatures of time. Through a docility thus fortified by a historical sense, we are emancipated both from the dead hand of tradition and from the provincialism of the present moment. Only the docility of the living present can make the tradition live and perpetuate itself through myriad transformations.

If I were asked to name the virtue which most singularly distinguishes Jacques Maritain as a philosopher, I would say his docility. All of its manifestations will be detected by those who see how deeply his Thomism is motivated by a sense of the future. Philosophy is perennial for him, not as a monument which endures the ravages of time, but as a living thing which enjoys time as its dimension of change and growth. The dead bones of philosophy are not building materials. Not a reverence for relics, but for the spirit they have disembodied, is the docility which encourages Maritain to regard Saint Thomas as a cooperator in the work of preparing for a philosopher greater than Saint Thomas, as he was greater than Aristotle.

We have considered all the impediments to docility, the difficulties to be overcome in ourselves, in our educational systems and in our culture. It would be wise, in conclusion, to remember a point that is central in the whole theory of virtue, namely, the integration of the virtues. No one of the cardinal virtues, nor any of their parts, can be possessed in isolation from all the rest. Whether it be considered as a part of prudence, in relation to practical matters, or as a part of justice, in relation to the theoretic life in which there are doctors and students, docility is impossible apart from fortitude and temperance. One may be docile by natural temperament, but that is not the true virtue which belongs only to those whose will is rectified by the simultaneous possession of all the principal virtues.

It has become sufficiently clear how courage is indispensable to docility. Perhaps a word more is needed to indicate the need for temperance also. It may suffice to recall that a part of temperance is the virtue most closely related to docility, studiositas. No one can be docile who is not rightly directed in the matter of pursuing knowledge. Studiosity opposes the vice of curiosity. It appoints the right end of all our intellectual labors. The means of learning will be well used only if they are used for the right end. As Saint Thomas tells us (Summa Theologica, II-II, 167, 1), we must avoid studying for the sake of taking pride in our knowledge, for by so doing we fall easily into error"; we must make a proper estimate of the worth of various subject matters as these are disposed in a true hierarchy of studies; and the due end, to which all our efforts in research must be referred, is the knowledge of God.

Footnote[edit]

  1. St. Thomas does not discuss docility in connection with the life of learning and as a companion virtue to studiositas. He considers it only as an intergral part of prudence, as a willingness to take counsel concerning practical matters. "In matters of prudence, man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have aquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters" (S.T., II-II, 49, 3). And he goes on to say: "Even the learned should be docile in some respects, since no man is altogether self-sufficient in matters of prudence" (ibid., Reply to Objection 3). I am here considering docility differently, not as a part of prudence, but as a virtue indispensable in the theoretic life. I have generalized St. Thomas's conception of docility as "readiness to be taught" anything. St. Thomas agrees with an objection which says "docility is requisite for every intellectual virtue," though he maintains in opposition that "it belongs chiefly to prudence." On this point, I side with the objector, distinguishing two meanings of docility. Docility toward counsel in practical matters belongs chiefly to prudence. But the docility requisite for every intellectual virtue, docility in the life of learning, is a moral virtue which seems to me most properly associated with justice. The only other alternative is that there is a kind of "artistic prudence" needed for the exercise of the liberal arts, and that docility in theoretic matters is a part thereof.
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