Chapter 5. Free Trade in Knowledge: The Sophists

{47} WHEN the Catholic University is mentioned, we hear people saying on all sides of us,—"Impossible! how can you give degrees? what will your degrees be worth? where are your endowments? where are your edifices? where will you find students? what will government have to say to you? who wants you? who will acknowledge you? what do you expect? what is left for you?"

Now, I hope I may say without offence, that this surprise on the part of so many excellent men, is itself not a little surprising. When I look around at what the Catholic Church now is in this country of Ireland, and am told what it was twenty or thirty years ago; when I see the hundreds of good works, which in that interval have been done, and now stand as monuments of the zeal and charity of the living and the dead; when I find that in those years new religious orders have been introduced, and that the country is now covered with convents; when I gaze upon the sacred edifices, spacious and fair, which during that time have been built out of the pence of the poor; when I reckon up the multitude of schools now at work, and the sacrifices which gave them birth; when I reflect upon the great political exertions and successes which have made the same period memorable in all history to come; when I contrast what {48} was then almost a nation of bondsmen, with the intelligence, and freedom of thought, and hope for the future, which is its present characteristic; when I meditate on the wonderful sight of a people springing again fresh and vigorous from the sepulchre of famine and pestilence; and when I consider that those bonds of death which they have burst, are but the specimen and image of the adamantine obstacles, political, social, and municipal, which have all along stood in the way of their triumphs, and how they have been carried on to victory by the simple energy of a courageous faith; it sets me marvelling to find some of those very men, who have been heroically achieving impossibilities all their lives long, now beginning to scruple about adding one little sneaking impossibility to the list, and I feel it to be a great escape for the Church that they did not insert the word "impossible" into their dictionaries and encyclopedias at a somewhat earlier date.

However, this by the way: as to the objection itself, which has led to this not unnatural reflection, perhaps the reader may have observed, if he has taken the trouble to follow me, that in what I have said above I have already been covertly aiming at it; and now I propose to handle it avowedly, at least as far as my limits will allow in one Chapter.

He will recollect, perhaps, that in former Chapters I have already been maintaining, that a University consists, and has ever consisted, in demand and supply, in wants which it alone can satisfy and which it does satisfy, in the communication of knowledge, and the relation and bond which exists between the teacher and the taught. Its constituting, animating principle is this moral attraction of one class of persons to another; which is prior in its nature, nay commonly in its history, to any other tie {49} whatever; so that, where this is wanting, a University is alive only in name, and has lost its true essence, whatever be the advantages, whether of position or of affluence, with which the civil power or private benefactors contrive to encircle it. I am far indeed from undervaluing those external advantages; a certain share of them is necessary to its well-being: but on the whole, as it is with the individual, so will it be with the body:—it is talents and attainments which command success. Consideration, dignity, wealth, and power, are all very proper things in the territory of literature; but they ought to know their place; they come second, not first; they must not presume, or make too much of themselves, or they had better be away. First intellect, then secular advantages, as its instruments and as its rewards; I say no more than this, but I say no less.

Nor am I denying, as I shall directly show, that, under any circumstances, professors will ordinarily lecture, and students ordinarily attend them, with a view, in some shape or other, to secular advantage. Certainly; few persons pursue knowledge simply for its own sake. But though remuneration of some sort, both to the teachers and to the taught, may be inseparable from the fact of a University, still it may be separable from its idea. Much less am I forgetting (to view the subject on another side), that intellect is helpless, because ungovernable and self-destructive, unless it be regulated by a moral rule and by revealed truth. Nor am I saying anything in disparagement of the principle, that establishments of literature and science should be in subordination to ecclesiastical authority.

I would not make light of any of these considerations; some I shall even assume at once, as necessary for the purpose; of some I shall say more hereafter; here, {50} however, I am merely suggesting to the reader's better judgment what constitutes a University, what is just enough to constitute it, or what a University consists in, viewed in its essence. What this is, seems to me most simply explained and ascertained, as I noticed in a former Chapter, by the instance of metropolitan centres. It would appear as if the very same kinds of need, social and moral, which give rise to a metropolis, give rise also to a University; nay, that every metropolis is a University, as far as the rudiments of a University are concerned. Youths come up thither from all parts, in order to better themselves generally;—not as if they necessarily looked for degrees in their own several pursuits, and degrees recognized by the law; not as if there were to be any competition for fellowships in chemistry, for instance, or engineering,—but they come to gain that instruction which will turn most to their account in after life, and to form good and serviceable connexions, and that, as regards the fine arts, literature, and science, as well as in trade and the professions. I do not see why it should be more difficult for Ireland to trade, if I may use the term, upon the field of knowledge, than for the inhabitants of San Francisco or of Melbourne to make a fortune by their gold fields, or by the North of England by its coal. If gold is power, wealth, influence; and if coal is power, wealth, influence; so is knowledge.

