What’s Wrong with the World?
1910 saw the publication of G.K. Chesterton’s book What’s Wrong with the World? Leave it to Chesterton to argue for social revolution and the redistribution of wealth in defense of a young girl’s hair—you’ll have to read the book to see how that gets worked out. What I find of particular interest for my purpose today is a story involving The Times, Chesterton, and what would become the title of that book. Perhaps you know it already.
Near the dawn of the 20th Century, an editor of The Times, hoping to curate a series of articles, circulated a request to notable authors asking them to respond to the question: What’s wrong with the world? One of the responses he received was
Yours, G. K. Chesterton”
I hope the story is true. It certainly fits the man. It was Chesterton who had his character Father Brown respond to a question from an American emigre fascinated by Father Brown’s effectiveness in catching those guilty of heinous crimes, how exactly he manages to nab such monsters. Father Brown calmly explains that he simply becomes them and then knows what he would have done and in what order. The American is aghast—how can such a cultured man, a priest no less—say such a thing? Father Brown explains that this is no joke; he can become those criminals because he is one: every man can be what any man is. Every man is a sinner, any is a saint. We each have characters that can be made fit to an infinity of types, and it is only by grace that we can move from sinner to saint.
Readers of Chesterton know well that the man did not hold back from exposing fissures in various ideologies and railing against them, often encompassing in his critiques the individuals who subscribed to them. You’d expect Chesterton to have a book focusing on what’s wrong with the world which battles against political and cultural foes. He in fact wrote many of them. But he never loses sight of the fundamental fact that the only thing wrong with the world over which we can have any direct control is ourselves, and yet at the same time we are profoundly broken, fallen and unable to rise up on our own.
What’s wrong with contemporary political discourse these days? I am.
What’s wrong with American higher education? I am.
What’s wrong with the Church? I am.
What’s wrong with the world? I am.
Can we answer these questions as Chesterton would, I mean answer, and really mean it?
It strikes me that we need to, if, that is, we are to take seriously the education we say we are dedicated to providing. In one sense, an education begins in wonder, in another it begins in ignorance. In fact, these amount to the same thing. Socrates’ proclamation of ignorance in the Apology—“I know that I do not know”—was never an enervating cause to despair of the prospects of learning, but rather always the other side of his insatiable sense of wonder. His life of loving wisdom never culminates. He dies in ignorance and with hope-filled confidence in the prospects of acquiring wisdom, as we see in Plato’s Phaedo, the dialogue that includes a moving description of Socrates’ noble death and a number of arguments for the soul’s immortality, only one of which satisfies Socrates, and even that argument, Socrates tell us, requires a reexamination of its foundational hypothesis (Phaedo, 107b). Socrates dies a fool. He also dies a saint if we are to believe St. Justin Martyr that Socrates was the first witness to the Truth. All saints are fools, humiliating themselves before the sacred, like King David disrobed and dancing before the ark of the covenant. All men are fools, but not all fools are saints. Like Saul’s daughter and David’s first wife Michal, we can be too ashamed to prostrate ourselves before what is holy, and thus live out our days barrenly.
Some fools are wise. That is when they like Socrates acknowledge their ignorance. We cannot educate those who do not know they are ignorant, and we ourselves cannot be educated when we do not acknowledge our own ignorance. Of course, ignorance comes by degrees, and of course students know less than we do. Except when they do not. Co-teaching a cross-disciplinary course with our English colleague Professor Crider last semester brought that home to me on a regular basis. Some of the English majors in that course could run circles around me when it came to deploying tools to analyze literary elements of works we studied together, all of which, of course, whether works of fiction or works of philosophy, were literary works. It was humbling to be sure, but a humbling I needed given the great confidence I have gained over a quarter century of teaching philosophy courses. It helped me remember that educators remain in continuous need of an education. What’s wrong with the University of Dallas? I am. There is so much I do not know, and so much I thought I knew that I do not know well enough.
Thank God I teach at a university where I have so many friends to help me learn. One of the benefits of our university, embodying as it does Newman’s Idea of a University, is the mutual respect engendered for each of the distinct disciplines as various ways to know and appreciate truths for their own sake, while holding forth the hope that we might each make progress toward a more unified knowledge of the whole. This is necessarily a piecemeal process, and the task of reaching the telos of such a quest an infinite one, but it is nevertheless the task given to us through our commitment to being the faculty of not just an institution of higher learning, but the faculty of a right and proper university.
God help me, I am not only a faculty member, but I am also leading this university. Where am I leading it? Where am I leading us? Our goal remains the same: to be more fully who and what we are, to endeavor to be fully and in every respect the best Catholic liberal arts university in the nation. The education we provide is at the heart of this work, and today I hope simply to remind you—to remind us, the teaching faculty of this university—of several virtues the exercise of which will contribute to a flourishing academic year.
