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Full Text Publications > My Fifty Years at Notre Dame by Leo R. Ward, C.S.C.

Chapter Five: A Cowboy at Oxford

Why was I going? "Divil-the-know did I know," as some used to say in my native community. The move rated various estimates among priests at Notre Dame. It was regarded as a chance to travel and see the world, as a promotion and mark of distinction; in fact it was meant essentially for study. A priest with practically no sense for studies asked a disturbing question: "How old are you?" One ten years younger than I, though he too was seedy-looking, had a sense for studies and scholarship, a sense that would stand by his forty years' work in American history. He asked how long I was allowed for overseas' study. My bill of lading said one year. "But you know the boss. That means two years, he is for the status quo and won't bring me home and send someone else."

I had lived two years (1928-1930) with that boss, a plain plodder, but with prudent zeal. Father James A. Burns had for years been head of Holy Cross College in Washington; as President, 1919-22, he had brought Notre Dame up from a sort of miscellaneous country club and high school-college and piety center and turned it into a modern university. But as a long time boss more efficient than colorful, he was more disliked than appreciated. He saw far beyond what might help him to Machiavellian ends.

He and I believed in intellectual life and yet were not at all alike. He was patient, diplomatic and thorough, not abrupt and coltish. A marked trait in him was Irish contrariness; he loved to pretend he held a view, it was a game with him; as soon as anyone took a position, Irishman Burns, born near Burns Ditch in Indiana, promptly took the other side. Father Leo L. Ward psyched him and when we wanted anything, James A. Burns inevitably swinging over against allowing it, we, Leo L. more quietly and deftly than I, took the Burns side. This he could not stand: he wanted to oppose and be contrary; so we got by with whatever we wanted. Coached by Leo L., I even waited him out of a trip home to Iowa for Christmas, a thing unheard of in those times. It chanced also that foxy Burns gave a dinner for a priest who had lived and worked with him. All parties were in ecstasy as the guest told us that, living with Father Burns, he had used that technique to work him for many favors.

Father Burns gave a dinner also for a Holy Cross bishop home from foreign missions. This German-born man had a reputation for being a boor. He would bring along an Oriental servant and dump the boy on America. For his dinner he demanded "the old time Notre Dame hash," and nuns were found to concoct it. The platter of hash looked good, but he was far from offering praise. He muttered into it, "God help us, this is the hash," and rolled all of it onto his plate.

The ancient enigma, Father Burns, had long lived on milk and crackers and, for fear of wasting time, he neither sat nor invited his clients to sit as he conducted business. One evening he and I met at his milk-and-cracker break, and he probed me about what I was studying and what I liked to study. This was going pretty far, letting his hair down. I said my interest just then was the American Humanists, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Norman Foerster and others who during the 'twenties and 'thirties made such a stir. He was pleased when, asked if they were Catholics, I said that we were not precommitted to the study only of Catholic sources and subjects, and I illustrated by saying that a Catholic might well study the whole story of Robert E. Lee. Why be limited to General Rosecrans? Not afraid of pluralism, he asked which great philosopher I would like to study. He knew very well. Aristotle was the man. Well, where and under whom?

The old codger, as most of the priests though not I would have called him, said: "You'll get the chance. Say nothing," which was like him and me, "but get ready to go to Oxford."

On his advice I wrote Professor Ross of Oxford, afterward Sir David Ross, and eventually brought a letter to the boss's office. "Well," he said, as pleased as a child, "what does Professor Ross say?" The mere fact of the letter was enough, the old man was delighted, but we could not read one word of it. After I had seen what was going on in Aristotelian studies at Oxford and had profitable sessions with Dr. Ross, I could read the letter; it said what was then the case at Oxford. I hope the letter is extant.

Oddly enough, I was already the author of two or three books and some articles, all of them somewhat below Aristotle's level. An article on philosophy of value had appeared in a philosophical journal; my dissertation, as written, was brought out in book form by Macmillan; my translation of Gilson was called Moral Values and the Moral Life, a work still available and useful; and lo and behold you, as people say, didn't I find that the always thorough Burns had consulted Gilson concerning me as a philosopher: and got no glowing report, because Gilson thought that if anyone said "value," he was committed to "value" as propounded (1926) by Professor Ralph Barton Perry of Harvard; I was semantic and preanalytical enough, and bold enough, too, to tell Gilson that my usage of "value" was going its own way: and Gilson was not used to having any young "philosopher" disagree with him. I had then proceeded to do a second study of "value" and "values," which at the suggestion of Frank Sheed, its publisher, was called Values and Reality.

