Tag Archive for: Philosophy

What Is Philosophy?

David Warren: One may have much leisured fun comparing the ancient to the modern academic philosophers. It is the difference between a life of free participation and a life in the service of a bureaucracy.

Philosophy is a subject by itself, distinct from religion but, more importantly, not subsidiary to one, another, or all of the empirical sciences. It is not “experimental,” truth to tell, and thus it fits poorly into our modern schemes of meaning.

For philosophy – from the Greek and Latin PHILOSOPHIA – philosophiefilosofiafalsafadarshanaprachyazhexue – is founded in the love of wisdom. This is true — however wisdom is approached in foreign languages.

It involves “how to live,” for instance: the purpose of one’s life. This has generally been received as a serious topic.

Wisdom is the constant, inescapable theme. There are other things that wisdom loves, which do not themselves love wisdom, and the modern crisis of philosophy can be seen in this wandering away. Wisdom survives in colloquial speech, but not in the academy.

There, it has become restricted to a “love of knowledge,” and philosophical history is taught, outside a few Catholic colleges, only with God deleted.

Both Plato and Aristotle were naturally interested in the philosophers that came before them. But they studied these with a view to finding the wisdom in them; not, or not usually, to surveying opinions.

The medieval and scholastic philosophers, likewise. Thomas Aquinas is not a “disciple” of Aristotle, or of anyone else. He wants to know things that are beyond Aristotle, and studies what Aristotle can tell him, as impressive guide. But a guide to something that differs from the guide himself.

Even the approach to philosophical history has changed. We want to know what Schopenhauer taught, in itself. We want to “know” our Heidegger, etc. Part of our task is actually to study what each meant by the word, “philosophy.”

But we know what the word means. It is the love of wisdom. The follower of philosophy is, moreover, the “lover” of wisdom. The reader must grasp the erotic sense in this. He is not a simple collector, unless he is collecting to a wise purpose. For philosophy has a purpose, as everything else.

A cobbler could be a philosopher, said my youthful hero Thomas Ernest Hulme, in echo of the great philosopher, Pascal. They were both lovers, of the philosophical kind. The cobbler’s purpose in everyday life might be to fix shoes, and he would find this quite compatible with philosophy.

A “professional,” however, he would not be. Neither a philosopher nor a maker or mender of shoes was a professional, until recently.

As was not the mirror-polisher, in the tradition of Spinoza, or the sword-polisher, in the Japanese, or the pursuer of many other avocations for money over time.

Such crafts may provide the mental leisure to think about things, in a conceptual way, together with material analogies to focus upon the real. One must be “a thinking machine” to master a craft; something different from simply becoming a machine in a factory, or rather part of a machine, for it is not the worker but the factory that has a purpose.

The old Jewish idea of a rabbi – that he should have a day job – had wonderful consequences for the survival of the Hebrew religion. No matter what, he could work for a living; and this idea is carried into Saint Paul, who says, in 2 Thessalonians, that if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Indeed, he puts some edge in this.

Wisdom, and the leisure in which wisdom is sought, should not be confused with laziness. It is a by-product of work, just as dinner is a by-product of the day’s labor, but not, as it were, the final purpose: to become wise. And beyond wisdom, in the Christian dispensation, is to be saved.

One becomes wise, at leisure, so to speak. This is true within all philosophical heritages; in “darshana” (Sanskrit) as well as “philosophie” (French).  Each requires leisure, and leisure requires work.

It could be said that the professors of philosophy, the “professional philosophers” in our university departments, are similarly employed, outside philosophy, to earn their meals. There is nothing subtle in their union-like demands, which are for pay and privilege, quite apart from wisdom.

Seeking wisdom can also be done at their leisure, of course, but their day job is rather in conflict with it. Teaching philosophy is a dead loss, unless they find students who also love wisdom.

Alas, you will not find many such young people in universities today. The closer to passion, the more they are demonstrating for re-gendering and Hamas.

