By Alex Troy
“How are you finding Herodotus?” a youthful African-American student asked his colleague, an older white woman. There is nothing unusual about a conversational gambit like that at St. John’s. But for me, a new Graduate student coming off a quarter century on Wall Street, it is startling to hear. Startling and reassuring: his question was like the voice of a car’s navigation system, telling me I have arrived at my destination.
I came to St. John’s at 54 seeking the company of people who share the desire to know and the conviction that the greatest sources of wisdom are the books read here. As a teenager, my intellectual curiosity was something I occasionally concealed for fear of embarrassment, but now time is short and the inner call must be answered. I took a leap and traded conference room for Seminar table, prospectus for Plato. It’s been quite a change: in the slang of my old profession it looks to be a “good trade.” In the almost three weeks I have been a Johnny I have not once heard the questions that used to fill my day and my mind: “Where’s the S&P trading? How will the Fed handle the taper? What does 2014 mean for corporate profits?”
Those are not unimportant questions, but I prefer my colleague’s: “How are you finding Herodotus?” (“He’s a hell of a lot more entertaining a writer than Aristotle,” flashed through my mind.)
The new Graduate students had an initiation of sorts, a welcoming seminar on Meno. While we discussed whether virtue can be taught I scanned the room. The faces of my classmates are not all young; some, like mine, are creased by time. Curiosity, the desire to know; these are not like speed and strength, which diminish with age. That’s a relief.
To my eye the campus is an enchanted place, filled with the eternal forms of school and learning. Upon leaving Greenfield Library one night I saw a young woman sitting in her dorm room, hunched over a book, facing a shelf full of heavy volumes. With her head bent forward she seemed to be paying homage to them. My mind played a trick on me, for she seemed to have been studying that text since 1981, when I graduated college. Plato’s realm of the forms had seemed abstruse and fanciful when I first encountered the idea, but now I think I’ve stumbled into it: it’s in Annapolis, bound by College and King George Streets. (And maybe a few others; I haven’t studied Euclid yet.)
It is the same with the chiming bells that signal the end of a tutorial, leaving questions about virtue hanging in the air like snowflakes in a strong wind. I went to a college that had a tower with ringing bells, but I don’t remember those bells sounding just as we were on the brink of enlightenment. Now, that happens regularly. Our tutorial continues past its appointed end and further still after the room empties out. Students form small platoons and push ahead, determined to finish the discussion.
“If Aristotle is really all about propping up the political order with his writings, I’m down with that,” a classmate says to me as we head to the grill.
I’m down with that– no one used that expression in the eighties. Slang changes, but the desire to know does not.
I’m going to do it all again; the late night readings, the papers, the anxiety of talking and of not talking in class. That’s fine.
I’m down with that.