Category Archives: teaching

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

Something Under Construction

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Maria Popova`

In the 1992 Vice Presidential debate, with Al Gore on one side and Dan Quayle on the other, Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, asked two questions that have become part of Presidential politics lore: Who am I? Why am I here?

Stockdale took a great deal of criticism and heat for his performance as well as triggering a lot of laughter from those who supposedly knew better. But the Admiral was asking questions that those of us who have had to suffer through week after week of painful and embarrassing debates during our current political cycle would be happy to hear someone ask of themselves. Sometimes a bit of self-analysis and awareness is appropriate. Furthermore, Stockdale’s questions are two of the most fundamental timeless questions of philosophy. who am IWho exactly are we and what the hell are we doing here?

The “who am I?” issue is often packaged in philosophy classes as “the problem of personal identity.” How does a person stay the same over time? To get things going, I often ask my students how many have ever said something like “I’m not the same person that I was back then.” Every hand goes up, since everyone knows that even those parts of ourselves that we consider to be most important—our attitudes, beliefs, commitments, and so on—can radically change over time. Add that to the fact that scientists tell us that there is no cell in our body that will still be in our body seven years from now, and it becomes a challenge to identify exactly what it is about me that stays the same over time so I can still call myself the same person as I was throughout all of the changes that every person encounters.

Many philosophers and theologians have cheated (in my considered opinion) by saying that it is the “soul” that stays constant in the human person throughout all of the physical and experiential changes that each of us encounters throughout a lifetime. formsPlato insisted that the human being’s tool to engage with the unchanging and eternal Forms was the unchanging and eternal soul, an idea that traditional Christian theology has been more than happy to adapt to our connection with the divine. But press someone concerning what the soul actually is, and you will undoubtedly instead find out what it is not—it isn’t physical, it isn’t subject to change, is impervious to time, and so on. In short, the soul is the “whatever it is” that stays constant throughout a human being’s changes, but don’t ask for its positive characteristics. It is just a necessary placeholder. Unfortunately, one of the most important rules of logic is that one cannot define something negatively. lockeTheological issues aside, the soul hardly works as a standard for personal identity.

One of the most interesting and influential explorations of personal identity comes from John Locke, the great 17th century British philosopher. Locke suggests that one’s personal identity extends as far back as one’s memories extend—my identity, in other words, is the collection of all of those experiences stretched over time that can appropriately be owned as “mine.” “I” am the subject of all of these experiences. As my students point out in short order, there are plenty of problems with this notion.

  • Does this mean that a person with no memories, someone with advanced Alzheimer’s or in a comatose state, is technically not a person? Locke’s definition requires that we say “yes.”
  • Suppose that at (time A) 5 years old I go to disneyDisneyland, at (time B) 45 years old I am promoted to full professor, and at (time C) 90 years old my sons commit me to a nursing home. At 45 I remember going to Disneyland; at 90 I remember getting promoted but no longer remember going to Disneyland. Locke’s analysis requires me to say that Morgan B and Morgan A are identical, as are Morgan C and Morgan B. Morgans C and A, however, are not the same person. That violates the transitive law of mathematics and logic (A=B, B=C, therefore A=C), but who said personal identity is mathematically precise?
  • Human memories are notoriously inaccurate. What impact, if any, does this have on Locke’s proposed standard?

These and other puzzles arising from Locke’s analysis reliably produce great class discussions—but are we any closer to figuring out who we are?

brain pickingsIn a recent conversation with Krista Tippett, Maria Popova provided a 21st century version of Locke’s suggestions.

Identity for all of us is this perpetual process. It’s somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones . . . We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely curated catalog of those.

Popova’s reflections highlight a feature of a Lockean analysis that is easily missed—each of us has both the responsibility and the privilege of creating our own identities. under constructionAs Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “the human being is always something under construction.” We do not control much of what happens to us, but we do get to choose which features will rise to the level of “definitive,” which memories will serve as the foundation of who we are. Each of us, as Popova might say, is a curator of our identity. The more items there are to curate, whether experiences, texts, or other people, the more dynamic and nuanced each identity has the potential to be.

Popova is also willing to nod favorably toward the notion of the soul. It may not be the best choice as an anchor of personal identity, but Popova suggests that whatever the soul is, we have reason to think that it is real.woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote that “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And she talks about the slipperiness of the soul and the delicacy and complexity of the soul. But I think the fullest people, the people most whole and most alive, are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments. And it always is.

Philosophers are likely to complain that there is still no evidence to support believing in the existence of such a thing. But perhaps the best evidence in its favor is that multitudes of human beings seem bound, even hard-wired, to believe in it. Maybe that’s enough.

hypocrisy

Are Philosophers Hypocrites? (Or are they just normal human beings?)

Last Saturday I said something less than complimentary on social media site about a fellow sports fanatic, a person who made the mistake of talking trash about my Providence College Friars hockey team the morning after they were eliminated from the NCAA hockey tournament in double overtime. After finding out (presumably by looking me up on Facebook) that I am a philosophy professor, he expressed great surprise and mock outrage that a professor would stoop to talking trash about sports. It reminded me of something I wrote a few months ago in response to an article accusing philosophers of being hypocrites . . .

