by Shaun Kenney
WARNING! This is a long one . . . so pour your favorite scotch or cup of coffee and be prepared to consider alternate viewpoints that may offend. As the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick remarks, “My thoughts do not aim for your assent, just place them alongside your own for awhile.”
One of the things I deeply appreciated about my time at the University of Virginia was its treatment of the humanities writ large. In short, everyone — no matter what their intelligence or depth — should expose themselves to something more than just their profession. “What good is it to earn your first million at the age of 30,” opined one professor, “only to find out you can’t have a conversation because you are a boring person!”
I had the privilege of encountering not just one but two generations of Virginia students. The first was among my peers during the late 1990s; the second when I darkened the towers to pursue my own academic career, which remains an ongoing project to be sure.
Of course, I was instantly identified by more than one professor as having a Jesuit background. For those unfamiliar with the accolade, a Jesuit education is considered to have a certain approach to the world.
One of these is what we call in fancy-speak as the cura personalis — which involves both an intellectual curiosity about the outside world as well as a deep and animating care for the imago Dei in the world (that’s you and me). Another fancy-speak concept is called magis — which doesn’t mean magic, but rather more and always more. Jesuits are asked to find God in all things no matter what their condition, to think of persons as a unity of body, mind, and soul, to work in community, that each person has a tremendous gift worth cultivating in formation, and finally that we should work for and towards the greater glory of God — ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
Naturally, all of this is anathema to Mr. Jefferson, whose deep hatred of “priestcraft” was one of the few things he and Mr. John Adams agreed upon in depth. In fact, the Jefferson-Adams dialogue discussing who will write the history of the American Revolution, to which Jefferson responds, “Nobody; except merely its external facts,” is entirely pockmarked by Jefferson and Adams knifing the Jesuits as altogether evil and pernicious.
Stick with me on this road for a moment. I promise it is going somewhere worthwhile.
John Adams remarks in his letter of November 1815 on the amazing accomplishments of the 18th century and what it had done for human freedom:
The fundamental Article of my political Creed is, that Despotism, or unlimited Sovereignty, or absolute Power is the Same in a Majority of a popular Assembly, an Aristocratical Counsel, an Oligarchical Junto and a Single Emperor. Equally arbitrary, cruel, bloody, and in every respect diabolical.
Accordingly arbitrary Power, wherever it has resided, has never failed to destroy all the records Memorials and Histories of former times which it did not like and to corrupt and interpolate Such as it was cunning enough to preserve or to tolerate. We cannot therefore Say with much confidence, what Knowledge or what Virtues may have prevailed in Some former Ages in Some quarters of the World.
Nevertheless, according to the few lights that remain to Us, We may Say that the Eighteenth Century, notwithstanding all its Errors and Vices has been, of all that are past, the most honourable to human Nature. Knowledge and Virtues were increased and diffused, Arts, Sciences useful to Men, ameliorating their condition, were improved, more than in any former equal Period.
Here we have two men — two arch-rivals — looking over their shoulders and remarking on the accomplishments of the age. Not that they created a utopia by any stretch, but that for the first time in human history, mankind realized that it did not have to live under the arbitrary power of kings and emperors.
Jefferson muses in his response to Adams in January 1816, and with a notable reference to his previous belief that the tree of liberty should be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants, remarkably modifies his beliefs in the face of the French Revolution and the course of the Napoleonic Wars (emphasis added):
I did not, in 89. believe they would have lasted so long, nor have cost so much blood. but altho’ your prophecy has proved true so far, I hope it does not preclude a better final result. that same light from our West seems to have spread and illuminated the very engines employed to extinguish it. it has given them a glimmering of their rights and their power. the idea of representative government has taken root and growth among them. their masters feel it, and are saving themselves by timely offers of this modification of their own powers.
Jefferson even goes so far as to predict the failure of the Congress of Vienna and the convulsion of Europe into even bloodier methods of warfare.
Don’t worry. John Adams gets right back to damning the Jesuits by May 1816:
If ever any Congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell, According to these Historians though like Pascal true Catholicks, it is this Company of Loiola. Our System however of Religious Liberty must afford them an Assylum. But if they do not put the Purity of our Elections to a Severe Tryal, it will be a Wonder.