The professoriate, meanwhile, is in pursuit of tenure, in preference to truth, which does not promise job security.

But job security is a foolish mistake. Not truth itself (which, incidentally, is a person), but a knowledge of the truth, comes with the opposite of steady employment, as the most truthful professors may begin to realize.

And whether or not it leads to saintliness, the teaching of wisdom and truth is as likely to lead to death.

Socrates did not seek job security. He wouldn’t have got it in his day job as a stonemason (or in his previous day job as a soldier), nor would he ever have signed a contract, since he was likely to have been illiterate, like most Athenians of his time. Indeed, Socrates was contemptuous of the “literati,” probably including Plato and Xenophon, who had the annoying habit of writing his words down.

One may have much leisured fun comparing the ancient to the modern academy. It is the difference between a life of free participation, and life in the service of a bureaucracy.

The advantage being, that the bureaucrats can fire you, whereas, in the end, the tyrants must kill you. I think there must be some other advantage of bureaucracies, but I’ve never found them.

Now, comes the question, what is philosophy? But I have already answered that: you must read this again. It’s the love of wisdom.

You may also enjoy:

+ James V. Schall, S.J.  “Who Are You?”

Francis J. Beckwith In Defense of First Philosophy


David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

Going Beyond The Culture Wars

How Western culture has been moulded by faith.

Faith Challenges Culture: A Reflection of the Dynamics of Modernity
Paul O’Callaghan | Lexington Books | 2021, 142 pp

In this terrific book, Dubliner Fr Paul O’Callaghan, a lecturer in the school of theology in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, presents a succinct and insightful analysis of a daunting topic: the interaction of faith and culture.

He sets himself the task of examining how Western culture has been moulded by faith (by which he means faith in the strict sense of revealed religion, and not religion in general) and in particular how this is true of four realities key to contemporary culture: rationality, freedom, equality and (surprisingly) conquest.

As we might imagine, the faith-culture relationship will of necessity be a complex one. They are two very different realities: faith stems from a divine initiative, indeed an “interruption” into human history, while culture is the fruit of human endeavour. And nevertheless as the author points out, the West has developed without either element erasing the other; rather they “seek each other out”, each respecting the contribution of the other (for the most part):

Christian revelation and grace are not meant to ride roughshod over reality, over the world as we know it, over the lives and dreams and projects of its inhabitants, over the traditions and civilizations consolidated over the centuries…”

And yet we know that Modernity (the period dating from around the 16th or 17th century) has been predicated on an elevation of man accompanied by a diminished view of God and a disregard for the West’s Christian roots — an unfortunate over-correction of the mediaeval world’s bias for the divine over the human.

The effects of the secularising tendency of modernity are apparent in the impoverishing effect on those four key areas of rationality, freedom, equality and conquest, distorting them in the direction of rationalism, licence, reductive egalitarianism and rapine respectively.

The interaction of faith and culture

O’Callaghan discusses briefly a number of core tenets of Western civilisation which have their roots in the Bible, such as the notion of intrinsic human dignity, the centrality of human freedom, and the sanctity of marriage.

He cites the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ most interesting distinction between the Judeo-Christian concept of “righteousness and guilt” and the pagan “honour and shame” culture. The former places man’s intrinsic worth on something interior and not immediately apparent, something at the realm of freedom and conscience, and ultimately a person’s interior relationship with God.

The latter on the other hand looks to the external actions alone, for which a person earns honour or shame from others. Such a culture easily (perhaps excessively) exalts its heroes and unequivocally and even brutally condemns its enemies (think “cancel culture”). Lacking the classic Judeo-Christian distinction between sin and sinner, it equates the sinner with their apparent sins, and so is merciless in shaming (and “cancelling”) offenders.

