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What Is Wrong with the World?

“What’s wrong with the world?”  Countless thinkers have asked this question, especially over the past century-plus, and they have asked it over and over again; to the point that few in recent years seem to ask it any longer, even for the purpose of adopting the thinnest veneer of rhetorical posturing.  No. Today, almost everyone seems pretty well-decided about what is wrong in the world. As such, their questions aim at means to rectifying those wrongs rather than at understanding what they are.

Taking such an aim ignores, however, that most hold only opinions about what is wrong, for very few hold any knowledge about what is right.  Not knowing what is right—and by knowing is meant not merely “feeling” something to be right or wrong, but being able to articulate what causes the act or practice to be good or bad—we can only react to certain things as wrong.  The reaction might be correct (that is, appropriate) or incorrect (inappropriate).  Someone might react, for instance, with disgust at exposing children to sexually-suggestive performances.  Someone else might laud this exposure.  The former is correct; the latter, not.  But if the former reaction cannot be explained, cannot be grounded in a causal explanation, it will have difficulty justifying itself in a world where the sense of the natural has been evaporated in a cultural confusion, in a culture which has grown increasingly separated from the ordination of nature itself.

Aristotelian Revival

To ask, then, “what is wrong with the world?” one will receive a myriad of answers based on feelings—some of which answers may be correct, others which may be incorrect; but the grounds for both will appear almost equally instable in efforts at communication.  The only means of resolution, then—when confronted with the inevitable conflict between opposed reactions—becomes violent conflict.  But such a resolution is, at best, temporary.  New differences of reaction will arise, even under (perhaps especially under) the most totalitarian and authoritarian of regimes.

What then, are we to do?  Where does the answer lie for our cultural conflicts?  It lies, as suggested, in an understanding of the good (i.e., that in accordance with which a course of action is right).  We can do no better than to begin by returning to Aristotle. We must rediscover his wisdom, and strive as best we can to understand the truths he reveals as they illuminate our struggles today. Chiefly, Aristotle teaches us the necessity of virtue. This rediscovery of virtue should not, as some would understand it, require a “strategic retreat” from the world. Rather, the rediscovery teaches us how to live in a world that might hate us for our virtues—and love us in spite of that hatred.

Virtue of Community

Last year, I read (among many of his works), Byung-Chul Han’s Disappearance of Rituals. At the very outset of the text, Han writes:

Rituals are symbolic acts.  They represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based.  They bring forth a community without communication; today, however, communication without community prevails.

2020: Disappearance of Rituals, 1.

Doubtless, we can observe the absence of ritual readily in the prevalence of communication without community. Such communication, arguably, fails even to be communication in truth. Indeed, Han here evokes the specter of paradox. There cannot be community without communication. A community coalesces around something common, which does not come into being without communication.  But the exaggerated point remains valid: that distinct, particular acts of communication are not needed when there exist rituals which contain that commonality and communicate it to the community. Explicit linguistic communication finds itself required less when ritual has already established commonality.

Ritual requires definition, of course—and defense of such a definition exceeds the intent of this post. But succinctly, we might say that every ritual comprises an external habit. There may be private or internal elements as well, of course; but rituals are performed. As such, they concern a holding of oneself with respect to the world.

I believe it would do much good if we could see that good rituals result from virtue. Perhaps we can identify—causally—that the absence of true community constitutes something wrong with the world today. Perhaps, recovering virtue, we can recover true community.

Virtue: Ethics

What does it mean to be good as a human being? Modernity, all too often, has treated this as a problem to be solved. That is, we tend to view moral failings as simply in need of the right solution, the right education, the right program. Morality, however, is something that belongs to the individual. It is a matter of internal habit, not a matter of an external system.

[2023 Winter] Ethics: Virtue

What does it mean to be good as a human being? Modernity, all too often, has treated this as a problem to be solved. That is, we tend to view moral failings as simply in need of the right solution, the right education, the right program. Morality, however, is something that belongs to the individual. It is a matter of internal habit, not a matter of an external system.

Put in other words, we might say that the ethically-righteous course of action consists in how we hold ourselves. There is no checklist. There are no solutions. Actions of moral consequence are all unique, unrepeatable. No one is confronted with the same moral difficulty twice. In order to deal with them rightly, we must ourselves be good.

It is precisely this—being good—that Aristotle pursues in his Nicomachean Ethics. This great masterwork, which will be read in its entirety across this 8 week seminar, develops the concept of virtue (that is, in this context, human excellence) through understanding the characteristic activity which is proper to the human being. We will pursue Aristotle in this course with some supplemental readings, expository and provocative lectures, and weekly discussions.

The Aristotelian approach to the question of moral righteousness stands in contrast to many of the presuppositions of today. This seminar will challenge many of our preconceived notions about what it means to be good and how this is achieved.

