Series: Johnnie Bookshelves St. John's College Santa Fe

Interview with Mr. Davis – The Johnnie Bookshelves

By Jaeyoon Shin


Starting this Fall, the Johnnie Chair is starting the project “The Johnnie Bookshelves.” We will interview Johnnies around the campus about their experience at St. John’s, the program and the books that they like to read outside the program.

Matthew Davis is the Dean of the Santa Fe campus. He graduated from St. John’s College Annapolis, and he has been continuing his Johnnie life as a tutor since 1998. Mr. Davis has worked as the assistant dean of the college and the director of the graduate institute as well.

Shin, Jae Yoon(abbreviated as S): Mr. Davis, you were an undergraduate student in Annapolis about forty years ago.

Davis, Matthew(abbreviated as D): It’s not quite forty, but yes.

S: Oh, you’re right! Sorry for that, okay, thirty-something years.

D: I graduated from Annapolis in 1982, so it’s not there yet, but it’s getting there.

S: Yes, and after being a tutor for about 17 years,  you are now the dean of the college.

D: That’s right, this is the start of my 18th year here as a tutor and now I am the dean, but I also served as the assistant dean and the director of the graduate institute for a while as well.

S: So you’ve been part of the liberal arts education for more than 30 years. In the lecture you gave in September you mentioned that you don’t think freedom of mind is given by nature.

D: Let me make it more clear. In the lecture, I was trying to open up the possibility, rather than to argue firmly, that liberal education is a way to open people up to a genuine freedom, and that the freedom we think we have now may not be genuine.

S: Then, as a person who has been pursuing liberal arts education for a long time, do you view yourself now as more free than you were before college? How would you describe the changes that you have gone through?

D: Yes, for sure. As I mentioned in the lecture, there are real alternatives in life. Those who think that they are already free don’t have to consider the real alternatives. I think they are missing out on the possibility of thinking about what might make the genuinely free life. And one of the things about a liberal arts education generally, and also specifically the one we offer at St. John’s, is that we do make those alternatives possible for people. We open them up because we take the books we read seriously. When we think about those views in relation to the views that we now hold, we begin to see that perhaps the views that we now hold suffer by comparison. And that we have to think more fully about what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a free human being. I think that is not something that I had right away or that I even learned fully as a student of St. John’s. It is something that has become clearer and clearer to me the more that I have studied and the more that I have taught. I mean, when you see the transformation that takes place not only in yourself but in the students who read these books, you begin to see that they can reason out, in fact, alternatives in their lives. You begin to see that they start to feel a kind of freedom that they have never felt before. They begin to be inspired and feel a kind of freedom that really wasn’t available to them before. And this is what I have in mind, that happened to me in the course of my educational experience and I think it happens to students in St. John’s. I think you see the transformation that takes place in them.


D: One of the things that allows you to do is not just to take the ancients seriously, although that’s a very important thing to do, but it allows you also to see what the real basis is of where we are. And that’s an important thing, too, that most educational approaches do not allow. Once you begin to start to see what the basis of where you stand is, you begin to be able to evaluate that basis. You won’t just accept it and go along with that. We have a tendency in life just to accept where we are and sort of go with it. But at a certain point, you’ve got to stand back from that and realize, in fact, there are a lot of questions about where you are that need to be asked.

S: That reminds me of the 1992 Supreme Court decision that you quoted in the lecture by Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” But that decision troubles me because you are not free but are even more bound to your concept of existence by defining who you are without studying how you came to be that way.

D: I agree with what you said, and I don’t think we realize enough how much the way we are declaring ourselves is given to us by something else. We’ve got to be clear about what is actually being given. And we also have to understand whether the thing being given to us is correct or not. If we don’t do that, it seems to me that what seems to be freedom cannot really be called freedom.

S: Do you have any particular book that you have read in St. John’s that was especially ground-breaking in making you think about who you are?

D: The first really influential book that I read in St. John’s was Plato’s Republic. It made me think that the political life and the way human beings live should be thought about again. So that was my first book that I still remember vividly about how I felt when I was reading it for the first time. The next book in the program that made a real difference in me was Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Reading Shakespeare has made a big difference for me as well. For example, questions about the divine right in Richard II. That’s actually a vital question to think about although at first it might not seem like it. It leads to the question of the basis of the government, and therefore the basis of the way we live. Those are the first books that had an impact on me when I was a student in St. John’s, and since then, Plato has played a very important role in my life.


S: What aspect of the Republic did you think was different from than those from books you have read since then, when you were a freshman?

D: One of the questions that was asked in the beginning of Book 2–the question of how can the life of a just human being be justified–that first question opened me up. And the political arrangement, the way that it was described, was so different. I still remember being so struck by that. There was something really different from what I had seen being offered, a very different picture of life. Just that alone allowed me to think that there can be alternatives in life that need to be thought about. Since then, I have come to see that the Republic is not necessarily offering a genuine alternative, but it still definitely opens up the possibility of considering a different way of life.