Many core elements of Western culture come from an “intelligent and practical assimilation of Christian Revelation” which is complex and ongoing. There has never been, nor can there ever be, a “purely Christian culture” (despite the nostalgia of some for a Medieval Golden Age of Christendom): sin is a constant in human existence, and has always been present in human culture. Modernity itself, despite all its secularising tendencies, is a “highly positive phenomenon”. As Pope Benedict has reminded Christians, Modernity’s own intrinsic merits as well as its “material fidelity to Christianity” must be acknowledged.

While the theme of the modern world’s fundamental indebtedness to Christianity has recently been revisited and popularised in Tom Holland’s highly successful Dominion, this is not Holland’s discovery: it has been covered in the past by the likes of Dostoevsky, Guardini, T.S. Eliot, and even Jürgen Habermas (for whom the West’s sense of personal conscience, human rights, equality and democracy is built directly on “the Jewish ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love… All the rest is postmodern chatter.”)

Unfortunately of course, the Christian roots of Western values are increasingly being ignored and forgotten, and it would be, in the words of the Dutch reformed pastor Wim Rietkerk, modern man’s biggest mistake if he thought “that he could keep enjoying the fruits without the roots, without walking humbly with his God. … There is no future for a Western civilisation cut off from its roots.”

The four key tenets

O’Callaghan then focusses his attention on those four concepts so central to the West’s very identity: rationality, freedom, equality, and conquest. The last, “conquest” is an unusual concept, and the author explains it as follows:

We assume that what we obtain, what is at our disposal, we have a right to, as if it were our very own and belonging to no-one else. Whether we are talking about children, or property, or space travel, or instant telematic communication to the other side of the world … we see the world around us as a terrain of conquest, of achievement, of success.

He examines how these four notions as we understand them in the West, are essentially the fruit of Christian revelation.

The first, rationality, was already much prized — as logos — by the Greeks. For them rationality could not be understood without reference to the divine. Nevertheless the Christian conception of reason is even more elevated and optimistic than that of the Greeks, for whom reason was marred by very significant limitations.

Human reason for Christians receives a greater trustworthiness on account of the trustworthiness of its author: God. Nevertheless the secularising tendency of Modernity has lost the vastness of the power of reason as glimpsed by the Greeks, and boldly affirmed by Christianity. It began by reducing reason to a merely “computational and mathematical” power, and even now tends towards a radical scepticism which jettisons all confidence in reason.

O’Callaghan goes on to discuss how much the Western notion of freedom owes to Christianity. For Christianity freedom is essentially the filial freedom of those who are called to become God’s children: it is the “freedom of the glory of the children of God” in the words of St Paul. This is the ultimate goal for freedom to aspire to, a true “freedom for”.

However, this Christian-inspired concept of freedom came gradually to be eclipsed by a reductive “freedom from” — which reduces freedom to the mere capacity to choose one thing over another, without any intrinsic direction or dynamism. This reductive freedom is developed by the likes of Ockham, Bacon, Luther and more recently Foucault. Nevertheless, there has been a recovery of the richer conception of freedom, in particular by the Personalist movement for whom freedom is inseparable from man’s fundamental relatedness to others, and to God.

The notion of the fundamental equality of human beings so central to Western values is equally something stemming from Christian revelation. Man’s social and relational nature is presented throughout the Bible as constitutive of his very being. Against this is a non-Christian understanding of relationality as a sign of weakness, insofar as it implies dependence on others; a lack of the autonomy so valued by Modernity (and to a degree even by the Greeks).

The equal dignity under God of all men receives an unequivocal affirmation throughout the Bible. And yet the manifest inequalities between men are not a scandal for Christianity in the way they are for modern culture (for which all “inequality” must be ultimately stamped out), because the presence of neediness is a divine call to the others to live out the charity which must be at the heart of all social relations.

There follows a most illuminating consideration of the fourth tenet: the idea of conquest (by which we see “the world around us as a terrain of conquest”). What O’Callaghan shows here is that the now dominant “anthropology of the self-made man who designs and constructs himself down to the last detail” has lost sight of the Christian notion of gratitude.