This is an introductory seminar. View the syllabus here and learn more about Lyceum Institute seminars here. Participants will be challenged but need no prior experience. Participants are required to use a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Preferred translations: Bartlett and Collins or Joe Sachs.

Schedule

Discussion Sessions
10:15am ET
(World times)
Study Topics &
Readings

January
14
Week 1: Happiness and the Good
Lecture: The Work of a Human Being
Readings:
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1.
January
21
Week 2: The Nature of Virtue
Lecture: Action and Affection
Reading:
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2—Book 3, c.5.
» “On Moral Philosophy”, Yves Simon.
January
28
Week 3: The Moral Virtues
Lecture: Moral Greatness
Reading:
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, c.6—Book 4.
» “The Virtue of Courage”, R.E. Houser.
» “The Virtue of Temperance”, Diana Fritz Cates.
February
4
Week 4: Justice
Lecture: Due Proportionality
Reading:
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5.
» “The Virtue of Justice”, Jean Porter.
February
11

BREAK
February
18
Week 5: Intellectual Virtue
Lecture: Prudence and the Unity of Virtue
Reading:
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6.
» “The Intellectual Virtues”, Gregory M. Reichberg.
» “The Virtue of Prudence”, James F. Keenan, S.J.
February
 25
Week 6: The Struggle for Virtue
Lecture: Striving for a Coherent Life
Reading:
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 7.
March
4
Week 7: The Good of Friendship
Lecture: Hierarchy of Friendships
Readings:
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8—Book 9, c.6.
March
11
Week 8: The Hierarchy of Happiness
Lecture: Unitive Goods of Human Life
Readings
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, c.7—Book 10.

Registration

Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

Ethics: Virtue

[2023W] Ethics: Virtue – Benefactor

Recommended for those with fulltime employment in well-paying professions and sufficient resources to provide a little more.

$200.00

Ethics: Virtue

[2023W] Ethics: Virtue – Patron

Recommended for those in professions that do not pay as well as they ought and for whom continued education is especially important (including professors and clergy).

$135.00

Ethics: Virtue

[2023W] Ethics: Virtue – Participant

Recommended for those who are currently students or with part-time employment.

$60.00

No Freedom without Purpose

Musings derived from recent Lyceum Institute conversations concerning language.

It is an oft-stated distinction, and with good cause, that “freedom” may be said in two ways: either a kind of negative freedom, that is, a freedom belonging to self-determining agents in the absence of restraint (“freedom from”); or a kind of positive freedom, namely, the absence of prohibitions against freely engaging in pursuit of the good (“freedom for”). But I believe that, however related these two senses might be, we are not saying them analogically, but equivocally—and ought, therefore, to stop misusing the singular term “freedom” for both meanings. The negative sense, in other words, does not pertain to the agent who possesses freedom. Rather, it refers to a relational state which may be either imagined or real. It is real inasmuch as it refers to a societal pattern of relations whereby human agents are able to make certain decisions without state compulsion. The state, as a cognition-dependent entity, must itself be in conformity with the good of human nature in order that the state is just. The negative “freedom” is imagined, however, inasmuch as it is thought to obtain independently of any state of society; as though it is a given of nature, despite no resolution to natural realities.

Constraints of the Negative

In other words, you, your friends, your family, everyone you have ever known—and likewise for myself—are quite thoroughly constrained in terms of the decisions you can or cannot make, and most certainly by the consequences of them. The world resists our efforts much more than it accedes to them; it is we who must adapt to the world in order that we thrive, and not the other way around.

By contrast, the real negative “freedom” consists in nothing other than that pattern of relations through which the state abstains from compulsion being a just and righteous pattern: one that recognizes a kind of subsidiarity of governance. In other words, negative “freedom” consists in little more than recognizing that decisions ought to be made at the lowest possible level of prudential determination. This, of course, does not constitute an absolute principle. At times, local governing entities cannot be trusted to make the right decisions, and intervention of a higher authority is required. But the exercise of this authority ought to be temporary, and decision-making remanded as soon as possible.

But this non-intervention of higher authority does not mean constraint is wrong. Rather, it indicates that the flourishing of human beings requires good and right use of the individual faculty of the will. Such contributes not only to the flourishing of the individual, that is, but the community. Compel me to pick up trash and not only will I likely become resentful, but seek to do the bare minimum. On the other hand, if I care for the beauty of my community and begin to collect the trash myself, I may even help move others to act likewise. Yet if I demonstrate not only a lack of care for my environment, but an active hostility toward it, what is the government to do? Something, of course, that is compulsive, that does constrain my actions. The government has a responsibility not to determine what is good for me, but to support conditions in which the good can flourish. I cannot be “free” if I am a slave to laziness. The government cannot make me be industrious; but it can support structures—built and operated with the principle of subsidiarity in mind—which both encourage virtue and dissuade vice.

