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Last Chance to Register for Fall Seminars

With discussion sessions beginning this coming Saturday (9/23), I would be remiss if I did not put out a final call for registration in our Fall seminars. We have three provocative offerings, each of which promises to confront the errors of modernity in radically differing ways.

Registration for all seminars closes on 21 September 2023 at 11pm ET!

On the Philosophy of Boredom

Who does not dislike the experience of boredom?  To be bored is to feel one’s time, one’s energy, one’s capacities are wasted, withering away on nothing.  But, at times, the boredom that seizes us disregards even our greatest loves: no matter the diversion attempted, boredom takes sway.  We might pick up a favorite book, only to put it down with a sigh after a few pages; or begin to watch a movie, a television show, even a live sport—and yet care not a whit for word or action on the screen, no matter how compelling the plot or play.  Chores and to-do’s are often a last resort, for at least the hope that something productive will be done and accomplished: but they seem little more than means to “pass the time”.

But this experience, with which no doubt we all are familiar, serves it seems only to cover up the fundamental and seldom-asked question—and which we intend to discuss in this week’s Philosophical Happy Hour—namely: what is boredom itself?

Kierkegaard and the Root of All Evil

“Boredom”, infamously writes Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), “is the root of all evil.”  Interpreting Kierkegaard never presents an easy task.  Is he being ironic?  Literal?  A mixture of the two?  This last seems often to be the case.  It is not, in other words, that boredom causes in the most literal sense all the evils attributed to it; but there is, no doubt, something pernicious about boredom.  What else does he have to say?

Strange that boredom, in itself so staid and stolid, should have such power to set in motion.  The influence it exerts is altogether magical, except that it is not the influence of attraction, but of repulsion.

In the case of children, the ruinous character of boredom is universally acknowledged.  Children are always well-behaved as long as they are enjoying themselves.  This is true in the strictest sense; for if they sometimes become unruly in their play, it is because they are already beginning to be bored—boredom is already approaching, through from a different direction.

1843: Either/Or, Vol.1, The “Either”, p.281.

We will pick Søren back up momentarily, but this merits a pause: do we not observe today, in the era of constant distraction from distraction by distraction, a rising unruliness in youth?  Is this indeed because they are bored—or because they do not know how to quiet their sense of boredom?  But this raises the question: what is the experience of boredom itself?  Continuing:

The history of this [world going from bad to worse, its evils increasing more and more as boredom increases] can be traced from the very beginning of the world.  The gods were bored, and so they created man.  Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created.  Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population.  Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse.   To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens.  This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.

1843: EIther/Or, Vol.1, The “Either”, p.282.

Here we sense, no doubt, some of Kierkegaard’s characteristic irony.  But though the irony rises to the fore, laced throughout we sense a certain truth.  Much of what we do, much of what we seek, seems motivated—somehow—out of boredom; out of a kind of dissatisfaction with what we have, or a failure of that which we have to satisfy—something.  We may not even ourselves know what.  Is that vagueness itself not a part of the experience of boredom?  That is, we feel ourselves bored when we know not what would get rid of the feeling of being bored; or, if we believe something would, we do not know how to get it.

Still, this does not answer the question: what is boredom?

Heidegger and Indifference

In a lecture course given some 74 years after Kierkegaard passed, Martin Heidegger offered his own extended thoughts on boredom.  Like much of Heidegger’s work—indeed, I’d dare to say, all of it—ultimately he resolves the question into that of being and of time.  But this resolution is not without reason, and, moreover, the path he takes toward it sheds important light on the question itself.  Boredom, as he describes it, has come to the fore in our world precisely through the structures of culture.  As he writes:

Have we become too insignificant to ourselves, that we require a role?  Why do we find no meaning for ourselves any more, i.e., no essential possibility of being?  Is it because an indifference yawns at us out of all things, an indifference whose grounds we do not know?  Yet who can speak in such a way when world trade, technology, and the economy seize hold of man and keep him moving?  And nevertheless we seek a role for ourselves.  What is happening here?, we ask anew.  Must we first make ourselves interesting to ourselves again?  Why must we do this?  Perhaps because we ourselves have become bored with ourselves?  Is man himself no supposed to have become bored with himself?  Why so?  Do things ultimately stand in such a way with us that a profound boredom draws back and forth like a silent fog in the abysses of Dasein [i.e., the intentional structure of human living]?

1929-30: Die Grundbegriff der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, p.77 in the English translation.

Heidegger goes on for quite some time (roughly 80 pages in the English translation) inquiring into the nature of boredom—examining differences of being bored and bored with and boredom itself, between superficial and profound boredom, and so on and so forth.  It is not at all, for seriously-inquiring minds (especially those already familiar with Heidegger’s philosophy), a boring read.

Homesickness and Boredom

But among the many wanderings undertaken through this contemplation, one today caught my attention.  First, he draws attention to the German word and its rather obvious etymology: Langeweile.  The English cognate—“long while”—speaks true.  But within this context, he draws an interesting and, I think, rather profound connection:

We pass the time in order to master [profound boredom], because time becomes long in boredom.  Time becomes long for us.  Is it supposed to be short, then?  Does not each of us wish for a truly long time for ourselves?  And whenever it does become long for us, we pass the time and ward off its becoming long!  We do not want to have a long time, but we have it nevertheless.  Boredom, long time: especially in Alemannic [a group of High German dialects] usage, it is no accident that ‘to have long time’ means the same as ‘to be homesick’.  In this German usage, if someone has long-time for… this means he is home sick for… Is this accidental?  Or is it only with difficulty that we are able to grasp and draw upon the wisdom of language?  Profound boredom—a homesickness.  Homesickness—philosophizing, we heard somewhere, is supposed to be a homesickness.  Boredom—a fundamental attunement of philosophizing.  Boredom—what is it?