The radical individualism that has developed in the West rejects as “childish”, indebtedness to others. Dignity requires that the self must be “self-made” and autonomous. This produces a great incapacity to receive from others, and with that a systematic ingratitude.

However for the Christian, absolutely everything is a gift from God, and man is a receiver of gifts before anything else. This then allows us in our turn to give and receive from others — there is no shame, nor subjugation in receiving understood in Christian terms.

Modernity, on the other hand, is marked by a systematic rejection of gift and so is marked by a striking ingratitude. What is needed is a return to the sense of gratitude gestured at by Heidegger when he said that “denken ist danken” (“to think is to thank”); that even “thought itself is a grateful receptiveness to the giveness of being”.

And so the ungrateful West is faced with the important task of rediscovering true gratitude, also gratitude towards God. The secular world’s “eclipse of worship” (to coin a phrase from Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age) means that “humans have stopped recognising God as the source of all good and intelligibility. They have stopped thanking God, they no longer recognise the world they live in as a gift, they no longer live ‘eucharistic’ lives.” And such ingratitude is a serious state of affairs: “the most abominable of sins” for Ignatius of Loyola. The author concludes that:

“This has led many of those influenced by modern culture to a generalised loss of faith and to a pathology of individualism and ingratitude, as they attempt to live out their lives in isolation from their fellows, unprepared to recognise the world they live in and the privileges they enjoy as so many gifts they should be profoundly grateful for.”

The question of the gratitude leads on in the Epilogue to a very interesting discussion on the integration of conservatism and progressive liberalism. O’Callaghan shows that both the conservative and liberal tempers are embraced by Christianity: it is conservative insofar as it is conscious of being the receiver of gifts from God, and handed down by others by tradition; the Christian is by definition a conserver of these gifts.

At the same time, the Christian doctrine of Original Sin necessitates the liberal dimension since certain elements from the past will of necessity be tainted by sin and in need of reform and purification; not everything merits conservation. But there is need of a delicate balance of these two opposed tendencies: too much conservatism produces a lazy complacency that is fearful of change, while too excessive liberalism fails to appreciate what has been received from predecessors.


It is hard to overestimate the value of this book. O’Callaghan shows how our contemporary culture simply cannot be understood without a deep grasp of its Christian roots. And furthermore, he shows what damage our culture has already suffered because the key tenets of rationality, freedom, equality and conquest have to the degree to which they have become unmoored from their Christian roots.

At the same time, these affirmations are never simplistic; O’Callaghan takes into account the great complexity of the relationship between faith and culture. And even though it is quite a short book, the author does not oversimplify the issues involved. For that reason, parts of the book will be challenging for someone unfamiliar with the issues involved.

Certainly, this book would make a wonderful basic text for a college course on faith and culture. It would also very beneficial for anyone interested in the deeper issues at play in our current “culture wars”, where much of the discussion is unfortunately as heated as it is uninformed by philosophy and theology.


Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He teaches occasional… 

EDITORS NOTE: This MercatorNet column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

What’s the Most Important Issue for the Liberty Movement to Focus On?

There are many great candidates, but there’s one that stands above the rest.

One of the problems with large social movements is that it can be difficult to figure out which issues to focus on, and the liberty movement is no exception. There are thousands of ways the government has inserted itself into our lives, and each of them represents an opportunity for change in a pro-liberty direction.

The good news is that we have thousands of libertarians, many of whom have picked their own niche topics of interest to focus on, which means we can fight this battle on multiple fronts simultaneously. But while the decentralized nature of this movement is certainly one of its strengths, it sometimes makes it hard to build momentum on the topics that are more important.

The question then arises, if we wanted to pick a specific topic to emphasize, which topic should that be? Stated differently, what issue is the most important when it comes to scaling back government intrusion in our lives?