"When house and lands are gone and spent,
  Then learning is most excellent";

and, as some men go to the Antipodes for the gold, so others may come to us here for the knowledge. And it is as reasonable to expect students, though we have no charter from the State, provided we hold out the inducement {51} of good teachers, as to expect a crowd of Britishers, Yankees, Spaniards, and Chinamen at the diggings, though there are no degrees for the successful use of the pickaxe, sieve, and shovel.

And history, I think, corroborates this view of the matter. In all times there have been Universities; and in all times they have flourished by means of this profession of teaching and this desire of learning. They have needed nothing else but this for their existence. There has been a demand, and there has been a supply; and there has been the supply necessarily before the demand, though not before the need. This is how the University, in every age, has made progress. Teachers have set up their tent, and opened their school, and students and disciples have flocked around them, in spite of the want of every advantage, or even of the presence of every conceivable discouragement. Years, nay, centuries perhaps, passed along of discomfort and disorder: and these, though they showed plainly enough that, for the well-being and perfection of a University, something more than the desire for knowledge is required, yet they showed also how irrepressible was that desire, how reviviscent, how indestructible, how adequate to the duties of a vital principle, in the midst of enemies within and without, amid plague, famine, destitution, war, dissension, and tyranny, evils physical and social, which would have been fatal to any other but a really natural principle naturally developed.

Do not let the reader suppose, however, that I am anticipating for Dublin at this day such dreary periods or such ruinous commotions, as befel the schools of the medieval period. Such miseries were the accidents of the times; and this is why we hear so much then of protectors of learning—the Charlemagnes and Alfreds,—as {52} the compensation of those miseries. It may be asked, whether royal protectors do not tell against the inherent vitality, on which I have been insisting, of Universities; but in truth, powerful sovereigns, such as they, did but clear and keep the ground, on which Universities were to build. Learning in the middle ages had great foes and great friends; we too, were we setting up a school of learning in a rude period of society, should have to expect perils on the one hand, and to court protectors on the other; as it is, however, we can afford to treat with comparative unconcern the prospect both of the one and of the other. We may hope, and we may be content, to be just let alone; or, if we must be anxious about the future, we may reasonably use the words of the proverb, "Save me from my friends." Charlemagne was indeed a patron of learning, but he was its protector far more; it is our happiness, for which we cannot be too thankful to the Author of all good, that we need no protector; for it is our privilege just now, whatever comes of the morrow, to live in the midst of a civilization, the like of which the world never saw before. The descent of enemies on our coasts, the forays of indigenous marauders, the sudden rise of town mobs, the unbridled cruelty of rulers, the resistless sweep of pestilence, the utter insecurity of life and property, and the recklessness which is its consequence, all that deforms the annals of the medieval Universities, is to us for the present but a matter of history. The statesman, the lawyer, the soldier, the policeman, the reformer, the economist, have most of them seriously wronged and afflicted us Catholics in other ways, national, social, and religious; but, on the side on which I have here to view them, they are acting in our behalf as a blessing from heaven. They are giving us that tranquillity for which the Church so variously {53} and so anxiously prays; that real freedom, which enables us to consult her interests, to edify her holy house, to adorn her sanctuary, to perfect her discipline, to inculcate her doctrines, and to enlighten and form her children, "with all confidence," as Scripture speaks, "without prohibition." We are able to set up a Studium Generale, without its concomitant dangers and inconveniences; and the history of the past, while it adumbrates for us the pattern of a University, and supplies us with a specimen of its good fruits, conveys to us no presage of the recurrence of those melancholy conflicts, in which the cultivated intellect was in those times engaged, sometimes with brute force, and sometimes, alas! with Revealed Religion.

Charlemagne then was necessary, but not so much for the University, as against its enemies; he was confessedly a patron of letters, effectual as well as munificent, but he could not any how have dispensed with his celebrated professors, and they, as the history of literature both before and after him, shows, could probably have dispensed with him. Whether we turn to the ancient world or to the modern, in either case we have evidence in behalf of this position: we have the spectacle of the thirst of knowledge acting for and by itself, and making its own way.

