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At a time like this, what use is knowledge?
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Professor Mark O'Connor, the director of Boston College's Arts and Sciences Honors program, likes to say that he and his students examine the challenges posed "when the life of the mind meets the life of the troubled spirit." One of the profound effects of the September 11 attacks is that they have forced all of us to confront just such questioning. In the midst of great tragedy, does the mind actually have anything to offer the troubled spirit? Can grief and rage be converted into wisdom? Can the abstractions of Athens or the revelations of Jerusalem provide even a partial answer to the simple, painful question that everybody is asking: Why?

Two weeks after the attacks, on a cool fall afternoon, a group of 11 Honors students and three faculty gathered in a circle on the couches in the Gasson Hall Honors library and attempted to grapple with these issues. The students were freshmen and sophomores and came from all over the country. The faculty were Professor O'Connor, from the Honors program; Christopher McDonough, an assistant professor of Classics and Honors; and Donald Hafner, a professor of political science.

"Extraordinary events like this sweep beyond the imagination," O'Connor said, opening the conversation. "Our challenge now--everybody's challenge after this tragedy--is to try to justify what it is we spend our time doing. Why do we sit around discussing what is good, or what is just? Does it matter?"

What emerged early in the discussion came as a bit of a surprise. Rather than drawing upon literature to understand and shed light on the tragedy, several of the students instead immediately remarked that their living through a time of moral and political tragedy was helping them to appreciate the depth and complexity of the works they were studying. "I think of all of those lists of names and places in The Iliad," one young woman said. "Before all of this happened, the names just seemed so boring. But now, after having seen the names of all of the people who died in the World Trade Center scrolling across the TV screen, it makes much more sense. Homer's doing exactly what the TV was. These people were killed! They're just gone, and the names are all that's left."

Another student, a soft-spoken young woman, jumped in soon after. "We've just finished reading Antigone," she said. "Before the attacks, we pretty much all just felt sympathy for Antigone, and hated Creon. But now there's this odd parallel with Bush. He's got to figure out how to be a leader at a very difficult time. I don't necessarily like everything that the guy does or says, but it's hard, what he has to do. Seeing what he's going through has made a lot of us sympathize with Creon."

The practical challenges of leadership after the September attacks developed into a major strand of the conversation. What is the just way to respond? Is the infliction of suffering and the killing of innocent people acceptable in the pursuit of justice?

"On this point," Professor McDonough said, "I keep coming back to Achilles, who at the beginning of The Iliad asks, Why am I here? Why should I be killing innocents? Those are questions we're all thinking about as we consider what our response should be."

"We have to remember something," a young man said. "This isn't black and white. America is not clean. We're just not."

"But do we have to be clean in order to pursue justice?" Professor McDonough asked.

"Machiavelli has interesting things to say about this," a sophomore said. "Would our killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan in order to get Osama bin Laden be an example of what Machiavelli calls 'correct cruelty?' And for that matter, were the attacks themselves an example of 'correct cruelty' from the terrorists' perspective? How can we reconcile the pragmatic politics of the moment, which almost demand retribution of some sort, with the Christian ideals of forgiveness and turning the other cheek?"

"I know Jesus advocated turning the other cheek," a young man said, "but he also never shied away from condemning evil, and even from recognizing the authority of the state to take action. Those are things we have to do now. We can't just sit back." Several students nodded in agreement.

The conversation moved on to the idea that although thought can be ambiguous, action cannot--a central message of Machiavelli. Professor O'Connor also brought up Shakespeare's Richard II, another Honors text, in which King Richard, a passive witness to the usurpation of his power by Bolingbroke, repeatedly asks himself, Why? and as a result loses himself in a hall of mental mirrors. As in The Prince, action in Richard II, represented by Bolingbroke, wins out over thought.

The question Why?, of course, is powerfully asked in the Western tradition by Job, and Professor McDonough suggested to the group that part of the trauma engendered by the September 11 attacks is that, for the first time in the country's history, the United States has found itself in Job's position: suffering, wanting and needing to ask Why?, but not finding (and perhaps afraid of knowing) the answer.

One sophomore was visibly offended by the analogy. "I've never heard the U.S. compared to Job," he said, and his words provoked laughs around the room.

The conversation continued for some time, probing ethical and political questions with a collegial ebb and flow. When it was time to wrap up, Professor McDonough and Professor O'Connor joked that they have dramatically different nicknames for the Honors program--the Department of Truth and Beauty (McDonough) and the Department of Woe and Intrigue (O'Connor). This raised smiles, but everybody appreciated the point behind the humor--the nicknames are both apt and demonstrate the intersection in the Honors program of the life of the mind and the life of the troubled spirit.

The best that one can hope for from studying such things, Professor O'Connor said, is what Wordsworth holds out at the end of "The Prelude," Book XIV: "What we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how."

Toby Lester

Toby Lester is a writer based in Boston. His article "Abolitionists," about the Healing the Wounds of Murder Conference cosponsored by Boston College last spring, appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of BCM.

Photo: In the Honors library, seated from left, are Peter Kammerer '04, Tania Rudnitsky '04, Kathryn Jefferis '05, Katerina Montaniel '04, and Becky Herhold '04. Standing, from left, are Matthew Gaul '04, Colleen Hughes '05, Tristan Nelson '04, Kristen Nazar '04, and Dave Pedulla '04. Photo by Lee Pellegrini


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