A Testament to a Legacy and a Life Well Lived

October 23, 2017 | By Louis Petrich

Curtis Wilson taught on both St. John’s campuses and twice served as dean.

He taught me a lot somehow, simply by letting me know him a little in his good last years.

I am referring to Curtis Wilson (1921-2012), who taught on both St. John’s campuses and twice served as dean, whose dean’s lectures and other writings for the college have just been published in a single volume of 400 pages. The book, Curtis Wilson Selected Writings: Dean’s Lectures and Other Writings for St. John’s College (St. John’s College Press, 2017), is the result of a five-year project led by tutors and the book’s editors Chaninah Maschler (1931-2014) and Nicholas Maistrellis, along with instrumental support provided by tutor Bill Pastille and Robin Dunn, manager of St. John’s Annapolis bookstore. I would say the writings in this book are for anyone who can be taught the unexpected by the reading of a thoughtful, articulate man of science and the arts.

The first thing Curtis Wilson taught me was how to carry the years well that carry all things away. I called him on the phone out of the blue one day because I had some questions about Kepler’s long battle with the motions of Mars. Curtis, much esteemed for his work in the history of astronomy, listened quietly to the particulars (on which everything depends with Kepler) before saying that he did not remember enough about his studies long past to address my precise questions properly. He invited us to return to them upon better preparation. Then he asked what my studies had chiefly been. “Literature,” I said. This led to an invitation to join a play reading group that he and his wife, Becky, were hosting that month.

Thus Kepler took a seat next to the great playwrights during our conversations about how to give form to irregular motions. “The dramatic art takes on human motions that make the battle with Mars look almost like child’s play.” This he once confided as we imagined how Kepler might answer to certain cosmic questions of hope and despair present everywhere in the plays of Shakespeare. He spoke softly to questions of all kinds, as if not to disturb an equilibrium that he maintained alongside a capacity for surprise to the end. That was one way, too, that he made himself present to people on their own irregular paths of knowing the world, not insisting on any sun-center, least of all his own. And yet he was quick to defend Copernicus from the charges that lesser lights seem frequently to levy against the greater for some deficiency or other. There was tenacity underneath the calm surface, strong currents of affection that carried family and friendship alongside scholarly work and liberal study for many years of goodness to all.

Something particular that he taught us about liberal studies: they cross-fertilize each other, as if in imitation of nature, whose inhabitants depend on this process for better fitness to survive in this tough world. We have heard much about this benefit of liberal education for many years, and there is some danger that by over-rehearsal we make even the truths that most matter sound tedious and stale to taste. But even a freshman dull to truth will perceive that Curtis Wilson’s lectures as dean elevate common speech and hearing above the surviving habits of high school and save taste in the high from extinction in the vast technologies of vulgarity and boredom. Curtis probably would not like how I said that sentence—too much assertion by one who cannot know that much about causes and effects. He respected the hard, technical discipline of science, and therefore recognized the dangers that accumulate from the proud phrasing of preferred ideas. But shall I attempt to demonstrate, in not many sentences, what I do mean to say here without fondness of prejudice?

The first and oldest piece in this book is his dean’s lecture from 1958: “The Archimedean Point and the Liberal Arts.” This lecture asks an ancient question: can we find a standing point of epistemological leverage, analogous to the Archimedean fulcrum, from where we can apply our senses and intellects to know ourselves and the world in unity? This is no idle question, as Curtis points out at once, since wars are fought over its rival answers, and even those who have no answers, only the net of irony to catch modestly and critically at learning them, have been put to death for no more than that.

Curtis reviews the attempts of the early modern philosopher-scientists and mathematicians to find this point of leverage. He begins, of course, with Copernicus, who put it in the sun; then considers Giordano Bruno, who shifts attention to the infinitude of the universe and the human mind (he paid for infinity with his life); Einstein next appears, who lets us freely stand wherever we choose in that infinity; Kepler and Galileo invite men and women to calculate their travels through space and time and take the satisfaction that belongs to gods by knowing these things certainly; Pascal insists that the esprit de finesse give subtle voice to spirit to make those infinite spaces of travel not so certainly silent; Descartes stands himself certain on his own reflective mind—until Nietzsche makes obvious that Descartes’ mind is pure reflection, still unsure of each and every thing; but this does not prevent Marx and Freud from standing proudly on theories of man in terms of forces at war with each other.

Here, on the verge of dissipation or fanaticism, Curtis gives up the Archimedean point as sought by these philosophers and begins his inquiry anew into who the human being is and may yet become. Homer points him the way with his epithet for men and women as those who articulate their voices. This leads Curtis to introduce a theory of signs, which even birds and bees make limited use of, and he proves by their essentially triadic nature (sign, object, interpreter) that no dyadic system of relations (Lucretian atomism, for example) can give us this world. (That proof he entertains in passing, but I think it is pretty indicative of the man.) Now considered as namer of the oneness of things (note how Euclid’s geometry appears essentially linguistic at this point), Curtis reminds us of this wonderful image of the soul in Aristotle: naming things in sentences according to regularities of oneness is like the stopping of a rout in battle: first one man stops to make a stand, then another, and so on, until the formation has been restored. That is what we do in speech when faced with the diversity of things in and outside of us and we try to put proper form to their impending chaos. Naming becomes liberal artistry (here he draws upon Kant) when men and women make signs of signs and thereby become conscious of what they do in speech. This verbal self-reflection causes them to invent grammars to preserve meanings, logic to maintain consistency of truth, and rhetoric to persuade embodied souls to practice the formations of true meanings as moral beings responsible for the world.

And that is where his lecture ends, after nearly the entire program of learning at St. John’s College has been tasted and justified in thought and action. This display of collective self-understanding and purpose, without any false notes, I have not witnessed here or abroad. It is given first place in this collection of his writings so that we may remember, with determination and gratitude, who we are, and who we may yet become, as artists of liberal learning.