It is common for universities to portray themselves as dispensers of the light of knowledge, casting out the darkness of ignorance. There are indeed all sorts of ignorance from which we need to be freed, just as there are species of acknowledged human fallenness that need correction so as not to lead to that great sorrow of our age, acedia (more on that anon). But Socratic ignorance has wings and lifts us to heights unexplored. This is the ignorance of genuine intellectual humility. The virtue of intellectual humility forms part of a quartet of virtues exemplified in the life of the first great Western educator, Socrates. If we ever become frustrated by students’ lack of intellectual humility, wondering why they won’t let go of prejudice and unexamined opinion, and feel frustrated by their incorrigibility, and ask, What’s wrong with them?, remember Chesterton’s response, I am.
The second virtue in this quartet is intellectual humility’s sister virtue, wonder. Aristotle is often celebrated for being wonder’s champion because of his reflection on it in the Metaphysics, but Aristotle himself tells us the megalopsychos—great-souled—Socrates is his model. In his account of how he acquired a reputation as a troublemaker, Socrates explains that he questioned what the Oracle at Delphi might have meant when the priestess announced Socrates the wisest of men (Apo. 21b). He had good reasons to marvel at the claim since he was well acquainted with his own ignorance. Such questioning was indicative of an entire way of life propelled by the intellectual virtue of a sense of wonder. We see that virtue at play in Socrates’ exhortation to devote oneself to a life of reflection:
"If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for man, you will believe me even less." (Apo., 37e-38a)
This is a wonder that is directed at the matters of most significance to human life and well-being, to the noblest of human pursuits, both intellectual and practical.
You might wonder if in fact ‘wonder’ is a virtue. One cannot set his or her will to wondering in the way one can to withstanding temptation, any more than one can set oneself to appreciating beautiful music if one lacks some training. However, this sort of wonder is a perfection of the person, is not merely a sentiment or passion, and, though it does have a basis in one’s nature, it can be honed. Which is to say, it fulfils the criteria for being a virtue. Wonder can be trained into the will of a student by means of an excellent teacher working in concert with that student’s cultivation of additional virtues. But we cannot give what we do not possess: if we want to see a sense of wonder marked in our students, we need to embody it ourselves. If we ever feel like teaching some of our students is an experience akin to trying to light wet logs on fire, and find ourselves wondering, What’s wrong with them?, remember that the answer might just be, I am.
One can learn habitually to wonder, just as one can learn habitually to understand. At their root, wondering and understanding are both fundamentally receptive: we wonder about what we see, hear, or otherwise experience; we understand what has made its impression upon us. But being receptive is compatible with being virtuous, and this receptive virtue of wonder proves essential to the next virtue in our Socratic quartet: perseverance.
Perseverance is, one might say, the virtue that led to Socrates’ demise. It was perseverance that led him to question sophists and politicians in such a way as to reveal to them their own ignorance: that can be a dangerous prospect when those exposed are both powerful and lack intellectual humility. It was perseverance that led Socrates to engage his courtroom in the same manner, making clear to his accusers that they did not care for the truth. And it was perseverance that made plain to Socrates’ jury that the only way they could stop him from living philosophically was to stop him from living. Socrates’ consistency of character made the jury take seriously his refusal to stop philosophizing, and they took umbrage at his suggestion, when proposing his own counter-penalty to death after having been found guilty of corrupting the youth and of impiety, that he be assessed a reward:
I did not follow that path that would have made me of no use either to you or to myself, but I went to each of you privately and conferred upon him what I say is the greatest benefit, by trying to persuade him not to care for any of his belongings before caring that he himself should be as good and as wise as possible, not to care for the city’s possessions more than for the city itself, and to care for other things in the same way. What do I deserve for being such a man? Some good, gentlemen of the jury, if I must truly make an assessment according to my deserts, and something suitable. . . . Nothing is more suitable, gentlemen, than for such a man to be fed in the Prytaneum, . . . The Olympian victor makes you think yourself happy: I make you be happy. (Apo., 36c-d)
Instead of the death penalty or a hefty fine, Socrates suggests he deserves free meals for life. Cheeky words, to be sure, and they helped seal his fate. But, they are honest words, and words that express the depth and breadth of Socrates’ perseverance: nothing will stop him from seeking the truth and encouraging others to do the same. And, he’s right, he should have received a reward for that. With St. Justin Martyr, I believe he has.
Perseverance, like the cardinal virtue of courage of which it is a part, can indeed be a dangerous virtue, for it often faces formidable obstacles in the hope that knowledge can be achieved. Persistence in learning entails pressing uncomfortable questions and being uncomfortable with facile answers. It requires patience with the process of learning, and patience with those with whom one is learning. There are a million and one other things one can always be doing other than studying, and some of those things are genuine goods. Is persevering in pursuit of truth worth it? The case that it is needs to be made regularly for the sake of our students’ callings to be learners. All the more reason to make sure we are each persuaded. So, if we find ourselves wondering at times this year, What’s wrong with these students? Why do they give up so quickly? What’s the reason they melt in the face of challenge? I suggest a fitting initial response, modeled on Chesterton, is, I am.