Uatlanticpon returning home the other day I noticed that this month’s copy of The Atlantic had arrived. One of the headlines on the cover was “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” a title I brought to Jeanne’s attention. “Yeah,” she mentioned, “and there’s also an article in there about you philosophers being immoral.” Thinking that this might be the article about being a jerk, I looked it up in the Table of Contents. But no—“Why It Pays to Be a Jerk” is one of the lead articles, while “Philosophers are Hypocrites (and ethicists are less than totally ethical)” gets its own brief three-column spread under a monthly category entitled “Study of Studies.” As both a professional philosopher and an occasional jerk, I was intrigued. I discovered some interesting survey findings about philosophers and academics at large.

  • red meatSixty percent of a couple hundred ethicists interviewed in one study rated eating red meat as “morally bad,” but only 27 percent said they didn’t regularly eat red meat. Not that I was surveyed, but I stopped eating red meat six or seven years ago. As soon as chickens and turkeys are reclassified as plants, I’ll be all set.
  • Ethicists and political philosophers were no more likely to vote than other kinds of professors, nor were ethicists more likely to donate blood or register as organ donors. And your point is? Plato, one of the greatest political philosophers ever, claims that the more one knows, the less likely one is to willingly participate in the political process. And maybe the reluctant ethicists are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • Compared with other philosophy texts, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were roughly 50 percent more likely to be permanently missing. vice and virtueLots of assumptions here. I presume that some of the “contemporary ethics books” under discussion are the sorts of anthologies that applied ethics professors such as I use in their undergraduate courses, anthologies that undergo unnecessary revisions ever two or three years so that the authors can make more money and thoroughly annoy their colleagues who now have to revise the page numbers in their syllabi. And why, I might add, do such authors always find it necessary to remove the one or two articles or stories I find most useful from the previous edition and replace them with a bunch of crap I’ll never use (usually written by the author of the anthology)?
  • Philosophers are vulnerable to biases. One study found that, compared with introverted peers, extroverted experts in philosophy and psychology were more likely to hold certain beliefs about free will. Here my finely honed skills as a critical reader kick in—doesn’t everyone hold “certain beliefs about free will”? Maybe it would be helpful to specify which certain beliefs extroverted philosophers and psychologists are more likely to hold about free will than my fellow introverts and I hold. introvertWhatever those beliefs are, I’ll be they are both offensive and wrong. I find that extroverts often are.
  • People with advanced philosophy degrees answered a pair of ethical questions differently depending on which was posed first. Which, I suspect, means that contrary to all appearances and to popular opinion, people with advanced philosophy degrees are still normal human beings when they are not on the clock.
  • People with damage to their brain’s prefrontal cortex tended to have an abnormally “utilitarian” pattern of judgments on moral dilemmas. I always wondered what was wrong with John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer.
  • Compared with everyone else, philosophers seem to be worse about calling their mothers. call motherMy mother has been gone for twenty-seven years and never lived to see me earn my PhD and embark on my career as a philosophy professor. So I wouldn’t know. Maybe the mothers of philosophers have asked their children not to call so often because they hear enough about Heraclitus and Foucault at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Anyone who thinks that earning an advanced degree of any sort somehow transforms the degree-earner automatically into a clearer thinking and more consistent human being needs to spend ten minutes in a Faculty Senate or academic department meeting on any college or university campus anywhere. PlatoPlato once famously claimed that “to know the good is to do the good”—in other words, that knowledge and moral behavior are intimately connected. Upon hearing this claim for the first time, my undergraduate students quickly identify it as refined bullshit. Just ask how many people in any given room have ever known what the right thing to do is and chose to do something else just because they felt like it and watch every hand go up. Plato’s claim that all evil is energized by a perceived, but mistaken good leads him to argue for the proper education as a firewall against doing the wrong thing.

But no amount of education of any sort is a guarantee against bad and immoral behavior. The PhD wielding ethicist is no more likely to be a moral exemplar than an ordained minister, priest, rabbi or imam is guaranteed to be a model of virtue, just as being a doctor does not guarantee one is likely to live a healthy lifestyle. Nor is a great deal of education even necessary for moral excellence, let alone sufficient. Just think about the persons in your history who were or are both short on formal education and high on moral integrity. akrasiaThe ancient Greeks knew about akrasia, weakness of the will—the tendency not to do the right thing even when you know what it is. Various Christian groups like to call this original sin. Plato denied the existence of akrasia, claiming that “no one goes willingly toward the bad,” but even the smartest people can be wrong on a regular basis.

