How the Great Books seminar turned a radical poet into a philosopher and priest.
By Benjamin Recchie, AB’03 | Photography by Chris Kirzeder
Father Benedict Ashley, AM’37, lives in a modest, one-room home in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Surrounded by books—he has written 16 himself—he wears the black-and-white habit that Dominican priests and brothers have worn since the Middle Ages. The setting is apt for a priest who is also an influential American Catholic philosopher. It’s only a few miles away from Hyde Park, but for the impassioned leftist and atheist who attended UChicago in the 1930s, his near-monastic home marks a long way traveled.
He was born Winston Norman Ashley in Neodesha, Kansas, in 1915 and raised in Blackwell, Oklahoma—a “clean, bleak little prairie town,” he says. His parents were not educated but valued learning enough to invest in a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Not good at sports and games as a boy, he read constantly. His physical limitations engendered “great sympathy for oppressed minorities,” and he thought of himself as a pacifist. His parents believed that religion had been disproven by science, and he describes his boyhood beliefs as “humanistic atheist.”
By the time Ashley was in high school, he knew what he wanted to be: a writer. He had tried his hand at poetry, even written a novel in verse. In his senior year, Ashley heard of a competition for a scholarship to the University of Chicago. He knew nothing about the school and had never been anywhere larger than Wichita. But it was the nadir of the Great Depression, and there was no hope of his parents paying for any further education. He entered the competition and won. In the fall of 1933, he traveled to Chicago.
In the first month of classes, Ashley lost ten pounds—he was too excited to eat. He still recalls arriving: “I went from Union Station by taxi out to the University of Chicago by the Outer Drive. And, oh, I couldn’t believe it—this huge city!” He quickly befriended students with different religious backgrounds. One, a fellow Oklahoman, was Jewish; another was Catholic. A third was Unitarian, a minister’s son from New England. He made time to go to the symphony, the opera, and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
During his first year Ashley also attended a meeting of the American Student Union, a leftist organization opposed to the possibility of a peacetime draft. He met a number of student Communists there and joined the Young Communist League. He remembers marching to Haymarket Square with red flags during a May Day rally in 1934. A socialist acquaintance, though, “wised me up that the Communist Party was not really Marxist but nationalistic, and that only the Trotskyites”—in the form of the Young People’s Socialist League and later the Socialist Workers’ Party—“were in favor of world revolution. So I joined the world revolution, and for a year or so I was a card-carrying member.” (On campus, Ashley notes, the “world revolution” consisted of about a hundred interested students.) By 1936, he would trade his fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi, for a socialist co-op.
While the Marxists marched, another revolution was roiling campus in the 1930s: what the Maroon called “the war between facts and ideas.” According to Ashley, President Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, professor of law, championed “ideas”: a classical education based on reading and discussing influential texts. Other faculty joined Anton Carlson, professor of physiology, in advocating the pragmatic, fact-based approach to learning of John Dewey.
To put their ideas into practice, Hutchins and Adler in 1931 set up the honors seminar that would become famous: The Great Books of the Western World. Ashley’s good grades earned him admission in the fall of his second year. At a clip of a book a week, students read St. Augustine, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Gustave Flaubert, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and more. Both Adler and Hutchins liked to ask hard questions, Ashley remembers. “If you gave an answer, then they would ask another question, and another question, and another question, driving you up the wall. You had to fight back with your reasons, and if you saw you were wrong, you had to admit you were wrong and move on.” Adler’s classroom style was almost prosecutorial, and he grew heated as he grilled the students. Then Hutchins would step in, “very handsome, cool, devastatingly witty,” and question in a more removed, ironic style.
Ashley, by then an “ideas” partisan, spent six quarters in Great Books while continuing his studies in English and staying active in the Trotskyite movement. He saw no contradiction in pursuing both literature and radicalism, but one of his professors did: the playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, a boyhood friend of Hutchins who taught at the University from 1930 to 1936. Wilder, Ashley remembers, tried to convince him that “a poet has his own vocations that cannot be tied to politics.” Ashley wasn’t moved but did share his writing with Wilder, who in turn introduced Ashley to his houseguest, Gertrude Stein.
Stein was visiting the University at the invitation of Hutchins (and at the urging of the president’s wife Maude, an aspiring novelist), to teach a course on grammar. Ashley signed up. “She would sit on a low stool, and we would sit on the floor,” he recalls. Stein and Adler clashed repeatedly; Ashley recounts that one exchange between them ended with Stein rapping Adler “on the head with her fist and exclaiming, ‘You are a young man that likes to argue!’” Stein’s course lectures were later published as the book Narration: Four Lectures.
Stein liked Ashley’s poetry and encouraged him to write more. As for the verse novel he had written in high school, she told Wilder that she enjoyed it but advised Ashley to “leave out the fleshy stuff”—he’d described the physiques of his characters in some detail. English professor Norman Maclean, PhD’40, was sufficiently impressed with Ashley’s writing to invite him to his house to meet Morton Zabel, the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. The journal went on to publish five of his poems in the June 1936 issue. With the encouragement of Wilder, Stein, and Maclean, Ashley’s career as a writer and poet was off to a promising start.
Years later, Ashley—by then in training to become a priest—would attend a lecture by the philosopher Etienne Gilson on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Gilson argued that while St. Thomas taught that you can prove the existence of God without faith, nobody believes in God without faith. Ashley caused a fuss by standing up during the discussion and saying, “Well, that’s not true. I was convinced that God exists by reason before I had any faith.”
His convincing started during the Hutchins-Adler seminars. “There I was at the University, caught between two things: I was reading the great books, especially St. Thomas, and being forced to think about God. And on the other hand, I was a Marxist, thinking about world revolution.” Chicago had exposed him to religion in its many varieties; in the beginning of his first year, his close Jewish friend had taken him to Yom Kippur services at a synagogue, and a Catholic friend occasionally brought him to mass. But it was only after reading Aquinas that he found an intellectual challenge to his Marxism and atheism. “I was gradually convinced by my own reflections that Aquinas had provided a better case for theism than Marx or Darwin had provided against it,” he says. Then faith entered: as he recovered with difficulty from an appendectomy at the University of Chicago Hospitals in 1937, he started to pray.
Ashley never got his bachelor’s degree. He completed all his requirements in three years, but he didn’t have the $25 fee to process his bachelor’s certificate. Instead, he used the last year of his scholarship to work toward a master’s degree in comparative literature, studying with the New Critic Ronald S. Crane. He wrote his master’s thesis on Euripides’s Phaedra, comparing it with a later Latin version by Cicero and a French version by Racine. “I thought it was a terrific comparison. But when I turned it in to my director, he said, ‘You misspelled Euripides,’” he laughs. “They held me up for a quarter before they gave me my master’s.”
Ashley next set his sights on a doctorate in political science, with the intention of working as a political organizer while continuing to write. He also was starting to think in spiritual terms. Although he admired what he calls the logical consistency of Catholic thinking, he felt that its claim to knowing truth was an unprovable proposition. One day, he idly wondered what it would take to prove the Catholic point of view. Only a miracle would do, he decided. But then he thought: “What right have you to expect any such thing?” God was not obligated to personally reveal supernatural truths to him, he realized, and he vowed to give the church a chance to convince him of its rightness.
Ashley started studying Catholicism in River Forest with a priest of the Dominican Order, the same order Aquinas belonged to. He attended daily mass at St. Thomas the Apostle church in Hyde Park and in 1938 was baptized. “The Socialist Workers’ Party expelled me as a scandal,” he recalls, “and I was forced to rethink my Marxism.” He still sympathized with the movement’s call to equality and social justice, but its dogmas and party commitments were incompatible with his new religious path. Ashley transferred to the University of Notre Dame to finish his studies; in 1941, he took vows as a Dominican, adopted the name Benedict, and commenced studies to become a priest.
After taking vows, Benedict Ashley burned his “fleshy” novel and turned to writing on theology and ethics. Ordained in 1948, he taught Thomistic philosophy at the Aquinas Institute, which was based in River Forest before it moved to Dubuque, Iowa, and later St. Louis, Missouri. Since 2003, he’s been advising the Institute for Advanced Physics, an organization in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, founded to reconcile science and religion. The institute rejects a division between natural science and philosophy; Ashley has been serving as a faculty member and adviser from his home in Chicago. He also serves on the advisory board of the Lumen Christi Institute for Catholic Thought in Hyde Park, founded by UChicago Catholic scholars in 1997. Lumen Christi’s executive director, Thomas Levergood, says, “Ashley’s of great interest as a representative of a remarkable period of the University of Chicago and the Catholic Church in America.”
Time has given Ashley a new perspective on the “war between facts and ideas.” “I don’t think the Great Books is the right idea,” he says bluntly. “I do think that studying the classics is important but to start out that way”—trying to fully comprehend a classic text in a week—“is too difficult for students.” Instead, he points to metaphysics as the philosophical foundation for education: “It distinguishes different types of knowledge from each other, shows the relation between them, and finally unites them in the notion of God.” In 2006, he summarized this idea into what he describes as his “main book,” The Way Toward Wisdom, a grand overview of metaphysics in the vein of Aquinas and what might be described as Ashley’s own Summa.
Today, as he works on two more books and tries to get a third published, the questions that animated Ashley’s time as a student remain alive—and he still finds opportunities to hash them out with UChicago students and faculty. Earlier this year, he debated his good friend Herman Sinaiko, AB’47, PhD’61, professor of humanities and in the College, arguing for the natural sciences as the grounds of knowledge against Sinaiko’s claim for ethics. And last fall, he was invited by Lumen Christi to give a lecture, “How the University of Chicago Opened My American Mind.”
“I found life in its gray towers strange indeed,” he told his listeners, and outlined a philosophy of education blending Deweyan pragmatism and the Great Books approach. From his well-traveled perspective, the latter, he said, “exposes the original questions and the original insights out of which [the Western] cultural tradition was born. No matter how advanced science becomes, we have to ask these questions again, as Einstein did, and again.”