1929-30: Die Grundbegriff der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, p.80.

Boredom—homesickness—philosophizing.  The reference of “we heard somewhere” may be a bit of a joke, as the word used for “homesickness” here is unheimlichkeit, literally, “not-at-home-ness”.  In other works of Heidegger, such as his then-famous Being and Time, it will be translated inadequately as “uncanniness”.  But, at any rate, this merits our contemplation.  Is boredom essentially an experience of being homesick, of being “not at home”?  Homesickness itself can tell us something, I believe, about boredom.  When we are homesick, we are uncomfortable: not with the things around us, but with the absence of home.  Our attunement is to the absent and not the present.  We might lash out at the present—in the form of persons or things, in actions or thoughts—but less because of what they are than because of what they aren’t.

So too, I believe, when we are bored, we might become bored with this or that object, but less because of what it is and more because of what it isn’t.  But whereas homesickness has a specified object that it desires (even if we seldom know precisely what it is or why home satisfies us), boredom seems more fundamentally lost.  We seek, therefore, not to alleviate boredom by satisfying its fundamental desire, but by quieting it, putting it to sleep—as Heidegger says—through some distraction, some temporary movement which alleviates that sense of “not being at home”.

Philosophizing at Home

So what is it we are missing when we are bored?  And are we condemned—like Freud’s civilizational discontents—to perennial dissatisfaction, to naught but inadequate sublimations of our fundamental desire to not be bored?

Join us this Wednesday (9/13/2023) for a Philosophical Happy Hour on the topic of boredom: what is it, why do we experience, and what should we do about it?

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Fall 2023: Thomistic Psychology – Habits and Experience

In a world where habits often seem synonymous with unconscious and automatic reactions, it is time to revisit and explore the true depth and meaning of this vital aspect of human existence. The Lyceum Institute is pleased to present an 8-week intensive seminar on “Thomistic Psychology: Human Habits and Experience of the World.” Guided by the profound insights of Thomas Aquinas, the seminar will open up new horizons in understanding the complex reality of habits in human life.

Why Study Habits and Experience? The modern understanding of habit is often reduced to mere patterns of behavior. However, this seminar takes a unique approach, delving into the Thomistic tradition to unveil a more profound, multifaceted, and richer perspective. Further, this course intertwines the insights of Thomistic psychology with those derived from semiotics and phenomenology to examine not only the intrapersonal dimension of habits but also the intersubjective reality in community, culture, and environment.

Discover Habits

  • Understanding Habits in Depth: Learn about Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of habit as a coalescent actuality, shaping our actions, virtues, and vices, and how it stands in contrast to contemporary notions.
  • Cultural Habit: Discover the influence of habits on how we relate amongst ourselves, a theme rarely drawn out explicitly in Thomistic texts but profoundly vital in our interconnected world.
  • The Role of Other Traditions: Though focused on St. Thomas, we will take a diverse approach by invoking traditions such as semiotics and phenomenology and engage with authors like Felix Ravaisson, who have written extensively on habit.

Method & Structure

The seminar, designed for those with prior study in or familiarity with Thomistic Psychology, consists of:

  • Weekly Recorded Lectures: 40-60+ minute lectures exploring concepts, arguments, and potential developments within the tradition.
  • Discussion Sessions: Engage in collective inquiry and civil debate with fellow participants and the instructor every Saturday at 1:00-2:00 pm ET.
  • Reading: Primary texts include Aquinas’ Summa theologiae (ST Ia-IIae) with additional readings provided in PDF.
  • Time Commitment: Expect 8 hours per week for reading, lectures, and discussion.
  • Auditing or Completing: Participants who write an essay may “Complete” the seminar (and be considered for publication in Reality).

Richness of Experience

This is not just a seminar but a deeply engaging experience that promises to enrich your understanding of human nature and the world around us. It allows an immersive exploration of texts, lectures, and lively discussions, bringing resolution to difficulties, enhancing intellectual curiosity, and directing further inquiry.

It is more than learning; it’s participation in a dynamic intellectual community, sharing thoughts, engaging in constructive debates, and fostering a collective pursuit of wisdom. Your contribution will not only enlighten you but others as well, and you’ll have the opportunity to have your work potentially evaluated for publication.

Join us at the Lyceum Institute for this enlightening journey, a course that goes beyond the conventional, offering a unique perspective that could redefine your understanding of habits and their role in human experience. Challenge your thoughts, deepen your insights, and be a part of a meaningful dialogue about human nature and culture. Register today for “Thomistic Psychology: Human Habits and Experience of the World,” and rediscover the richness of human existence.

Pricing Comparison

Standard priceBasic Lyceum
Advanced Lyceum EnrollmentPremium Lyceum Enrollment
Benefactor$200 per seminar$903 seminars included
$90 after
8 seminars included
$90 after
Patron$135 per seminar$653 seminars included
$65 after
8 seminars included
$65 after
Participant$80 per seminar$403 seminars included
$40 after
8 seminars included
$40 after

On the Purposes of Art

What is the purpose of art?  It is not a new question.  To the contrary, it resides among the oldest of questions.  Some may despair of a meaningful answer, given the ancient age of a question yet still be asked—and, at times, asked as though nothing said in the millennia before us has given satisfaction.  Yet, that art has a purpose cannot be denied: for even the most-mysterious seeming of acts arises for the sake of some end, even if the act itself misses the mark by a wide margin.