So if training in philosophy and ethics does not produce better people, what is philosophy good for? Lots of things; in the present context, for instance, a trained ethicist is not hired by a hospital or corporation to provide a model of how to live so much as to identify moral complexities, uncover moral issues where no one even suspected there were any, and to provide insight and guidance on how to walk through the minefields of conflicting interests and goods that each of us finds ourselves in on a daily basis. ethicistThe ethicist, rather than simplifying and clarifying, often will make choices and actions more difficult by digging below the surface of moral platitudes and revealing that life almost never provides us with neat, “yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong” binaries. It’s a lot more interesting and complicated than that. An ethicist should at least be able to do the above as well as provide her students or clients with some tools that will help. If not, you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

I have spent close to three decades studying, thinking about and teaching ethics and find that while all of it helps me think moral issues through more clearly than I would without my training, none of it makes me a better person—that requires commitments and energies that learning does not provide—or even guarantees sharper moral vision. tough nutFor instance, I have probably worked on the capital punishment issue two dozen times with students in classes over the years. It’s a tough philosophical nut to crack, and I’m convinced that the anti-capital punishment and anti-death penalty arguments are the strongest. And yet if someone murdered Jeanne or another member of my family, I very well might not only want that person dead but would be happy to administer the injection or pull the switch myself. Does that make me a hypocrite? No, it makes me a human being seeking to live with integrity in a challenging world. If nothing else, philosophy lets me know just how difficult that is.

Old White Guys

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Looking in the mirror for the first time every morning is always a sobering shock, but the other day it was a bit more disturbing than usual. “Wow, you old white guy,” I thought to myself.” “The success of Donald Trump’s run for president thus far is due to people like you.”owg

A couple of days later, this came up in a locker room conversation. One of my favorite conversation people to talk with is a retired professor from the history department, with whom I had the privilege of team-teaching a course a couple of years ago during his final year in the classroom. J is curmudgeonly, direct, opinionated, and very insightful—all reasons that I enjoy conversing with him. Our most recent conversation took place in the locker room at our on-campus gym; we tend to work out around the same late morning time on weekdays.

Him: History proves that human beings are the worst thing that’s ever happened to our planet. Things would be a lot better if about seventy-five percent of the people now alive were wiped out.

Me: Really?

Him: Yeah—a motorcycle-riding buddy of mine once said that he agreed with me until I reminded him that this included children.dt and owg

Me: You know, the typical Donald Trump supporters are predominantly old white guys. I’d be happy to start by wiping out old white guys, except that’s my demographic.

Him: Mine too. That’s a problem.

During our current Presidential election cycle my sixty-year-old whiteness has come to my attention more frequently than in the past—I hear and read over and over again that certain elements of U. S. citizenry are angry, upset about all sorts of things, an anger that has made outsider candidates such Ben Carson, early on, and Donald Trump attractive in spite of their complete lack of traditional qualifications for the Presidency. And what sorts of people are angriest? Older white people, particularly older white guys. My demographic, in other words. What are older white guys mad about? Just about everything, apparently; the general sense is a gnawing fear that things they have taken for granted their whole lives are changing and that the world they thought they could depend on seems not quite so dependable any more. pogoA world which used to make perfect sense isn’t making sense any more. Perhaps more to the point, older white guys aren’t happy about an emerging world in which whiteness, maleness, and entitlement are no longer synonymous. I refer to these guys as “they” and often rail against their fear and rigidity—but as Pogo once said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Like it or not, I’m getting older and I’m a white male. “They” are my people.

I have written about white privilege before, noting that even though older white folks such as I have been the beneficiaries of generations of accumulated and embedded privilege our whole lives—often without our even being aware—it can be jarring to be told forcefully in various ways that what we take for granted has been institutionally denied to those unlike us throughout the history of our country.

White Privilege

But as Bob Dylan observed more than a half century ago, “the times, they are a-changin’.” For those who long for the world they thought had been guaranteed to them and to which they believe they are entitled, the news is not good. Those days are not coming back.still life

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, the first installment in her award-winning Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series that I have just begun reading, the Chief Inspector and Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, have a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. For twenty-five years Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. Why did she do it?

I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn’t changing because he didn’t want to. nmfHe had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.

This puts a different spin on things. The world around us is what it is, as Jeanne would say, and there is often little or nothing we can do about it. But as the ancient Stoics, Myrna’s point is that what really matters is how I will respond to those things outside my control, how I will process what comes to me on a daily basis, particularly those things that impose themselves on me without my permission or agreement. And the choice of how to respond, react, and process is entirely up to me.

Most of us are great with change, as long as it was our idea. But change imposed from the outside sends most people into a tailspin.  If we can accept that nothing is permanent, and change is inevitable, if we can adapt, then we’re going to be happier people.

I recall clearly my first “old white guy” reaction to change—marquetteit happened over twenty-five years ago, well before I officially entered the old white guy demographic. I was applying to my first college teaching positions with my Ph.D. soon to be in hand; I had terrific recommendations, straight A’s, teaching experience, and even a couple of published articles. And no one was calling me for interviews. After a certain amount of frustration, I managed to put two and two together—and didn’t like the resulting sum. I knew that 85-90% of all the college level university philosophy professors in America at that time were white males. I was aware that I am white and male. But I had not joined these promising facts together with the fact that the world had changed and was continuing to change in ways that did not particularly favor people in my demographic. In short, I was born with two tickets—whiteness and maleness—that in the past were the most useful tickets to have in our country for gaining access to just about everything that matters—jobs, housing, education, and so on.