Our perseverance does pay and we really do have occasions where we catch hold of things themselves. When that happens, we need to continue to hold onto them. Savoring and relishing them is the means by which we can do so. There is an intellectual joy in gazing upon those gems we spend so much time digging up, and that joy helps us to invest them in our memory so that we can continue to learn from them and be inspired to look for more. I think of this like savoring morsels of truth, holding onto them with a contemplative embrace. In Plato’s Symposium, the character Alcibiades describes a moment of catching Socrates in private:
But I once caught him when he was open like Silenus’ statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike—so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing—that I no longer had a choice—I just had to do whatever he told me. (Symposium, 216e-217a).
Alcibiades caught Socrates savoring the truths he acquired in his treasure house of memory, and was inspired to live philosophically. Unfortunately, as all of Plato’s first readers knew well, that resolution did not stick: Alcibiades ends his days a traitorous scoundrel. Let us hope and pray that by inspiring our students as we savor our intellectual treasures deep roots are struck in them so that they complete the course of a life well-lived, one that entails a full complement of intellectual and moral virtues. If our students, like Alcibiades, fail in this most important endeavor and we ask ourselves where they went wrong, perhaps we should answer, I am.
Let us be intellectually humble, wondering, perseverant, and joyful pursuers and savorers of the true, good, and beautiful this year. Let us be dedicated to our own quests for learning so that we can better set our students on theirs. These four virtues certainly do not comprise the full complement of intellectual and moral virtues, but I do think they are worthy of particular attention as we embark on our new academic year. Please note: I am not suggesting them to be worthy of your attention because I think you are particularly deficient in them. Rather, I think they are worthy of perennial reflection, as is the example of Socrates. It is easy, at least it is easy for me, to lose sight of them. I want to add to them one more virtue for your consideration today. The virtue of gratitude makes of these a quintet.
I want to approach the virtue of gratitude by way of the capital vice most responsible for thwarting it, acedia, or sloth. Laziness is the term we most often associate with acedia, but we would be wrong if we thought of acedia as mere inactivity. Acedia is more often manifest in hyper-activity born from a despair or despondency about our true ends. We despair of finding truths themselves, so we glut ourselves on truthiness. We despair of cultivating genuine virtue, so we get busy virtue signaling. We draw back from encountering the beautiful, so we ‘follow’ and ‘like’ many shiny things in the so-called virtual world and stream endless hours of entertainment. We despair of the sabbath, so we work ourselves to death for rewards that never satisfy.
For Thomas Aquinas, acedia is ultimately a disposition to reject the gifts given by God, as he avers in ST II-II, q. 35, a. 1, ad 3:
It is a sign of humility if we do not think too much of ourselves through observing our own faults; but if we despise the good we have received from God, this, far from being a proof of humility, shows us to be ungrateful: and from such contempt results sloth, because we sorrow for things we regard as evil and worthless.
It is ingratitude that leads to acedia, and it is acedia that serves as the most significant inner obstacle to the development of gratitude. This is a truly vicious circle within which we too often find our lives caught. Deep within the human heart lurks a tendency to fail to accept the intrinsic dignity each possesses as a son or daughter of God, as a being which Love calls into intimate love with Himself. We are fallen, but despair ought not be the response to our condition. We ought not despair of the goods God holds out for us, and sorrow over the challenges that need to be endured in order to retain possession of those goods. We ought not live our lives despondently, with wearied souls.
Filling our wearied souls with busyness is a symptom of sloth, not its remedy, as Josef Pieper emphasizes:
No, the contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, of earning one’s living; it is man’s happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God—which is to say love. Love that certainly brings a particular freshness and readiness to work along with it, but that no one with the least experience could conceivably confuse with the tense activity of the fanatical “worker”. (Leisure, the Basis of Culture, 45)
We only escape by gratefully accepting the great gifts that our God offers us, first and foremost the gift of ourselves, and then nurturing and growing and deepening a fundamental disposition of gratitude in response to those gifts. Such a life requires constant practice and consistent prudence, in addition to wakefulness of the profound gift of one’s own personhood, as Dietrich von Hildebrand argues:
The person who is filled with gratitude toward God, whose life is permeated by this primary attitude of gratitude, is also the only person who is fully awake. He is the opposite of the apathetic, obtuse person, who remains in that state of half-wakefulness which suffices for the fulfillment of life’s practical necessities. He is the opposite of the person who remains on the periphery and takes everything for granted. (Art of Living, 108)
Exercising the virtue of gratitude, a deeply rooted habitus by which we acknowledge our own life and all that it entails as gift, is the path by which we ignorant ones become wise, we fools become saints. And, if we ever reach the end of the semester and feel, as our Lord once did when nine out of the ten healed lepers did not return to offer a word of thanks, and we find ourselves pondering why our students take for granted the gifts of God and the labors of human centuries we bestow upon them in our classrooms, the answer may well be, I am.
What is wrong with the world? I am. You are. We all are. But, we have good reason to hope we can change things for the better. I am grateful to labor beside you in this quest.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy