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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!

Ignorance of History and Moral Weakness

“Those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it” — an oft-iterated maxim that is both often ignored, and, perhaps, misleads. Some history ought, perhaps, to be repeated. (Originality is seldom all that it is praised for being.) Nevertheless, an ignorance of history does have pernicious consequences. It makes us narrow-minded, arrogant, selfish, and ungrateful. Moreover, it seems to render us lacking in fortitude, a vicious absence notable today. Most especially conducing to that lack of fortitude, it seems, is the contemporary disdain for historical accounts of war and the inherent dangers of antiquity. This will be our topic for today’s Philosophical Happy Hour.

Life or Death in the Ancient World

Consider this passage from Edith Hamilton’s Roman Way:

“To the people of Romulus I set no fixed goal to achievement,” Virgil makes Jupiter in the Aeneid say of Rome’s future glory, “no end to empire. I have given them authority without limit.” Unlimited is what the Romans were, in desires, in ambitions, in appetites, as well as in power and extent of empire. There is a note of exaggeration in Rome, contradicting on first sight the outstanding national quality of practical sagacity which made them great empire builders. But upon closer view it ceases to be a contradiction. The Romans were pre-eminently men of war. They only choice they had for centuries was to conquer or be conquered. Possibly war was their most natural expression; certainly it was the price they must pay for being a nation. Under the spur of its desperate necessities in eight hundred years of fighting, as Livy reckons them, from the founding of the city to his own day, they developed extraordinarily one side of their genius, a sure, keen-sighted, steady common sense, but war, with its alternations of stern repression and orgies of rapine and plunder, was not a training to modify violent desires. Always rude, primitive, physical appetites were will to the fore.

What constitutes Rome’s greatness, in the last analysis, is that powerful as these were in her people there was something still more powerful; ingrained in them was the idea of discipline, the soldier’s fundamental idea. However fierce the urge of their nature was, the feeling for law and order was deeper, the deepest thing in them. Their outbreaks were terrible; civil wars such as our world has not seen again; dealings with conquered enemies which are a fearful page in history. Nevertheless, the outstanding fact about Rome is her unwavering adherence to the idea of a controlled life, subject not to this or that individual, but to a system embodying the principles of justice and fair dealing.

Edith Hamilton, 1932: The Roman Way, 192-94.

-Edith Hamilton, 1932: The Roman Way, 192-94.

Or consider this from Herodotus’ account of Thermopylae:

Xerxes listened [to his scout] but could not understand: that the Lacedaemonians [the Spartans] were really preparing to kill or be killed, to fight as much as was in their power, seemed to him to be the height of folly, the action of fools. So he sent for Demaratos son of Ariston [exiled king of Sparta], who was in the camp, and when Demaratos arrived, Xerxes questioned him about everything he had been told, trying to understand the meaning behind what the Lacedaemonians were doing. Demaratos answered, “You heard what I said about these men before, when we ere just setting out against Hellas, and you made me a laughingstock when you heard my view of how these matters would turn out. But it is my greatest goal to tell the truth in your presence, so hear me now once again. These men have come to fight us for control of the road, and that is really what they are preparing to do. For it is their tradition that they groom their hair whenever they are about to put their lives in danger. Now know this: if you subjugate these men and those who have remained behind in Sparta, there is no other race of human beings that will be left to raise their hands against you. For you are now attacking the most noble kingdom of all the Hellenes, and the best of men.” What Demaratos said seemed quite incredible to Xerxes, and he asked for the second time how they could possibly intend to fight his whole army, since there were so few of them. Demaratos replied, “Sire, if things do not turn out just as I claim they will, treat me like a liar.” But even by saying this he did not convince Xerxes.


Herodotus c.430BC: The Histories (Landmark edition), 585-86.

Do we today understand the concept of conquer or be conquered or of kill or be killed? Not long ago the notion, doubtless, was familiar to the Western mind: the Great Wars of the 20th century were waged against this threat. (Many, it seems, are ignorant enough to believe that World War II was fought because of the Holocaust.) But we see, in most of our contemporary media representations even of these events an idealism at work which would have been incomprehensible to our ancient forefathers. The movie 300, an absurd exaggerated re-telling of the Persians pyrrhic victory at Thermopylae, portrays Xerxes as something of an alien; of their army as monsters. That men could choose evil through natural circumstances—this truth is obscured. That one might have to choose to kill ordinary human beings, following an ordinary human leader: this painful truth of courage as a virtue is removed.