To many, art seems to be primarily about communicating a message.  In the past decade, the media through which art is transmitted and promoted has been painfully, dare I say cringe-inducingly, self-righteous and moralistic.  In the words of Anastasia Berg, “For all its good intentions, art that tries to minister to its audience by showcasing moral aspirants and paragons or the abject victims of political oppression produces smug, tiresome works that are failures both as art and as agitprop.”[1]  Such works—questionable as to which category is primary, that is, the art or the propaganda—may yet be lauded by the ideologues in support of their messages.  But they are upheld as good works of art only by the most deluded.

To others, art may be purely about the “aesthetic experience”: by which is commonly meant works that somehow convey or evoke an emotional response at a perceptual level, a response that induces the audience to continue the experience.  Thus, the work of art may be beautiful or hideous, joyful or tragic, but its purpose—so say such claimants—consists in the experience of the attraction.  Notably, however, this attitude may result in works which require neither talent nor thought, but which have their whole being in provocation and stoking outrage.  Such works, just as little as pieces of pure propaganda, seem to deserve the name “art”.

Final Cause of Art

As Berg, again, writes, “Art must be for something—even if only for its own sake.  For all their differences, everybody seems to agree that beautiful images have ‘value’—the question is merely what kind.”  And, as she concludes:

If good art and its criticism can free us from anything, it can free us… from the comforting delusion that we can ever transcend our human limits, defeat death, unhappiness and evil once and for all, or live in anyone’s vision of heaven on earth.  This does not mean, however, that we can ever be liberated from the infinite pull of beauty itself, or be able to attend to images only when we feel like it.  It is rather like this: we can decide what to do, but we can never decide what to dream.

19 July 2023: [“On the Aesthetic Turn ” | The Point Magazine]

The “infinite pull of beauty”—as inescapable as dreaming: not always present to us, but something which comes whether we will it or not.  Just as we are fascinated by dreams, so, too, we are by the beautiful—not only to perceive it but to create it.  Yet is the purpose of art merely to free us from “comforting delusions”?  Such liberation, I believe, is an indirect and necessarily concomitant resultance of what art truly does; but hardly its primary purpose, for such presupposes the prevalence of these delusions, a prevalence which itself contradicts human nature in a way that our love for and pursuit of art does not.

Questions of Purpose

What then, can we say about art’s true purpose?  Do we not need, first, to understand at least provisionally what art is?  Can we identify its nature?  Can we explain how someone creates it?  Or how it is received?  Do we know the work itself—the form that may make something even physically unexceptional into a vessel of beauty?  What is the center—what is the final and orienting cause for art’s existence? Come join us this Wednesday (2 August 2023) for our Philosophical Happy Hour and discuss these important questions!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

[1] 19 July 2023: “On the Aesthetic Turn”, The Point Magazine [https://thepointmag.com/criticism/on-the-aesthetic-turn/]

Psychological Order and the Noble Soul

On 7 June 2023, the Lyceum Institute held a Philosophical Happy Hour discussing the nature of “mental health” and why it has become so problematic in the 21st century.  While the conversation ranged across many topics—isolation, technology, dualism, abuse of medicines, the pathologizing of every difficulty—two themes caught my attention.  These Happy Hour discussions are open to the public.

Note that this presentation proceeds in a manner open-ended and dialectic, even as it takes a definitive position.

1. Introduction: Seeking Definitions

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If there were but one complaint that I could lodge against the scientific discipline of psychology (and the practical extension of it in psychiatry and therapy), it is this: you have no good causal definition of “mental health”.  Mind you, there are many other just complaints, but this, I think, is principal among them all, for the failure to provision (or accept) a good definition of mental health leaves one incapable of pursuing it.

To be clear, it is not as though the psychological professions have no definitions of mental health; only that those they have—or, to be fair, the most prominently-displayed among them, as I will not pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of the field—are not good definitions.  To look at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,[1] the statement closest to a definition I could find is this: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.  It affects how we think, feel, and act.  It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”  Comparably, the World Health Organization gives as a definition: “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” 

Operative in both definitions is the word “well-being”.  This, of course, says more vaguely what is said by “health”—such vagueness being quite problematic, given the role assigned to the word, “well-being”, in each definition.  The CDC further differentiates this “well-being” by “emotional, psychological, and social”; the WHO by the various things it enables people to do.  Neither differentiation is helpful.  The CDC’s specification seems oddly redundant (are not emotions something that belongs to the psyche?).  The WHO’s checklist may include key indicators, but this hardly constitutes a positive definition of what mental health is.  Indeed, neither definition gives us anything like a formal or final cause.  One could say, instead, that both are merely nominal definitions.  Such may be safer in an age lacking common first principles (a kind of “metaphysical pluralism”), but nominalism quickly gives way to motivations other than the discovery of truth or the promotion of the common good.

This radical deficiency is, of course, disastrous.  Despite a proliferation of “mental health professionals” in recent decades, the strength of our sanity seems only to wane, day by day.  I would not hesitate to identify the imprecision and vagueness of our definitions and our conception of what constitutes “mental health” to be a key cause (by absence) of this weakening sanity.  But, even further, I question whether the very concept of “mental health” itself is not a fundamentally misbegotten notion.  In back of this questioning I have also a yet-deeper concern over beliefs prevalent in medicine—and the broader conception of “health”, treated mechanistically so often as it is—but here, we will focus specifically on the application of “health” to the “mental”.

