[This three-part essay is an address given by tutor Michael Ossorgin to the graduating class of St. John’s College in Santa Fe in 1974. He titled it Two Writings in the Sand. I have only changed the address by giving a new title, and headings for each of the three parts. Otherwise it is as he gave it nearly forty years ago. I have thought it good to present it here, with many thanks to wendyedavis for her help, in hope that the lookouts and observations unfolding within may point, in these most difficult times, to our newly arriving dawn.]
Part One: The Pythagorean Lyre:
Members of the Class of 1974:
Eighteen years ago, when you were very, very young, and I was a freshman tutor in Annapolis, I heard an elder, wise tutor, a senior colleague, Mr. Simon Kaplan, say: “Deep down, our Western heritage grows from two living roots: a little Plato and a little Bible.”
Through all my years at St. John’s, I remembered what he said, and came to see what he meant, perhaps not exactly in the same places where he saw it himself. I shall share with you in speech what I caught a glimpse of in these eighteen years.
At the living roots of our heritage, I found the age old enigma as to ‘where we are, where we have been, and where we are ultimately going.’ From these roots I found our ultimate horizon opening up at two particular lookouts, one in Athens and one in Jerusalem; and as it began to open up, I caught a glimpse of something serenely and quietly radiant with an imperishable radiance.
Be my guests in speech, as I am your guest at your service, your baccalaureate service.
Now, with all the courage, tact, and humility I can muster, I shall face the enigma at our living roots, and the ultimate horizon coming from them, by glancing at two writings in the sand: one in Athens, and one in Jerusalem: or, one by Socrates in the Meno, in the episode with the slave boy, and one by Christ Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, when he is being tested on a point in the Law, in the case of the woman taken in adultery.
I must immediately remind myself and caution you that traditionally only kings and prophets were expected to face the age old enigma and the ultimate horizon opening from it. This appears to have been their most characteristic preoccupation as public figures, as kings and prophets. It has not always been a popular preoccupation with the average citizens — witness Socrates’ and Christ’s deaths in their times, as common criminals against their political communities. Witness Lincoln’s assassination in the times much closer to our own.
Yet their visions have persisted through generations and continue to do their work within our heritage, in our times, including our St. John’s program, due chiefly to three very simple reasons that have to do with the way we are or are capable of being, at our learning best. Let me try and identify these reasons for you.
First of all, I believe that we are capable at times of being summoned to face this radical enigma of the ages in our ongoing lives, as to where we are, where we have been, and where we are ultimately going.
Secondly, I believe that in facing this enigma we are both equipped and capable of proceeding by whatever paths available to us, to whatever best points of lookout available to us, from where to catch a glimpse for ourselves of our ultimate horizon opening up, and then, perhaps, at that precise moment discern ‘Plato coming back,’ as Whitehead puts it, or ‘Christ coming back’ as Dostoievski has it.
And finally, I believe that with these two abilities of ours fully engaged and realized, we discover a third one and its full realization: the ability to truly stand in wonder as we catch a glimpse of our ultimate horizon opening up before us disclosing radiance within our heritage.
Without these three abilities of ours and of our predecessors, which I tried to identify, whatever their origin may be in us, without their full engagement and realization I do not see how on earth anyone can enter into full inheritance of his living heritage and pass it on to his children: I do not see how on earth what Socrates saw in Athens, what Christ saw in Jerusalem, what Lincoln saw in Gettysburg, could have lived in our tradition of learning, through generations of students and teachers.
And yet I know that when we are summoned to face the enigma in the midst of our ongoing life, we begin to rise to the level of the citizens in Athens and in Jerusalem, who, in their public life and on their public stage, were always cognizant of their kings and prophets, and were always willing to learn from the confrontations and conversations between their kings and their prophets, whose job it was to keep in touch with their own destinies and those of their flock, and hence whose job it was to discern our common ultimate horizon.
We ourselves no longer seem to have kings and prophets in our public life, on our public stages, for they have been replaced by our best-selling stars and superstars, or various leading committees, and that is not quite the same breed as kings and prophets of old. Yet if we but carefully reread the Gettysburg Address, or our other founding scripts by our founding fathers, we see the same phenomenon occurring. They too, like kings and prophets of old, came to face the age old enigma and to discern our common ultimate horizon.
Now I shall proceed to my first lookout in a prison cell in Athens at the end of the Phaedo. I don’t arrive there emptyheaded, for on my way I found out a few things. The path I took is the one prescribed by Socrates to Glaucon and all fit guardians, rulers, princes, kings, of good cities: the path of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. From the outset I come across a handful of findings:
First, I saw that I was deviating from the path of the poets and the historians who comprehend with the arts of the trivium our ever-changing temporal horizons within our ongoing lives. Instead, on the path of the quadrivium, I began to peer at the abiding aspects of this our common, visible, and tangible world, ever-present to our lives here in Santa Fe, and in Gettysburg, and in Athens, and in Jerusalem, and everywhere on this our earth, where the sun rises and sets, day follows night, seasons follow seasons, years follow years, man generates man, generations succeed generations without visible gaps, cities rise and fall, students enroll and graduate — all this under the grand processional of stars and planets that mark our times and seasons on this our earth in our ongoing life.
Still, with my quadrivial skills, like any student from the time of Pythagoras to our day, I had my doubts as to whether this ever-present visible and tangible universe of ours, where everything is countable, has magnitude, has bodies at a standstill and in motion, finally, motion…whether the world itself, and in its own right, independently from our skills, is truly mathematical.
My doubts were somewhat dispelled when I came across my next finding on this path, a Pythagorean Lyre. For here in the strings stretched on a frame, you have ‘bodies’ of a certain magnitude at a standstill. You strike them, and the strings, these bodies, are set in motion; their motion produces musical sounds and harmonies, and in producing these sounds, these vibrating strings literally begin to count in whole natural numbers in arithmetic progression: 1, 2, 3, 4…; in counting, they literally begin to divide the magnitude, the length of the strings according to a whole number ratio: 1:2, 2:3. 3:4…, and according to a harmonic progression: 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5… Here at the Lyre, the visible and tangible world speaks back to us, as it spoke to the Pythagoreans, in a full voice with each and every aspect it has, as considered separately and together in the sisterhood of the quadrivial disciplines.
Again at the Lyre, I come upon the next finding of abiding significance. Namely, when I take the simplest, the first, and the most harmonious of all intervals, the octave, and try to find its precise middle, where the octave is divided into two equal halves, into two equal, symmetrical intervals, I find nothing for the ears to hear, so to speak, and everything for the eyes to see, to see in a figure, in a geometrical figure, in a square. I find with the Pythagoreans in the middle of the octave the square root of two, and the universe at this point becomes speechless, loses its voice, its harmony, becomes voiceless, becomes squared away, as we might say, away from the Pythagorean Lyre, into a Pythagorean script, in figures at a standstill, voiceless, speechless, motionless, but visible and intelligible, and eventually programmable into our computers.
[Here ends Part One]