Many years ago, one of my juniors answered one of his his mid-term exam essays in gorgeous, Ciceronian Latin. It was a pretty fine essay; with a bonus for the Latin I gave him 9.5/10. It will come as no surprise that he went on to study Classics at the University of Virginia.
I have never seen such a performance since then, but I encourage my students every year to try to dominate the essays with more than mere knowledge. Wisdom! Synthesis! Be remarkable! This year, for the first time, one of them tried his hand at composing all his essays, both mid-term and final, in the quaestio format of the Scholastics.
Regrettably, this more recent student is not quite as good as my classics genius from bygone years. The content in each respondeo is just too thin, barely stating the conclusion and devoid of argument or exploration. Many claims are dubious or flat-out wrong. In comparison to the excitement of seeing the format, the delivery is a letdown.
However–and this is a big however!–this all turns out to be for the best. The failed content delivery makes all the more evident the strengths of the quaestio format, which in turn allows me to see the things my student does get right.
The objections are extremely well-chosen and show a nearly perfect framing for the question even when he makes mistakes in them. They could be worded better to imitate St. Thomas, and they could certainly be polished up for greater argumentative effect, but for a student effort they are really good. By laying them out in system, he made it easy for me to see that he gets the question–something many of my students with higher test scores fail to do.
The method makes all the more evident that his argument–what I call the kung-fu stage of each article–is weak. The faults are glaringly obvious when stripped of all the rhetorical flim-flam that students use in hopeless attempts to veil their ignorance. It’s my job to see through the flim-flam and not be cozened by it; in the quaestio method we have an honesty and humility that makes my job far easier.
It’s not just easier to grade. It’s easier to correct. I could sit down with a student and conference over such a project to dramatic effect. Redirection is easy when the work is laid out so nicely. Indeed, I could run a suitable Oxford tutorial-style class around this kind of project (assuming I had the luxury of time and assuming all my students put forth a commitment equal to this one).
So here is the glorious failure in all its hideous strength (numerous spelling errors of a dyslexic boy corrected). Enjoy:
Q1 Whether one virtue is necessary for them all?
Objection 1: All the virtues are separate species. It is redundant to assign separate species to things which are always found together. Therefore, the virtues must not be necessary for each other.
Objection 2: It would seem that the virtues do not depend on each other, because it is impossible for a man to be perfected in all the virtues. However, we observe the virtues in men.
On the contrary, it is said, “Who lacks one virtue lacks them all.”
I answer that each virtue depends on the others. All the virtues depend on prudence in that prudence helps us discern the good and act on the good. The virtues are good. Therefore prudence helps us discern and act on the other virtues.
Without temperance, our senses control us. This state would make it impossible to act virtuously. Therefore temperance is necessary for all virtues.
Fortitude gives us the power to act virtuously in face of danger. Without fortitude the other virtues would only operate when they are least needed.
We owe virtuous behavior to ourselves and to God. Justice governs debt, and is therefore necessary to all the virtues.
Reply to Objection 1: We assign different species to the virtues because their ends differ [[ed. aiieee! I clearly did not scream at them enough that virtues are specified by their objects!]]. Furthermore, virtues can appear in different levels, and so it is useful to talk about them separately.
Reply to Objection 2: While it is impossible to be perfected in all virtues, this is not necessary to be virtuous, only that you have some of each virtue.
Q2 Whether lying and simple fornication are basically the same thing.
Objection 1: It would seem that lying and simple fornication are unrelated because they concern different vices.
Objection 2: It would seem that they are unrelated, because lying concerns a corruption of the speech act, while simple fornication concerns a corruption of the venereal act.
Objection 3: It would seem that they are unrelated because lying is an offense against an individual, while simple fornication is an offense against the species, as it is an intemperance.
On the contrary, the Abbey Religion Teacher says, “lying and simple fornication are basically the same thing.” [[ed. in the exam question he’s answering]]
I answer that, both lying and simple fornication deny an individual access to some rights. Lying unjustly denies the receiver of the lie the truth, which all men are owed. Simple fornication denies a potential child proper access to parents, and potentially denies them access to the community.
Reply to objection 1: While they are different vices, both can be a type of injustice.
Reply to objection 2: While they are corruptions of different acts, their ends are similar.
Reply to objection 3: Simple fornication is only an offense against the species because an offspring may not be produced. If an offspring is produced it is an offense against that individual, like lying.
Q3 What do we mean by “Pax in Sapientia” [[ed. the school motto]]
Objection 1: It would seem that Pax in Sapientia means that one can find peace by understanding.
Objection 2: In the St. Anselm’s Abbey School Anthem, it is said, “By your pax in sapientia, through peace we understand.” [[ed. a particularly odious mistranslation that I refuse to sing]]. Therefore, “through peace we understand” is what is meant by Pax in Sapientia.
Objection 3: Pax in Sapientia means that we should try to understand peace.
Objection 4: Pax in Sapientia means we should understand things peacefully.
On the contrary, a phrase, especially a semi-poetic one, can have multiple meanings.
I answer that, Pax in Sapientia has a three-fold meaning. First, it means that peace is necessary for understanding. In Proslogion 1 [[ed. which we read in Form III, two years previously]], St. Anselm talks about a need to “turn awhile from worldly distractions” before we can seek the face of God, or try to understand Him.
Second, it means we should understand peace. Peace is a transcendental, as it relates to a whole goodness and unchanging thing, all of which are transcendentals [[ed. I think he got garbled and lost some words there]]. Therefore peace can be converted with God. Because God is the final end, we should seek to understand Him. Therefore we should seek to understand peace.
Third, we should seek to understand peacefully and virtuously. The man who seeks unnecessary or harmful knowledge sins. Therefore we should seek peace in our pursuit of knowledge.
[[ed. no replies; I think he ran out of time]]