Order of the Positive

Positive “freedom”, on the other hand—which belongs to the agent—likewise exists only under a certain constraint. That I act freely requires that I act for something. Human freedom of choice follows understanding, always. The degree to which I am free, therefore, follows the depth of my understanding. Other attributes of my being—habits and particularly those inclining to vice—may intrude upon and hamper the relationship between my understanding and my will. I know well, for instance, that the yogurt and salad are the truly good option (given my weight, height, general health, etc.), but the bacon cheeseburger has a hold on me, somehow, and I choose poorly. Of course, this “freedom for” also requires that I be able to choose the unhealthy option because it does have a genuine good, and, at rare times, is in fact the better choice to make. That is, the correctness of the choice follows the purpose for which one eats. Yogurt and a salad make for a poor celebratory meal, and, if celebrating something worthy, one ought to celebrate well. Conversely, if we see someone whom we know regularly eating naught but the unhealthiest of foods, we ought to remonstrate that person.

These constraints follow one’s knowledge. If you see someone eating unhealthy food once, giving chastisement is unwarranted. If you see someone you do not know eating unhealthy food—even if you observe such frequently—you are unwise to say anything. The individual in question may be choosing poorly, but we lack the requisite knowledge of the person. But so, too, should there exist a society in which the knowledge and habits about eating well are common and well-supported by communities at every level. The ends that are fulfilling for human beings should be known, and the means to pursue them encouraged so that they may be freely and creatively pursued. (The relation between “free” and “creative” is a topic to be explored another time.) Correlatively, the ends that are not fulfilling should be discouraged, and societal practices which instead encourage vice should be prohibited.

These considerations include the “freedom of speech”, much discussed in recent years. It cannot rightly be an absolute “freedom from”. Whatever societal, governmental non-intervention surrounds our speech, it relies entirely upon a sense of purpose for speech. If speech becomes divorced from truth, the freedom of speech becomes, swiftly, a nightmare of contradictions. Yet, it must be asked: do we know the truth well enough to determine what ought to be said, and when, and how? We know the health values of food—a narrow subject—far better than we know many issues of moral and political discord. Nevertheless, just as we can tell someone we know well that he should not continue eating unhealthy foods if we observe him so doing, so too we may admonish against excesses in humor—and, more strongly, against those claims and statements which undermine the very good of human nature itself.

There are some important rhetorical considerations to develop, here. Perhaps a seminar on the “Ethics of Terminology” or “Communication Ethics” will be offered in the future.

[Summer 2022] Philosophical Thought of Garrigou-Lagrange

Philosophizing in Faith: The Philosophical Thought of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, styled by certain parties as the “Sacred Monster of Thomism,” taught at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the “Angelicum”) in Rome for a long career of over fifty years.  Although he is normally understood to be a conservative Roman theologian of his period, an honest assessment of his work shows that, while being integrated deeply into the Dominican schola Thomae, he was an active thinker, synthesizing, with a particular strength in pedagogy, Thomistic thought on many topics in theology and philosophy. This seminar will primarily consider his philosophical thought, tracing his treatment of topics pertaining to the philosophy of knowledge, metaphysics, moral philosophy, politics, with a bit of logic as well; it will end with a consideration of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s presentation of the boundaries between faith and reason.   Throughout the seminar, emphasis will be placed on his organic connection with the Thomistic tradition as well as with the ongoing development of Thomistic thought in the many figures he influenced over the course of years of teaching and writing.

Listen to a preview here

What is final causality?

To our day, the greatest philosophers, in agreement with natural reason, have said, “Becoming is not self-explanatory. It cannot exist by itself. It is not related to reality or to being as A is to A, as white is to white, as light is to light, and as spirit is to spirit.” First of all, it requires a subject. Movement is always the movement of something—of water, air, or the ether. Movement in general does not exist as such. Only this movement exists. It is only this movement or this becoming because it is the movement of this subject, of this mobile thing. No dream without a dreamer, no flight without that which flies, no outflow without a liquid, no flow without a fluid (no matter how subtle and small it might be). No thought without a mind, and if a mind is not, like God, Thought Itself and Truth Itself Ever Actually Known ab aeterno, it is distinct from its thinking and from its thoughts, which vary and are concerned with various objects while it remains one and the same (i.e., the same substantial being under the multiple and changing phenomena). And this imperfect mind cannot know without the concurrence of Him who is Thought Itself, Truth Itself, and Life Itself, He who is more intimately present to us than we ourselves are to ourselves, all the while being really and essentially distinct from us.

Garrigou-Lagrange, The Order of Things: The Realism of the Principle of Finality, 72.

Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

DISCUSSIONS:
July 2—27 August
Saturdays, 9:00-10:00am ET /
1:00-2:00pm UTC

WHERE:
Lyceum Institute digital platform run on Microsoft Teams

In this seminar, lasting 8 weeks (with a break at the halfway point—see here for more information on all Lyceum Institute seminars), we will discover the profound insights of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a thinker of great subtly and wisdom. The instructor for this seminar is Dr. Matthew Minerd, Professor of Philosophy and Moral theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh, PA and Faculty Fellow of the Lyceum Institute. You can read more about Dr. Minerd here.

[2022Su-B] Philosophizing in Faith – Participant

Recommended for those who are currently students or with part-time employment.

$80.00

[2022Su-B] Philosophizing in Faith – Patron

Recommended for those in professions that do not pay as well as they ought and for whom continued education is especially important (including professors and clergy).

$135.00

[2022Su-B] Philosophizing in Faith – Benefactor

Recommended for those with fulltime employment in well-paying professions and sufficient resources to provide a little more in support of the Lyceum Institute and its mission.

$200.00

Lectio Commedia: Dante, Poet of Hope

Beginning October 6th, every other Wednesday Dr. Mark McCullough (PhD in Humanities from the City University of New York) will facilitate a 45-minute discussion on one canto of Dante Alighieri’s masterwork The Divine Comedy at 12pm ET: the Lectio Commedia: Dante, Poet of Hope. This will be preceded by a reading of the canto with a brief commentary and explication on a given theme the Friday prior.

Join us as we explore the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, walking in the footsteps of Dante and his guides, and putting a concrete presentation of evocative imagery to insightful Thomistic moral doctrine.

“One test of the great masters” wrote T.S. Eliot, “is that the appreciation of their poetry is a lifetime’s task, because at every stage of maturing—and that should be one’s whole life–you are able to understand them better.”

Of these masters, Eliot chose Dante as the one he owed more to than any other poet. He said the debt he owed Dante “is the kind which goes on accumulating, the kind which is not the debt of one period” but of his whole life.

Indeed, Dante is a poet for all seasons. His Divine Comedy is the summit of his poetic powers. No one can claim to be well-versed in the great literature of the Western Canon without having encountered Dante’s vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Translator Dorothy Sayer’s admitted that few modern readers are able to appreciate Dante’s vision without understanding something of the poet’s theological, political, and personal background. Yet who among us has the time to tackle all of this?

To address this difficulty, I have designed a twice-a-month course on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Starting October 6 at 12 noon, and every other week thereafter, for one hour, we will discuss a canto or two together. I have taught Dante for many years and am currently writing a book on Dante and psychology. In this course, I welcome anyone who desires to understand Dante better.

I will be reading from a number of translations, including Mark Musa, Robert and Jean Hollander, and Allen Mandelbaum. Look for audio uploads of my reading and discussing Dante’s poetry.

Dr. McCullough

This program is open to all members of the Lyceum Institute. Enroll here today.

[2021 Fall] Thomistic Psychology: The Meaning of Evil

This seminar aims to deepen our questioning concerning the meaning of evil, beginning with the nature of the goods to which various evils are opposed.   This introduction will lead us to the seminar’s main concern, which is with moral evil as a kind of primary rupture in the world of free beings, and the questions that evil poses for moral psychology: If moral goodness represents nothing other than the excellence of the human way of acting, what then does it mean willingly to oppose the norm of that excellence?  In the end, this will lead us to a consideration of how we might move beyond an account of moral evil merely as privation, and the possibility of addressing the shortcomings of the traditional account from a semiotic point of view.  The hope is that the seminar as a whole will be of some real assistance for the examination of our own consciences and the better fulfillment of our vocations as human persons.

In this seminar, lasting 8 weeks (see here for more information on all Lyceum Institute seminars), we will study the true meaning of evil, especially our role in the constitution of moral evil. This will incorporate considerations of the will, the Umwelt, the sign, and more. The instructor for this seminar is Kirk Kanzelberger, PhD, Faculty Fellow 2020. You can read more about Dr. Kanzelberger here and download the syllabus here.

WHEN
October 2–20 November
Saturdays, 10:00-11:00am ET/2:00-3:00pm UTC [3:00-4:00pm UTC after Nov.7]

WHERE
Lyceum Institute digital platform run on Microsoft Teams

Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, with discounts for those who are professors and clergy (whose continuing education is not sufficiently prioritized by their institutions) and for students (who are already taxed excessively by the educational system). However, if you are part of the working world and wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the “standard” rate, it is acceptable to sign up at one of these discounted prices. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).