When the manuscript of this work on values was in the publisher's hands, the upstart was at last sold to James A. Burns. But Burns had to pretend: his favorite sport. "It's too long!" he said. "Didn't I tell you I didn't want our priests writing such big books?" Outside his door I made a progress report to a confrere who replied: "He don't want big books! That is just what he does want. He'd like to have every priest write an eight-volume work."

Earlier, my literary cavorting had troubled this foxy grandpa. An added assignment during my first years at Notre Dame was as half-time sub-editor of the Ave Maria, an old-fashioned and weary magazine. I took turns doing the editor's page and three of my contributions I have good reason to recall. One was "The President Talks Back," a diatribe against President Hoover. It did not please James A. Burns, a confirmed Republican strong on the authoritarian side. Another smart piece was on modesty in women's dress, and as if in defense of Parisian designers I said that I had lived a summer on New York's Fifth Avenue and seen no women immodestly dressed; in fact they often were embarrassed when boarding streetcars in pre-mini skirts; and I repeated someone's remark that all a woman needed to make a dress was to run strings together like a fish net. Although I had the editor's prior blessing on my writing this page, the ideas upset a St. Louis priest who cancelled his subscription, a turn of events we could not afford, and a Catholic weekly said that gone were the good old days of Father Daniel E. Hudson as editor of the Ave and that under Father Eugene Burke this journal had become radical and anti-papal.

These scribblings set me back with James A. Burns who, anxious to pass the buck, told the editor to speak to me; and he did, the two of us having a laugh over the page on styles. Dr. Burns also told Father Miltner to curb this promising young man, to-wit me, before I should go overboard (and denounce the Curia and the Republican party), a warning duly passed along to me ten years later. All of a sudden I came into favor, thanks to Abbe Dimnet's best seller, The Art of Thinking. I had known little of Dimnet except that his book, lent to me by a tall dignified student named Zeno Staudt, was popular. I found him all graciousness when I went to his lecture downtown at the Progress Club; arriving before him, I was taken to be Abbe Dimnet. The book was delightful, though generally empty and sappy, and my page on it, called "Dimnet's Lozenges for Thinking," made me with James A. Burns and paid my way to England. For all unknownst to me, Abbe Dimnet had once upon a time visited Notre Dame and his published comments on the place were uncomplimentary.

With good reason, my bosses were finding me a maverick and did not see what could be done with me. Nor did anyone else. When I lumbered across a field in Montana where my brother and his sons were stacking alfalfa, he shouted: "Hey, boys, here comes Professor Ward!" But when I'd lumber across the campus, priests and other observers said, "Here comes 'Hick' Ward." It was all the same fellow, an ambiguous clown. An alumnus from a South Bend family greeted me: "I knew the way you carried that brief case it couldn't be anybody else." He had spotted the professor and the farmer struggling against each other. For all their good will, bosses could scarcely make a prefect of me -- too sour a pickle; or a philosopher -- prone to the superficial side, fond of dodging issues, willing to write on unimpressive subjects such as all the good things of the world.

Here then this hayseed ex-teacher at a school well named "Seldom See" was riding like a chip for seven days and seven nights across the Atlantic on a French liner, landing at last at Plymouth, listening that night to men decently brawling their way home from the pubs. The next morning he was drinking tea for breakfast, the first but by no means the last time in his life; stopping to look at Windsor Cathedral because people said it was the thing to do; being stalked by a young man at a railway station, his girl friend a seamy- looking pick-up, and only by degrees understanding that the fellow correctly took him for an Irish farmer; as Justice Holmes' wife said when Holmes was appointed to the Supreme Court: "Imagine me in Washington, my face looking like an abandoned Maine farm!" The same hayseed by afternoon re-routing in London as simply as rounding a corner a-horseback on an Iowa dirt road; and toddling across Oxford Town itself that evening and sipping wine with Capuchins on Iffley Road, in order, as one of them said, "To warm the cockles of your heart."