Here I shall confine myself to ancient history: both in Athens and in Rome, we find it pushing forward, in independence of the civil power. The professors of literature seated themselves in Athens without the favour of the government; and they opened their mission in Rome in spite of its state traditions. It was the rising generation, it was the mind of youth unfettered by the conventional ideas of the ruling politics, which in either instance became their followers. The excitement {54} they created in Athens is described by Plato in one of his Dialogues, and has often been quoted. Protagoras came to the bright city with the profession of teaching "the political art"; and the young flocked around him. They flocked to him, be it observed, not because he promised them entertainment or novelty, such as the theatre might promise, and a people proverbially fickle and curious might exact; nor, on the other hand, had he any definite recompense to hold out,—a degree, for instance, or a snug fellowship, or an India writership, or a place in the civil service. He offered then just the sort of inducement, which carries off a man now to a conveyancer, or a medical practitioner, or an engineer,—he engaged to prepare them for the line of life which they had chosen as their own, and to prepare them better than Hippias or Prodicus, who were at Athens with him. Whether he was really able to do this, is another thing altogether; or rather it makes the argument stronger, if he were unable; for, if the very promise of knowledge was so potent a spell, what would have been its real possession?

But now let us hear the state of the case from the mouth of Hippocrates himself,—the youth, who in his eagerness woke Socrates, himself a young man at the time, while it was yet dark, to tell him that Protagoras was come to Athens. "When we had supped, and were going to bed," [Note] he says, "then my brother told me that Protagoras was arrived, and my first thought was to come and see you immediately; but afterwards it appeared to me too late at night. As soon, however, as sleep had refreshed me, up I got, and came here." "And I," continued Socrates, giving an account of the conversation, "knowing his earnestness and excitability, {55} said: 'What is that to you? does Protagoras do you any harm?' He laughed and said: 'That he does, Socrates; because he alone is wise, and does not make me so.' 'Nay,' said I, 'do you give him money enough, and he will make you wise too.' 'O Jupiter and ye gods,' he made answer, 'that it depended upon that, for I would spare nothing of my own, or of my friends' property either; and I have now come to you for this very purpose, to get you to speak to him in my behalf. For, besides that I am too young, I have never yet seen Protagoras, or heard him speak; for I was but a boy when he came before. However, all praise him, Socrates, and say that he has the greatest skill in speaking. But why do we not go to him, that we may find him at home?'"

They went on talking till the light; and then they set out for the house of Callias, where Protagoras, with others of his own calling, was lodged. There they found him pacing up and down the portico, with his host and others, among whom, on one side of him, was a son of Pericles (his father being at this time in power), while another son of Pericles, with another party, was on the other. A party followed, chiefly of foreigners, whom Protagoras had "bewitched, like Orpheus, by his voice." On the opposite side of the portico sat Hippias, with a bench of youths before him, who were asking him questions in physics and astronomy. Prodicus was still in bed, with some listeners on sofas round him. The house is described as quite full of guests. Such is the sketch given us of this school of Athens, as there represented. I do not enter on the question, as I have already said, whether the doctrine of these Sophists, as they are called, was true or false; more than very partially true it could not be, whether in morals or in physics, from the circumstances {56} of the age; it is sufficient that it powerfully interested the hearers. We see what it was that filled the Athenian lecture-halls and porticos; not the fashion of the day, not the patronage of the great, not pecuniary prizes, but the reputation of talent and the desire of knowledge,—ambition, if you will, personal attachment, but not an influence, political or other, external to the School. "Such Sophists," says Mr. Grote, referring to the passage in Plato, "had nothing to recommend them except superior knowledge and intellectual fame, combined with an imposing personality, making itself felt in the lectures and conversation."

So much for Athens, where Protagoras had at least this advantage, that Pericles was his private friend, if he was not publicly his patron; but now when we turn to Rome, in what is almost a parallel page in her history, we shall find that literature, or at least philosophy, had to encounter there the direct opposition of the ruling party in the state, and of the hereditary and popular sentiment. The story goes, that when the Greek treatises which Numa had had buried with him, were accidentally brought to light, the Romans had burned them from the dread of such knowledge coming into fashion. At a later date decrees passed the Senate for the expulsion from the city, first of philosophers, then of rhetoricians, who were gaining the attention of the rising generation. A second decree was passed some time afterwards to the same effect, assigning, in its vindication, the danger, which existed, of young men losing, by means of these new studies, their taste for the military profession.