But during my own lifetime, those tickets not only began to stop giving people like me surefire access to everything—they sometimes even became liabilities. The very characteristics that traditionally would have put me at the top of the list were now more likely to put me at the bottom.white privilege Imagine that—philosophy departments full of people who looked like me were beginning to think that perhaps qualified women and persons of color had not been treated fairly. Furthermore, armed with programs like affirmative action, they were beginning to do something about it. “Well that’s not fair!” I thought. “It’s not my fault that I’m white and male!” No it wasn’t, but neither would it have been fair for me to benefit from a skewed and unjust system that would have favored me in the past for reasons having nothing to do with my own qualifications. Change had come and was continuing to do so without my permission. My only choice was to decide how to respond to and process this development.

As their conversation continues, Myrna and the Chief Inspector draw an important conclusion, one memorably summarized by Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Myrna: Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting. Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. shakespeareThe thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it.

Gamache: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Myrna: That’s it. It’s not fate, not genetics, not bad luck . . . Ultimately it’s us and our choices. The vast majority of troubled people don’t get it. The fault is here, but so is the solution. That’s the grace.

The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. One of them would be judged by many to be so extreme as to be ludicrous, but I actually believe it is absolutely true: It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I have written about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas on this blog before—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world.

The Big Guy and Me

St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I frequently teach in an interdisciplinary course that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! The last time I taught this course we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had all semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.

Blessed Is He Who Comes

1696182087[1]Rodney Delasanta was one of best teachers and colleagues I ever had the privilege of knowing. Rodney was a true Renaissance man—a Chaucer scholar, family man, sports fan (especially the Red Sox), award-winning accordion player (really), and classical music aficionado. The accordion business made him a regular recipient of the latest accordion joke from me. “What is the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play the accordion—and doesn’t.” Once Rodney responded with an even better one: An accordion player is trying to find the location of his latest gig in downtown Manhattan. He parks his station wagon on the street with his accordion in the back, locks it, and sets out on foot to find the address. Upon returning to his vehicle he is crestfallen to find that the back window has been broken—Brandoni%20Mod%20149W[1]and even more crestfallen to find five more accordions in the back of the station wagon!

Rodney lived fifteen miles from campus, and told me shortly after we met that he had spent the past several months of commuting (fifteen miles is a very long commute in Rhode Island) listening to Bach’s Mass in B minor, about which we was as exuberantly effusive as he was about life in general. He was particularly taken by Bach’s setting of the Sanctus in this composition. According to Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, the angels continually sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are fully of His glory.” This inspired Bach’s setting, music that Rodney, in his usual measured fashion, declared to be the “most glorious six minutes of music ever written.”

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus                    Holy, Holy, Holy Lord

Dominus Deus Sabaoth,                       God of power and might

Pleni sunt coeli et terra                         Heaven and earth are full of Your glory

Gloria eius.                                                Hosanna in the highest

I miss Rodney. He died of cancer a few years ago; the nine years I spent teaching honors students on an interdisciplinary team with him during my early years at Providence College strongly influenced  me both as a teacher and a human being. I cannot listen to any setting of the Sanctus, particularly Bach’s, without thinking of Rodney fondly.

200px-TheSparrow(1stEd)[1]With fewer than six degrees of separation, this makes me think of Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction novel The Sparrow. It is a wonderful story with a fascinating premise: Life is discovered on another planet through transmissions of hauntingly beautiful music, to which scientists respond with transmissions of their own, including selections from Bach’s Mass in B minor (Rodney would have approved). Eventually an expedition, including Jesuit explorers and scientists, make first contact — just as Jesuit priests were often in the vanguard of Europe’s Age of Discovery. “Catholics in Space”—it’s a great premise.

The mission goes disastrously and terribly wrong, leaving one of the Jesuits, Emilio Sandoz, as the sole survivor. hughjackman[1]Sandoz believed that God had led him to be part of this mission, that God had micromanaged the details to bring it about, and thought he was in the center of God’s will. In the tragic aftermath, after all of his companions are horribly killed, he is devastated, ruined physically, emotionally, and spiritually. From the depths of his pain he lashes out at God: “I loved God and I trusted in his love . . . I laid down all my defenses. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped.” Only such blunt and brutal words could match his devastation. In conversation with fellow priests and his religious superiors back on Earth, Emilio says “It wasn’t my fault. It was either blind, dumb, stupid luck from start to finish, in which case we are all in the wrong business, gentlemen, or it was a God I cannot worship.”

