Marcus Berquist, 1934-2010


Beati mundo corde: quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt. (Matt 5:8)

Brilliantly intelligent people are seldom very humble, and this is a great pity, for without humility no one can be wise. There is a wonderful reflection on this in Ratzinger’s book Auf Christus Schauen: the greatness of being only shows itself to the one who is humble before it, the one who is ready to submit himself to the majesty before which we are not judges (“critical thinkers”) but beggars. To me, as to so many of my fellow Thomas Aquinas College alumni, the great example of wisdom founded on deep humility as well as extraordinary intelligence was one of the founders of our alma mater, Marcus Berquist, who passed away on All Soul’s Day.

Glen Coughlin’s remark that he was “the teacher to whom I owe the most” is true for most of Mr. Berquist’s students. He was a great teacher, but not in an obvious superficial sense. He did not bubble over with excitement and energy. He had himself been a student of Charles De Koninck at Laval, but he was of a very different character from his teacher. De Koninck had a restless, adventurous mind, and used vehement rhetoric; Mr. Berquist was shy and soft spoken and had a very careful and methodical mind. He was a great teacher, but it took a while for his greatness to sink in. The first class that I had with him was on the atomic theory. I had known Mr. Berquist all my life (he is my Godfather) and I was expecting great things, but the class seemed kind of dull and plodding at first. His attention to the obvious seemed almost pedantic, and at he seemed to reign in the conversation whenever it got really interesting. It was was his keen sense of humor that began to win us over: it almost always shone through in the service of helping us to not forget the obvious. When we began to get excited about seeing the implications of Dalton’s law of multiple proportions, for instance, Mr. Berquist quoted an Ogden Nash poem (“Because it isn’t potash etcetera that makes people Republicans or Democrats or Ghibellines or Guelphs, It’s the natural perversity of the people themselfs…”) It was his great virtue to see the importance of looking careful at what is most known to us, and to move carefully from that to what was less known. He did not get carried away.

He was a great teacher, because he was a great learner. In his wonderful lecture “Learning and Discipleship” he talks about how all philosophical learning begins in wonder. A man with philosophical wonder (he explains) knows that there are things worth knowing, but which he does not know. He is filled with desire to know those things and willing to devote his life to searching for them. But he realizes that there is a great danger of error. His fear of error comes from the very experience that gives rise to wonder: he sees that the way he things at first seemed is not the way things actually are. But like Heraclitus he is sure that the hidden harmony is better than the apparent one, and he is resolved to find it. But if such a man looks to the philosophers to answer his questions what does he find?  “A babble of discordant voices. There seems to be no philosophical issue about which men have not had the most profound disagreements” (p. 46). Faced with this dismal prospect the man of wonder has three options: he can become a skeptic, despairing of learning about the things themselves he will instead become a “connoisseur” of what men have said about things. Or he can become a Cartesian:

The Cartesian procedure is an attempt at a solution, but it is one that doesn’t work. It assumes that all philosophers hitherto have failed, but one can succeed if only one finds the right method; and that method is something mathematical or quasi-mathematical. [p.49; this is brilliantly explicated on pp. 47-49]

The last option is the one which Mr. Berquist himself takes– it is to become a disciple. A disciple is one who submits himself to a master whom he believes to have knowledge and the ability to lead others to attain that knowledge themselves. Thus the man of wonder tries to find someone among the babble of philosophical voices who actually knows. Mr.  Berquist found this master in the human teacher whom the Church herself proposes: S. Thomas Aquinas, and in S. Thomas’s own philosophical master Aristotle.

This college, in leading its students in the quest for wisdom, is defined by discipleship [to Aristotle and S. Thomas]. For we do not think wisdom can be attained in any other way. (p. 53)

He wrote that out of true humility, knowing how improbable that is that man, whose mind is posterior to and measured by the things that it knows should attain wisdom. That Aristotle achieved some measure of it was due to a most extraordinary succession of masters and disciples: Socrates was (on his own admission) not wise, but he made a uniquely good beginning, and by extraordinary good fortune he was followed by disciples capaple of building on his foundation:

Had Socrates not been followed by Plato, and Plato by Aristotle, what would have come down to us? I shall make another assertion here, following Saint Thomas: what was begun in Socrates and was continued in Plato, was corrected and perfected in Aristotle. That is why Saint Thomas describes Aristotle not only as a philosopher, but as the Philosopher. But there never would have been an Aristotle without a Plato, and never a Plato without a Socrates. This shows even more clearly the improbability of a sufficient beginning. Never again will there be three such men in immediate succession. This is something we cannot expect or gamble on. Such a succession has apparently never occurred in the ages before, and it is not likely to occur again in the future. Furthermore, Plato was a disciple of Socrates—not just one who learned from him, but a disciple. And Aristotle was a disciple of Plato. […] Thus, it would seem, the great originals are not the greatest minds, and the greatest minds are not original. The former are unique and improbable beginnings; the latter bring philosophy to a certain perfection only by being at first diligent and attentive to their masters. (pp. 52-53)

Mr. Berquist himself is a luminous example of one who attained great wisdom through great docility to his master. One could apply to him the words which his own teacher, De Koninck, applied to their common master:

In St. Thomas we are constantly aware of a docility toward things, toward the shortcomings of his own mind, and toward that other source of philosophy, the great spirits who already know, and even those who have shown us what not to do.

