In The Life of the Mind (Baker, 2002), philosophy professor Clifford Williams reflects on the power of thinking and learning in leading us to greater knowledge, allowing us to make our beliefs more coherent, and giving us intellectual pleasure. In the excerpt below he describes how he went from teaching philosophy as a mere academic matter, the kind of thing that may remain within the four walls of a classroom and not have hands and feet, so to speak, to realizing that in philosophy he could teach students to live well, that is, with virtue, and even to “prepare to die,” as so many philosophers before have remarked about their vocation. This is the sort of vision that I believe motivated one of my college professors, who taught a philosophy course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, to state at the beginning of the semester that, “We read Dante for joy.”
“For more than two decades of college teaching, I listed three objectives in the syllabi for the philosophy courses I taught: to become acquainted with core philosophical issues, to interact with these issues, and to assess them from a Christian perspective… It did not occur to me that the courses could have more aims. And I never asked myself what else I wanted students to gain from a course. Courses were academic enterprises, I presumed, and should not be tainted with extraneous intentions.
“…Then I changed… I began reading the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Some of their probing inquisitiveness into human motivation rubbed off. I read some of the master analysts of the human condition – Augustine, Blaise Pascal, Ernest Becker, Søren Kierkegaard. I began listening to students in my office, at lunch, in the hallway, on the telephone. I discovered that they had deep feelings and dreams for the future. Then I turned forty and realized I would die someday. I asked students, ‘What do you like most about living?’ I gradually became less of an emotional hermit and ceased regarding myself largely as an academic machine.
“One afternoon during my twenty-eighth year of teaching, a question hit me: What do I really want students to get out of my courses? I promptly got out a piece of paper and started writing. The list of objectives grew to thirteen. I wanted students to become more imaginative, more adventuresome, and more courageous. I wanted them to develop a passion for learning while maintaining habits of self-discipline. I wanted them to think for themselves and make the Christian faith their own. I also wanted them to become more prepared to die.” (44)
I’ve just started Handbook of Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 1994), the classic work by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, two professors of philosophy at Boston College. Already it’s an engaging and highly stimulating read, with gems like this: “All the arguments in this book, and in all the books on apologetics (the defense of a religious system through the use of reasoned arguments) ever written, are worth less in the eyes of God than a single act of love to him or to your neighbor,” and “Apologetics gets at the heart through the head. The head is important precisely because it is a gate to the heart. We can love only what we know.”
In it they provide the following neat analogy to explain the difference between the intellect and the will and how they interact with each other as one reasons and comes to believe in something:
“The intellect is the soul’s navigator, but the will is its captain. The intellect is its Mr. Spock, the will is its Captain Kirk, and the feelings are its Dr. McCoy. The soul is an ‘Enterprise,’ a real starship. The will can command the intellect to think, but the intellect cannot command the will to will, only inform it, as a navigator informs the captain. Yet the will cannot simply make you believe. It can’t force the intellect to believe what appears to it to be false, or to disbelieve what seems to it to be true. Belief is what happens when you decide to be honest and put your mind in the service of truth.” (31)
In Chasing the Flame (Penguin, 2008) Samantha Power, who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gives us the enthralling, inspiring, and maddening story of Sergio Vieira de Mello. An international crisis man sometimes described as a humanitarian James Bond, Vieira de Mello was a brilliant and deeply humane UN diplomat whose combination of passionate idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism was repeatedly frustrated by forces larger than himself, including the shortcomings of his own organization, the UN. His was a thrilling life prematurely ended in 2003 by a bomb in Baghdad while he served as the UN chief of mission in Iraq.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of justice to which he devoted his life, but was also at the core of what makes us human. In his words below, he also echoes the ancients’ (was it Plato? It was probably Plato) insight that just as those who are most gifted have the greatest potential for good, they also have the greatest potential for evil. We’re reminded that this applies to the realm of thought and ideas as well.
After receiving the highest grades in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Vieira de Mello wrote to his ex-girlfriend:
“‘But for what?’…if he had studied economics or marketing instead, ‘some American company would have assured me a “happy future” strewn with dollars.’ He would never sell out, he told her, and ‘just short of dying of hunger,’ he would ‘never abandon philosophy.’ The philosopher, he wrote, could become either ‘the most just man’ or the ‘the most radical bandit.’ Either way, he insisted, ‘to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do – to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.'” (21)
Cicero’s On Old Age is ancient wisdom at its best. In it he answers the charges of younger men against old age, such as lack of physical activity and the loss of mental acuity and bodily pleasures, such as taste and sex. To each of these charges Cicero responds by arguing that much of the discomfort and failings of old age are due more to the bad habits of earlier years and personal character faults than to old age itself. Old age, he says, has much to offer to those seeking the improvement of their mind and the refining of their spirit. As the French essayist Montaigne said of the work, Cicero makes you look forward to old age.
Written about 40 years before the birth of Christ, this work also shows human wisdom’s limits as well as its glimmers of eternal wisdom. For example, Cicero’s affirms the immortality of the soul but is unable to imagine much else beyond death. As the last quote below shows, however, he seems to have understood that this life is a temporary stay on the way to our true home, much like the Christian concept of pilgrims on the way to our true and final home.
I encourage everyone, young and old, to treat themselves to this classic work. It’s only about 30 pages. But if you won’t get to it for a while because you have so much to read as it is, here’s a (completely free!) sampling:
“A person who lacks the means, within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome.”