To help us decide, let’s take a look at some of the top contenders, in no particular order.

One of the biggest issues with the US government is undoubtedly its Military Industrial Complex. The $782 billion defense budget is a massive waste of resources, and the civil liberties violations associated with the surveillance state are nothing to scoff at either. Add in war and all other kinds of foreign intervention, and it becomes pretty clear just how big this problem has become.

Barriers to immigration may not be something we think about every day, but they have life-changing consequences for millions of people. Lifting these barriers would not only be a win for human rights, it would also provide tremendous economic benefits as people take advantage of the opportunities that become available.

I still remember the day I first found out America had the highest incarceration rate in the world. I was stunned then and I remain stunned to this day. The War on Drugs in particular has put thousands of people behind bars for non-violent offenses, and harmful practices like civil asset forfeiture and no-knock raids are commonplace. Countless lives have been needlessly destroyed because of this inhumane system.

While social issues often get the spotlight, economic issues are arguably just as important, especially when it comes to the Federal Reserve. As Ron Paul has regularly pointed out, central banking has been responsible for so much of the corruption, war, and poverty that we have seen in recent decades, and anyone who’s been keeping an eye on rising prices can tell you just how much damage it can cause.

Free expression is one of the pillars of a free society. Without the freedom to say and publish what we see fit, we have no means of calling attention to injustice or arguing for our ideas. Fortunately, free speech has many protections in the US, but we’d be naive to think this means we’re in the clear. Government pressure has already prompted Big Tech platforms to censor many important discussions, and surveys show Americans increasingly support the government stepping in to restrict “false information” online. If public dialogue breaks down even more, the consequences could be serious.

Many argue the Second Amendment is the key to defending every other liberty, and they have a point. As history has shown time and again, it’s hard to tyrannize an armed population. At the end of the day, those who have a means of defending themselves will have a far better chance of preserving their liberties than those who don’t.

Though all of the issues mentioned above are important, the issue that takes the top spot in my books is one I haven’t mentioned yet.


The main reason education is so important is that it is the key to all the rest. The first step for achieving change on any issue is teaching people about it. And we will struggle to do that effectively as long as the government has a virtual monopoly on teaching the next generation.

Think about it. Kids spend 12 years of their life in government schools, learning government-approved history, geography, literature, economics, and civics, being taught to obey authority, standing for the national anthem and reciting the pledge of allegiance. We’re talking 50 million kids in any given year. This isn’t some minor intrusion in our lives. There’s a public school in just about every neighborhood in America.

In addition to public schools being generally pro-government by their very nature, there is also evidence they tend to have a distinct “big-government” bent. For instance, among high school teachers in the US there are 87 Democrats for every 13 Republicans. For English teachers, the ratio is 97 Democrats for every three Republicans.

In his book The Corrupt Classroom, education researcher Lance Izumi summarizes the state of public education in this regard. “Far from being mere anecdotal incidents—and there are a lot of these—,” he writes, “political bias is becoming systemic in public school systems and has turned many public schools into indoctrination centers for progressive ideologies and causes.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee private schooling will be a panacea for these biases, but there is evidence it might be able to help.

Aside from the clear indoctrination potential, there are also profound social and economic problems with public schooling. On the social side, compulsory schooling laws represent a fairly significant civil liberties violation. We don’t often think of it this way, but statutes regulating education are ultimately coercive and thus interfere with the freedom of parents, educators, and students to teach and learn as they see fit.

Economically, public education is of course one of the biggest government expenditures, but it’s also a tremendous waste of kids’ time and potential. So many opportunities for growth and learning (and in the long run, economic productivity) are crushed because of this regimented system that tries to force every kid into the same box.

So what can we do about it?

Clearly, we need to go after the government schooling system with well-crafted arguments and sound reasoning. But just as importantly, we need to be creating alternatives: private schools, homeschool networks, YouTube channels, blogs, podcasts, TV shows, conferences, seminars, webinars, articles, books…all of it. As John Taylor Gatto once said, “there isn’t a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as fingerprints.”