The God of Power and Might responds, “Oh, really??” We already have a classic text on what this God has to say in response to demands for accountability—the book of Job.BookJob[1] There are a number of parallels between Emilio and Job: both are dedicated believers, both are all but destroyed by events surrounding them, and neither carries any blame for these disastrous events. Job, from the midst of the ash heap in which he sits, demands an accounting from God just as Emilio does from the midst of his devastation. God’s answer to Job, once he bothers to provide one, is along the lines of “Who are you, puny creature, to question anything about me or what I do? I’m God, you’re not, so let me offer you a large helping of ‘shut the hell up’.”tumblr_me3hnr8r2k1qdjda6o1_500[1] And a God of Power is entirely within its authority to give such an answer. Some afflicted believers, in the face of such a response, might say with Job “though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.” Others might rather say, with Emilio, “Fine, but this is a God I cannot worship.” In Emilio’s position, I would say the same thing. Thanks for sharing (finally), but you can’t do any worse to me than you’ve already done. I’m outta here.

The God of Glory and Mystery responds “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”img_6246[1] This, I suppose, is an improvement on “I’m God and you’re not,” but not much of one. The God of Mystery’s answer is a reminder that none of our human faculties, either individually or as a total package, can ever crack God’s code, can ever fully encompass divine reality. I’m sure this is true, but it can easily turn into a license for laziness and apathy. The greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” If my heart, soul, and mind are incapable of touching the transcendent, then God can be whatever I want God to be, since all visions of God are equally immune from scrutiny. Let’s just make it up as we go along.

But there is another divine response. The God of Love created the world because, as Iris MurdochimagesCA6KS6YV writes, “He delights in the existence of something other than Himself.” But love limits power. In order for the loved to exist and respond to love freely, the lover must not manipulate or control. The language of love is the language of intimacy and vulnerability. The only possible response of the God of Love to suffering, pain, and anguish is to embrace and endure it with us, rather than to eliminate it. And the ultimate response of the God of Love to human pain is to become human. This is not a God who intercedes. This is a God who indwells. God comes as one of us, not as a distant source of arbitrary power or wrapped in a cloud of mystery.

The ancients had it easy, because the various and indefinite aspects of the transcendent were each given shape in a different deity. Power for Zeus, wisdom for Athena, erotic love for Aphrodite, mischievous creativity for Hermes, murderous tendencies for Ares, plain old hard work for Hephaestusnbvcn[1]—a different deity for every divine mood. Maybe monotheism isn’t such a good idea. But the God of Love is a good way to get a monotheistic handle on our polytheistic dealings with the divine. The God of Love chooses to ratchet down divine power in exchange for relationship. The God of Love is revealed in the most intimate mystery of all, God made flesh. God responds to our demands for answers strangely—nothing gets answered, but everything is changed. Christianity does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use for it. Christ in us, the hope of glory. In the liturgy the Sanctus is followed by the Benedictus—“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” exactly what the crowds are singing to Jesus on a donkey as the drama of Holy Week begins today. “Hosanna in the highest” indeed.palm_sunday[1]

Back in the Saddle Again

We in southern New England have been spared a tough winter. Shit can still happen, but this winter has been a breeze compared to last year’s two-month cycle of weekly snow storms. A few mid-fifties temperature teases thrown in here and there in February have been a harbinger of an early spring—furthermore, the groundhog didn’t see his shadow.groundhogThen two days ago, we broke a temperature record and hit 70 degrees. This is all good news for everyone, but especially for me. Because the arrival of early spring coincides with a signature event in my life—I’m back in the saddle again.

I wrote frequently in summer and early fall last year about how one of the central features of my early sabbatical weeks was the rediscovery, after many years, of the joys of bicycling. I loaded tons of pictures, wrote blog posts, got in the best shape of my life, then disaster struck. I tipped over unceremoniously in a completely non-spectacular bike mishap and broke my ankle in early October—less than a week before riding the seventy-mile round trip Woonsocket to Bristol trip that I had been building up to for three months (for those unfamiliar with Rhode Island geography, that’s pretty much the top of the state to half way down and back).RI It could have been worse—I didn’t need surgery or even a cast, only requiring a boot for ten weeks or so. But no more bike riding for at least three months, and by that time we would be in the dead of winter, so probably no more bike riding for six months.my boot

This was more of a problem than just being laid up without exercise for a while. As wrote in a September blog post,

Life at Ten Miles per Hour

“Riding my bicycle early in this sabbatical is doing the same sort of thing for me that reciting the psalms and saying prayers with a 100_0770bunch of Benedictine monks on a daily basis did for me during my last sabbatical seven years ago. Cobwebs and impediments are being removed by simply finding ways to get centered and discover what’s going on beneath the complicated and pressured surface of things on which all of us skate in our manic day-to-day existence.” As I watched my writing productivity become less natural and fluid when I no longer could spend 3-4 hours per day on my bike, I began to wonder about the mind/body connection, a favorite philosophical puzzle of mine ever since graduate school. Is it really the case that paying specific attention to the body is good for the mind and soul?

Not long ago I heard Maria Popova, a social media/blogging phenomenon, talk about the mind/body connection in an interview with Krista Tippett. brain pickingsWhere, Tippett asked Popova, do you get your most creative and fertile thoughts? I resonated fully with Popova’s response:

Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. It’s a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.

In the early weeks of my sabbatical when I was still feeling a bit guilty about riding for hours per day when I was supposed to be writing, a colleague (who is also an avid biker) said “You have it all wrong. Sabbaticals are all about thinking (while riding bikes), then maybe when you get home, you write something down.” She was exactly right—the first drafts of two of the first chapters in my big sabbatical writing project were formed in my head while floating down a bike path.