Retrieving Historical Understanding

It is right that we study philosophy, and theology; that we retrieve the arts and the disciplines that go with them. But we need also to make present again in our curricula a direct encounter with great history. Mostly, the great history relates sacrifices undertaken because someone believes in truths greater than themselves. Join us this evening as we explore the historical heritage all-too-readily abandoned in our modern Western world. Links below!

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.

Studiousness vs. Curiosity

I begin this inquiry into the contrast of studiousness vs. curiosity by quoting from a perspicacious essay of the literary theorist Allen Tate, penned in 1945, titled, “The New Provincialism”.  Tate writes:

The provincial attitude is limited in time but not in space.  When the regional man, in his ignorance, often an intensive and creative ignorance, of the world, extends his own immediate necessities into the world, and assumes that the present moment is unique, he becomes the provincial man.  He cuts himself off from the past, and without benefit of the fund of traditional wisdom approaches the simplest problems of life as if nobody had ever heard of them before.  A society without arts, said Plato, lives by chance.  The provincial man, locked in the present, lives by chance.

Allen Tate, 1945: “The New Provincialism” in Essays of Four Decades, 539.

Perhaps, at first glance, this passage seems only tangentially related to the theme of our inquiry.  What does study, or studiousness, have to do with provincialism?  There are, in fact, many good answers to this question: for provincialism, in essence, consists in the belief that me and mine (whether of a “here” or a “now”) need neither study nor the humility which makes genuine learning possible.

Today our culture suffers a temporal provincialism—“It’s 2023!”; “Your model is outdated”; “What does the latest research say?”—that doubtless pains any person not captured by it.  That is, to approach the works and words of tradition with humility reveals how small our knowledge and weak our understanding.  But the provincialism of the present mangles the wisdom of the past through superficial readings and anachronistic interpretations.

Idle Minds

What imposed this provincialist perspective upon us?  One can, as so often is the case, point fingers at the moderns, the Enlightenment, the adulation of innovation and progress and so on and on.  And one would be correct in doing so.  But we must note that human beings tend toward provincialism regardless of time or place.  The human mind, given license, will slide eagerly towards adopting the easiest of perspectives—that is, whichever requires the least effort to attain the most-immediately pleasant results.

Is it easier to dismiss the Scholastics as backwards-thinking theocratic sophists, or to read the millions of pages of subtle argumentation through which their studies and disputes were crafted?

Should we wrestle with the enigmatic thinking of Martin Heidegger—itself a complex compound of efforts at originality and hidden borrowing from the tradition—or can we just call him a Nazi and be done with it?

Can we bypass close study of Aristotle’s Physics by pointing out that he misunderstood the structure of the cosmos, or that he had no knowledge of quantum physics (as though the average person today understands what it means that bosons have an integer spin while fermions have a half-integer spin)?

The questions are, of course, rhetorical.  Given the choice, most people will ignore or vilify whatever might challenge their beliefs.  This dismissiveness produces a host of vicious qualities: most especially that of acedia—a despair of spiritual good, as Thomas Aquinas says.  Such despair discourages real and meaningful inquiry.  Correlatively, it encourages curiosity: which is the vice opposed to studiousness.


Likely this sounds a bit odd to our modern ears (suffered as they have at that provincialism!).  What is wrong, what could be wrong, with being curious?  While it may incidentally get someone into trouble—finding out some truth that others would rather we not—it seems to designate a search for knowledge.

Historically, however, the term was used to specify an inordinate seeking of knowledge.  In other words, while knowledge is certainly good in its own right, it does not come to us in a vacuum.  Thomas Aquinas distinguishes a multitude of ways, therefore, in which we can be ordered incorrectly to the good of knowledge.

First, he says, we can have some evil annexed to our study: as someone who might wish to learn medicine that he might poison more effectively, or—far more commonly—that someone might take pride in being educated.  (I think here of every social media post that begins, “As a PhD/sociologist/philosopher/super smart person”.)  In such cases, the growth in knowledge and therefore goodness is not the end of one’s inquiries, but, rather, some malicious purpose.  Second, he goes on, the desire to learn the truth itself can be inordinate, even if knowledge is the end of one’s study.  This disordered pursuit happens in four ways:

  1. By being drawn from a better study (which is an obligation or true good) into a lesser pursuit: as the student who, rather than study, watches interesting documentaries on YouTube.
  2. Through superstition, when one wishes to learn by illegitimate and supernatural forces (divination, astrology, seances, etc.).
  3. Without a due order of that knowledge: that is, if we wish to catalogue the facts of the world without recognition of the order to which they belong (and thus the ultimate truths and goods which they reveal).
  4. Finally, when we seek to know things above our own capacity and thereby fall into error.

