If you choose to come to St. John’s (and if you stick around long enough), you’ll end up with a smattering of French—no matter how much you may resist. Among the vocabulary you will acquire from Messrs. Palmeri and Milligan (authors of French for Reading Knowledge, one of the two textbooks we use at the College) is the word jour, “day.” Think soup du jour, “soup of the day.”
I manage to spot Latin and Greek roots on occasion (moments of nerdy glee), but it was not until I had been toiling away at a major magazine for some time that an editor pointed out to me a rather obvious French root: jour is the root of our “journalism.”
For two summers I have worked for a major political magazine (don’t let them tell you a St. John’s degree is not attractive; it is, at least in the right circles). We publish a biweekly print edition. Our website content is overhauled daily. A handful of new columns go up every few hours. Several blogs are updated every few minutes.
By way of contrast, at St. John’s you can catch the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times in the library, if you look, and the Washington Post mysteriously appears in the Coffee Shop once every couple months, alongside months old back issues of the Christian Science Monitor.
(There is room for a conversation about St. John’s’ interface with current events—it tends to be fairly closed, though it has opened up some in recent years, both for better and for worse—but I have in mind here a different point.)
Love him or hate him, Karl Rove, who managed George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, knows about news cycles. In his autobiography, Courage and Consequence, published in 2010, Rove observed that in 2000, when Bush ran against Gore, a campaign had a two-day window within which to respond to an opponent’s attack. After two days, you had missed the news cycle, and the opponent’s attack was as good as fact. Eight years later, when John McCain ran against Barack Obama, that window had shrunk to two hours.
Today’s news cycle moves at a blistering pace. The fastest news collators—sites that gather up and link to headlines—update every few minutes. Sometimes that’s not fast enough. Twitter updates every few seconds. Reporters and news junkies will sign up en masse when some basement inventor manages to design something even faster.
Which is why I noted above St. John’s’ seemingly prehistoric news access—not as a condemnation, but as a contrast. St. John’s is a slow culture.
And that is a good thing.
You will hear it a number of times if you come to St. John’s; it’s one of our fun facts: The word from which our English school originates is the Greek skole, “leisure.”
In his magnificent little book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, philosopher Josef Pieper tries to get at that elusive idea; it’s not “free time” or “relaxation,” which is how we typically understand it. Rather, it is an attitude.
Pieper argues that (pardon a brief didactic turn), beginning approximately with Immanuel Kant, the Western notion of “work” changed. Abandoning the understanding of work that predominated among the Scholastics in the Medieval period, Kant initiated a decisively German period in which work was hard; with him began the idea of the “intellectual worker,” brow knitted, grimacing slightly, straining mind and body toward prying from every word of text its hidden meaning. To look at him you would think the book was fighting back.
No doubt you will come across books at St. John’s that seem to “fight back,” but Pieper suggests that that is because, in our studies, we have become aggressors. He suggests a different method: leisure.
“To have leisure” is to open oneself up; it is along the lines of what Aristotle identifies as the highest life, the contemplative life, toward the end of the Nicomachean Ethics. It is a supreme good that Socrates and St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas all identify. Leisure is not dialectic; it is not reasoned argument back and forth, not syllogisms with their premises and conclusions. Those things can serve us well, but the highest things reveal themselves to us only when we open ourselves to them.
Which means that leisure requires time. We can be “leisurely,” the way Pieper understands the term, in our daily lives, but because it is a slow movement of mind and soul, it is generally not conducive to the way most of us live. You will have a devilish time being leisurely in Times Square or on Twitter; both simply move too fast. But quiet reading in the sun on front campus, an unhurried conversation with friends during a meal, the gradual illumination of a book or a phrase or even just a word during a constructive seminar—in these ways, and others, St. John’s affords its students opportunities to acquaint themselves with a different type of life: a leisurely one.
If the College ultimately fails to cultivate in its students true leisure (alas, I think it does fail in this regard, though perhaps through no fault of its own), it fails nobly. There are few other institutions in the country where slowing down to think, to feel, and to open oneself to the highest things is a virtue.
That it remains so at St. John’s makes this an increasingly valuable place in a world moving ever faster.