- Gerhart Niemeyer:Seeker for the Way
In September 1959, I wandered into a Notre Dame course titled Political Theory, taught by Gerhart Niemeyer, and my life changed forever. On track to become a chemist, I was irresistibly turned to political philosophy. This professor was thinking luminously about the ultimate questions of human existence—something that I had never experienced before. I realized soon that I wanted to spend all my years doing what he did, in the way that he did it. I believe now that it was a case of a great, saintly soul humbly allowing God's light to shine through. I had to respond like Goethe's Schmetterling (moth), "rushed and captivated, avid for the light."
Although Gerhart Niemeyer had this impact on me, I have hitherto refrained from writing about him because I have feared that no [End Page 113] words of mine could be adequate to the good that he did me. Lately I have found other words, Josef Pieper's tribute to St. Thomas Aquinas as a teacher, that might begin to serve. The teacher, remarks Pieper, enjoys a "relationship with truth, the power of silent listening to reality," and combines it with "something that probably cannot ever be learned," namely, "loving devotion to the learner, . . . loving identification of the teacher with the beginner" that fosters true learning. True learning is "more than a mere acquisition of material." Indeed, it is a "growing into a spiritual reality which the learner cannot yet grasp as a purely intellectual matter." The teacher's loving care of the learner causes the learner to "recognize the amazing qualities, the mirandum," of a subject and puts the learner "on the road to genuine questioning. And it is genuine questioning that inspires all true learning." Granted, the teacher imparts information and engages in the disputes of the day. These efforts, however, properly "end like the Platonic dialogues; they make no claim to offering comprehensive answers, but throw the gates open to an infinitude of further seeking" so that "the road opens up into a boundless unknown."1 As Professor Niemeyer led me through my studies, as he clarified hundreds of topics with an astonishing erudition that he never flaunted and that I never have hoped to match, as he fostered my growth into a spiritual reality that balanced faith and understanding, as he steadied me in difficult moments, and as he fondly suffered me to shower him with appeals for help as long as he lived, he always displayed an awesome power of silent listening to reality, a generous love of the student, a Socratic humility about the incomplete state of his knowledge, and an undogmatic openness to the boundless unknown that formed me in the vocation of wondering questioning. I loved him in return.
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Gerhart Niemeyer's life is told in the affectionate and admirable biography by his son Paul.2 I shall highlight some significant events.
Niemeyer was born in Essen, Germany, in 1907. Around the age [End Page 114] of thirteen he joined the Wandervogel, the German youth movement founded in 1901. The Wandervogel were youngsters who felt stifled by the bourgeois atmospheres of the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic. They attempted to attain to authentic spirituality by hiking in the countryside and singing German folk songs. Young Gerhart's affiliation with the Wandervogel undoubtedly owed something to adolescent rebellion. In a rare autobiographical passage, Niemeyer writes of a time when his "powers of the mind seemed to suffice for the task of thinking up one's own portrait of the world, of reality. . . . Then began the fights with the parents, particularly the father, then the rebellion, even revolution, and wave after wave of unhappiness."3 Niemeyer probably says "even revolution" because the Wandervogel fancied themselves revolutionaries. They meant to transform German society totally. However, joining the movement also was a response to yearning for a genuine good.4 At an early age, Niemeyer already had become a "seeker for the way."5
The wish to revolutionize spiritually dead or evil polities is noble. Plato himself evinces it when he causes Callicles to cry, "Tell me, Socrates, are we to take you as...