Great Books and Great Ideas


Of all the things that inspired Dr. James Patrick, perhaps nothing was more central than the love of learning which led him through the course of a long life to a profound understanding of human existence as ordered to God.  He saw so clearly and embodied this insight so completely in his own person: that being human is to be embarked on a metaphysical quest “to know and love God, to serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him in the world to come.”  It is a quest that begins with identifying those things that are the most important to know and of pursuing wisdom with steadfastness, diligence, and perseverance. 

As we know, it’s not an easy task; it involves the complex challenge of arriving at an appreciation of the genuine principles, insights, and facts necessary for a genuinely human life.  It involves delving into the study of theology, philosophy, and history, taking inspiration from the imaginative visions of the poets, and considering the factual claims, counter-claims, and implications of experience put forth by politics and economics, biology, chemistry, physics, and astrophysics.  And it entails identifying a comprehensive world-view of consistent and mutually implied great and small truths locating man in the vast metaphysical cosmos of reality.

To think about these things is to think about the subjects of the liberal arts, the studies which examine why things are as they are, as Aristotle explains, “…why the fire is hot, not simply that the fire is hot.”  These are the studies undertaken just for the sake of knowing the answer, knowledge, that is, which is sought for its own sake.  These studies are different from those seek knowledge for some practical purpose or need like how to build roads or bridges or how to mow the yard.  They are the sciences or organized fields of study which aim at the discovery of wisdom, the best and most profound knowledge possible.  Seeking this kind of knowledge is the highest purpose of the university.  The sciences which seek this knowledge are called the liberal arts because they are freely undertaken by free men and women who search for truth unencumbered by concerns for utility or necessity or by being governed by ideology. 

This is not to say that liberal learning is impractical or not really beneficial.  Quite the contrary, liberal studies illuminate the most important meanings in life and orient the person to what is good and significant in human existence.  They teach us how to excel in the task of personhood and of rising to the challenges of becoming the most excellent persons we may be.  Achieving this level of self knowledge and an understanding of one’s purpose in life is an invaluable asset for living life well amidst struggle, hardship, and tribulations.   Liberal studies sharpen our abilities in discernment, logical analysis, and the ability to discern the important from the unimportant.

Dr. Patrick discovered liberal learning in his undergraduate days at Auburn and later at the University of the South at Sewanee.  He came to see that universities are depositories of the greatest insights discovered or revealed to humankind, places where the great ideas are preserved in the writings, manuscripts, letters, lectures, and remarkable historical documents which we call the great books.  These works situate us in the great drama of human history, they tell us who we are, how we got here, what we are about, and what our duties are to ourselves and others.  He reveled in the ideas proposed by the great thinkers, wanting (as we all should) to appropriate the best and allow their meanings to find a home in his own life and outlook.  He saw that the spirit of learning is transformative for the human soul endowing it with images and insights which dispel concern, anxiety, and the fear which comes from ignorance.  Those of us who knew him well remember how he exemplified this truth– becoming through study, thought, and tireless energy–the magnanimous or great-souled person that he was.

Liberal studies are described as liberal or “free” studies in several senses.  Again, they are free in the sense that they are not bound by a need to produce a product or by a commitment to respect a certain ideology.  They are free in this sense to consider whichever subjects or issues they choose to pursue.  This is the reason that medieval disputations distinguished between debates that were addressed to a certain issue (and constrained to stay on point) and those which were “quoadlibet” or free to pursue any issue of interest “as they may wish.”  Liberal studies are also described as those pursued by free men and women especially those of the citizen class of free societies who determine their own interests and pursuits, the “self-commanding” men and women described by Pericles. 

Liberal studies are also free in the sense that they free the person to reach conclusions on according to his or her best judgment.  They invite the person to “reason things out,” to exercise discernment, and to judge things according to the available evidence.  Liberal studies challenge us to think for ourselves, see for ourselves, and defend our conclusions through discussion and debate.   Liberal studies in this way open our minds, engender creativity and inspiration, and allow us to imagine progress and a better world.

This was certainly Dr. Patrick’s experience. We remember fondly how we respected his unapologetic embrace of the truths he saw, and his determined, unbending commitment to the principles he identified.  He committed himself to the life of learning wholeheartedly because he saw that the excellence of the human person lies in the recognition of truth and the will to follow it without compromise.

At Sewanee and through his doctoral studies at Trinity College Toronto, he gained an appreciation of university learning inspired by the British tradition of arts and letters from the founding of Oxford in the late 1200’s to Newman and the Tractarian movement in the nineteenth century to the splendid thinking of Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, and Tolkien among many others in the twentieth.  In his work The Magdalen Metaphysicals he described the climate of ideas in Oxford in the early years of the 1900’s which pitted men like F. H. Bradley and R. G. Collingwood, who accepted to some extent Hegel’s emphasis on spirit, against the emerging empiricists and analytical thinkers like A. J. Ayer, G. E. Moore, and Bertram Russell on the other.  In these men he saw and developed a deep respect and admiration for the way they lived resolutely in the light of the truths they saw.

