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Philosophy’s place at Marquette

For 40 years Rev. Walter Stohrer, S.J., guided students in finding answers to perennial questions.

By Rev. Walter J. Stohrer, S.J.

Gratitude and delight are my companions as I reflect on my 40 years as a Jesuit teacher of philosophy at Marquette. There is a continuing sense of celebration in all that we do at Marquette. Like Ernest Hemingway’s Paris in the 1920s, life at Marquette has been, and continues to be, a “moveable feast.” This vital energy is rooted in the guiding vision and core values that have animated the university since its founding in 1881, and the educational commitments and traditions of the Society of Jesus dating from the 16th century. Today students and faculty alike are well positioned to renew and reimagine our university to meet the emerging needs of a rapidly changing world.

As he approached the end of his life in the autumn of 1997, my Jesuit brother and close friend, Father John Raynor, S.J., asked me for “one last favor.” Would I consider offering some remarks at his coming Mass of Christian Burial? I was humbled by this request and told John that when the time arrived for the Lord to call him home, I would do my best in the Gesu liturgical setting. In my remarks at the funeral only two weeks after this conversation, I identified what I considered some of the substantive components in Father Raynor’s vision of Marquette. I suggested he saw our university as “a place of splendor and wonder, of discovery and creativity, of enchantment and delicate beauty.” These words have continued to frame my own personal perspective of our campus life and work.

Developing courses that are compelling and practical for students is a continuing challenge for teachers of philosophy. As did many of my colleagues before me, I drew energy from the words of Socrates. On the first day of each new semester I would write on the chalkboard the great Athenian’s deceptively simple claim: “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a). As my students began to grasp the deeper implications of these words, they sensed that a life of drift or aimlessness would no longer be acceptable or possible.

Years later I was reminded of this personal realignment of goals and attitudes at a university reunion. There I met my former student Barbara who, with a twinkle in her eye, reminded me what my welcome was in our Philosophy of God course: “If you like to think, you have come to the right place!” A happy blend of curiosity, doubt and wonder has long distinguished Marquette as a true house of intellect, with its manifold commitments to research excellence, scholarly publication, quality teaching and community service. On each of these fronts our students have been and continue to be co-contributors. I happily remember the day when a student in my Philosophy of Human Nature course spontaneously announced: “This philosophy stuff is pretty cool!” I immediately assured all present that I would try my best to keep it that way ... in the finest Marquette tradition.

Plato described this attitude of dedication and disciplined reflection in his Seventh Epistle. He spoke of the spiritual and moral regimen that are necessary for one who wishes to understand how all things “fit together.” The plan of philosophic study, he insisted, requires devotion and commitment, as well as an unyielding spirit of reverence and dedication. With such preparation, “at last, in a flash, understanding ... blazes up, and the mind, as it exerts all its powers to the limit of human capacity, is flooded with light.” 

Careful attention to the root meanings or etymologies of the words and expressions we routinely use gave my students additional hints about what was at stake in the search for true wisdom. Expressions such as “philosophy” (love of wisdom) and “liberal arts” (the pursuit of a broader knowledge of the human condition which frees us from the danger of over-specialization) are prime examples. I liked to remind my students that each of us is first, last and always a co-equal member of the community of truth seekers. Indeed, this conviction illumines the rationale for the core curriculum which has long distinguished the Catholic and Jesuit Marquette educational environment. It also challenges us who shape and share current university life to be attentive to the dignity, the nobility and the uniqueness of every human person.

As a teacher, I shared the excitement of a student’s joy of discovery. Many of the foundational questions that emerged in my courses were shaped under the challenging leadership of Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Hume and Kant. These were the groundbreaking thinkers whose insights and questions awaited our examination and critical response. As my students progressed into more advanced-level courses, many recognized characteristics of their own personal journeys in a remark of St. Thomas, who spoke to us from the High Middle Ages in 13th-century Paris: “Of all human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is more perfect, more noble, more useful and more full of joy.”

