APRIL 2021


Foreword

If you attended Hicksville High between the late 1960s and 1980, you knew of the English Department’s Neil O’Doherty (1933-1980).  He was outspoken, gregarious, at times verbally pugnacious, and so persistent about teaching philosophy that he finally got to launch an official Introduction to Philosophy class in the 1970s.  For readers who never knew him, this last fact may be misleading, so I shall balance it by disclosing that Neil was equally well known for befriending student athletes, and – at least in his earlier years in town – aggressively playing pick-up basketball with them in the summer heat.


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Introduction (1963)

His high school students probably knew Neil O’Doherty better than I did; in fact, I was never officially his student at all.  But of the many people from whom I have learned, Neil was the one whose words first let me see that everything we are taught “fits in,” that it is life’s connections that lead to real understanding.  That poetry, philosophy, and the arts reflect the same reality.  That truth matters.


I first met him while watching a Comets basketball game circa December 1963, and I last saw him on a spring afternoon in 1965.  During that time, I was one of a large handful of students, most of them members of the HHS class of 1964, for whom he led a series of discussions not connected with any school curriculum (although he was then on the faculty of the Junior High).  It began with an introduction to Epistemology – was this the seed from which his Introduction to Philosophy later sprouted?


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In 1964, I got used to seeing two very different aspects of Neil.  At his best (I thought), he was contemplative, admiring the thought processes of great philosophers.  At other times, he was militant, ardently debating, reveling in his own defense of truth as he knew it.  I could not always reconcile the two Neils back then.  Can I do that now?  Well, at least I can understand them better, for I no longer am seventeen, and I know more of what Neil knew then.  I never did get to know what he thought of Bob Dylan’s writing, but invoking these words seems appropriate at this point:  

"We'll meet on edges, soon," said I, proud 'neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

I hope in a subsequent article, perhaps in June, to present others’ thoughts of Neil, collected from students and if possible, some people who taught alongside him.  In that vein, I welcome input from readers.  Please feel free to email your thoughts and recollections of him directly to me at WencerHix@gmail.com

For now let’s get going, first looking at some of the things that went into making Neil what he was.


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Neil Was...

A Passionate Teacher

I wanted to list this quality first.  I recognize that many things mattered to him – family, cultural identity, politics, religion, poetry, and all the rest – and that, at a given moment he might have said that any one of them was the most important part of his life.  But as far as I saw, day after day, around the clock, he was consistently passionate about teaching young people, and shepherding them in whatever way he could.  Many people I knew, including other gifted teachers, cared, but for Neil, caring about those whom he taught was a vocation.

His teaching (some may have thought of it more as coaching) was not limited to classrooms.  I first experienced it over pizza in the Alibi, after watching a dreadful basketball game go the wrong way.  I experienced it on a weekend afternoon as I helped wash his ‘63 Ambassador sedan.  I can imagine that others experienced it playing half-court basketball sessions in a sun-baked schoolyard.  I doubt that I ever knew another teacher who sought out and pursued so many out-of-classroom opportunities to teach.


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Irish (duh)

Yes, believe it or not, Neil O’Doherty was Irish.  He was not once-a-year “Hey, look at my green hair!” Irish; he was Irish at his core, and he bled green.

I think that the family into which he was born differed fundamentally from many Irish-American families, who were too far removed from the Old Sod to feel the old wounds keenly.  The O’Doherty ancestors had weathered the Famine of the nineteenth century without emigrating.  His parents left their homeland for America only after first living through the grim times of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  Judging by Neil, I suspect that his siblings all felt the scars of Ireland ’s history.

In the 1960s, typical Irish-Americans his age might grow vaguely sentimental when listening to Bing Crosby’s de-politicized version of the ballad Galway Bay .  Neil, in contrast, would let loose his tenor vocal chords with God Bless Ireland, an in-your-face anthem from the Easter Rebellion era that dangles in front of its listeners the vision of a British noose – as bait, daring them to rise up and risk martyrdom.  The Irish pain which he felt went back past the Rebellion, even past the Famine.  I recall his voice’s quivering as he spoke of the torture inflicted upon Irish patriots by Cromwell’s forces, during the seventeenth-century Conquest of Ireland.