He had a deep piety toward S. Thomas and Aristotle, but it was never exaggerated– he was keenly aware of their fallibility. He only used his them to approach reality itself, and never adopted their doctrine till he saw its truth. If he did not yet see how (or whether) something they said was true, he would patiently work at it for years at a time. “Where others quoted the great philosophers and theologians,” his fellow Thomas Aquinas College founder Ronald McArthur has said, “his whole intent was concentrated on the realities of which they spoke.” His piety toward his human masters was totally subordinate to his piety toward the Author of being Himself:

God cannot be deceived, He cannot be wrong. As the Act of Faith has it, He can neither deceive nor be deceived. Thus, for the learner to know what God says is to know the truth. With respect to a human teacher that is not so. To know what he says is one thing, but to know whether what he says is true is another. (p. 23)

What Bossuet says of the Prince de Condé could be said with much more justice of Marcus Berquist: “piety is the essence of the man.”

James Chastek writes of him, “His arguments had more clarity, force, simplicity, order and fidelity to St. Thomas than any contemporary Thomist I have ever known.” And it was indeed his fidelity to St. Thomas that gave his arguments their clarity, force, simplicity, and order. Particularly order. The chief office of the human teacher (Mr. Berqist often said, including in the above linked lecture pp. 11-18) is to provide the disciple with order. A human teacher (in contrast to God) always has to presuppose knowledge in the learner; he can only lead the learner from what the learner already knows to what he does not know. The human teacher is not the principle cause of the disciple’s learning. The disciple has to see what is virtually contained in the things he already knows by the power of his own mind. What the human teacher provides is order. He brings the student to consider the things he knows in a certain order, so that conclusions can be drawn from them. He leads the disciple to understand the unknown through its similitude to the known. Finally, the the teacher ought not merely to order the disciple’s thoughts with respect to a certain question; he ought to determine the order in which the learner takes up different questions:

[The teacher] tells you what you should think about now and what you should think about later, what you should investigate first, what you should investigate later. Because the mind is not equally disposed to all the objects that it might know, those objects have to be taken up in a certain order. If they are not taken up in that order, no one will learn anything of great significance. (“Learning and Discipleship” p. 16)

At this point in his argument Mr. Berquist pays a debt of gratitude to his own teachers:

One of the reasons I am profoundly grateful to my own teachers is that, when I was a beginner in philosophy, they directed me firmly with respect to such things. They told me, do not think about that now, think about this. For if you grow up in the modern intellectual milieu, almost as soon as you begin to study philosophy you are confronted with a number of difficulties that question the very possibility of knowledge, the reality of the external world, and other things which should be taken as given, especially by a beginner. And you can easily get lost in questions of that sort. So I am grateful to my teachers and pray for them every day of my life because they directed me away from such questions. They said, ‘‘Is that a problem for you out of your own experience?’’ I would say, ‘‘no.’’ ‘‘Why is it a problem for you?’’ ‘‘Because somebody said so.’’ ‘‘Leave it aside, wait until you are older and wiser; then you can fruitfully investigate those skeptical questions; they are not the beginning of philosophy. They pre-suppose that a great many things have been understood beforehand.’’ And if I had not been directed that way, I would be much worse off now. I would in fact be nowhere. (pp. 17-18)

It is a testimony that many could pay Mr. Berquist himself, and will continue to pay him, for this element of his teaching is embodied in the order of the curriculum at TAC, of which he was the main architect.

Mr. Berquist was not concerned with being original, but this did not prevent him from in fact discovering things truths which no one had ever seen before. He was, to take an example from the lowly realm of physics, the first to demonstrate that in any motion from rest speed cannot be proportional to distance. A truth which Galileo himself had been unable to prove, though he came to hold it (after initially holding the opposite; see this paper by Michael Augros pp. 7-8). But such discoveries where secondary to main aim of beholding the principles of things.

Anyone hearing him laying out (say) Aristotle’s account of the principles of nature, with the clarity and mastery of someone who knew it better than the back of his hand, might think that he never did anything other than read Aristotle, but this was far from true. I remember once asking him, “what are you going to read this summer, Mr. Berquist,” and he answered, “Oh, Aristotle and S. Thomas.” But he read a great many other things as well. He particularly loved to read comic novelists—especially Wodehouse and Orwell. “Bertie Wooster,” he would say, “is my favorite Wodehouse character: all the others are perfectly selfish, but Bertie is always getting into scrapes to help people.” He once invited a bunch of homeless tramps to his house for dinner, and drew them into a long conversation about Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. “They were excellent critics of it,” he recounted, “since they knew what he was taking about from experience.” He was tremendously well read, but never made a parade of his learning—when it came to the surface it was without design. I remember once, when the Berquists visited my family in Austria, that we were taking about the trees outside the window, and someone said, “that one is called an “Ulme” in German, but I’m not sure what that is in English. “Oh,” said Mr. Berquist, “probably an elm. You know, like in Virgil: In medio ramos annosaque brachia pandit ulmus opaca…”

I can scarcely think of anyone so gentle, humble, and mild as Berquist, and these things were the fruits of a deep life of prayer. He was a great example of prayer, and we should take that example and pray for him now. During his last illness he said that he offered up his sufferings for all the people who were praying for him, and I am sure that he is now interceding for all those who are praying for his soul. So, of your charity, pray for the repose of the soul Marcus Berquist.

3 thoughts on “Marcus Berquist, 1934-2010

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