The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: On “Everlasting Futurity”
James V. Schall, S.J. - 06/06/08

Last Things is the regular column of Fr. James V. Schall.

One of my Jesuit colleagues, Alvaro Ribiero, called my attention to the last entry, No. 103, in Samuel Johnson’s series in The Idler. The date was Saturday, 5 April 1760. After he recited by heart the last lines of this magnificent essay, I hastened to find my copy of Johnson to read it again, and again. It is a haunting essay. Nothing less can be said about it than it is the best of things to be read, preferably out-loud, about the last of things.

No better introduction to a column series entitled “Last Things,” in an on–line journal unabashedly entitled, First Principles, could be imagined. Only one without a soul, and there may be not a few, would not know the origin of these phrases about first and last things. For they recall the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, starting and ending points of our very being, of what is. I believe there are lines in T. S. Eliot, in the “Four Quartets,” that read “in the end is my beginning.” Prima Principia. Ultimus Finis.

Technically, a “first principle” is a beginning point of thought, that behind which there is nothing behind except being itself. A first principle is that which cannot be “proved” because nothing clearer can be found than the statement itself. Likewise, there are first principles of being, of what is. To deny a first principle, you have to use it in the denial. This means that the mind itself works in a certain way that is itself simply there, simply given, simply true. The person with a mind does not make mind to be mind. He discovers that he himself has mind by reflecting on himself knowing what is not himself. He knows that he is doing so. He tries to express the truth of things by himself affirming what he knows.

The last Idler was published during Holy Week, a time, as Johnson remarks, “set apart for the examination of the conscience.” This time allows us to “review” life. Johnson is conscious of his readers. He wants them to “review every incident (of life) with seriousness and improve it by meditation.” How might we “improve” ourselves by “meditation” on such serious moments? By the very fact that we see within them the sign of our freedom, that what is there in our acts we put there by our choice. Know thyself.

The moments of our lives are not only “lived” but also remembered. Thus, they can be “reviewed” by us. Our memory gives us the strange power of seeing our actions again. In this sense, we can live more than once. What we can remember, others can know. We can seek to repair our past when we know in our memory how we contributed to it. And we can rejoice that at least some of our deeds are noble. This reminds us of Augustine. We are not only what we are, but we are what we remember. A man without memory, who is mindful of nothing, cannot see what he is. The man with a memory can see himself again. Of human living, once is never enough.

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