For, indeed: what do we mean by “mental”?  What is “the mind”?  To many, including those within psychology and its related fields, this question has not been answered.  Worse, for many of that many, the question either cannot or does not need to be answered.  The rationale for such positions (functionally the same), is that one can treat mental illness solely on the basis of the external indicators, such as social well-being or the ability to cope with stress and work; thus, we can adjudicate the mental healthiness of an individual not by anything formal or intrinsic to that individual, but by their perceptible relations to others and the social norms of the day.

In contrast to these deleterious positions, I would like here to suggest that the truth represented only obliquely by the phrase “mental health” can better be grasped through the concepts of order and nobility.

2. The Concept of “Mental Health”

Before proceeding into these positive conceptions, however, allow me a few paragraphs to expound on the shortcomings of the phrase “mental health”.  There are two principal and interrelated problems that I see.  The first is contingent upon the present conventional understanding of health, such that the idea of “health” broadly considered suffers a mechanistic interpretation.  The second both promotes and is exacerbated by this mechanicism: namely, that the separation of “mental health” from “health” generally at the very least implies a kind of dualism, and quite often compounds that dualism into a position of radical incoherence.

This first problem consists in the predominance of a background mechanistic conception about the whole world.  At the heart of this conception, as applied to health generally, is the belief that “health” follows from the correct kinds of efficient cause operating on properly-disposed matter, and that these two alone give a sufficient causal explanation for what is meant by “health”.  The limited but precise and impressive success in treating many conditions of the body following this conception has led to the concept’s entirely unsuitable extension to the so-called “mental”.  In other words: the mechanistic conception, though inaccurate in identifying the health of the body as such, has resulted in many efficacious treatments.  However, it is entirely unsuitable to the treatment of problems of a psychological nature.  It may and sometimes does genuinely treat of the symptoms of such a problem, and, in treating of those symptoms may even allow for a correction of the root problem—but incidentally, as it were, thereby confusing those who believe it sufficient and accurate in treating of all psychological difficulties.

Bridging this and the second problem of dualism runs the notion that “health” is an instrumental good of “the self”.  In some ways, of course, this is true, as it pertains to the body.  If “physical health” may be broadly (and provisionally) defined as “the right disposition of the organic body for the sake of the animal’s characteristic activities”, then “health” does, in a certain way, serve as an instrument—or rather, describes the condition of the instruments, namely, the organs through which we operate.[2]  But, even granting more extreme instrumentalist vies of the body, does the mechanistic conception of “health” result in an extension of this instrumentality to the “mental”?  In other words: if the health of the body is “for the good of the ‘self’”, then what is “mental health” for?

Thus, to identify the second problem, that of dualism: the notion of the body as merely an instrument suggests that the person and his or her body are not a unity, but, rather, that the body is a possession of the person.[3]  But, although the word “dualism” suggests a simple duality—the physical and the mental—we can see with a little reflection how much more complex the problem is in fact.  Ordinarily, that is, one suspects most dualisms of simply treating the body as an instrument and the mental as the personal self to whom that instrument belongs.  But with the mechanistic appropriation of “mental health”, the mental too becomes an instrument.  For thus “mental health” becomes something that one has—and we describe mental health problems as hurdles that the person has to overcome, and so on.  Holding that the body is a possession, an instrument, we strive after physical health as a right functioning of that instrument.  So, too—implicitly, unconsciously—the mind comes to be held likewise as a possession and an instrument in need of being well-tuned in order to perform as we wish it would.

Often, and paradoxically, this particular twist in dualistic thinking goes hand-in-hand with materialism: believing, for instance, that all our psychological experience is constituted neurologically—such that our “mental health” difficulties arise principally if not exclusively from physically-explicable (and resoluble) disorders in the brain—one becomes a de facto dualist.  For we experience a will and a desire to be something other than what is neurologically constituted (and all the flaws located therein).  Even if one maintains materialism as true, accepting this opposition must mean that some part of the brain—the part with which we identify—constitutes something distinct in its identity from the flawed parts.  Thus, the self becomes divided, again and again, part against part, with no resolution to any sense of a whole.

Finally, even if one were to post this standing of part against part, of the “true self” as only a part of one’s material whole as merely illusory—as though any identity of the self apart from the material consists in naught but epiphenomena—then one would be forced to accept that our manner of experience is entirely other than what the things purportedly-experienced themselves are in fact.  Such is a one-way street to solipsism.

3. Psychological Order

By contrast, we here propose that the psychological, or at the very least what we conventionally if vaguely designate by that term, is both distinct from the corporeal but also inseparable from the physical.[4]  This too might, prima facie, appear paradoxical.  But it must be known that not all distinctions are of two wholly different beings.  Certainly, my hand is a part of me; but I am not my hand.  Likewise, the psyche is the intrinsic principle of my body, but it is not my body itself.[5]  Moreover, the activities of the psyche are not limited to those which are strictly constrained to the corporeal, but are able to exceed that corporeality.  I’ll not dive into this here (such being a more difficult and engaged topic—covered, not incidentally, in the Thomistic Psychology: A Retrieval seminar) but simply posit these points as true in order to arrive at the main point of this essay: namely that, in brief, these psychological activities are relational, and consist in a being-towards objects understood under lights irreducible to the corporeal.

Let us therefore distinguish between the psyche as the principle of our whole being and the “psychological” as a descriptor used in designating those activities of the psyche which are not corporeally-constrained but rather relational in their constitution.  Anything constituted in its own proper being as intentional (by which is meant not “purposive” but “being-towards”), in other words, deserves the name of “psychological”: thus, activities of cognition and emotion or appetite.  These intentional activities, as it has been noted by a few particularly keen-minded individuals, are irreducibly triadic.  That’s a rather complex phrase to unpack.  Suffice it here only to say: they are realities that cannot consist merely in the efficient causation of one agent or instrument on another matter or recipient, but which exist together as a certain whole always constituted by no fewer than three distinct parts.[6]  Remove any part, and you destroy the whole—destroying the whole, you change the other parts, too.

There are things that happen to us, that happen to and within our bodies, that may affect our psyches but which are merely dyadic—like one billiard ball hitting another (although much more multifaceted and complex in the case of the human organism)—and there are things that happen to us and things that we do, things that are psychological, which are always triadic: things like knowing, and loving, desiring and hating, wondering, and anything that involves the presence in or to your mind in a way quite different than anything which comes to be present in your body.  Our lives are constituted from more than merely those experiences of which we are conscious—but it is through consciousness that we know ourselves and effect control and order in our lives.  Thus, it is easy to see how one can reduce the self to these psychological activities and their consequents.  But such would be a mistake, for a little reflection upon those psychological actions shows how dependent they are upon those dyadically-constituted and pre-conscious realities.

The myriad psychological activities in which we engage can be distinguished by the various kinds of objects towards which they are intentionally oriented.  Seeing light differentiated into colors differs from hearing the vibrations of motors and the chirping of birds, while knowing that five times six equals thirty is quite something other than loving your wife.  Distinguishing precisely the kinds of objects towards which we are intentionally oriented—and sorting out the complex ways in which they may intertwine in our experience—would take quite some time (and has already been well-done in the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition).  Briefly, however, we can generically enumerate what we call the external senses, internal or perceptual senses, the appetitive (or somewhat more broadly, cathectic) faculties, and the intellect and will.

Across all these diverse faculties which we possess for engaging in such triadic action, however, there exist three important commonalities: one, that each has some proper and fitting object for the kind of triadic action in which it is involved; two, that, although there is a proper object, the complex interaction of these faculties means that we can relate to any of these objects in ways which are unfitting for us; and, three, that not only within each faculty but also through their relations to one another, we form habits of relating to our objects.  The malleability of these habits are what allow us to be better or worse in the way that we live, in the way that we exercise our conscious living.  Therein we achieve, approach, deviate from, or destroy our psychological “well-being”: the right order that obtains between our faculties.

Or to put this otherwise, the possession of a right and fitting psychological order—what is sought after but missed by the phrase “mental health”—consists in the correct proportioning of these facultative habits both to their objects and to one another.  We must love the right things, rightly understood, in the right degree, and we must engender this love habitually.  We must not be consumed by cathectic habits of anger or lust.  We must know the truth—and, moreover, be able to perceive it, and especially to perceive the truth about the good in the world that we inhabit.

Unfortunately, today, the standard criteria and practices of “mental health” are ordered instead toward the myopic and self-focused.  It neither perceives nor promotes an awareness, let alone any “treatment”, of what are essentially triadic and intentional disorders, but rather attempts various subjective adjustments.  Being so-inwardly focused, what most of all has been lost is the sense of right-ordering towards what is noble.  Indeed, by contrast, it seems that while admiration for noble acts continues, behaving nobly is seen by most persons as unduly-burdensome.  This belief, I think, is the fundamental cause of much psychological disorder.

4. Habituating a Noble Soul

The word “noble” may conjure images of wealthy men riding in carriages, French or English aristocracy (or perhaps an oligarchy)—mansions and riches and so on.  Students of chemistry make think of gases or metals—of elements often found resistant to change.  Or it may evoke the thought of selfless and praiseworthy deeds, of chivalric action, of high aspirations.  For those familiar with the thought of Plato and Aristotle, it brings to mind virtue, of course, but also the beautiful: for the same word, καλόν (kalon), often is translated into English as both “noble” and “beautiful”.

Discussion of the noble could—and likely should—receive a whole treatise.  In the provisional manner of a short essay such as this, however, we can give it only a heuristic description: nobility, as a characteristic of the human soul, consists in the willingness to endure suffering and to make sacrifices for the greater good.  When the concept of “the good” becomes increasingly self-centered, self-focused, and myopically ordered to individual benefit and “well-being”—when a materialistically-presuppositive individualism becomes the norm—undertaking the actions indicative of a noble soul appears, indeed, unduly-burdensome.  Mind you, this is far from claiming that “mental health” and the many very real struggles had today reduce, simply, to “being selfish”.  The causes of psychological disorder are many.

But all of these causes are exacerbated when the individuals constituting the society fold in upon themselves, and direct their action primarily not at the common but solely the individual good.  This often-unconscious selfishness—taken not as a moral flaw but as a given of human nature—undermines the whole society; it frays the threads, the relations, that hold us together.  It leaves us lonely, even surrounded by others, for it saddles each and every one of us with the burden of an entire universe.

Contrariwise, what today we need are habits of the noble soul.  That is, we need habits that order us toward a good irreducible to ourselves: goods that are truly common.  When we pursue such goods, there is a converse resultance in ourselves: that is, we become ennobled by seeking noble ends.  This ennobling of our souls helps rectify the psychological order.  We are swayed less by distractions, temptations, more enabled to suffer anxieties and worries, if we know that our endurance of them may help contribute to a true and lasting good—that truly it serves a purpose beyond the satisfactions of the self.

5. Conclusion: Nobility and Rectitude

What conclusion can we reach, in so short a composition?  Nothing too immediately useful.  But for now suffice it only to say: our society is not well.  Focus on “mental well-being” has failed to produce it.  Rather, it has resulted in fragility.  Fear, anxiety, anger, despair—consequences of waning hope in the possibility of attaining a meaningful good, for we have only an atrophied and distant sense of the noble—and thus, fall into psychological disorder of countless and increasingly complexified kinds.  Pulling any thread of the knot in which we have tangled ourselves seems only to tighten it.  What leaves the knot tied, most of all, is the unwillingness to keep at it; to give up; to slide into a palliative care. 

But our situation is not hopeless; indeed, there is no knot that cannot be untied, with diligence, patience—strong, dexterous fingers—and recognition that our suffering, our struggle, serves a purpose beyond mere self-satisfaction.

[1] When did they add “Prevention”?  I just noticed this and find it disturbing.  Perhaps it has always been there.  Perhaps I should always have been disturbed.

[2] That is, the body is not an instrument as such, but has parts which are used instrumentally for the good of the whole person.  But this proves a topic more complex to demonstrate in full than would here be appropriate.

[3] The widespread tacit acceptance of this philosophical position appears, for instance, in the common mantra of “it’s my body, it’s my choice”—the implication being that one’s choice and one’s body are separate; that the latter possesses an absolute dominion over the former.

[4] That is, inseparable by nature.  Death and the question of the afterlife can only be understood as exceeding our experimental verification—thus, we can infer justly that an afterlife is necessarily fitting to what we as human beings are, but the reality of that afterlife exceeds our ability here and now to know with any certitude.

[5] Cf. Aristotle c.330bc: ΠερΨυχς, (On the Soul) book 2, c.1.

[6] For an introductory consideration of this triadic nature of the psychological, consider the 1989 lecture by Walker Percy titled, “The Fateful Rift: The San Andres Fault in the Modern Mind”.  This can be watched online here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?7788-1/san-andreas-fault-modern-mind or read in Signposts in a Strange Land.  One can also listen to a colloquium by Dr. Kirk Kanzelberger on “Mending the Fateful Rift” in our 2020 colloquium series.  A more in-depth treatment by Percy can be found in his “Delta Factor” article, printed in The Message in the Bottle.

On “Mental Health”

We, as a society, are not well. Reports on “mental health” in the United States of America, in particular, estimate at least 25% of adult Americans meet the criteria for one or another mental illness. This number has only been increasing in recent decades, despite the large number of professionals who have entered in the field in recent decades. Why?

It seems, indeed, that the prevalence of mental disturbance has risen unabated. The rates of suicide have risen, and continue to do so. Likewise, the number of persons using mood-altering medicine to alleviate the symptoms of these disturbances. But, while many therapists offer thoughtful assistance, and the use of some medications may be fruitful in controlling the worst of symptoms in the most desperate of times, it seems the problem continues unabated.

The facile etiology of this increasing crisis is to blame conditions of the world: the inescapable permeation of all life by the rapid pace of technologically-mediated culture. Television. The internet. The smartphone. There can be no doubt that a 24-hour news cycle undermined our well-being. Likewise, the frantic fractious flurry of Twitter—there is no place better to break your mind by a thousand conflicting opinions and false reports during a crisis. The culture produced by this technological inundation has resulted in a profound inability to dwell in reality.

But technology, though an instrument of our mental ailing, is exacerbative rather than originating. The ailment, in other words, is already there.

What then, truly, is the cause of the “mental health crisis”? This will be the topic of our Philosophical Happy Hour on 7 June 2023. Everyone is welcome to join. Questions we will explore include:

  • How are we to define “mental health”? A common definition, proposed by the World Health Organization, is “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” Is this a good definition? Why (not)?
  • Is the very concept suggested by the phrase “mental health” good or bad? Does it suggest, in our current culture, a kind of “mechanistic” approach to the psyche?
  • Does our technology condemn us to an ever-worsening mental condition?
  • What can we do?

We look forward to discussing these and other questions with you!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

The Virtues (and Dangers) of Listening – Part I

What are the virtues of a good listener? What are the dangers of listening? Dr. Mark McCullough answers these questions.

What are the virtues of a good listener?  In the weeks that follow, I will answer this question in four installments: in the first three installments I concentrate on four different virtues important for good listening: generosity, curiosity, compassion, and courage.  In the fourth and final installment, I discuss dangers for the listener, each one corresponding with its companion virtue by looking closely at the role of listening in the poem The Divine Comedy written by the thirteenth-century Italian poet Dante. I conclude by offering advice on how to avoid being pulled into the self-destructive narratives that we hear others tell themselves as well as those fictions we tell ourselves.

I. Generosity

Generosity is the first virtue of a good listener because, without it, we cannot practice the other virtues important for listening.  Like prudence, which Thomas Aquinas called the “mother” of other cardinal virtues, generosity gives birth to curiosity, compassion, and courage.  These are the gifts of generosity, and this virtue is characterized by abundance.

When we listen, we give our time and our attention.  Time and attention are no small gifts. Neither is patience which is a capacity for and an offering of our time and attention. This offering is characterized by calm confidence.  Listening starts when we patiently give our time and attention and wait.  We do not simply tolerate waiting while listening for something to emerge.  We accept waiting as a condition of emergence, either in the form of words or silence.

Originally, the word “generosity” characterized a person of “excellence or noble birth.”  Though no longer the meaning we associate with it, there is a lesson to be found in this word’s origin.  Anyone can be a generous listener but to practice listening well is to present oneself habitually as having the capacity to give with minimal diminishment.  Such a capacity suggests potential as when we say for example that a particular animal breed is “good stock.”  In other words, the breed promises great things based on prior success.  Listening, too, has a history and this is why we often return to others we consider “good listeners” when we feel we need to be heard (more on this “need” later).

Notice above how I wrote “to practice listening well is to present oneself…”.  Listening, like most relational acts, has an element of presentation. When we listen, we present ourselves to the one to whom we will listen.  We indicate our availability with eye contact or sitting closer.  Technology, the shift from face-to-face to the virtual realm, has made presenting ourselves as good listeners more difficult.  To present ourselves as available to hear someone when we are on a phone or video call is challenging.  Even more challenging might be how to be generous with these forms of media.  “Is it a good time to talk?” is a question I often hear from a friend who calls after a long absence to catch up.  A simple “yes” might confirm my availability, but it doesn’t always confirm my capacity for listening.  For that, I rely on further confirmation, the “mmm” and “huhs” that holds my presence for them, as my eyes are either hidden from view or flattened by a screen.

Which brings me to an important, personal rule about good listening.  Never pretend.  Never present what you cannot minimally commit to.  It is better to tell a loved one that another time is better for listening and choose the time than it is to commit now and give your attention by half.  Such a halving (or quartering, or worse) reveals an impoverished listener and is ungenerous, even if it seems generous relative to what the listener who is beset by many other responsibilities believes she can offer.  One experience of being listened to is far more precious than a thousand instances of competing for someone’s hard sought-after or over-promised attention.

The feeling of having been listened to is often commensurate with the perception of the listener’s generosity.  When we present the gift of ourselves as available to receive something important, we reflect the capacity necessary to recognize whatever might emerge, especially feelings of pain, anger, and loneliness.  Good listening does not present a vacuum or echo chambers like the ones created deliberately in the offices of poorly trained therapists.  Good listening bespeaks of a plentitude where every emergent articulation of one’s experience has its proper place.  Disappointment?  There’s a space for that.  Anger?  There’s a space for that too.  Before we can understand exactly what the disappointment or anger is, a space is created by the presented capacity of the listener.  Before understanding, we have the grounds for understanding in a shared space.  Those grounds must be ample, providing more space than might be imagined by the one who needs listening to.

In my next post, I will concentrate on two more virtues of good listening: curiosity and courage.

Hidden Hours

This post presents a quick reflection on rediscovering the hidden hours—the hours that we lose in each day. Who among us has not found him- or herself wishing for an extra hour or two in the day? For many, there seems so much to get done, and so little time in which to do it. Indeed, for many this will always be the case. I know myself that I will die long before I can read all the books. But the more-to-do than can-be-done should not dissuade us from doing. If anything, it should give us motivation to do more yet.

As Catholic readers will know, we are now in the liturgical season of Lent. In observation of this season, one takes on small mortifications, penances, and attempts to increase one’s charitable relation to others: in time, goods, services, etc. It is not uncommon to focus on the small mortifications, usually some pleasure which one gives up for these 40 days. It has been, in my own life, a usual consequence of such sacrifices that I discover new goods. This year I am fasting both from social media and from word games on my phone (the NYT Crossword and another game I regularly play on the app). Suddenly, I find myself not only with a greater amount of clock time each day—taking out all those little moments of distraction—but with a greater sense of command over how I move myself throughout the day. Other things move me less, and thus I am more in possession of myself.

(Quite coincidentally I started playing chess on my phone—the Lyceum has started a chess club. This quickly started eating back into the time. Subsequently I have limited the app to work between only the hours of 6:00—11:00pm.)

True Convenience

The conveniences of our modern technology often result in an inconvenient way of life. I suspect this appears true without explanation. But to elaborate, briefly: the word “convenient” comes from the Latin verb convenire, meaning, “to come together”. Often, Latin scholastics use the participial form, conveniens, to mean “fitting”, and even to describe a kind of argument—the argument from “fittingness”. It is good that my phone allows me to play chess with a real human being despite not having a known nearby willing opponent. But it is not fitting that I be able to play with multiple opponents all at the same time, all day long.

Two or three minutes spent on one’s phone here and there throughout the day does more than add up to hours. Rather, it knocks one out of the natural rhythm of the day. In other words, our days have fitting and unfitting rhythms. Phones are not the only devices, of course, which do this. The computer has many ways to distract us also. Truly, it is death by a thousand cuts.

This point deserves more than I can give it now. Doubtless it will play a prominent role in our planned 2024 seminar on Technology (a frequent topic for the Lyceum). But suffice it here to say that—if our technology is not to distort our lives, if our conveniences for this or that particular activity are not to destroy the convenientia of our whole lives—we must reflect more thoughtfully on what our lives are ordered towards and how those technologies distort that ordering.

Using our Time Wisely

I rather dislike the notion of “using” or “spending” time. The phrase is useful; but it, too, is unfitting. For time is not a resource. If one cannot store it, one cannot spend it. We misconstrue what time is by thinking of it this way. If we make “good use” of time, it is by the motions which we direct ourselves to perform. But, in truth, we can only “spend” our time wisely if we orient ourselves to goods that are timeless. Truth and love do not wane with the passage of minutes or hours, years, decades, or even centuries. Steadfastly holding ourselves to them, we, too, will find that our days contain hidden hours, retrieved not by better “time management” but by a fittingness of our thought.

