Lessons from a Professor: Philosophy is for Living, and Dying, Well

Thinking ManIn 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.”

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“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)

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