I took my first real bike ride since October two days ago, a beautiful day when even the turtles were seeking to get an early tan.WIN_20160309_12_17_22_Pro My ankle is ready for it. My mind is ready for it—I need some inspiration for my next big project that doesn’t seem to be coming just sitting in my library recliner. My body is not entirely ready for it—I rode twenty miles and can tell that I’ll need a while to get my stamina back up to where it was in October. My greatest concern, though, is how to make the mind/body wonders of bicycle riding transferable to my “real” life once sabbatical ends and I am back in the classroom in a few months. I’ve found that the inner healing and silent centeredness that were features of my last sabbatical have been transferable to real life, as long as I take the time to work at it. But I will not have three to four hours available per day for bike riding once sabbatical is over—what might serve the same purpose?

It should not be impossible to create more “unburdened spaces” in one’s life, but it goes without saying that our twenty-first century world does not readily accommodate the finding or constructing of such spaces. The only other space in my life where I occasionally have moments of “uninterrupted intimacy” between my mind and body are when Madame DefargeI’m working in the yard—something about digging in the dirt liberates my mind from its usual fifty-things-at-once energies. One thing to remember is that although the mind/body connection goes both ways, this particular facet of it goes from body to mind, not the other way around. My body has never become healthier by my simply thinking a lot (although improved attitudes certainly can help), but bike riding and working in the yard are two examples of how physical activity can liberate my mind and consciousness. Maybe this is why my mother used to knit all the time, so often that one of my father’s nicknames for her was “Madame Defarge.” Maybe this is why apparently mindless and rote activities find their way into the routines of so many people. I need to cultivate such activities; something tells me watching a lot of television, even the good stuff, doesn’t count. Suggestions welcomed!

anchor

Accept the Anchor

Is it ever right to hold a grudge? Is resentment or unforgiveness ever justified? These questions were front and center in a seminar with a bunch of freshmen not long ago; their answers revealed one of the most important and ubiquitous moral divides of all—the divide between what we think we should believe and what we actually believe. And behind the discussion loomed an even larger moral issue: moral compassWhere does a person’s moral compass come from, and is there any way of determining whether that moral compass is accurate?

I’ve been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and there are few areas of philosophy or philosophers that have not shown up somewhere in my classroom over those years. Ethics is my favorite systematic area of philosophy to teach on an introductory level, because ethics is where the often esoteric and abstract discipline of philosophy intersects immediately and directly with real life. And in the world of ethics, no philosopher ever got it better than Aristotle. Aristotle RaphaelHis framework for thinking about and trying to live the moral life is flexible, dynamic, creative and practical in that it provides broad but identifiable boundaries for the life of human excellence within which each individual human being has the opportunity to make many important choices about what sort of person she or he will be. Aristotle’s ethic avoids both the Scylla of absolute and rigid moral rules and the Charybdis of “anything goes” relativism by continually reminding us that there is a point to a human life, that some lives are clearly not worth living, and it is up to each of us to identify the purpose of our lives as we live out the process of shaping and defining that purpose.

The most important feature of Aristotle’s ethical vision is the virtues, which he identifies as “good habits,” habits that will more often than not facilitate the living of a flourishing human life. These he contrasts with vices, bad habits that tend to hinder the living of such a life. habitsThe notion of the key to the moral life being habits rather than obedience to rules is often both intriguing and confusing to eighteen-year-old freshmen; in seminar I focused my students’ attention on the “virtues as habits” idea by first brainstorming with them to produce a list of a dozen virtues, then providing them with a list of Aristotle’s examples of such habits scattered through the portions of his primary text on ethics that we had read for the day.

There were many virtues on our list that are not on Aristotle’s list. Where, for instance, are humility, honesty, patience, love, faith and hope? Perhaps even more confusing are some of the items that Aristotle does include on his list that were not on ours. There were several such items—wittiness, high-mindedness and right ambition, for instance—which raised eyebrows and provided an opportunity to consider just how different Aristotle’s definition of virtue is from our own. But the item on Aristotle’s list that bothered my students the most was “just resentment,” the idea that one of the good habits that will facilitate the life of human excellence is being able to tell when forgiveness is appropriate and when is it better to hold on to one’s resentment.forgiveness Aristotle did not list forgiveness as a foundational virtue but, as many of my students pointed out, we know better. Or do we?

“How many of you think that forgiveness is a virtue?” I asked my students—every hand went up. “How many of you can think of a situation in which it would be natural not to forgive?” Most hands, but not all, went up. I gave my own example of the latter. In the earlier years of my teaching career I often taught applied ethics courses, which usually turned out to be a crash course in various moral theories for a few weeks, which we then applied to four or five tough moral problems for the rest of the semester. capital punishmentThe issue of capital punishment, which I consider to be one of the toughest moral nuts to crack without making a mess, was often on the syllabus. I told my students that in the abstract I believe the best moral arguments are against capital punishment, starting with the simple point that to respond to harm with more harm reduces a society to the level of the person being punished. “But,” I quickly added, “I know that if someone killed my wife or my sons and was found guilty, if I lived in a state where the death penalty was on the books I would want to be the one to administer the lethal injection or pull the switch.” There’s a place where even if I have developed the habit of forgiveness, the habit of just resentment seems more appropriate.

