In every enterprise, it is better to begin at the beginning. This is not a guaranteed formula for success, but it does offer the best chance for achieving success.
How should I begin the day: with coffee, turning on the radio and opening the newspaper? Or with a prayer that begins with making the Sign of the Cross?
The beginning sets the tone and places us on the right track. It opens vistas in which everything is in the correct order. The day may get off track, as days often do, but this was not for failing to begin where it should begin.
“The beginning is the most important part of the work,” wrote Plato. Consider the first four notes that open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and how important they were to everything that flowed from them. “A small mistake in the beginning,” wrote Aristotle, “is a big one in the end.” The beginning sets the course.
Let us begin a meal with a prayer. That way a five-course meal becomes a six-course meal. When it comes to participating in a sporting event, I should begin with confidence. I may eventually lose, but I have little chance of winning if I approach the event with losing firmly entrenched in my mind.
In business, a man begins with advertising. He must let people know what he has for sale. Advertising is prudent but offers no guarantee of sales.
A politician should be honest at the outset and try to retain that virtue throughout his life in politics. Yet we all know how easily honesty can give way to deceitfulness.
Let us begin marriage with love and pray that it perseveres, that it does not bend under pressure, but “looks on tempests and is never shaken” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116). Would that all marriages that commence with love could maintain that worthy virtue.
The scientist, facing a broad and mysterious world, should begin with an open mind. He does not want to introduce private preferences or political assumptions into his equations. Nonetheless, this attitude is not easy to maintain.
In theology, where we encounter truths that transcend our comprehension, we begin with faith. Once again, this noble and necessary virtue often gives way to criticism, doubt and rejection. Scoring five runs in the first inning gets us off to a good start, but by no means does it assure victory.
In the realm of thinking, philosophy must begin with wonder if it is to have any chance of attaining wisdom. Throughout history, various thinkers, calling themselves philosophers, began with a desire to be novel, or an attempt to achieve power, fortune or fame. The true philosopher begins with discernible effects and begins a slow journey toward the wondrous causes that produced them, which often lie beyond his ken. He advances with humility and must never bargain away his initial and childlike sense of wonder.
I want to expand a little on where one should begin the art of teaching philosophy. Students have strongly held positions, whether or not these positions are justified. An inevitable tension exists between teacher and student. How should I begin a philosophy course so as to minimize conflict and maximize learning? I begin with but a single ally: reason.
I may say to my students the following: “We are rational beings, though we often fail to honor this universal possession that marks our nature as members of the human family. Consider how extensively you employed reason in getting here today. Without the use of reason, you could not begin to maneuver through this labyrinth of life. None of you, I trust, would prefer to be insane. Without the light of reason, we are entirely helpless. Therefore, let us call upon reason to guide us through this course, hoping to enlighten and not offend, to inspire and not stimulate revolt. We are united together by the firm chord of reason. Does anyone here have any rational objections to the use of reason?”
And what is often the result? Emotion, prejudice and convenience have a way of usurping the throne of reason and installing themselves in its place. Yet this is no reason to despair. One cannot do anything better than to place his trust in reason at the starting gate.
We turn to the question, “How did God begin?”
“In the beginning was the Word,” St. John tells us. Christ, as the Word made flesh, often used parables about seeds and sowing. He even referred to himself as a “seed.”
In his compendious book Life of Christ, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen states: “The Word is the seed.” In one of Christ’s parables, he compares his mission to a seed falling on different kinds of earth in order to explain the different responses that souls make to his inviting grace:
“Behold, the sower went forth to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside, and the birds came and devoured them; some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth; and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up and choked them: but others fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23).
Christ came not in the raiment of a king, but in the role of a sower.
If humanity fails to be inspired by Christ in his desire to inspire souls in accepting his word, why should we be discouraged when we sometimes fail in our various enterprises?
The teacher plants seeds and hopes that they will germinate in the minds and hearts of his students. He should not abandon the value of his beginning simply because he has experienced momentary setbacks.
We begin at the beginning and pray for perseverance. We walk in the footsteps of Christ and are prepared to accept the trips and tumbles that are inevitable along the way, keeping our eyes firmly on Jesus.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus
at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada, and an adjunct professor at
Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.