Some particular themes and questions were immediately attractive for many students during my teaching years. Among these were Socrates’ insistence on the pivotal role of “the question” as a method and access point to further learning; Aristotle’s discussion of virtue and friendship; and the explorations of St. Thomas into the nature of human happiness as well as his treatment of natural law. It was a privilege to introduce students to perennial questions such as these. I reminded them that their own personal need to question and make meaningful sense of life would be a summons they would never outgrow. The business of critical reflection and truth discovery was, indeed, their life assignment and mission as human persons. I have long been convinced that this attitude of restless inquiry and imaginative engagement are crucial components in the unfolding Marquette experience for our students. Our campus culture is vibrant with the energy of questioning, where assumptions and presuppositions, as well as the implications and applications of ideas and emerging insights command our attention.

We are all familiar with the information revolution that was triggered with the arrival of the computer. We now have a more nuanced understanding of how interdependent and community-oriented our various curricula really are. Service learning and interdisciplinary courses are now taken for granted in the Marquette environment. And we have a renewed appreciation of the vision and values of the Ignatian educational mission. The continuing quest for meaning, leadership development and service to the community define and orient our work. We are also well positioned to learn from the perspectives of atheism and agnosticism, secularism and relativism that so shape our contemporary popular culture. Many of my students spoke of a growing awareness of the numerous counterfeit destinations so championed by some in the history of culture and ideas. I took great satisfaction in their growing determination to respond critically to these challenges. They had recognized that ideas have consequences that tend to dimensionalize themselves in a variety of value systems and ethical perspectives.

There is a pervasive spiritual quality in our campus life. The Mass of the Holy Spirit which marks the beginning of each academic year renews our solidarity with Jesuit educational efforts going back to the 16th century. We strive to make our own the Ignatian ideal of “finding God in all things.” Our campus is holy ground. Every student and graduate is Marquette in microcosm, a miniature of the larger whole to which we all contribute. Each graduate continues to mediate the visions and values of this special place to their communities and our larger world culture. Not without reason has it been said: “You can take a graduate out of Marquette, but you can’t take the Marquette out of the graduate.”

Several years ago I met one of my former students in an especially reflective mood. It was Senior Week, and we were seated in the warm spring sunshine outside St. Joan of Arc Chapel. “This Marquette campus is where it all came together for me, Father,” he said. “Here I learned to distinguish what I was planning to do after graduation from the person I aspire to be after graduation.” His remark reminded me of why St. Ignatius Loyola and the first generation of Jesuits were drawn to the apostolate of education. St. Thomas noted centuries ago that the more universal a work was in terms of its influence, the more it was a reflection of the divine mind and heart. The development of a truly meaningful life is the primary business of our human terrestrial vocation. Life is not merely a series of technical problems demanding immediate solutions. It may be that, but it is also much more. For we are called to a heightened awareness of the transcendent religious dimension of human living, and, indeed, of the universe itself.

The agora of ancient Athens — the meeting place for debate and questioning — has found a new incarnation here at Marquette. Near the conclusion of his beautiful poem, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot observed:

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.

As I began these remarks, I noted that for Father John Raynor, Marquette was a place of enchantment and beauty. I conclude with an observation of architect Frank Lloyd Wright: “If you invest in Beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”

In addition to service as a faculty member, Father Stohrer has been chaplain to the College of Nursing since 1987.


Comment by genevieve carlin tietjen at Jan 27 2012 06:12 am
Outstanding reflection on the value of philosophy. Has Father written a book that one might use for such frequent reflection? If not, he should--and market it aggressively for all to know.
Comment by Connie Lane Neuman at Jan 29 2012 04:32 pm
Recalling Fr. Gerard Smith, SJ, and Dr. Kenneth Schmitz with gratitude the affection.
Connie Lane Neuman, Journalism (Communications) 1964
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