The first and the last, I think, are the most difficult today for us to understand.  But why?  Why are we so easily drawn to lesser things?  How do we err by trying to know things “above our own capacity”?  Are things truly “above our capacity” to know?


By contrast, the virtue of studiousness is, as Aquinas defines it, “vigorous application of the mind in relation to something.”  But this virtue, despite its vigor, belongs as Aquinas says to the cardinal virtue of temperance.  Despite being concerned with discovery and understanding of the truth, that is, studiousness is not an intellectual but rather a moral virtue, for it concerns our appetite for knowledge.  But all goods may be inordinately desired—as in the above instances of curiosity.  Thus, our appetite for knowledge needs to be rightly disposed, not only with respect to the things we experience in sensation (where there are many particulars we should not seek) but also with regard to intellectual knowledge.

Virtues, of course, consist always in the mean.  What, then, is the mean of studiousness—where does it lie between the extremes, between the excess and the deficiency?  What is this vigor—this vehemens—of the virtue? More pertinently, I believe, we may be hindered today by societal ills in our pursuit of this virtue.  Is this hindrance truly the case?  Why?  What can we do about it?

Further Reading

Join Us

This week we’ll be discussing these questions and more at our Philosophical Happy Hour – and you’re invited to join us!

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.

Questions of Tolerance

Today’s Philosophical Happy Hour concerns the issue of “tolerance”. As Geoffrey Meadows, who will be leading the discussion, writes:

Tonight I thought we might discuss the definition, limit, and moral status of “tolerance,” since our discussion on kindness uncovered this underlying sensibility of our age.

Perhaps a series of guided questions can get us started thinking about it.

Is tolerance some kind of virtue? If so, under which cardinal virtue does it properly belong? Perhaps patience? If not, is it a vice and to what species of vice does it properly belong? Perhaps cowardice? Is it, in itself, morally neutral?

Some have attributed a kind of doctrine of tolerance to St. Thomas taking their cues from his treatise on law (e.g., I-II q. 96 a. 2). Essentially, they argue that since the civil authority must permit or endure certain harms or evils, the citizen must also permit them. We are brought by the above to the limit(s) of tolerance. Which evils and harms can be permitted? On what basis might governments and individuals make such judgments? Is it a matter for prudence alone?

Join us this evening (5:45—7:15pm ET) for a lively discussion about tolerance, intolerance, law, prudence, authority, and the moral good! It’s a small step in the right direction.

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.

Love and Kindness

Among the diverse ways in which people today live unreflectively, prominent is the attachment to kindness. Frequent are the admonitions to be kind—and, indeed, often it is used as a defense for one’s moral righteousness when caught out in immoral actions: “I’m not a bad person, I am kind…” (as though being kind covered up all other blemishes of character!). Thus, as one of our members asks:

What is kindness? What is the relation between kindness and the Good? It seems today that a lot of people speak of kindness as a replacement for being good. Kindness seems to be a way of affirming someone in what choices they make (regardless of the choice). I would interested to hear what people think about this.

Good questions! We will therefore be discussing the nature of kindness this evening during our Philosophical Happy Hour (request an invite below).

In correspondence with this, and in preparation for this conversation, I would suggest reading some selections from St. Thomas’ treatise on charity, including that on the principal act and that on fraternal correction. One particular passage I think most relevant:

q.27, a.2, “whether to love, considered as an act of charity is the same as goodwill?”
Goodwill properly speaking is that act of the will whereby we wish we well to another. Now this act of the will differs from actual love, considered not only as being in the sensitive appetite but also as being in the intellective appetite or will. For the love which is in the sensitive appetite is a passion. Now every passion seeks it object with a certain eagerness. And the passion of love is not aroused suddenly, but is born of an earnest consideration of the object love; wherefore the Philosopher, showing the difference between goodwill and the love which is a passion, says (Ethic. ix.5) that goodwill does not imply impetuosity or desire, that is to say, has not an eager inclination, because it is by the sole judgment of his reason that one man wishes another well. Again such like love arises from previous acquaintance, whereas goodwill sometimes arises suddenly, as happens to us if we look on at a boxing-match, and we wish one of the boxers to win. But the love, which is in the intellective appetite, also differs from goodwill, because it denotes a certain union of affections between the lover and the beloved, inasmuch as the lover deems the beloved as somewhat united to him, or belonging to him, and so tends towards him. On the other hand, goodwill is a simple act of the will, whereby we wish a person well, even without presupposing the aforesaid union of the affections with him. Accordingly, to love, considered as an act of charity, includes goodwill, but such dilection or love adds union of affections, wherefore the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix.5) that goodwill is a beginning of friendship.