Jefferson harumphs Adams’ view of the Jesuits with one slight amendment in his response of August 1816 (emphasis added):
I dislike, with you, their restoration; because it marks a retrograde step from light towards darkness. we shall have our follies without doubt. some one or more of them will always be afloat. but ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not of bigotry, not of Jesuitism. bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. education & free discussion are the antidotes of both. we are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism.
Adams responds in November 1816:
This Society has been a greater Calamity to Man kind than the French Revolution or Napoleons Despotism or Idiology. It has obstructed the Progres of Reformation and the Improvement of the human Mind in Society much longer and more fatally.
One will notice that for a full year, both Jefferson and Adams have nothing better to do than slam the Jesuits while giving some of their most memorable lines that historians have lauded ever since this correspondence was given to public eyes.
Yet what in particular concerned Jefferson and Adams regarding either Jesuitism (sic), bigotry, or enthusiasm as enemies of public liberty?
Enter our hero, Bert Ellis.
For those who do not know who Bert Ellis is or why there is such a hubbub over the man, Ellis is one of the recently appointed members of the UVa Board of Visitors who has taken umbrage with some of the anti-Jeffersonian sentiment that currently pervades both the faculty and as a consequence the students at The University (TM).
Of course, for the secular sin of holding opinions which differ from the secular orthodoxy and in true Monty Python fashion, the UVa Student Council and the student-run Cavalier Daily are calling for Ellis to resign or be removed. Witches must be burned, after all, especially if they weigh less than a duck.
Jim Bacon over at Bacon’s Rebellion takes up his pen in Ellis’ defense and takes the UVA Student Council to task, this despite the enthusiastic and hyperbolic opposition of some members of the student body to cancel Mr. Ellis’ right to participate in the public square:
The Student Council also takes umbrage at Ellis’ outspoken opposition to the way in which Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is being implemented at the University. Without detailing any of his specific concerns with DEI — such as mandatory diversity statements, the hiring of a vast diversity bureaucracy, the lack of any measurable goals for success, the intolerance of dissenting views — the Council declares his values to be antithetical to those of the university community.
One might think that a deliberative body such as the Student Council might make an effort to acquaint itself, at least superficially, with the thinking of the person it is denouncing. Sadly, it is evident that the Council made no such effort and shows no such understanding. The statement is so cartoonish in its view of Ellis that it indicts itself.
The handful of students involved with the UVA Student Council — shortened to StudCo in the endless attempt by the young’uns to abbreviate everything — decree their auto de fe in a two-page statement issued via Twitter:
The UVA Student Council Executive Board condemns the recent appointment of Bert Ellis to the Board of Visitors and calls for his immediate resignation. Read our full statement here: https://t.co/ATcs2mArgx
— UVA Student Council (@uvastudco) July 26, 2022
Let us put the extremity of Ellis’ actions in plain terms. Ellis was so outraged by “offensive signage” on the Lawn that he unapologetically traveled hours to the front door of a college student with a blade to, at the very least, damage the student’s property, intimidate, and censor their speech. Whether or not Ellis used his blade, whether or not Ellis threatened the student directly, his conduct is reprehensible. Ellis’ erratic behavior and blatant disregard for students’ wellbeing is unbecoming of University leadership and has no place in our University community.
From the bondage and abuse experienced by enslaved people, to the violent occupation by Nazis and KKK members, to Bert Ellis — the Lawn is no stranger to racist violence under the guise of “Jeffersonian ideals” in order to maintain power for the white elite. This event reveals the hypocrisy, and thus false pretense, by which Ellis selectively leverages free speech discourse to advance his own political agenda against students. Later, in an opinion piece to the Cavalier Daily, the Lawn resident in question stated: “although I was given visibility through a platform, it was at the cost of my own and my community’s health, stability and safety.” (emphasis original)
To recap, an adult prints a vulgarity, and another adult takes umbrage with it. The former is shocked (!) to discover that other people might have an opinion on such a pronouncement. Discussion is now intimidation. Speech is violence. Non-approved ideas are erratic. Disagreement is blatant disregard (and might even be Hitler) for the wellbeing of others — or at least, certain types of disagreement.
Far be it from me to point out the hyperbole here, but one has to seriously doubt a logic that employs such a degree of argumentum ad Hitlerum (fancy speak for bullshit) in order make their point.
Insofar as a selective use of free speech, that seems rather odd. Free speech is, you know… free. That Ellis engaging in free speech to challenge the viewpoints of an individual who hates UVa so much as to suggest that it perform an anatomically impossible act? One would suppose that the consequences of such strongly-held opinions would be respectful engagement on the matter at hand, yes?