Neil’s being Irish was not always about suffering and grief.  He could demonstrate pride, as when he compared the respective abilities of contemporary world-stage tenors Enrico Caruso and John McCormack, or while objectively praising a poem by William Butler Yeats.

Although a devout Catholic, at times Neil showed little respect for the Irish-blooded Americans (most of them descended from Famine immigrants) who had risen to the upper tier of the country’s Roman Catholic clergy.  For example, he invariably referred to Francis J. Spellman, then Cardinal and Archbishop of New York, simply as Fat Frank.


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Conservative


Mugging for the 1972 Comet Yearbook




Editorial, New York Daily News

February 26, 1962
 

In 1962, four New Yorkers met in the Queens home of Neil’s parents, and established the Conservative Party of New York.  Among the four were Neil’s brother Kieran O’Doherty (eldest of Neil’s generation), their sister Kathleen, and her husband, J. Daniel Mahoney.  The party they founded that day went on to impressive and swift success.  It soon garnered more votes than the once-powerful Liberal Party, relegating the latter to a lower position on the ballot.  In 1970, James Buckley, a Conservative Party candidate, would win a seat in the U.S. Senate.




New York Daily News

December 6, 1982


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Catholic

As the earlier reference to Fat Frank suggests, Neil’s attitude towards Catholicism could be quirky.

He was a traditionalist.  His unshakeable faith was bolstered by his studies, specifically the theological roots that took hold in the Early Christian era and grew stronger during the medieval period.  He subscribed without question to the teachings embodied in formal Papal Encyclicals (a series of Popes’ open letters, begun in 1740, which elaborate upon the Church’s teaching in the light of contemporary issues).

I suppose that his faith was what led him to philosophy.  He took great joy from reading and discussing the writings of Thomas Aquinas – medieval philosopher, theologian, Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, and Saint – specifically the arguments based on the Metaphysics of Aristotle.
 
The 1960s brought new ideas and external changes to Roman Catholicism.  Neil was uncomfortable, critical, and skeptical.  He was certain that the core of his belief would not change, but he understood humanity well enough to know that changes can lead to fads, and that fads distract people.  Instead of trying to better understand church doctrine, and figuring out how to meet people’s needs in the 1960s, people might get caught up in worrying about rotating an altar 180 degrees, or how to fit a “church-in-the-round” arrangement of altar and pews into an old boxy church building.  I often heard Neil dismiss such concerns as
Pollyanna-Kiss-Your-Neighbor Catholicism.


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Ready to Laugh

I was surprised by some of the things which he found funny.  Neil would reminisce about practical jokes from his Army days, some of which seemed as feeble as short-sheeting someone’s bed at summer camp.  On the other hand, I recall two people whom he and I both found genuinely funny.

The first was Hillaire Belloc, a prolific writer, member of British Parliament, brilliant debater, and man of great stamina (e.g., Belloc once walked all the way from the U.S. Midwest to northern California, earning his room and board along the way by drawing portraits of his farmer hosts, and by reciting poetry).

Among Belloc’s many, many witty verses are


Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.


and

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

The second person whose work we both enjoyed was a performer known as Lou Carter.  He was the creation of someone in the music business, at the time rumored to be an arranger or a jazz musician.  Onstage or on television, he would dress as a 1940s cab driver, and perform the songs he supposedly had written between his shifts in the cab.




amazon.com

What mattered most about the songs were the lyrics, which exhibited an exceptional flair for the use and abuse of language.  Neil’s favorites included If I had a Nose Full of Nickels and the incomparable Lost Elbows.  The latter builds in a crescendo, and concludes with the haunting words “until my elbows... are back... in my arrrrrrmms.”


