I love beginnings. I love them because with each one I get to start over again. I get another chance to go straight or get it right.
As the school year opens at St. John’s, the students will begin their reading and studying again—the freshmen with the Iliad, the sophomores with Genesis, the juniors with Don Quixote, and the seniors with War and Peace. Some will be reading the books for the first time, others for the umpteenth. But each reading will be a beginning, as will each discussion. How can this be? How can the same old books open up so many different beginnings?
In my life as a public speaker, I have discovered that I can almost never repeat a talk I have given before. This is because I am not the same person I was five years ago, or last month, or even yesterday, and because the audience is never the same. I have developed the need to express something new, and my audience will be responding with a different ear. None of us are who we were moments ago because we have the capacity to learn, and we exhibit that capacity daily, even hourly. In the same way, each time we read a book, we bring to it our new selves, with new questions and new perspectives gained from the experiences we’ve had since our last reading.
Although the books on the Program are said to be timeless, this is not because they always say the same things, but because they continue to speak to the human condition as intensely as when they were first written. It is because they are rich enough to speak to all of us in our various stages of life, our various levels of learning, and our various states of being. Both because we are continually changing and because the books hold insights for all of our altered conditions, every book will be different every time we read it. Each one will engage us differently in our new situation; each will grow with us; each will respond to us anew as we ask new questions of it; and each will demand fresh responses from us as we discover fresh questions within it. Each reading, each response, each demand, each engagement is a new beginning.
T.S. Eliot spoke to the question of beginnings at the close of his Four Quartets:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
To know the place for the first time—that is the goal. We only gain this knowledge when we make the truth our own, when it really belongs to us because we have worked to puzzle it out. We do this by taking a familiar thing—like one of the books we have read dozens of times—and starting all over, as at a new beginning, to discover how much more there is yet to know; or that all the things we thought we knew were understood only as a child could understand them; or, worse yet, that what we were sure we understood was not really understood at all. That is the experience of returning to the place where we started and knowing it for the first time. That is what learning actually is—a continual rediscovery and deeper understanding of what is right in front of us but only barely known.
Because I love beginnings, I’m excited to be inaugurating this new blog today. Over the coming months and years, I’ll be sharing my thoughts with you about St. John’s, about the value of liberal education, and about other issues that matter to our College and the world we live in.
Let’s begin here and keep returning to understand the beginning better.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu