The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: On the First and “Last” Professor
James V. Schall, S.J. - 01/28/09
professor before a lecture hall
The study of philosophy is conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought—hence they may be called practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and the establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and the nature of absolute truth. Socrates is the type of excellence in practical wisdom, while Pythagoras concentrated on the contemplative, for which he was equipped by his intellectual power.
—Augustine, City of God, VIII, c . 4.


Everyone is reading Stanley Fish’s essay, “The Last Professor,” in the New York Times (January 25), a column itself based on the title of a book by Frank Donoghue, one of Fish’s former pupils. It seems highly appropriate that a column entitled “Last Things” should be interested in one entitled “The Last Professor.” A professor who does not in his discipline also touch on its relation to the last things is merely a professor, not a wise man as a result of what he has learned about the whole of reality that he encounters in his studies, however narrow. The “last professor” must, as Cicero said in his essay on “Old Age,” finally take his stand before the last things if he is to live, what Aristotle called, a complete life.

The phrase, “the last professor” means, in Fish’s context, that what a professor is said to do in his professorship no longer has any market. The lives of students have no place for the “impractical” enterprise of simply knowing. Everything is now practical, “down-to-earth,” job-oriented. No one, it is said, cares for things “for their own sakes,” to use Aristotle’s expression. As a letter to the editor said, the teachers are looking to the AFL-CIO for help. That is, everyone now recognizes that Fish is right.

No longer do we have “leisure” only “occupation” or “business,” to use the English of Aristotle’s term, “askolia.” And the works of leisure were, in Pieper’s famous essay, the only things that could protect our freedom, keep us from being absorbed into the absolutist state, where our souls have no transcendence but only a function as a part in the whole. We are all employees now, more and more even of the state, not master-craftsmen or those who know things higher than utility. Our virtue depends on what we do or make, not on the habits of what we are, habits that we form in our own souls by our choices and self-discipline.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “professor” originally meant to speak forth or pronounce some position in public, often religious, one that we have deliberately taken. It was an act of making clear what one held or where he stood. His words informed us what he considered himself to be.

In American English, a professor is almost anyone in a college or university who teaches anything from agriculture to zoology and all things in between. Professors have different “ranks”—ranging from assistant, to associate, to full, with things like emeritus or adjunct also modifying the noun.

In the English universities, the name is more restricted. It usually refers to someone who has an endowed or established chair. The qualifications for occupying it are often quite meticulous. The German “Herr Professor” is a rather god-like character. Rashdall says that in the Middle Ages, the terms “Doctor, Master, and Professor” were synonymous. The title is related to the academic preparation and the award of a degree expressing satisfactory or exemplary mastery of a body of study.

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