The spirit of study was at a low ebb in that House where the plain democratic monks soon became my friends, among whom I should mention Father Martin and Brother Paschal, unpretentious and saintly charitable men. In order to do studies, I had to make contacts at the University.

In straight academic lines what was best for me at Oxford was acquiring some facility in the study of Aristotle. Ross, his fame established, was doing studies only in Kant on whom he gave four lectures that school year. As Provost of Oriel -- imagine making one of the greatest scholars in England rector and consultant at a students' hall! -- he received me. This was the same Oriel whose "Common Room" had become resonant a century earlier, the room where Newman and others had held discussions. Ross occupying some mighty "Chair," like the Chair of Peter in Rome, was readily approachable; a tall, well built man scarcely fifty, a rapid worker who was to produce into his eighties, he stood while he told me how to approach Aristotle and whom to see for lectures on this philosopher. So I sought Joachim and Smith, a team of scholars who, the story said, had gone for a walk every day for thirty years and talked Aristotle.

Our class met in H. H. Joachim's study in New College, founded in the fourteenth century; at the outset, there were seven students convening for two hours in the evenings. We "read Aristotle"; at least some read fluently along with the professors; the pièce de resistance was the Metaphysics, the experts talking to each other, agreeing and disagreeing, and Smith, known as "J. A.," once in a while agreeing with a student. Though nobody said so, in effect the idea was, "Get in or get out."

I did not cross the Atlantic to dodge work but had practically to stay on my knees in a rather cold Capuchin room. Armed with an unabridged secondhand Greek dictionary, I spelled things out; by the way, seeing me with W. Christ's edition of the Metaphysics, Smith approved. I wrote out my translations, made them interlinear with decisive Greek words and phrases; nothing could have been better for me except seeing those two scholars lavish themselves once more on the text.

Students were responsible for particular lines, say thirty or forty. Ideally the student should be ready on call to "read," that is, translate at sight, to say why he took this or that word in this or that sense, be up on variant textual acceptations (we do not have any indisputable text of Aristotle), and be aware of the commentaries.

Thus equipped and thus laboring, the student could make invaluable sense out of the discussion by the two learned men. The work was too difficult and special for drones and for those in need of an introduction. By April our seven students had dwindled to three, two of us Americans. The five of us were pondering a word or phrase, one professor blind and the other deaf -- well, one did use a magnifying glass and the other an ear trumpet. Coughing through his whiskers, J. A., seemed to take to me, and I certainly took to him. Joachim appeared less than friendly to Americans, Christians and priests, probably because experience of them in Greek texts had revealed too much. As we were breaking away one winter evening and J.A. was tugging at his coat and his pipe, Joachim still at the text (it was his custom to remain thus transfixed), accosted this novice: "Mr. Ward, why did you read such and such a verb as an aorist?" That was a fair question, the student was responsible. I knew what an "aorist" was and what it did, but probably did not know that I had taken that now misplaced verb as an aorist, and only the Lord would know why I did so. The old pro, J. A., replied for me and incidentally boosted my ego and gave me Aristotelian status. He said: "I am surprised," his well chosen word, "at the translations Mr. Ward makes. I once asked Sir Thomas Heath about that word in precisely that context and he said it could only be an aorist." Ipse dixit. Sir Thomas and J. A. had spoken. In this unpredictable world, many things come about by luck and coincidence. And believe it or not some of them are favorable, at least according to Aristotle on "Chance," the least significant treatise in him.

As a farmer and Midwest frontiersman, I could scarcely be expected to cotton to Oxford teas. I wanted to be out playing horseshoes or swinging an axe and I said so to Americans. The American poet, Paul Engle, was a Rhodes Scholar then studying at Oxford, and he bears a scar on his hand, earned he says by blocking third base on our American-Oxford baseball team, organized, so he says, by me. It was difficult for me to appreciate all my invitations and to return grace for grace. A professor of Grecian history had me to his high teas. He talked volubly, but mainly about exotic species of roses; he would ring for tea, and when we had devoured the lot, he, still talking, would at last dash off his lukewarm tea and ring in a hot supply for us. Also a literary group had formed around the Guiney sisters, cousins of the American poet and scholar, Louise Imogene Guiney; Edward J. O'Brien, Bostonian expert on the short story, belonged, and as the custom was for each to read something from his own writings, I felt terribly ill at ease in this to me elite company and was embarrassed when O'Brien unsheathed something I had written and when, to make life more difficult, he read it and said it was like Chekhov! I could only say that the passage scarcely seemed like me at all.

