Today marks an important event in the history of Mount St. Mary’s University—the inaugural issue of The Brownson Record. It is my hope that this journal will elevate the national discourse on critical issues by providing a unique Catholic perspective from Mount students, faculty, alumni, and affiliated scholars. Orestes Brownson, in many ways, represents the lifelong quest for truth and its defense, which renders him the perfect namesake of this new journal. As this endeavor proceeds, it is worth considering a few lessons from Brownson himself, which might help students make the most of their time at the Mount.
First, always approach your work and your studies as Brownsonian lovers of truth. Brownson begins his magisterial work, The American Republic, by noting “[t]he ancients summed up the whole of human wisdom in the maxim, Know Thyself.” Consider hanging this two-word Delphic directive in your dorm rooms and in your faculty offices. Use it to guide your liberal arts learning and teaching at the Mount, illuminating our mission of imparting truth from all directions and disciplines in furtherance of what Brownson describes as the Catholic, or “universal truth, all truth, and all truth in and for all ages and nations.”
Why does truth matter? Because those who live by the truth live freely. As Solzhenitsyn famously advised, “Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me. The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.”
Knowing the truth also prepares you for some unhappy certainties in life: failure, loss, and pain. Life is hard and, at times, feels deeply unfair. You may lose your job, get passed up for promotions, have friends who let you down, or see loved ones pass away too young. If you know what is true, what is good, what is right—knowledge that comes from a Catholic liberal arts education—you will overcome these challenges and be able to keep your eyes on the “universal truth” that Brownson describes.
Second, model Brownson’s curiosity and humility in matters of the mind. Brownson started as a Presbyterian. He then became a Universalist, a proto-socialist, a humanitarian, an atheist, and a Transcendentalist—all before converting to Catholicism at the age of 41. In the words of biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “In the course of a long and stormy life, Brownson took almost every side of every hot question and was a sledgehammer controversialist at every step along his tempestuous path.” Even if you do not undergo such a radical metamorphosis during your life (and I hope you don’t!), in your search for truth, you should be willing, as Brownson was, to follow your “honest convictions whithersoever they should lead.”
For students, the four years you have at the Mount are the best opportunity you will ever have in your life to shape your intellectual and moral character. It is an extraordinary time of immersing yourself in both a strong liberal arts education and our Catholic community. Upon graduating, you will move on to your next stage in life—acknowledging the salutary closing of doors and the happy narrowing of paths, as you commit to spouses, families, vocations, and communities. When you are 40 years old and managing a challenging career and a rambunctious family, you may not have time to meditate on Plato or Aquinas. But if you do the work now to understand fundamental truths, you will be able to draw on that wellspring of wisdom and remain grounded in truth during the hectic years to come.
As a private sector executive and public sector official, I have referenced the works of Aristotle, Kant, and other humane thinkers, but those occasions have been rare. Yet nearly every day—as the faculty can attest to—I reflect in some way on the enduring lessons and truths those great thinkers imparted. I believe I am a better man, husband, father, citizen, and leader because of the education I received at the Mount.
Finally, I encourage you to heed Brownson’s intelligent patriotism and devotion to the Constitution. Brownson was, above all else, a Catholic. He also recognized that the American civilization, including “our social and political constitution, [and] our arrangements to secure freedom,” “comes nearer to the realization of the Catholic ideal than any which has been heretofore developed and actualized.” Much has changed for the better since Brownson wrote these words more than a century and a half ago, but it cannot be denied that our public discourse around the Constitution grows shallower and less reasoned by the day. This new journal, along with your time at the Mount, will equip you to be (in Brownson’s words) “living men, active, thinking men, great men, men of commanding genius, of generous aims, and high and noble aspirations.” Today we would rightly say “women and men,” but the point remains: we must all strive, in Lincoln’s words, to “nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” Soon enough that responsibility will pass to Generation Z.
The Mount’s motto, spes nostra, which means “our hope,” has for over 200 years epitomized the school’s mission of educating students “empowered for leadership in the Church, the professions, and the world.” It is hard to think of a greater fulfillment of that mission than the ambitious and courageous efforts of Mount students and faculty to launch The Brownson Record.
Heath P. Tarbert was the 14th Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). He currently works as Chief Legal Officer at Citadel Securities, a Chicago-based capital market company. Heath is a graduate of the class of 1998.