In short, we need to take education back into our own hands. Free speech and gun rights and all the other issues are great, but the way we make progress on them is by committing to learn and to teach, not just as kids, but as adults too. Because it’s only by teaching and learning that we will win each of these individual battles, and ultimately, the war for freedom.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.


Patrick Carroll

Patrick Carroll has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo and is an Editorial Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

The Bible and Hayek on What We Owe Strangers by Sarah Skwire

It’s so much easier to sympathize with our own problems and with the problems of those we love than with the problems of complete strangers.

Adam Smith observes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that our ability to sympathize with ourselves is, in fact, so out of all proportion to our ability to sympathize with others that the thought of losing one of our little fingers can keep us up all night in fearful anticipation, while we can sleep easily with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands on the opposite side of the world have just died in an earthquake.

Hayek makes the same point in The Fatal Conceit:

Moreover, the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules.

It may not be the best part of our humanity, but it is a very human part. We care more about those we see more often, understand more thoroughly, and with whom we share more in common.

And maybe that’s not so bad. We treat family differently, after all. My daughter will get a giant pink fluffy stuffed unicorn from me on her birthday. I don’t believe that I am similarly obligated to provide fuzzy equines for all other eight-year-olds. Different treatment is a way of acknowledging different kinds of bonds between people and different levels of responsibility to them.

All of this is on my mind because the other night, after I gave a talk on liberty and culture, an audience member and I had a discussion about banking, debt, and interest rates during which he carefully explained to me how Jews lend each other money for no interest, but when they lend to Christians, the sky’s the limit. Everyone knows it, because it’s in the Bible.

He was right, sort of. It is in the Bible, sort of.

It’s right there in Deuteronomy 23:

You shall not give interest to your brother [whether it be] interest on money, interest on food, or interest on any [other] item for which interest is [normally] taken. You may [however], give interest to a gentile, but to your brother you shall not give interest, in order that the Lord your God shall bless you in every one of your endeavors on the land to which you are coming to possess.

But textual interpretation is a tricky business. And textual interpretation of a text that has existed for thousands of years and been wrangled with by millions of interpreters — well, it doesn’t get much trickier than that.

But it seems worth noting that the word used here (both in translation and in Hebrew) is literally “brother.” This has been interpreted over the years to mean “fellow Jew.” But the word, as given, is brother.

What I think the passage means to emphasize by using this word — regardless of whether we are talking about literal brothers, or just “brothers” — is the importance and of treating those who are closest to us with particular care and concern. The kind of business relationship that is part of Hayek’s extended order, or that is located in an outer ring of Smith’s concentric circles of sympathy, doesn’t come with extra moral responsibilities to one another. A price is agreed on. A bargain is struck. An exchange is made. Everyone is content. But in an intimate order — with brothers or sisters, husbands or wives, parents or children — we have a responsibility to give more and do more than in the extended order.

And so observant Jews are told that they should not pay or charge interest to brothers — whomever they consider those brothers to be.

Though it has been interpreted uncharitably by many over the years, this passage from Deuteronomy is not a passage about cheating the outsider. This is a passage about taking special care of those who are closest to our hearts. It’s hard to find anything to object to in that.

Sarah SkwireSarah Skwire

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

School Is About Freedom, Marco Rubio, Not Just Money

Republicans including Marco Rubio parrot leftist lines about how education’s ultimate goal is money. It needs to be a great deal more than that if our republic is to survive.

Once again, presidential candidate Marco Rubio, when asked a question about education, disparaged liberal learning by repeating his well-rehearsed lines about preparing students for careers in a “global” and “twenty-first-century” economy.

