The forty immortals

In Paris recently I was invited by a friend, a member of the French Academy, to attend a session of that august assembly. At the appointed hour (or well in advance, to tell the truth) my wife and I appeared outside the classic building on the Place de l'Institut, where a small crowd was already gathering, each individual clutching a ticket coded in a particular color and providing entrance by one of several doors. An air of discreet excitement prevailed; a perfect orderliness seasoned by an evident desire not to be the last to gain entrance to the hall.

The Academy, as many readers doubtless are aware, is a venerable institution imparting to those favored by membership an unexcelled prestige. Established early in the seventeenth century under the impetus of Cardinal Richelieu, it converted what has been a circle of literary friends, gathering periodically to compare their works and to exchange news of the intellectual world, into an institution charged with responsibility for the glory of French letters and the traditional purity of the French tongue. Through the intervening centuries it has remained largely unchanged. Its ceremonies and rituals are still charmingly preserved. Its history has been that of the arrival and passing of immortal names -- the great figures in whom France has found its purpose expressed and its vision defined.

The session which I attended was to mark the seating of a recently elected member. The procedure calls for the novice to pronounce an address eulogizing the departed Academician to whose chair he has succeeded. His sponsor then responds with reflections upon the scholarly and intellectual merits of the newest member. All that grace of spirit and nobility of language can convey, all that true feeling and disciplined perception can reveal, is summoned on these occasions. At best the eloquence is tempered by sobriety, and the sobriety is enlivened by wit. We heard Henry Gouhier, historian of philosophy, praise the departed Etienne Gilson, whose friend and disciple he had been for fifty years. The philosopher Jean Guitton replied, not without the most delicately formulated criticism of his friend's tendency to see philosophy as embodied in scattered and fragmentary glimpses of truth.

The hall in which the Academy meets is dominated by an immense cupola -- its height appeared to be a hundred feet pr more. The absolute symmetry of the chamber below allows for a circular arrangement of crowded but comfortable leather chairs. A sector of the circle remained unfilled; until, with a roll of drums, the forty academicians entered and took their places. Some bore the traditional sword of their office; some were handsomely clothed in green embroidered vests. But what one saw most were the faces: the subtle marks of long vigils and lonely searches for perfection.

I remembered Etienne Gilson, the noted Catholic philosopher being eulogized. He came to Yale more than once when I was a student in the 1930s, and we gathered about him, finding in his lectures on the Middle Ages something at once puzzling and strangely relevant to our own quests. I had not known that he lived through all the subsequent decades, still writing and still exploring new fields, until he recently passed on in his mid-nineties. Now the image of the younger man returned to me, and in those imposing and unfamiliar surroundings I felt again the excitement of mind and spirit he had once evoked.

The very existence of philosophy is precarious today, with our American universities struggling, often in vain, to keep it alive. For a few hours, that afternoon in Paris, it seemed to hold its old sovereignty. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, took their places within the "luminous architecture" of a world once more made rational and comprehensible. Yet even the Academicians knew the times were uncongenial. We must hope, said Jean Guitton, that philosophy will be reborn after the materialist crisis of our times, according to "the rhythms and the recommencements" of history.

The word "recommencements" echoed in my mind as we went once more into the everyday world. It is not quite an English Word; we do not have a precise equivalent. Yet the sense it conveys of man's ever-renewed quest, of his determination to begin again even when much seems lost, carries our best hope for a civilized future. The past does still illuminate the future, and perhaps Philosophy, long the queen of sciences, will once more attain its throne.

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