If not now, when?

A message from Executive Dean of Theology and Philosophy Professor Dermot Nestor:

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?” 
Pirkei Avot 1:14

Famously misattributed to the English actress Emma Watson, our opening quote has its origins in the more revered Rabbinic figure of Hillel the Elder: a contemporary of Jesus, according to tradition. Alongside the Golden Rule it represents one of the more astute reflections on one’s duty to oneself, and to others.

Amid an ongoing pandemic, the political intransigence of COP26 and an ever-increasing inventory of humanitarian crises, Hillel’s aphorism provides pause for thought, and stimulus for action. The former is of course defining of education; from Aristotle to the ATAR. Whether in the research that wrestles with it, the learning and teaching that communicates it or the engagement that demonstrates its application, thought is an essential feature of the human condition. That we think is of course no news to anyone who has read Descartes. The challenge to think about others is a core principle of our mission as a Catholic university. As Marx famously opined however, thought alone, even empathic thought, cannot change the world.

The separation of thought and action, like all dualisms spawned by Descartes, is a fallacy. This is nowhere more evident than in the parables of Jesus and specifically those of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Through a single, and infrequently used, Greek term – splagchnizomai – the parables show how thought, along with compassion and empathy, are as much about action as they are deliberation. The father is moved, cognitively and physically, by the sight of his returning son. The Samaritan is moved to act when confronted by the stricken stranger. Jesus’s action in raising the only son of a widow (Luke 7:11-17) distils this urge to act out of oneself to help others. Amid grief, Jesus was moved to restore hope. Confronted by loneliness, he restored companionship. At the risk of isolation, he affirmed the power of embrace. Compassion provokes rehabilitation; of self, of others and through a realisation of that necessary interconnection between all.

On 11 October, the Vice-Chancellor signalled the university’s commitment to the Vatican’s seven-year Laudato si’ Action Platform. Its guiding principle of “care for our common home” is neither a substitute for religion nor a leftist misprison of its central tenets. Rather it is a clarion call motivated by a love for the natural world and all creatures, love for humanity (especially the poor), and love for the Creator of them all. It is a call that asks us all to pause, to think, and to act. As Hillel was all too aware, tomorrow may be too late.


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