During the CNN town hall last week, he said that rather than teaching philosophy (“Roman philosophy,” no less), colleges should teach practical things—like welding. Sadly, Rubio is not alone. Many Republicans, forgetting their conservative roots, have joined Democrats in advancing a utilitarian view of education.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a welder. My father, an immigrant, was one. And there is nothing wrong with philosophy—for the student in a technical school. In fact, it was our Founders’ belief that only a literate, well-educated citizenry could govern themselves. Even the tradesman should be versed in the basics of literature, history, and ancient philosophy, they thought. “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” said James Madison.

Modern Philosophy Is Merely Cynicism

Rubio, however, does not distinguish between legitimate philosophy and what philosophy, like the rest of the humanities, has become under the regime of tenured radicals. The problem is that philosophy professors no longer teach their subjects or, if they do, it is to cast suspicion upon the very enterprise, as I learned in graduate school in the 1990s.

Yancy would do well to review the Greek philosophers on the art of rhetoric and what they have to say about not insulting your audience.
My seminar on ancient rhetoric consisted of the professor elevating the sophists, the teachers who for fees taught the art of persuasion by making the worse case seem better. The ends were practical: so citizens could defend themselves in court. To my amazement, my professor ridiculed the traditional philosophical goals of searching for the truth.

In the intervening decades, the situation has become worse. Consider Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy. This full professor, according to the university’s website, specializes in “Critical Philosophy of Race (phenomenology of racial embodiment, social ontology of race),” “Critical Whiteness Studies (white subject formation, white racist ambush, white opacity and embeddedness. . .),” and “African-American Philosophy and Philosophy of the Black Experience (resistance, Black identity formation . . .).”

Yancy received national attention in December for penning the screed “Dear White America” in The New York Times. He began, “I have a weighty request. As you read this letter, I want you to listen with love, a sort of love that demands that you look at parts of yourself that might cause pain and terror, as James Baldwin would say. Did you hear that? You may have missed it. I repeat: I want you to listen with love. Well, at least try.”

Yancy would do well to review the Greek philosophers on the art of rhetoric and what they have to say about not insulting your audience (“Did you hear that?” “Well, at least try.”). Behind such appeals like Yancy’s is an implied threat. Invoking the names of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other allegedly innocent victims of police violence, he accused “White America” of being racist through and through. Such rhetoric presages and justifies the angry mobs on our campuses and in our streets.

Philosophy Doesn’t Mean Grievance-Mongering

College campuses, once the places where the civilized arts of debate and the pursuit of truth were taught, have become places where the PhDs, doctors of philosophy, lead mobs of students in pursuit of retribution against some “systemic” wrong, usually in reference to race, ethnicity, or gender. Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, supporter of the Black Lives Matter mob movement, is promising to make such education free.

Our presidential candidates should consider what philosophy, rightly understood, could do. Indeed, by studying Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” students would be able to distinguish between different rhetorical appeals and learn the legitimate arts of persuasion—those that allow us to live in a civilized manner, where we resolve our differences through debate, not violence.

Were students to study Plato’s “Republic,” they might understand the dangers of a popular democracy and why the American Founders rejected one. They would consider Thrasymachus’s contention that justice is synonymous with strength, with being a “winner,” regardless of the methods. They might decide to evaluate such rhetoric carefully when it comes from a political candidate, like Donald Trump.

They would consider whether it is good for the government to put people in certain classes, as craftsmen or “guardians,” instead of allowing them to choose for themselves, or whether government should raise children rather than parents. What has been the historical outcome of such societies with centralized government, five-year economic plans, government-assigned jobs, and child-rearing from infancy? Are there any similarities to what Sanders is proposing?

Education Is Ultimately about Self-Governance

This is not to say that a class discussion should center on current political candidates. Indeed, the truly philosophical professor will keep the discussion largely away from the immediate. If the lesson is taught well, the student should come to his or her own conclusions and be able to carry those lessons into adulthood. That is the purpose of an education, not regimented job training and political molding.