“[In old age] there is great satisfaction in the knowledge of a life well spent and the memory of many things well done.”
“The evils for which ignorant people blame old age are really their own faults and deficiencies.”
“Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.”
“At the very least we must concede age the capacity to teach and train young men and fit them for jobs of every kind; and no function could possibly be more honorable than that.”
“When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarreling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself – and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon.”
“Old age must have its foundations well laid in early life.”
“Old people are also complained about as morose, and petulant, and ill-tempered, and hard to please…but these are faults of character, not of age…For the fact is that not every personality, any more than every wine, grows sour with age.”
“The particular harvest of old age, I repeat, is its abundant recollection of blessings acquired in earlier years.”
“Since death is an imminent possibility from hour to hour, you must not let the prospect frighten you, or you will be in a state of perpetual anxiety.”
“What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not one to make our own. When I leave life, therefore, I shall feel as if I am leaving a hostel rather than a home.”
Everyone believes something.
Some give this more thought than others and develop a consistent set of beliefs, while others take the buffet table approach – choose and take what you like and if it no longer serves or pleases you, leave it aside and don’t bother picking up after yourself.
The household in which German theologian and anti-Hitler conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up fell firmly in the former camp, having a lasting effect on the children’s futures as their accomplishments demonstrate.* Lazy thinking and not practicing what one professed were not tolerated, as Eric Metaxas shows us in Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2013):
“Karl Bonhoeffer taught his children that having a remarkable IQ was of no use if one didn’t train one’s mind to think clearly and logically. As a scientist, he believed that was of paramount importance. One must learn to follow the evidence and the facts and the logic all the way through to the end. Sloppy thinking of any kind was not tolerated in the Bonhoeffer household. One would surely think twice before opening one’s mouth at the dinner table because all statements would immediately be challenged. This early training in how to think was at the core of the Bonhoeffer children’s upbringing, and it was one reason that Dietrich grew up to have the tremendous impact on those around him that he did.
“Perhaps even more important in the Bonhoeffer family was acting upon what one said one believed. One must not only think clearly but must prove one’s thoughts in action. If one was unprepared to live out what one claimed to believe, perhaps one didn’t believe what one claimed at all!” (92)
* According to Metaxas, Dietrich’s father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was “a scientific genius and the most famous psychiatrist in Germany for the first half of the twentieth century,” while his wife Paula was a brilliant teacher who earned a degree at a time when few women did and homeschooled all eight of their children. Then, the eldest brother, Karl Friedrich, became a physicist who at 23 participated in Max Planck and Albert Einstein’s splitting of the atom, and the middle brother, Klaus, went onto head the legal department of Lufthansa. Their sisters, meanwhile, also were “brilliant and married brilliant men.”
Twentieth-century theologian, public intellectual, and prophet, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote powerfully about America’s role in the world. He beckoned Americans to examine their own values in light of their professed virtues and noble national goals, reminding a nation of the need for humility and faith even as it pursues justice and confronts real evil in a morally ambiguous and often tragic world. In his classic The Irony of American History (University of Chicago, 1952), he achieved the nearly impossible: critiquing his own society from within, like an astute and wise outside observer, but with eyes of faith which transcended the events of his day.
A short sampling of some of my favorite excerpts:
“A sane life requires that we have some clue to the mystery so that the realm of meaning is not simply reduced to the comprehensible processes of nature. But these clues are ascertained by faith, which modern man has lost.”
“Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that ‘the other,’ that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.”
“The God before whom ‘the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as small dust in the balances’ is known by faith and not by reason. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meaning which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.”
“…the whole drama of human history is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.”
“…humility…is the prerequisite of every spiritual achievement.”
“Those who succeed in life, whether by the acquisition of power, wealth, or wisdom, do incline to value their achievements too highly and to forget the fragmentary character of all human achievements.”
Have you ever paused to consider how much of our culture is influenced by that seminal phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”? I think it’s fair to say that before these words were penned into our Declaration of Independence, no nation had ever before staked its people’s happiness as one of its founding principles and a reason for being.
Today we see this fixation with happiness in many places, from the check-out lines where Cosmopolitan reveals its “7 Secrets to Happiness” to the Barnes & Noble with the prominent display of Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project (Harper, 2011). But “happiness” is no simple proposition, and too often in its pursuit we forget that more important than mere happiness is the wisdom needed to negotiate life’s challenges and to know when to try to change one’s circumstances and when to accept, and even embrace them. This kind of wisdom produces not happiness, but joy and peace. Alternatively, does the absence of “happiness” indicate personal failure? Are those whose days are more characterized by difficulty and suffering than cheery happiness doing something wrong or missing out on a fuller and better experience of life?
In his recent book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin, 2013), Tim Keller writes that one of the major failings of modern society is that it fails to provide an adequate framework, if any, for understanding suffering. He explains that unlike in previous civilizations where suffering and trials were understood to be a crucial aspect of life which could better one’s character, many people today are more likely to see suffering as an accident of life to be avoided and removed from human experience.
More than fifty years ago Reinhold Niehbur wrote eloquently about this dilemma for American society, calling it “our difficulty as a nation.” Does this still hold true today? And has it gotten worse?
“The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than ‘happiness.’ Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence” (The Irony of American History, University of Chicago, 1952), 52.