On the Authority of Media

While researching a variety of topics at conveniently-intersecting purposes, I came across this wonderful article from Elliot Gaines (author of 2011: Media Literacy and Semiotics), in which he explains how we need media criticism in order to avoid having our opinions settled for us by means contrary to reason in fact, even if many deem them preeminently reasonable in appearance—namely, that media gains its authority in dubious fashion.

The technologies of the media make it possible to represent symbolic systems while overcoming the natural restrictions of time and space and making communication appear immediate and intimate when received.

The notion of immediacy refers to a sense of being present at an event even though the media only represent it after the fact and from far away from its original location. Thus the power of mass media is not just in their capacities to deliver ideas and information, but also in their ability to exploit the verisimilitude of representations that are received with a sense of intimacy and immediacy. In addition, the third-person effect hypothesis suggests that people generally believe that media affects others while they themselves are immune to being manipulated or persuaded unknowingly (Rojas, Shah, and Faber 1996: 193). Audiences need to recognize that media affect every user because attention is drawn to intended meanings and inferences of consequences. Media are ubiquitous and enter personal space with a sense of immediacy that gives contemporary mass communications and opinion leaders great power and access to people. Without critical thinking and media literacy, it is easy to assume a great deal about the media and the world of objects, ideas, and situations they represent.

The goal of media is to attract attention in order to successfully profit and sustain themselves. Secondarily, media deliver information about issues and events, entertainment products that suggest social norms, attract attention to products, and influence the ethos of society. IT’s the audience, engaged in social discourse, which learns the codes and negotiates the veracity of representations intended to communicate a particular point-of-view.

The problems of media and “settling opinion”

The representational qualities of media phenomena are reasonable because they are logically developed from older, familiar signs that are continuous with established ideas. Media project a tacit authority to provide knowledge and expertise, but the credibility of media draws from its repetitive and persistent presence that simulates the continuity of signs necessary to logical reasoning. However, this is an illusion of veracity generated by the media that cannot substitute for verification. Part of the illusion is self-referential; media referring to (indexing) other media products or spokespersons only demonstrates social discourse but does not provide evidence of any particular argument. In order to understand authentic verification, it is necessary to look at the methods of proposing opinions about the meanings of things.

Gaines 2008: “Media Criticism and Settling Opinion” in Semiotics 2008: p.245–46 (245–251).

I highlight one key point in this last-quoted paragraph: namely, that media projects authority through repetition and persistent presence, through which it simulates the progression by which we advance logically from initial observations to inferred conclusions. Put in other words, we form habits of presupposition by allowing media’s immediacy to overwhelm our own capacity for thinking and dissecting the objects presented to us “immediately and intimately”.

The increase of personalized media experiences through digital networks has exacerbated this influence, precisely through the increased intimacy achieved by that personalization. As Gaines writes, we believe ourselves unaffected while others suffer. But, in truth, this only masks more deeply our own deceit. Is this turn of the digital inevitable? Or can we do better? Are we hapless victims of tyrannical media authority—or do we have means to free ourselves?

Hearing the Word of God: A Kierkegaardian Phenomenology of Conscience

ABSTRACT: “Husserl insisted that I should study Kierkegaard.” So recounts the Russian existential philosopher, Lev Shestov, in his posthumously published 1939 essay, “In Memory of a Great Philosopher: Edmund Husserl.” Why would Husserl have said such a thing? As soon as one begins attempting to trace the conceptual lineage of phenomenology back to Kierkegaard, a number of philosophical connections worthy of attention emerge. Above all, it is the phenomenon of conscience that constitutes the cornerstone of such an analysis. For, just as conscience lies at the heart of the human experience, so too it lies at the heart of the attempt to exhibit that experience in philosophical thought. By emphasizing that life (and thought) is lived before God, a Kierkegaardian phenomenology of conscience illuminates what is most at stake, both methodologically and existentially, in doing phenomenology, and realizes phenomenology’s longstanding ambition to make sense of what it means to be the kind of beings we are, or, as Kierkegaard would put the matter, to be a single individual. Focusing on the phenomenon of conscience, this lecture develops an account of doing phenomenology in a Kierkegaardian way, that is, doing phenomenology before God.

Presenting our first Colloquium for 2023: Dr. Steven DeLay (Tutorial Fellow, Ambrose College, Woolf University; Research Fellow, Global Centre for Advanced Studies College Dublin, and an accomplished researcher and author) gives us a lecture and Q&A on “Hearing the Word of God: A Kierkegaardian Phenomenology of Conscience”. This lecture investigates the question of whether phenomenological method is congenial to the discussion of God, or whether it necessarily brackets or excludes God from its inquiries, through the question of conscience.

Dr. DeLay undertakes this investigation through tracing the lineage of phenomenological inquiry expressed in Edmund Husserl’s life and thoughts into Kierkegaard’s understanding of “being a single individual”, and in contrast with the phenomenological approach and consideration of Martin Heidegger. Thereby are raised the questions of language’s meaningfulness and our responsibility for it, both in our speaking and in our hearing. Listeners will be challenged to reconsider the purposiveness of life’s experience as reflected in his or her consciousness of being one who has a conscience.

Lyceum Institute members may listen to the lecture now and participate in the Live Q&A on 16 February 2023 at 6:00pm ET (event times around the world here).