Years ago, a friend, now dead for many years, gave me a copy of “The Letters of Evelyn Waugh.” I picked this book up the other day. On the inside cover, she had written a note. It reads: “As Flannery [O’Connor] says: ‘Don’t make an algebra problem out of this [book], just enjoy it.'” I smiled when I re-read this playful analysis of Schall’s character. I wonder if anyone enjoys algebra problems. Obviously, my friend didn’t think so but suspected Schall just might think that they exist where they don’t belong. Basically, if a thing is not algebra, do not treat it as if it is.

Many amusing passages are found in this book of literally hundreds and hundreds of Waugh’s letters. The first letter dates from May, 1914; the last is from March 30, 1966. Waugh died on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966.

Waugh arrived at Hertford College, Oxford, early in 1922. He writes to his friend Dudley Carew. After some banter about college friends (“Stick to Jonslow, he alone may be able to keep you wicked”), Waugh tells Carew: “I don’t feel that I can tell you all about Oxford yet. Largely because I haven’t myself got it into full perspective. All I can say is that it is immensely beautiful and immensely different from anything I have seen written about it, except perhaps, `Know you, her secret none can utter.'”

This last line comes from a poem “Alma Mater,” by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1890, but it may go back to Thackeray. The next line of the poem reads: “Hers of the Book, the tripled Crown.” At first, I did not know to what this second line referred. But it is the insignia used on books published by the Oxford University Press.

I realized that I had never paid attention to this insignia. I went to my shelves, but the first book that I looked at from Oxford, Tracey Rowland’s book on Benedict XVI, had no such insignia. The second book I found, Werner Jaeger’s “Aristotle,” however, did have it. On it, we see an open book at the top of each open page is a crown, with a third one at the bottom in the middle. The words of the text on the pages are “Dominus Illuminatio Mea.”

These Latin words are the opening words of Psalm 27, “The Lord is my Light.” These, of course, are the proper words for a university and its press, not just the light of intelligence, but the source of that light. Around the book are four more seals that symbolized the quadrivium, the four ways, the four studies of arithmetic, astronomy, music and geometry, while the trivium, the three ways, symbolized by the crowns, referred to grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. This is the medieval source of all universities.

Evidently with these classical studies in mind, Waugh added: “I haven’t got my friends into anything like an ordered sequence yet. Most of them are very clever but earnest.” That is most amusing. We would expect Waugh to say that his friends are “very clever and very earnest,” or “not very clever but still earnest.” The “clever but earnest” shows what we can do with our language. The word “clever” often has a rather pejorative meaning. “Though not particularly intelligent, but he was clever.”

But I want to go back to Waugh’s first impressions of Oxford. He had read about it, of course. How often do we read about a place but find, on seeing it, that we had no real sense of the place? One thinks of his first time seeing the Healy building. Waugh sees that Oxford is “immensely beautiful.” The things he read about it did not do it justice.

Then Waugh remembered that he had read the Quiller-Couch’s line about Oxford. “Know you, her secrets none can utter.” This passage perhaps explained why he could not relate the actual place to what he had read about her. We might think that the very purpose of a university is to “reveal secrets” and, once revealed, to “utter” them. Why, we wonder, can none tell them?

Perhaps it has to do with the Oxford motto, Dominus Illuminatio Mea. The secret of no thing that is, Aquinas tells us, can be fully fathomed by us, even in a university, or perhaps especially there. Possibly, on coming to Oxford, we did not know that there were secrets that could not be uttered. The poet corrects us. “Know you..”

To know what we do not know takes us back to Socrates and the beginnings of philosophy. The motto tells us why it is we do not know even when we know. A university at its best is not the Light, but a path, perhaps many paths reflected in the Light. The trivium means three viae, three paths, the quodrivium means four paths. A university that does not tread its way towards the Light, to what cannot fully be “uttered,” is not a university.

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