I followed lectures by several who at that time were more or less known; the Jesuit Martin D'Arcy, a disorderly lecturer; a young Scot lecturing In a scholarly and effective manner on Plato's Republic. What impressed me was the undergraduates' mastery of the text and of languages. C. S. Lewis was too deep into literary criticism for my comprehension. I tried R. H. S. Crossman's lectures on Plato and Hegel and was sure he would go far Left. (He did go Communist, as did various other young British and American intellectuals in the 'thirties; but Crossman repented: as he said in The God That Failed.)

Two social levels, the masses and "the ten per cent that owns England," obtruded everywhere, and the idea as well as the fact of levels was distasteful to me, partly because it worked so well. During a weekend at Brighton a flouncy, pimply woman kept saying scornfully, "Those people," unaware that she was writing off most of the human race; a young couple snarled at a licensed beggar in a cold rain at the door of the Bodleian Library; they might have less savagely declined to buy her flowers. At dinner in an Oxford home, I saw no reason for treating the maid as inferior, I could not draw a line and put Dorothy below it. The hostess said, "It was charming the way you spoke to Dorothy." Some days later as I crossed Magdalen ("Maudlin") Bridge at high noon in dangerous traffic a girl stopped her bike. It was Dorothy who said that her parents wanted me to visit them.

The two-level pattern of life ran into me one day in a London pub. Clergymen rarely entered pubs; if one did, it was news and he thereby declared that he balked at belonging to the upper crust. I was slumming downtown and to save a tightwad shilling and be among commoners, I plunged into what I thought a restaurant, but all at once found myself in a pub. Every man looked up from his ale: who is this and by what right does he come in here? This was their place. Let people keep in their place, as we Americans said so long about blacks. For once I thought quickly, went straight to the bar -- tender -- a man, so it presumably was no molly-coddle pub -- and told him my mistake. As he said, "I quite understand, Sir," the men settled down, thinking my visit official, a stamp from the Crown on it.

The American is naturally cowboyish and despises the Englishman's love of cats and canaries, and on just this love and some fellow topics I scribbled down a couple of hundred pages supposedly modelled on With Malice Toward Some, and a London house actually considered them. Above all, the American is unprepared for criticism, he cannot stand the first few rounds of it. Either he assumes that America is the greatest nation in the world, and it really did sting me to be told by a Liverpool Irish Englishman that this honor belongs to England; or the American has not yet learned the art of self-criticism. If he is Midwest, he is likely to be green and uncouth, and, if he is West or Southwest, he is full of braggadocio. Big talk is his specialty for sure if he is a Texan and fairly sure if he is an Iowan, a New Yorker or from the Coast. Everything Is bursting at the seams, and he is likely, as Santayana said, to judge by quantity. He moves and gets things done and is in the habit of junking more in a year than the Briton or Continental ever had.

That is what the Englishman is as if divinely commissioned to tell the American. Then the tourist or student is hurt. He did not come to this damned foreign country to be lectured, he knows the lecturer is "all wet." In an Oxford street I encountered an American priest then sojouring at Oxford, a precious minor poet who was never to make good; and like myself he wanted to "show these English." Americans abroad may be only recovering from one slur on the U.S.A., when another slur hits them, and possibly from a Hindu or Moslem.

Besides a slight introduction to Aristotle, the best things I got out of England and of the succeeding year on the Continent were to see my own people in better perspective and to see that other peoples are admirable in many ways. Few of them have the tireless drive we have, the "get up and go," but usually they are calmer and better acquainted with history and literature. At Oxford I was invited by Father D'Arcy to have dinner at Campion Hall, the Jesuit House of Studies. We talked about war, a perennial topic with Britons and Europeans. What did Americans think of the war threats? I said we thought that nations playing brinkmanship were barbarians. I would still say so. But I wondered why my remark made one of the priests laugh, a man somewhat gauche and insular. At last it dawned on me that it was funny for an Englishman to hear an American call anyone barbarian, and the idea was doubly funny coming from me.

