This makes me laugh, as it did the first time I read it thirty years ago:
“I suppose I read Aristotle in college but not to know I was doing it; the same with Plato. I don’t have the kind of mind that can carry such beyond the actual reading, i.e., total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me. So I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, `Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, `On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.”
I too am blessedly unburdened by my education. The university was no more than an intellectual match-making service, an instrument of exposure – to writers and a large library that permitted me to read them. I remember the reassuring thrill of knowing the campus library was open twenty-four hours a day. If I needed Tertullian, Hobbes or George Herbert at 3 a.m., they were a short walk away.
For the purposes of education, I found most fellow students an irritation to be endured, which I suppose taught me something. Even with several excellent teachers I remained, for good and ill, an autodidact but not always, I hope, a know-it-all. I was acutely aware of my ignorance but resented most intermediaries – critics, interpreters, systematizers – and felt only aversion for grand theories. To this day I like to meet a book on my terms, without a middle-man, because most of the best books teach me how to read them. My request is simple: Don’t tell me what to think; show me what you know.
The passage quoted above is from a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote to “A.” on Aug. 9, 1955 (The Habit of Being, 1979). Here are the subsequent sentences:
“In any case, I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the love of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas. His brothers didn’t want him to waste himself being a Dominican and so locked him up in a tower and introduced a prostitute into his apartment; he ran her out with a red-hot poker. It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman, but I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.”
O’Connor speaks of loving Aquinas, and love is always the engine driving a true education.