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.

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.

What is Philosophical Habit?

A discussion of philosophical habit as the core of practice at the Lyceum Institute

What are habits? And what does it mean to have a philosophical habit? As I discuss in the above, it is a way of inquisitively holding ourselves towards the world—and with an attitude of genuine humility before the object.

Or to put this otherwise: how often do we find not only others but also ourselves presuming a certitude and a knowledge about the world in which we live? Often; and if we had better practices of reflection upon our own thinking and behavior, we would discover that we do it even more often than we think. We allow ourselves to be held by presuppositions about the world, ourselves, and what is true. By contrast, a philosophical habit consists in holding yourself humbly. This habit also therefore helps us to resist the converse habit—the prevalent tendency of today—of reactive distractedness.

No matter our age or station in life, we ought to strive to be learners; to be students. A student is not someone between the ages of 5 and 18, or 22, or 30. Rather, it is to be one eager for knowledge. To be a student is to embody the virtue of studiousness. I think here of Hugh of St. Victor’s words from the Didascalicon: “The good student, then, ought to be humble and docile, free alike from vain cares and from sensual indulgences, diligent and zealous to learn willingly from all, to presume never upon his own knowledge…”

Let us strive for these virtues!

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.

Ravaisson on the Formation of Second Nature

As soon as the soul arrives at self-consciousness, it is no longer merely the form, the end or even the principle of organization; a world opens within it that increasingly separates and detaches itself from the life of the body, and in which the soul has its own life, its own destiny, and its own end to accomplish. It is this superior life that the incessant progress of life and nature seems – without being able to attain it – to aspire, as if to its perfection, to its good. This higher life, in contrast, has its own good within itself; and it knows this, looks for it, embraces it, at once as its own good and as good itself, as absolute perfection. But pleasure and pain have their grounds in good and evil; they are the sensible signs of good and evil. Here, therefore, in this world of the soul, the truest good is accompanied by the truest form of sensibility; such are the passions of the soul – that is, feeling. Feeling is distinct from the spiritual and moral activity that pursues good and evil, though it gathers their impressions.

Continuity or repetition must therefore gradually weaken feeling, just as it weakens sensation; it gradually extinguishes pleasure and pain in feeling, as it does in sensation. Similarly, it changes into a need the very feeling that it destroys, making its absence more and more unbearable for the soul. At the same time, repetition or continuity makes moral activity easier and more assured. It develops within the soul not only the disposition, but also the inclination and the tendency to act, just as in the organs it develops the inclination for movement. In the end, it gradually brings the pleasure of action to replace the more transient pleasure of passive sensibility.

In this way, as habit destroys the passive emotions of pity, the helpful activity and the inner joys of charity develop more and more int he heart of the one who does good. In this way, love is augmented by its own expressions; in this way, it reanimates with its penetrating flame the impressions that have been extinguished, and at each instant reignites the exhausted sources of passion.

Ultimately, in the activity of the soul, as in that of movement, habit gradually transforms the will proper to action in an involuntary inclination. Mores and morality are formed in this manner. Virtue is first of all an effort and wearisome; it becomes something attractive and a pleasure only through practice, as a desire that forgets itself or that is unaware of itself, and gradually it draws near to the holiness of innocence. Such is the very secret of education: its art consists in attracting someone towards the good by action, thus fixing the inclination for it. In this way a second nature is formed.

Félix Ravaisson 1838: De l’habitude in the English translation by Clare Carlisle and Mark Sinclair, Of Habit, 67-69.

Félix Ravaisson (23 October 1813—1900 May 18) was a French philosopher influential in the latter half of the 19th century, particularly in the school of French Spiritualism and particularly as a “spiritual realist”. He exhibits in Of Habit, his most influential and enduring work, a familiarity with Aristotle and the Peripatetic tradition. He is also known for his influence on Henri Bergson, whose theory of the élan vital would likely not have been without Ravaisson.

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.