Friday, March 22, 2024

I met with Frederick Copleston

In 1965 I had a meeting with Frederick Copleston. I have been trying to collect my memories of our visit. It was 60 years ago and not a huge breakthrough event in my spiritual journey so parts of it are hazy and will remain so, but given that I was the only undergraduate on the schedule of a renowned Jesuit philosopher, it was an honor and as you will see, memorable. Father Bill Nolan, the Dartmouth Newman chaplain of course knew that I wanted to become a Jesuit and did everything he could to encourage me which was the explicit reason for the interview.

But the process of memory is notoriously unreliable. Recall activates a selective circuit in the brain, and we tend to recall those juicy bits that support the stories we tell ourselves. Even if the date, time and location are reasonably accurate, even if they can be verified, it still might be difficult to remember if it was a bright day or if the autumn winds were blowing. Even then the data collection system is not as if it were a selfie with the Pope. On top of that the things that we retrieve may in themselves hold some key that we are not fully aware of. There could be some mystery solving to be done, even if it’s just trying to remember the crumbs that you laid on the path to grandma’s house. 

Copleston came to Dartmouth, and stayed at the Newman Center for perhaps a week. I checked the online archives to see if I could identify some event or colloquia in the Philosophy Department. None. Perhaps he had been scheduled at BC, Harvard or Fordham, and Nolan arranged to have him lecture at the Aquinas Center which was something he often did. That is possible, even likely. But it is also likely that even if Copleston were in Hanover at the invitation of the College, he would have stayed at Aquinas House. He was a very traditional old school Jesuit; I am sure he rose at 5 AM every day, did his meditation and then said Mass. Mass would not have been very difficult if the College put him up in a hotel room.

Bill Nolan gave him the office of his assistant for the week, and Copleston had office hours. I’m sure many Dartmouth faculty were anxious to meet him. I remember that my hour was carefully scheduled. I remember what he wore. Over a simply tailored black suit and a tall white collar that I associated with Anglican clerics, he wore what I thought was a very strange robe, even for a scholar priest. It might have been a don’s gown from Heythrop. It was not the long black Jesuit habit that I knew from the Jesuits at Fairfield. There was no sash and the sleeves seemed to be broad black ribbons that dropped from the elbow. I recall that his speech was very precise and soft spoken. I would characterize it as meticulous. He didn’t rush and my memory even after 60 years was that he was a careful listener. Google tells me that he would have been just a few years older than my father, but I didn’t get any daddy vibe. 

He had just published Volume 7 of his monumental 11 volume History of Philosophy: Fichte to Nietzsche; his debates about the existence of God with Bertrand Russell which made him very famous in Catholic circles took place at least 15 years earlier, but I had no questions to ask about his writing or the debate. Perhaps Bill Nolan had told him that I wanted to enter the Jesuits or I did, but I told him about my parents' vehement opposition.

I was now 21 and could enter without their permission, and I was tempted to do that, but I promised them that I would finish college before I set off on what they considered a disastrous career choice. He asked me what I was studying, whether I liked it, and pointed out how it would certainly do no harm when I became a Jesuit. Then he asked why I wanted to be a Jesuit. I may have mumbled something about being impressed by certain scholastics and priests in prep school. Then he got personal and told me that his own parents had opposed his becoming a Catholic priest, but he persisted and continued to treat them with love and respect. He said that they eventually came to support his decision. He thought that it was a good idea that I finish my degree at Dartmouth. After some quiet time, he looked at his watch and said that he would have to begin preparing for another meeting, but that he would pray for me. 

I had an interview with the man whom I imagined could have removed any doubt about Aquinas’s Unmoved Mover argument for the existence of God, and instead received the promise of prayer to resolve a painful family situation. 


Doug McFerran said...

After leaving the Society and then teaching philosophy at a community college, I needed a far more thorough understanding of Western philosophy than what we had at the Mount. Copleston became my go-to source with some of his paperback books required for my classes (far less expensive than usual textbooks). Thanks for letting me see this remarkable man in a new light.

richardcpfaff@yaho,com said...

Great article, Ken. Brings home the humanity behind an intellectual giant. Only small disappointment was not getting to his response re "Aquinas's Unmoved Mover."

Ken said...

Yes Doug, a few years later several of those thin volumes would stand on my desk and receive a lot of thumb marks and folded over pages. His writing style was also clear and precise. I think that the choice of Penguin Books might have been deliberate, There was an optimism that correct thinking was an antidote to some of the world’s ills, Among the more famous converts just after the second world war, both Dulles and Merton mention the influence of √Čtienne Gilson in their path of conversion. Richard, the Unmoved Mover will be tinkered with in the larger article, perhaps not thoroughly enough to satisfy, but I have not neglected it.