Early in the Inferno, Dante turns to Virgil and asks him to explain the forbidding inscription over the Gate of Hell, which concludes, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Virgil’s reply is surprising, even shocking:
“Here one must leave behind all hesitation;
here every cowardice must meet its death.
For we have reached the place of which I spoke,
where you will see the miserable people,
those who have lost the good of the intellect.”
Don’t be so timid, he’s saying. Don’t give in to the mystique of despair. If you want to achieve something, go after it boldly. With “gladness on his face,” Virgil urges on the pilgrim, who is now in possession of a ringing truth: one thing characterizes all imprisoned souls, according to Virgil. They “have lost the good of the intellect.”
The word intellect might seem an odd one here. Having an “intellect” strikes most people in our culture as an expensive luxury, like having the refined palate of a gourmand. It’s a faculty one might cultivate in his spare time; it’s associated with “intellectuals.” But in Dante’s understanding, which draws upon the whole biblical and philosophic heritage of his time, the intellect is the faculty that should govern every one of us. Salvation itself depends upon keeping the good of this governing faculty, not neglecting it and so losing it. Thinking well is not the luxury of the few but the necessity of all.
This fundamental insight underlies the Catholic tradition of education in the liberal arts, and certainly it explains the very existence of the integrated curriculum Wyoming Catholic College. When I was an undergraduate at a huge state university, getting an education was a haphazard matter of distribution requirements; only rarely did the subject matter in different classes overlap and coincide. By contrast, the founders of WCC designed the curriculum to foster integration across every dimension of college life. In the classroom, we think through the things that liberate and ennoble the human mind. In every course, we give the intellect of each student a thorough experience of the very grain and texture of truth, as if it were a rock face he or she were climbing in the outdoor program. Students come to know the temperature of the good, not only in their classes and in their encounters with Christ at Mass or in private prayer, but also in particular actions and persons, sometimes on trips in the wilderness, often in daily life in Lander. They experience the luminosity of beauty in the Wind River Mountains, the poetry of Homer, the art of Giotto, and the music of Bach.
To be liberally educated is to be a free human being. The “liberal” arts draw upon deeper meanings of liberality—to be free in giving, to be generous, to be magnanimous. Unlike those prematurely limited to practical studies, students educated in the liberal arts have a wealth of the intellect that enables them to give of themselves, to be readily adaptable and prepared to pursue any calling or profession. They’re grounded in reality: they know how to learn and they know how to act.
Keeping the good of the intellect ultimately means loving the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Word Himself. No one will claim that keeping this good intact is easy. As the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says in one of his late sonnets, “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” But placing the good of the intellect always at the fore, increasing it in in those we teach, forming the habits that make real virtue possible—these aims define what we do here at Wyoming Catholic College.
A famous prayer of St. Raphael begins “O Raphael, lead us towards those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us!” Perhaps the fact that you are reading these words is already Raphael’s answer. Welcome.