Following his experience of the Oxford tradition of learning, his study of the religion based curricula of the earliest American universities, his appreciation for Newman’s The Idea of a University, and his own experience at the University of Dallas, Dr. Patrick developed a keen sense of what the intellectual life of a true university entails. Here are the essential elements which he taught us concerning learning in the liberal arts tradition, the spirit of the true university:

The university is about discovering what is true. Its razon d’etre is the search for truth and while many additional benefits flow from this search, the university cannot deviate from this mission without losing its essential character.  It is a place where scholars and students come together to discuss, dialogue, reflect, criticize, and critique the great ideas of the best thinkers as expressed in their great books, taking these texts as the starting point for myriad on-going conversations and reflections.  This process has the essential form of a conversation between teachers and students wherein learning happens when points of view are exchanged, compared, diagnosed, and evaluated.  The works which constitute the curriculum are chosen from a larger canon of insightful texts which embody the values, insights, and truths which most convey the enduring and abiding meanings about man, God, and the cosmic order.  The canon of texts forming the curriculum represents a judgment of the collegium of scholars that the works convey these abiding meanings or eternal truths –and not on the basis of gender, race, or the ethnicity of the authors.  The curriculum presupposes that a student has a sufficient background to be able to participate in the work of the institution especially with regard to a formation in classical languages and literatures, but a student can qualify for admission to studies largely by demonstrating a genuine desire to engage the ideas concerned.

The goal of the curriculum is to offer students the opportunity to engage the great ideas conveyed by the great books in such a way that they can profit as much as each is able to do so.  The curriculum is a course along which each student journeys, engaging the great minds and the great ideas, reflecting upon them, and seeing the implications for his or her personal understanding.   Dr. Patrick explained this by saying that the curriculum allows each student “to take away as much as possible.”  Every student is an individual; but the curriculum attests to the universal principles about human nature which transforms each of us according to our individuality.

Newman’s The Idea of a University, published as a mission statement for the proposed Catholic University of Ireland in the year 1854, articulated the important elements of learning which largely formed his vision.   First, one must turn to learning for the discovery of truth and possess the intention to submit to what one learns.  One must possess a reverence for truth and the humility to accept its conclusions even when these conclusions are inconvenient or uncomfortable.  Moreover, one must not pursue ideas for the sake of power or prestige, but rather in the spirit of recognizing that knowledge is a good in itself.  (On this point, Dr. Patrick endlessly objected to Bacon’s assertion that the seeking of knowledge is important because it gives us power over nature.  Similarly, we see unhappily how university professors too often develop theories, write, and profess not to illuminate but to use their positions for political advantage or popular esteem.) 

Learning challenges the student to endeavor to discover, articulate, and advance statements which accurately describe reality.  Because truth is the property of a statement which is “adequate to reality” as the Scholastics explained or which “corresponds” to reality, university learning is about identifying those ideas which actually describe reality itself. 

As logic teaches, we express ideas through statements or judgments which are also called propositions or assertions.   They are logical or ideal entities (as we learned in grammar) consisting of a subject and a predicate.  The subject term is what the statement is about, the predicate term is a description or characteristic which is either affirmed or denied of the subject.   Logically, every statement proposes or asserts an objective relation between the subject and predicate terms.  Statements are true when what they propose is actually the case in reality. 

Understanding this we see that inquiry and scholarly investigation is about determining which statements “tell it like it is” about the myriad realities we think about—the elements of the cosmos, plants, animals, principles, laws, poems, historical events, human beings, political movements, good and evil, the soul, God, angels, or anything else in the great universe of being.  We seek to know, in other words, “the natures of things.”

Seeing this as the purpose of university learning, Newman appreciated the difficulties of arriving at truth about the many complex issues and realities we experience.  Especially, the challenge is to marshal evidence in support of the most accurate insights which led him to insist that university brings together students and professors conversant with the best thinking of the different disciplines to propose, examine, debate, and conclude on the best conclusions.  He saw that the evidence supporting the truth of propositions comes in different forms; some is found in the testimony of history and theology, some is found in the empirical evidence of the natural sciences, some is found through imagination in poetry and literature, and some is found in the clear evidence of natural reason.  In its most splendid expression, the university assembles its scholars to address the great questions to debate and refine the best conclusions possible.

This, too, was Dr. Patrick’s vision which was realized in the College of Saint Thomas More where students were welcomed to join the academic fellowship to contribute to this task. The work of the College involved reading the great books wherein arguments are made in support of the great ideas (statements, judgments, or propositions) about the natures of things, ideas that are the most transformative, ideas that live in our souls and imaginations, ideas which guide us towards becoming the best persons we can be.  As Dr. Patrick often commented, the purpose of the College was to be a place which kept these ideas alive.




Quotes from Newman

From Historical Sketches

  1. “If I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning”….Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter.  Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”


  1. “It is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonistic activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth…It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge…         It is the place where the professor become eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his science in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forthwith the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers.”


From The Idea of a University

  1. “That alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refused to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation. The most ordinary pursuits have this specific character, it they are self-sufficient and complete:  the highest lose it, when they minister to something beyond them.”


  1. “The principle of real dignity in Knowledge, its worth, its durableness, considered irrespectively of its results, is this germ within it of a scientific or a philosophical process.”


  1. “Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such is its own reward.  And if this is true of all knowledge, it is true also of that special Philosophy, which I have made to consist in a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values.”


  1. “I say, a University, taken in its bare idea, and before we view as an instrument of the Church, has this object and this mission: it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production; it professors to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty; its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this.  It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”

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