Several students vigorously nodded their heads in agreement, but others pressed back. One student had learned an important lesson well from Socrates two weeks earlier when he told a friend why, even though he has an opportunity to escape his prison cell and execution, he will not do so. “Who are you damaging if you don’t forgive?” my student asked. “Not the guy who’s being executed. He’s dead. just resentmentBut you will never move on and will never get past what has happened if you carry resentment around for the rest of your life.” “What if I don’t want to move on?” I asked. “Then you’ll never be able to live Aristotle’s life of human flourishing,” she replied. Touché.

But most of my students agreed that to forgive indiscriminately is not natural to human beings, despite the psychological damage that accompanies lack of forgiveness. “So where did we get the idea that we must forgive regardless of the situation?” I wondered. “We certainly learned that long before we considered that not forgiving might hurtful to ourselves.” “I learned it in church,” one said, while another said that she had learned it in school (which, since it was a parochial school, is pretty much the same as learning it in church). That strikes me as the real truth. I learned that universal forgiveness is a virtue because I was taught at an early age that a first century Jewish carpenter said that we must love our enemies and told one of his followers that he should forgive his neighbor not the very challenging seven times but the impossible seventy times seven. Aristotle and JesusAristotle perhaps doesn’t put such a habit on his virtue list because he lived more than three centuries before the Jewish carpenter and was not inclined to include on his list habits that are humanly impossible.

Truth be told, we all have the foundational pieces of our moral lives given to us long before we develop the capacity to challenge them—and often we never get to the challenge part. I usually urge my students to question and challenge what they have never questioned and challenged. But on this given day it struck me that in addition to questioning, it is equally important to first identify what we have been given. The fact that my students thought Aristotle was wrong about just resentment because they had been carrying around the directive to forgive their whole life was not mistaken—it is just a fact. The Jewish carpenter was on display a few weeks later in seminar, and we remembered Aristotle.

Ileopardn The Leopard, a crime drama by  Jo Nesbo, the main character, an extraordinarily complex person in every way imaginable, is berating himself because he can’t seem to move past some inhibitions he has carried his whole life. A colleague suggests that he should relax.

You can’t just disregard your own feelings like that, Harry. You, like everyone else, are trying to leapfrog the fact that we are governed by notions of what’s right and wrong. Your intellect may not have all the arguments for these notions, but nonetheless they are rooted deep, deep inside you. Right and wrong. Perhaps its things you were told by your parents when you were a child, a fairy tale with a moral your grandmother read, or something unfair you experienced at school and you spent time thinking through. The sum of all these half-forgotten things. “Anchored deep within” is in fact an appropriate expression. Because it tells you that you may not be able to see the anchor in the depths, but you damn well can’t move from the spot—that’s what you float around and that’s where your home is. Accept the anchor.anchor

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I have team-taught twice with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era”—we will be teaching it for a third time in Spring 2017. In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. In the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

pickett

Academics in No-Man’s Land

Last week my academic department had an important and contentious meeting, the latest skirmish in a nasty internal struggle that has been going on for months. It reminded me of something I wrote a bit over a year ago about just how heated and overwrought academic politics can get, even when the topic seems innocuous and benign. 

I have had the opportunity over the past four years to spend time occasionally in the no-man’s land between faculty and administration—simply writing about it from a faculty perspective with a few positive things to say about the other side a couple of weeks ago drew several pointed and critical comments from fellow faculty members.

Faculty-Administration War Games

Spending too much time in academic no-man’s land is similar to Pickett’s charge across no-man’s land on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863—a spectacular failure that arguably turned the tide inevitably against the Confederacy in the Civil War. 350px-Pickett's-ChargeAfter two days of bloody stalemate, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered an intense bombardment of Union forces, under the command of General George G. Meade, aligned on Cemetery Ridge from Confederate artillery positions on Seminary Ridge. This bombardment was intended to soften up Union positions sufficiently to ensure a successful infantry charge across the “no man’s land” plain between the ridges by Confederate troops led by General George Pickett and two other generals.

Bad idea. The bombardment was ineffective and the charging Confederate soldiers were sitting ducks, mowed down long before reaching Cemetery Ridge as they charged unprotected across the field. the chargeThe Confederate troops suffered casualties of more than 50%, marking the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, the northernmost thrust of the Confederate Army into Union territory, and arguably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. When asked years later why his charge had failed, General Pickett replied “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Warfare is a favored metaphor when discussing the interactions between faculty and administration on a college campus. Both sides consider everything to be a “zero sum” game—whatever is gained on one side is automatically assumed to have been taken from the other. Each assumes the worst both in motive and will on the other side. Yet the two sides are required, at least on occasion, to interact with each other. When the need arises, the tactics and procedures are reminiscent of the Battle of Gettysburg. One side tries to soften up the other side with distractions, deflections, apparent “peace offerings,” or simply preliminary committee work—all in the hope of setting the stage for a successful frontal attack when the time is right.

