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In The Press

Thomas International Center
January 2007


Ralph McInerny





Among the remaindered books I read in Florida over the winter holidays was one called Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami. Selkirk was a sailor from Scotland and the island was Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile. Marooned there by his shipmates, Selkirk lived on the island all alone for four years and four months. His experience inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe.

The author herself spent much time on the island, she provides the reader with needed background material, and she transfers to Selkirk her own somewhat mystical fascination with the island. No doubt we end knowing more about how the island mesmerized Souhami than what Selkirk's owe thoughts were. The author's attitude can almost be captured by the familiar lines "where every prospect pleases and only man is vile." The cruel and motley bunch of mariners we meet in the course of the narrative certainly does not elevate one's estimate of the species, but to go from there to the "green" conclusion that the world would be a nice place but for man is too great a leap.

Man is the aim, the telos, of the world, that toward which the whole of nature tends. But, as Cardinal Newman noted, we cannot help sense that there has been some aboriginal catastrophe that makes history a largely irrational sequence. It is man's natural glory, his reason and will, which lift him above every other species; but his freedom also makes it possible that he will go wrong. The chance that man will pursue and achieve his natural end is the point of the cosmos: the soul's cognitive grasp of the whole and its cause conquers time and space. The story of a marooned sailor brings home the need for community to achieve that end; it is after all a shared good. But it is man's supernatural end, union with God beyond the dreams of philosophy, that redeems the fallen world. Meanwhile, it is man who says Benedicite omnia opera domini domino. A world from which such prayer is absent would be essentially incomplete.


Ralph McInerny