Father D'Arcy advised me to attend meetings of the Oxford Philosophical Society. But by whose leave? What was the protocol? His answer in two words: "Just go." I went and felt misplaced only a second. The plain democratic Professor Ross got up to welcome me. Thawed out and loosened up a bit by D'Arcy and Ross, I attended regularly, and found best in those sessions the assumed method. This was to see where Peter and Paul fundamentally disagreed. At first the difference might appear to be, let us say, on a word such as "good": and one session was in fact on the meaning of good in Aristotle when I thought and still think that some comments were inadequate; or the disagreement might be on a political issue. Usually it turned out to be either metaphysical or epistemological. When they got that far, probably only two were still at cross purposes; and having located the basic disagreement, they re-lighted their pipes and tramped home. One night I started home with a professor, and as we argued a minute under a lamp post, not far from Big Ben, the clock that always rings out the ten o'clock curfew at five after ten (at Oxford any "hour" is five after the hour), my long thin arm gestured into the peaceful Oxford air. The professor looked quickly at the arm, no doubt aware that Americans have sure fire ways of winning an argument.

Dorothy Sayres was known and loved as a writer of detective fiction, an expert on Dante and a national spiritual leader. When she lectured on "Aristotle and Detective Fiction" she brought out philosophers as well as lovers of detective' stories; she kept all parties laughing as she illustrated from popular fiction Aristotle's theory of what "fiction" is. Great for me was a lecture by R. H. Tawney, a man famous not only as a scholar on the historical relations between religion and capitalism, but as one who had proclaimed himself to be for and with the people. Oxford philosophers were having a several years' debate on how a person knows other selves. The members assumed that one knows himself by intuition, simply and directly "sees" he is a self or person. The question, however, at a lively session of the undergrad philosophers' society was how one knows other selves, and a well-seasoned English undergrad ("undergrad" is anyone who has not a degree from Oxford) held that the knowledge of other selves is also by intuition. He never did escape the objection raised by a pessimistic Indian who asked, "Can we take for a self what is not a self? What then is the criterion for discerning true from illusory intuitions? Do not all intuitions carry an unchallengeable truth-warrant?"

Impressive for me was the way undergrads worked: reading sources, documents, commentaries; those taking "Greats" reading Plato and Aristotle in Greek; those in "Modern Greats," PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) getting acquainted with minds and matters decisive for understanding what we are today -- this was more attractive for me than any other event at Oxford. Students groomed in PPE at last face a comprehensive examination, covering three or four years' work. In philosophy, here are sample questions:

1. Explain the problem of the criterion of knowledge in the major works of Descartes.

2. Is there a satisfactory treatment of the problem of God's existence in modern philosophy?

The student choosing three or four questions out of a dozen is expected to show mastery of materials.

Word came that one of my four brothers, with more life than all the rest of us, had been killed. He was buried a week before I heard it, and it seemed to me that if I was just there with the family, it would be less difficult for us. I had retained his Christmas letter and sent copies to those at home.

I spent the summer in Tours, France because "la Tourangelle" was then the best spoken French. Perhaps foolishly, I went into a school for "étrangers," students from the United States, Great Britain, Scandinavia, Egypt and many countries. Americans were the least gifted in tongues, the Irish second-worst, the Spaniards tops. For years I have heard from a Boston couple I met there on their honeymoon; they remained four years in France and came home with Parisian doctors' degrees. Their name, O'Hara; it was impossible to tell the French "Ward" from "O'Hara": each was "you-ar," and when I said that the French could not pronounce either Ward or O'Hara, a Frenchman replied, "They can't pronounce any foreign word."

Neither could I. After the six priests de la Congrégation de la Sainte Face with whom I lived had tried a week or two to converse with me, they gave up. I did sharpen up my French by taking disciplined work six days a week with a licensed tutrice. Then a priest appeared one day at lunch; they made much of his being in a suit: "Le jeune homme!" Which I suppose can mean seminarian. He told the joke about la belle mêre and la belemer, each of them enragée, which must be the tritest of all French jokes. He asked the foreigner if he got it. The six shook their heads: "Il ne comprend rien!" He gets nothing! My language weakness was the common American weakness: too self-conscious, afraid of making mistakes.