Administration Ridge

Administration Ridge

Case in point: a seemingly innocuous foray by the administration into perceived faculty territory that I was in the middle of over the past few weeks.

I direct a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores on my campus, a program so central to what we do that the classroom portion of the beautiful, brand new humanities building we moved into just over a year ago was designed, then built with the classroom specifications and needs of this program as the driving force. meThe program is in its fourth decade of existence, but in only the second year of a re-energized and reconceived version that was the first ever serious revision of the program’s aims and pedagogy. I was approached early in the summer by some important administrators with a proposal for a “Wall of Honor” to be placed in a large, prominent location on the main floor of the building. The purpose of the Wall of Honor would be to celebrate in portrait and plaque the contributions of retired faculty (some deceased) whose contributions to the program over the years were especially noteworthy. The proposal contained a detailed description of nomination and selection processes; I was asked to first gather input from my advisory group, a small hand-picked committee of persons from the academic departments that largely staff the program, wall of honorthen to run the proposal past the faculty in attendance at the first full faculty meeting of the fall semester.

The proposal seemed both benign and well-intentioned—who could possibly be opposed to honoring both excellence in teaching and former colleagues? Doesn’t the faculty often complain that the administration does not sufficiently recognize faculty achievement? The six members of my advisory group agreed that in general it was a good idea and helpfully identified some easily fixable problems in the proposal, adjustments made by the proposers as soon as I identified them in an email following the advisory group meeting. As is my custom, I sent the program faculty at large the amended proposal by email attachment a week before the first scheduled full faculty meeting of the semester,asking them to be prepared to talk quickly about the proposal before we moved on to the more important business of the day. What could go wrong?

Faculty Ridge

Faculty Ridge

You would think that after several years of being first a department chair, then a program director that I would realize how stupid the question What could go wrong? is when anticipating a faculty meeting. In military terms, the preliminary bombardment of the faculty through contact with me, then indirectly through the advisory group, meant nothing to those present and lined up on Faculty Ridge at the department meeting. As if organized by an invisible hand, several faculty members spoke clearly and directly in quick succession about how much they hated the proposal; furthermore, they backed up their opposition with good arguments.

  • The idea of singling out individuals for recognition is contrary to the spirit of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching that we are seeking to establish and strengthen in this program.
  • old white guysThe first dozen or so retired faculty, perhaps more, to be honored on the wall will be old white guys, hardly a helpful image on an already too-white campus seeking to diversify both its student body and faculty. In such a highly visible place, we need to show that we are moving forward, away from an older, more patriarchal version of ourselves and towards a more inclusive, and a more welcoming, college.
  • The excellence that will be honored is primarily teaching excellence, while many good but less-than-excellent faculty whose contributions behind the scenes have been immense will never be nominated or honored.
  • This proposal does not facilitate the new program’s goal of reaching out to faculty across campus and incorporating them into what has, until now, been largely the domain of four large departments in the humanities.

And so on. Some of the arguments were so clearly presented that they convinced me and a couple of members of the advisory group who had entered the meeting as supporters of the proposal.pickett If the analogy of Pickett’s charge is appropriate, the Wall of Honor proposal never made it out of no-man’s land before it was ripped to shreds by the artillery on Faculty Ridge.

With faculty and administrators continually suspicious of and at war with each other, it’s amazing anything ever gets done on campus. The administration proposes that we all agree that the Pope is Catholic (even the current one); the faculty wonders what the real motive behind this proposal is. blue skyThe faculty senate resolves that the sky is blue; the administration wonders what they really want. In a world in which the faculty and administration by definition have radically different agendas but also arguably share many important goals, concerns and dreams in common, can we do better?

In the aftermath of his proposal’s evisceration by the faculty, one of the administrator proposers and I had an interesting conversation in my office a week after the faculty meeting. We have gotten to know each other well over my three years of being program director—from our shared work on an important committee I have learned that he (as well as the other administrators on the committee) are remarkably human, while I believe that he (and they) have learned something similar about me. In the same room we can get many things done, even though they still roll their eyes at the faculty’s resistance to what appears to the administration to be “no brainer” common sense, while I continue to explain that the world viewed through faculty eyes is a very different world than the one perceived in the offices of Harkins Hall.

conf and unionMy administration colleague and I agreed that a different strategy is called for, starting with a beginning faculty discussion and vote on whether any sort of process to honor faculty is desired. If not, then we’ll move on to other more important things. If so, then I’ll try what I did last year—putting some faculty and administrators in the same room to create a joint proposal. A handful of folks from Faculty Ridge will meet halfway across no-man’s land with a handful of folks from Administration Ridge, and we’ll see what happens. Collaboration instead of suspicion? Conversation instead of bombardment? Cooperation instead of cold (or hot) war? Impossible. Ludicrous. Or is it?