Paul Richard Blum:
Address delivered on receiving the
Nachbahr Award of
Loyola University Maryland
September 28, 2012
… It is customary that the recipient of the Nachbahr Award delivers a talk on The Life of the Mind. Usually, speakers combine some autobiographic notes with general observations on the meaning of being a scholar and a professor at Loyola. And I will do so, too. I will tell you a few stories that illustrate the way I think and the way I came to think that way.
I grew up in a cozy, conservative, Catholic family. I was the youngest of three. Of our parents, Mother was much brighter than Father. [Our daughters say: it’s the same in our family.] Our father had no formal education to speak of. He was a blacksmith and was in the process of starting a career as a firefighter. Back then, firefighters had to be skilled in some craft, and they all helped to build and repair each other’s homes.
One day, I watched my father doing some plumbing work. I remember it exactly: I was almost 10 and that day I had passed the entrance examination for High school. [To the surprise of some people.] As I watched him wielding tools and pipes, I asked him: How come, you know all these trades, plumbing, roofing, carpeting – you name it? His answer was:
"You must steal with your eyes!" Du mußt mit den Augen stehlen!
Stealing with your eyes, dear students, is not an invitation to plagiarize. To “steal with one's eyes” means to observe what you see and make it your own, to turn what you see into a skill, to observe and share it with others.
After all, that's what we philosophers are doing all the time: we read what other philosophers have to say and philosophize. So, in a way that was my first philosophy lecture.
Many years later, when I was researching the history of Jesuit education and Jesuit philosophy, I found that this lesson was a Jesuit adage. In the 17th century, Giulio Clemente Scotti advised his students to “Learn as though you had to teach!”
Steal from your professors all that they know, make it your own, and share it with others!
During the 1990s – I had already obtained my PhD and had become a published scholar – I left the “academic world” because of the political situation in West Berlin, where I lived at that time. I worked for a Catholic charity--ACN--that specialized in providing aid to the former communist countries. With this job, I travelled with a colleague to Croatia, in the middle of the Yugoslav war (the war of Serbia on Croatia in 1992). We inspected refugee camps, burnt-down villages, and damaged churches. Additionally, we had an appointment with Cardinal Franjo Kuharić, the archbishop of Zagreb (Zagreb is the capital of Croatia). When we arrived at the Archbishop's residence, a young priest lead us upstairs, opened a huge door, and there we entered the assembly hall of the Conference of the Croatian Bishops. Twenty bishops smiled at us expectantly! The Cardinal invited me to the top of the horseshoe-shaped table, next to the Nuncio, and unexpectedly said: "Dr. Blum, you certainly want to say a few words to my fellow bishops." Luckily, he added: "But before we start our business, let us pray." As the bishops began reciting the Hail Mary, I closed my eyes, and under the canopy of their prayer I hammered out a speech. I have never appreciated a prayer that much. When they said Amen! I was ready: "Your Eminence, Your Excellencies …"
To the atheists in this audience I may say: you see, prayer works! For the rest: this fits into advice given by Ignatius of Loyola, who says: Pray, as though everything depended on God. And work, as though everything depends on you. So, as the bishops prayed, I worked.
It is a tradition, and is appropriate, that the recipient of the Nachbahr Award says a few words about Bernhard Nachbahr, who is remembered for his leading role at Loyola. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. In fact, all I know about Bernhard Nachbahr, is what I have learned from previous awardees. So, I have decided to speak about another person by the same name as “Nachbahr” (to my German ears “Nachbahr” sounds like “neighbor”). This person I want to speak about is the Czech philosopher Stanislav Sousedík (“Soused” in Czech means “neighbor”).
Stanislav Sousedík had an enormous influence on my thought, both academic and otherwise. In fact, my acquaintance with him was the origin of my visiting professorship this spring in the Czech Republic. While he is now professor emeritus in Prague, I met him in the early 1980s when he was considered the most outstanding specialist in early modern Catholic philosophy. As a result of being Catholic, his career in communist Czechoslovakia was interrupted at times. For some years, he was forced to be a road worker. One day, while working at a construction site, he whistled a Marian Hymn; maybe the Salve Regina. Another worker looked up and asked: “Hey, do you know what kind of tune you are singing?” Sousedík said: “Yes, I do.” The worker whispered back: "Pleased to meet you; I am Jan Opasek, the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Prague!" As I said: “prayer works.”
Later, Sousedík was assigned a job in an editing project at the Academy of Sciences in communist Prague. He published numerous papers and also wrote books on: philosophy among the Jesuits, philosophy of the Dominicans, the Franciscans and so on. He argued that he had to do this in order to prepare the background to this editorial work. Thus, he became the best-known specialist of early modern Catholic thought. His works not only taught me how to deal with early Jesuit philosophy; I also learned: resistance is possible. Resistance does not have to be violent. At times, it can be achieved by singing or by tongue-in-cheek. I saw that Aristotle's theory of antiperistasis works in the human sphere because oppression of the mind strengthens those intellectual and moral forces that are, indeed, strong. And hence oppression hatches its own defeat.
On my visits to Prague, during the communist times, I witnessed the mechanism of communist government. So I can assure you: even the most activist or leftist professor at Loyola is a guarantor and defender of freedom and democracy.
Sousedík was also active in the underground university where local or foreign teachers gave philosophy classes in private homes. This university was a complicated secretive organization that managed to trick secret services, for most of the time. I was honored to lecture in the living room at his home. When one asked who are the students in the audience? The answer was, “it is better for them, and for you, not to know.” I do know that many Dominican friars used to attend the underground university. So, who knows?, maybe Dominik Duka was there, who is now Archbishop of Prague. Or even his friend, the playwright Vaclav Havel, who was to become President of Czech Republic. Who knows? But then, it is not much different from here at Loyola. Maybe in this audience here there is the future Cardinal of Baltimore, or the future President of the United States? In fact, something similar happened to my wife. As a graduate student, she taught Russian language to Italian students in Northern Italy. One of her former students was Paolo Pezzi, who is now the archbishop of Moscow.
In other words: we teachers teach as though everything depended on us; and you students, please study as though everything depended on you. Steal with your eyes and ears all your professors know, and share it with others!