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A Debater

If people believe in absolute truth, and believe that they know some piece of it, they will ardently defend their belief against anyone who does not share it.  That was Neil.

Adept in debate, he was not above showboating, and could get carried away in the heat of however long a moment a debate gave him.  He took perhaps too much pleasure in (to use one of his favorite words) decimating opponents.  Woe unto the foes who debated Neil unprepared, or were not nimble enough defend their own positions as Neil changed tactics.  Among Neil’s supporters, such people might become known as “intellectual lightweights” or “peanut pushers” (i.e., people whose minds lacked the fitness to deploy weighty arguments).

I’ve always wondered why such debates seem significant.  After all, to be a great debater does not make one a great thinker, anymore than being a great actor makes one a great playwright.  Thomas Aquinas did not earn Neil’s respect for coming up with, say, a five-minute metaphysical argument on the spot – he spent years in research and thought.  Aquinas is known for constructing arguments that could persuade those who held opposing viewpoints, not for trouncing them in debates, and leaving them flattened like Wiley Coyote under an anvil.


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O’Doherty Contemplative

Truth and Logic

Neil O’Doherty found the arguments put forth by Aristotle and Aquinas so elegant, clear, and persuasive that they illuminated the path he walked for as long as he lived.  In the brief time in which I knew him, he concentrated more on what they said than on the history by which Aquinas came to know the works of a man born more than sixteen centuries before he was.  Neil did say, however, that Aquinas came to understand Aristotle in part through the writings of Averroës and Avicenna, whom Neil described as Arabian philosophers.  How did that happen?


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Moses, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum
,
(Program for The Year 1200 Exhibition)

collection of Ronald A. Wencer

The Year 1200

Unexpectedly, I found the answer when I attended an exhibition – The Year 1200 – at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1970.  On display were medieval objects from a number of the world’s best collections.  No matter where in Europe they originated, all the objects shared a new curvilinear style.  Why?

Clues to the answer to both questions lie in the history of Europe in the twelfth century.  After Islam took hold in the Middle East, Arabs carried it to many Mediterranean shores.  In North Africa, the Moors – a conglomerate of many ethnicities, in which Arab seemed predominant – had grown strong.  Crossing to the Iberian peninsula, they had established An-Andalus, a Muslim kingdom, in the year 711.  It would endure for almost 800 years.

At times, An-Andalus was at war with nearby Christian nations, but at other times there was peace and tolerance.  The decades that led to the year 1200 belonged to one of the latter periods, and during these years, educated European Christians and
Andalusian Moors became more aware of each others’ cultures, including art and architecture.


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Learning Revived

The earlier collapse of the Roman Empire, including its network of ancient libraries, had cost Western Europe dearly.  Monks and other Christian scholars had lost access to (among other things) the writings of the great ancient Greek thinkers.  The Dark Ages soon earned their name.




Ruins of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus, third largest library
in the Roman Empire; it was destroyed in the third century,
likely by two events: Gothic invasion and earthquake

photograph by Ronald A. Wencer

As the centuries progressed into medieval times, the standard caricature of a Western scholar became that of a wanderer, who hoped against hope to someday find forgotten old manuscripts in some obscure place.

In the East, meanwhile, Islamic holy writings (including the Qur’an) told Muslims that Jews and Christians also had been favored by God, and that as People of the Book, they warranted respect.  Parts of the Alhambra, the Moors’ citadel in Granada, tangibly reflect that idea.




Courtyard in Muhammed V’s Palace of the Lions in the Alhambra

Per the ‘People of the Book’ concept, each lion
in the fountain represents one Tribe of Israel

photograph by Ronald A. Wencer

Arabs, like the Romans, revered learning, and the writings that mattered to the other Peoples of the Book mattered to them as well.  As Christian scholars in the West bewailed the loss of the ancient texts, Arab scholars were seeking the same texts in the East, finding them, studying them, and making faithful copies of them (usually in Arabic) in new centers of learning.  The old network of Roman libraries was being supplanted by a new network of Arabic libraries.


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Scholarly Toledo

By the eleventh century, the Iberian city of Toledo had become one of these centers of learning, crammed with educated people who were fluent in Greek, Roman, and Arabic.  When the Moorish Empire was at peace with Europe, word of Toledo’s wealth of knowledge, and especially its collection of ancient manuscripts, spread quickly.  Given the Church’s pent-up demand for ancient writings, Toledo’s multi-lingual scholars were in high demand.

Below are the words of one twelfth century
Canon (i.e., a member of a religious community which followed a code of conduct, often modeled on rules put in place by St. Augustine); he is known today simply as Canon Mark.




excerpt from
The Arabic Impact on the Western World
by Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny
published in
 The Year 1200 II: A Background Survey

Canon Mark originally had wanted to study medicine, but he was so gifted with respect to languages that translation became his calling within the Church.  Some years later, his Bishop would call upon him to translate the entire Qur'an into Latin, so that Catholic clerics could better understand Islam.


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Aquinas: a More Complete Picture

It took nearly a hundred years to translate all of Aristotle’s surviving works into Latin, and to create sufficient copies for the Christian monastic libraries.  Sometimes, along with the Greek’s own words, the manuscripts included scholarly commentary by Arabic thinkers – a cause of much study and debate among Catholic theologians.  This period of debate – rarely face-to-face arguing, but instead exchanges of well-reasoned written ideas – was the time in which Aquinas lived, studying first in Naples and then in Paris.  He had the great benefit of being able to read the original Metaphysics, and also the Muslim commentaries made on it by Avicenna (a Persian of the early eleventh century) and Averroës (an Islamic Spaniard of the twelfth century), in Latin, a language with which he was thoroughly familiar.

The giants of history are said to stand upon the shoulders of earlier giants, and
Aquinas is often thought of as standing upon the shoulders of Aristotle.  Fair enough.  But Neil O’Doherty always made certain to also mention the Arabic commentators, men who in some ways lifted Aristotle’s shoulders even higher for Aquinas.  Think about that.  Thomas Aquinas, whose thinking is fundamental to the Catholic Church, and who is considered a Saint, underpinned some of his metaphysical arguments with the ideas of a pagan philosopher, after first reading interpretations of them by Muslim scholars.

Imagine what it must have been like for Neil O’Doherty to first learn this tale.  He never would have accepted the idea that Islam in any sense superseded Catholicism as a religion – yet he knew that an ancient Greek had been the first to lay bare an important kernel of truth, that Islamic philosophers had protected and nurtured that kernel, and that a Dominican monk had cultivated it further.  This quest for truth had transcended people, beliefs, and cultures.  Neil would have been gobsmacked.  


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O’Doherty Militant

Words, whether poetry or philosophy, could render Neil O’Doherty humble before the brilliance of the person who wrote them, could inspire him, could anger him, or could just make him laugh.  In terms of poetry, I remember best his reading aloud Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, a wonderfully rhythmic historical narrative.  It was as if the flavor of each word lingered deliciously on his palate after it was spoken.  Lepanto recounts how the naval forces of an alliance of Christian nations fought the powerful fleet of the Ottoman Empire.  The cadence of the words carries the listener the length of the Mediterranean, determinedly riding the swells and falling into the troughs in between.


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The Ottoman Empire and the Battle of Lepanto

The Ottomans rose to power in fourteenth century Turkey.  Within a century and a half, their rule had spread through southeastern Europe, the Arabian peninsula, and across north Africa from Egypt to Algeria.  They defeated the powerful Byzantine Empire, turning the Christian city of Constantinople into the Islamic city of Istanbul.  Their forces were fierce, converting defeated Christians by force into Muslims, much as their empire converted the huge Cathedral Church of Holy Wisdom into the Hagia Sophia Great Holy Mosque.  The generous respect for Christians and Jews shown by the Moors at the Alhambra does not come to mind when thinking of the oft-brutal Ottomans.

In 1571, the Ottoman Empire threatened to expand further, and Western Europe worried.  A Holy League of nations assembled a fleet to send against it, led by Don John of Austria, half-brother of the King of Spain.  Much to the Muslims’ surprise, the League was victorious; what remained of the Ottoman fleet scurried back home.  Although the battle proved to be a turning point in the long run, the Ottoman Empire would remain a force for another three centuries and more.

The situation, like Chesterton’s poem, seems tailor-made for the militant part of Neil’s nature.  It was a good guy vs. bad guy moment in Western history: an underdog younger brother, leading the fight for a people who believe in truth, defeats an oppressive foe.  One can imagine Neil admiring Don John’s victory, and perhaps sometimes even thinking that his own little victories in debate continued the same never-ending battle.


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Not Decimated

Lepanto was a tipping point; though defeated, the Ottomans would continue to thrive.    Neither their power nor their empire was destroyed.  In fact, they still had their heroes.

At Lepanto, one of them was a lesser admiral named Ali Pasha (note that this was a common name, one sometimes adopted by Westerners who had been forced to convert to Islam).  As defeat loomed, the Ottoman forces had begun to panic, but this man assumed command where his superiors could not.  He organized an orderly retreat, thereby saving many Ottoman ships and lives.  Back home, his efforts were acknowledged, and he went on to have a long and celebrated naval career.  Eventually, he was named Chief Admiral of the Empire, and to his name was added the prefix Kılıç (which means Sword).
 




Interior of Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

photograph by Ronald A. Wencer

When he was old, in gratitude for all the successes granted to him during his lifetime by Allah, Ali Pasha commissioned the construction of a beautiful mosque.  Four and a half centuries later, it still stands in Istanbul, perpetuating his name.  Tourists like me come from all over the world, walk inside, and have their breath taken away.

This post script to the battle suggests that Lepanto seemed a bigger success for Europe than it seemed a defeat for the Ottoman Empire.  The latter dialed down its ambitions, and missed a step or two, but it kept on going.


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Dichotomies

Conclusion

Militancy is always so clear; contemplation is always so muddy and ambiguous.

Did the Neil who read Chesterton’s wonderful poem believe that Lepanto had for all time ended the conflict between two peoples who followed different truths?  What of the Neil who paid homage to Thomas Aquinas for the many tranquil months (or years) that the monk spent forging a single philosophical argument from the writings of an ancient Greek, Muslims, and other Catholics?

The view of history that we learned in high school was often simplified: the Middle Ages were followed by the Renaissance, then by the Reformation, then by the Industrial Revolution, etc.  It only seemed clear-cut because so many complications had been stripped away.

The real world is never like that. Through the distance of time, the life of Muhammed V, who built his palace in Granada with little Stars of David and crosses worked into the windows and walls, seems rather serene.  In reality, his reign was beset with tumult.  He was deposed; the usurper was later murdered by a second usurper, who in turn was beheaded by a Christian enemy – all of which allowed Muhammed V to regain his throne.  Much of his era did not reflect the noble and peaceful ideals shown in his work.

The same can be said of the era in which Aquinas pondered theology and philosophy: during those decades, wave upon wave of Crusaders and Saracens were slaughtering each other in the East.





Oratory at Nasrid Palace, The Alhambra

In this Islamic prayer room, each upper window’s geometric decor
forms many six-pointed stars, some of which are highlighted in the
enlargement.  A large star sits in the center; the area around it
contains twelve smaller stars, symbolic of the Tribes of Israel.

photograph by Ronald A. Wencer

What was a man like Neil, who believed both in quiet contemplation and fighting the good fight, to do?  Perhaps in teaching poetry and philosophy, he found bridges to the idealized medieval realms through which his mind wanted to roam.


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Extracted from the 1980 Comet Yearbook


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Following Up

With further input, other perspectives of Neil O’Doherty will be presented here in a month or two.  I hope to hear from you about him.