I went with two train-loads of French pilgrims to Lourdes which with its simple, perhaps mostly peasant piety brought to a peak whatever faith and love there was in me, the river and mountains adding to the effect. I wanted to go where Bernadette went, to stand alone or with forty thousand pilgrims and to live for five days where the Blessed Mother had repeatedly appeared. One evening after the grand round-up of marching and of prayers in many tongues I returned to the Grotto. One of our pilgrims was praying there with a girl named Yvonne. Because Yvonne lived at Lourdes, I asked her if she had ever seen a miracle. "Oui," she said, "ici, par ici." At nineteen, Yvonne, a declared hopeless invalid, had been brought among many sick people to the Grotto; people prayed with and for them, and as the crowd turned to leave, Yvonne jumped from her stretcher and walked away. She started to work at a Lourdes hospital the next morning, and by nine years later had visited the Grotto thousands of times. In my best French, I said that la Vierge must love her very much. Yvonne said, "Je l'éspere." I had to get help to learn that her malady had been T.B. of the spine.

Back and forth in the crowds was a young Irishman, proud of Irish pilgrims and of the Irish. A day later, no public prayers in Gaelic, and my bold, patriotic man sighed, "Ah, of all the disunited people under the sun!"

Another Irishman had for years served as stretcher bearer and as assistant to plunge men into the mountains' icy water. In front of the shivering pilgrim as he goes into the tub are prayers:

Notre Dame de Lourdes, priez pour nous! Sainte Bernadette, priez pour nous!

Seeing my long legs, the Irishman's French assistant asked if I was an Englishman. Before I could shiver out a word, the Irishman threw me into water as cold as was that of the River Gave on February 11, 1858, and he shouted, "He's an Irishman!" St. Patrick, priez pour nous!

Father Miltner came from Notre Dame to spend the school-year with me at Louvain University. Thousands who knew him will applaud my saying that he was generous to a fault and may agree that he took moody spells, no word or gesture pleasing him; as we walked, he would say I was out of step (perhaps both were); and when, too long in rags, I got a cassock made by a tailor expert in clerical wear, my good man said its style would have a hard go at Notre Dame. Then he would repent and bring home a bag of candy. He was a man of balanced contradictions.

I vegetated and marked time. The American colony attended lectures by Noel, head of the Institut Thomist, by Mansion on Aristotle's Physics (Mansion's study of that work is still the classic), by Mareschal in psychology, and in metaphysics by a toothless and dynamic Balthasar, who said we could obtain his lectures at the students' "Bolsheviki Press." To the point for me were bilingual visits with Professor Dondeyne on the place of "the good" and "the better" in St. Thomas's interpretation of world order. Some years later the same idea was expressed in lectures at Wesleyan University by Werner Jaeger who said that important in Aristotle was the idea that if such and such were the better way, that was the way of reality and the world; nature tends to the better.

Jacques Maritain lectured in Brussels on Christian philosophy, the American colony attending. For some years Maritain had used and developed this idea, and he would continue to use and develop it. The idea is this: Believing on the word of God that particular matters are true, believing philosophers may be better able than non-believing philosophers to arrive at a philosophical understanding of some matters such as the temporality of the cosmos, the nature of evil, the sacredness of the person and a possible meaning in the world. This idea would remain central and basic in Maritain's philosophy; the general statement of it is available in a volume called On Christian Philosophy.

It was either Christian philosophy or no Maritain. But this Christian philosophy idea had been uncongenial to the revival of philosophy at Louvain. I also had once opposed the Maritain idea, which of course is not his private possession. But without my knowing when and where and by whom, I became converted to it. Was my conversion a reaction against what I thought a labored sterility at Louvain? Did I possibly take to the Christian philosophy idea as an adjunct of what I had later to hammer out as my idea of a Catholic university? Or was this latter an extension of the Christian philosophy idea? The following pages may answer these questions.

Copyright ©2000 by the Indiana Province of the Priests of Holy Cross. All rights reserved.

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