Such was the nascent conflict between the old rule and policy of Rome, and the awakening intellect, at the time of that celebrated embassy of the three philosophers, {57} Diogenes the Stoic, Carneades the Academic, and Critolaus the Peripatetic, sent to Rome from Athens on a political affair. Whether they were as skilful in diplomacy as they were zealous in their own particular line, need not here be determined; any how, they lengthened out their stay at Rome, and employed themselves in giving lectures. "Those among the youth," says Plutarch, "who had a taste for literature went to them, and became their constant and enthusiastic hearers. Especially, the graceful eloquence of Carneades, which had a reputation equal to its talent, secured large and favourable audiences, and was noised about the city. It was reported that a Greek, with a perfectly astounding power both of interesting and of commanding the feelings, was kindling in the youth a most ardent emotion, which possessed them, to the neglect of their ordinary indulgences and amusements, with a sort of rage for philosophy." Upon this, Cato took up the matter upon the traditionary ground; he represented that the civil and military interests of Rome were sure to suffer, if such tastes became popular; and he exerted himself with such effect, that the three philosophers were sent off with the least possible delay, "to return home to their own schools, and in future to confine their lessons to Greek boys, leaving the youth of Rome, as heretofore, to listen to the magistrates and the laws." The pressure of the government was successful at the moment; but ultimately the cause of education prevailed. Schools were gradually founded; first of grammar, in the large sense of the word, then of rhetoric, then of mathematics, then of philosophy, and then of medicine, though the order of their introduction, one with another, is not altogether clear. At length the Emperors secured the interests of letters by an establishment, {58} which has lasted to this day in the Roman University, now called Sapienza.

Here are two striking instances in very different countries, to prove that it is the thirst for knowledge, and not the patronage of the great, which carries on the cause of literature and science to its ultimate victory; and all that can be said against them is, that I have gone back a great way to find them. But a general truth is made up of particular instances, which cannot be brought forward all at once, nor crowded into half a dozen pages of a work like this. I shall continue the subject some future time; meanwhile I will but observe that, while these ancient instances teach us that a University is founded on principles sui generis and proper to itself, so do they coincidently suggest that it may boldly appeal to those principles before they are yet brought into exercise, and may, or rather must, take the initiative in its own success. It must be set up before it can be sought; and it must offer a supply, in order to create a demand. Protagoras and Carneades needed nothing more than to advertise themselves in order to gain disciples; if we have a confidence that we have that to offer to Irishmen, to Catholics, which is good and great, and which at present they have not, our success may be tedious and slow in coming, but ultimately come it must.

Therefore, I say, let us set up our University; let us only set it up, and it will teach the world its value by the fact of its existence. What ventures are made, what risks incurred by private persons in matters of trade! What speculations are entered on in the departments of building or engineering! What boldness in innovation or improvement has been manifested by statesmen during the last twenty years! Mercantile undertakings {59} indeed may be ill-advised, and political measures may be censurable in themselves, or fatal in their results. I am not considering them here in their motive or their object, in their expedience or their justice, but in the manner in which they have been carried out. What largeness then of view, what intrepidity, vigour, and resolution are implied in the Reform Bill, in the Emancipation of the Blacks, in the finance changes, in the Useful Knowledge movement, in the organization of the Free Kirk, in the introduction of the penny postage, and in the railroads! This is an age, if not of great men, at least of great works; are Catholics alone to refuse to act on faith? England has faith in her skill, in her determination, in her resources in war, in the genius of her people; is Ireland alone to fail in confidence in her children and her God? Fortes fortuna adjuvat; so says the proverb. If the chance concurrence of half a dozen of sophists, or the embassy of three philosophers, could do so much of old to excite the enthusiasm of the young, and to awaken the intellect into activity, is it very presumptuous, or very imprudent, in us at this time, to enter upon an undertaking, which comes to us with the authority of St. Peter, the blessing of St. Patrick, the coöperation of the faithful, the prayers of the poor, and all the ordinary materials of success, resources, intellect, pure intention, and self devotion, to bring it into effect? Shall it be said in future times, that the work needed nought but good and gallant hearts, and found them not?

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Carey's translation is followed almost verbatim.
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