Of course, the hypocrisy of invoking the “community’s health, stability and safety” as the reason not to engage in speech seems circumspect at best. Would that preclude students from hanging signs that read “Fuck UVA”? Or is that rule only invoked when challenged?
Back to Mr. Jefferson’s three concerns:
Enthusiasm seems to be the illness of the present age. With rights come duties and responsibilities, and as we participate in the public square we should feel free to express our opinions without fear of violence or coercion. Bigotry is ignorance, pure and simple, the solution for which is education. Jesuitism has a definition, namely casuistry or equivocation. Nazis are bad, Ellis is bad, ergo we can treat Ellis like a Nazi because both are bad.
Yet it is interesting that the opponents of Jesuitism were the enthusiastic bigots we know today as Jansenists — all rules and no faith, or as it has been remarked, those who are “as pure as saints and as proud as devils.” Morality for Jansenists is purely objective in opposition to the subjective.
Jesuits by contrast consider moral action on a case-by-case basis, which has often drawn the charge of proportionalism (i.e. what is moral in one instance may not be moral in another). Morality for the Jesuit is sacred in opposition to the subjective.
What Jefferson and many others concern themselves with Jesuitism is that such an approach makes truth a contestable thing. Morality being reduced to science, its laws should be replicable given certain conditions and instances.
Yet moral action is not materialism in the sense that Marx and others believe it to be. Moral action is profoundly connected with ideas of the sacred — not of law. To set the law on par with the sacred is, as Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians, to create an alter Christus — that is, the anomos (lawless man) precisely because a tyrant becomes a supreme law unto himself.
That is the error these wokes are creating for themselves. The subjectivity of free discourse, for them, must be resolved into an objective framework of winners and losers. Unable to see the cura personalis, unable to call others to magis (more), unable to find God in all things, they have to cram opinions and spirit into the rigidity of us and them, friend and enemy, the “community of trust” against the Nazis.
Of course, Jesuits (and most Christians) believe in capital-T truth. Like many abstractions, we are never going to get our arms around the entire thing. Yet like other abstractions such as love, while truth remains difficult to define, we can all describe its lack in the world.
We know it is there by its absence.
Yet in this pursuit of truth, one does have to recognize the genius of a certain Jeffersonian approach to the truth which remains unique in the course of human history. That error may be tolerated so long as reason is left free to combat it. That Almighty God hath created the mind free. That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.
. . . that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them . . .
How we approach truth by means of an education is the real catch, because it does mean that we will inevitably bump into opinions that are not our own, which challenge us to see the world and relationships differently, even at the risk of seeing things through another person’s eyes.
This means that conversations with students and alumni, among students and among alumni, with varying ideas and thoughts and experiences, should be encouraged with a hunger bordering on the insatiable — and free from judgment.
The current Marcusian approach where error has no rights fails because rights are always with respect to persons, not ideas. Somewhere along the last 20 years, we lost sight of that.
The good news is that at the University of Virginia, this spirit still endures — albeit quietly and in hushed tones in the face of enthusiastic and even bigoted voices seeking conformity rather than free inquiry. The performative and adolescent outrage which refuses to see the arguments and opinions of others in their best possible light is by no means monopolized by either the political left or the political right.
Yet we should remember Aristotle’s definition of an educated mind, as stated up front in the Nicomachean Ethics:
It is right that we ask [people] to accept each of the things which are said in the same way: for it is the mark of an educated person to search for the same kind of clarity in each topic to the extent that the nature of the matter accepts it. For it is similar to expect a mathematician to speak persuasively or for an orator to furnish clear proofs!
Each person judges well what they know and is thus a good critic of those things. For each thing in specific, someone must be educated [to be a critic]; to [be a critic in general] one must be educated about everything.
Condensed, an educated mind should be able to hold an opinion without accepting it — and consider it a joy and a privilege to do so.
It is the Scout Mindset in practice, and it isn’t a bad way to be in the world.
For myself, the approach of cura personalis remains the hallmark of everything I believe is the very best of the Jesuit tradition — sans the casuistry, that is. Whether it remains a hallmark of a Virginia education remains at risk, but worth defending and preserving even at the risk of being disparaged by the very persons we intend to lead forth.