S: And I think one of the most interesting aspects of Plato’s works is having Socrates as a main character. He is a very different human being, especially compared to Aristotle, because he does not show explicit arguments of what he thinks most of the time, but rather refutes people’s opinions and twists their concepts. What do you think Socrates’ project is? Is he necessarily offering a real alternative to people? Or is he trying to just open up people’s minds to let them think on their own about their own alternatives?

D: My sense of Socrates is that his fundamental interest always is to understand what the best life is. What that entails for him, I think, is how to understand the political life he finds around him and the moral life as well. It’s his unrelenting willingness to keep up his investigation of these things and also the investigation more generally of what knowledge is, and these are all interconnected thoughts for him. I strongly suspect that while the arguments may not always be presented as straightforwardly as they are in Aristotle, Plato and Socrates are offering significant arguments for us to think about. And we need to consider these dialogues more seriously in order to understand them better. And what I have led back to as a tutor and also in graduate school is to focus more on what the thinkers are actually trying to teach us. Of course, Aristotle always seems much more sensible than Plato. The more you think about them, though the closer that they start to come together.

S: Why have you decided to stay in this academic community, pursuing liberal arts until now?

D: For the reasons we talked about already: that one sees more deeply the alternatives in life by continuing to read these books. But it isn’t just reading the books. It’s also having people to talk to about the books that we read here. We need people to talk about these things so we can share our thoughts and see where we actually stand, with regard to things, and that is a big part of the reason to stay in this community. Also, it is very nice to be in the community in which you see people who are similarly dedicated to such a thing, and you want to be a part of that, if you can. It took me a while to finally decide to do it, but I did.


S:  Have you considered doing things other than learning and teaching?

D: Yes, of course. I considered lots of different options when I was your age, even pursued some for a while. I went to a lot of graduate schools, and found myself not that happy in some of them, before I finally found a place where I liked. I thought about being a screenwriter for a while, I worked with a man who was a piano tuner and a builder, I enjoyed doing that. I wasn’t so good at it, but I enjoyed that a lot. I also thought about being a lawyer, not for very long, but I thought about it.

S: Although you said that it is very assuring to stay in the community of people who are dedicated to questions about good life and being reminded of that constantly, is there anything you would like people to be more aware of, being a Johnnie?

D: One of the central questions in life is what is THE THING that I should do in life, and, also, in what way that I am going to be in service. What is going to be the best thing for me to do that is going to help out people and is useful for me and to them. And there seems to be always that kind of bigger pursuit, and freedom of thought in comparison would seem a selfish end. In my opinion, that’s the question that people should have in mind all the time. How am I weighing what I am doing here against what I might be doing elsewhere or what I might be doing afterwards. I’m not sure how one cannot think about it once in a while. Not all places that you go in life can actually provide you an opportunity to think, and that we do provide it here makes a huge difference. Weighing the alternatives in life and seeing what is going on within the context really helps people make more sense of the conflicts in their lives.


S: What do you usually read outside of the program?

D: I like P.G. Wodehouse, he is a comic writer from the early 20th century. He makes fun of the British aristocracy. He is an extremely funny writer. I like mysteries a lot, too. There is a Belgian writer called Georges Simenon, who I like a lot. There are lots of other mystery writers that I read a lot, like Ross Macdonald. He writes noir-ish stories, about family entanglements. I like mysteries that have psychological elements where you have to figure out about the character, so that it leads to explanations of what and why the character does what he or she does. I don’t like mysteries that are so much about just figuring out what will happen next and what’s the trick.

“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole is a book that I re-read every once in a while. It’s a marvelous book and I sometimes feel that we should put it on the program…but I don’t know. It’s an extremely funny book, but it’s more than funny. It’s a deeper book.

I am very fond of reading history. I think it’s a very good supplement, even though we don’t do much of it other than in earlier part of the program when we read great historians like Herodotus and Thucydides. I especially like reading histories of England. I am now re-reading, there’s a wonderful British writer David Cecil, he wrote this marvelous biography of Lord Melbourne who was the prime minister during the Queen Victoria’s regime. She became a queen when she was only eighteen years old. So he had to figure out how to work with her, and to bring her along as the queen. And, at the same time, also to not alienate himself from everything that he was trying to accomplish for England. It was a great challenge and it was a very interesting book to read about a man who had to think his own way through very delicate situations. I like books like that: about statesmen and the challenges that they had to face.

S: Do you have any preference in history books?

D: I think the historians who make the characters come alive are the most interesting ones. That’s one of the reasons why Thucydides and Herodotus are so great. They understand that’s a vital piece of the political situation and at any time looking at the character as through the mind of historical figures. It’s how the particular man reacts to the particular situation that is the most interesting and most instructive. Churchill’s books are great examples of this; he studied not only his own family and ancestors but many great people around him, the particular characteristics that made them what they were, and how those characteristics turn out in political life.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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