The student should come to his or her own conclusions and be able to carry those lessons into adulthood. That is the purpose of an education.
The responses to Rubio’s statements in November, by such leftist outlets as ThinkProgress, CNN, and Huffington Post, were quite telling. They replied in kind to his materialist arguments. “Philosophers make more money than welders!” they said. In this they betrayed their utilitarian view of education, one that dominates the Obama administration, specifically through Common Core, a federally coerced program designed to produce compliant workers in the global economy.

The job training part has lured some short-sighted or corrupt Republicans. In higher education, too, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker advanced short-sighted “careerism,” as if he had forgotten, as Peter Lawler pointed out, Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument for studying the Greek and Roman classics. Earlier this year, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin suggested that electrical engineering was worthy of support, while French literature was not.

The other part of the progressive vision for education is to produce graduates who adhere to the state’s status quo. Students are trained to work collectively, focus on emotions, refrain from making independent judgments, and read in a way that does not go beyond ferreting out snippets of information. They are not asked to read an entire Platonic dialogue or novel. They do not get the big picture, from the dawn of civilization.

Our current educational methods are a far cry from the Founders’ robust views, of preparing citizens who are literate, logical, and knowledgeable; citizens capable of voting intelligently.

We Need Cultural Renewal, Not Materialism

We should embrace this conservative view of education. Although it is extremely rare in today’s college classrooms, it is being advanced in more than 150 privately funded academic centers on and off campuses. According to the John William Pope Center for Education Renewal, these centers “preserve and promote the knowledge and perspectives that are disappearing from the academy.”

One of these is the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, where I am a resident fellow. It was founded by three Hamilton College professors in 2007, and is located in the village of Clinton.

AHI offers students the option to read the classics in a manner that is increasingly difficult to find in the typically highly politicized open curriculum. AHI-sponsored reading groups have focused on the works of such important figures as Leo Strauss, St. Augustine, and Josef Pieper. This semester Dr. Elizabeth D’Arrivee is leading a discussion group on Plato’s “Republic.”

Political candidates would do well to explain how they will support such efforts for educational renewal, instead of disparaging philosophy and literature.

RELATED ARTICLE: Campus Protesters Try to Silence Conservative Speaker, Demand College President’s Resignation

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Federalist. Photo Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com

VIDEO: Why Wouldn’t You Save a Drowning Child? by Matt Zwolinski

Would you lose $500 to save a drowning child? We explore a thought experiment that just may save someone’s life.

Imagine you’re walking to work in the morning down a quiet rural road to the side of the road there’s a pond and pass by every day. Only today, something is different. Today you see a small child in that pond.

He is alone, he’s flailing his arms, and if you don’t act quickly it looks like he is going to drown. Luckily, the pond is shallow. You can wade in, grab the child, and bring him to safety without putting yourself in any danger at all.

Unluckily, you’re wearing a very expensive set of clothes, and there just isn’t enough time to take them off. So even though saving the child is perfectly safe, it is going to cost you at least $500 to replace your suit and shoes. There’s no one else around, so the decision is yours alone to make.

Do you wade in, save the child, and ruin your expensive clothes? Or do you decide that $500 just too high a price to pay for the life of someone you don’t even know and walk on by.

If you’re like most people, the answer is obvious. Of course you save the child. Anyone that would would let us small child die just to keep their nice clothes from getting wet would be a moral monster. As peter singer, the philosopher who originated this drowning child thought experiment argued, if you had the power to prevent something really bad from happening to someone else just by suffering something merely slightly bad yourself, then “taking the hit” is the right thing to do.

Now of course most of us will never come across a drowning child on her way to work but all of us do find ourselves living in a world where over six million children die each year from preventable causes. And while none of us have the power to help all of those children, almost all of us have the power to help some of them. By donating a small amount of money much less than $500 to an effective charity through a site like GiveWell.org, you could literally save someone’s life. But that brings up another question.

How do we make sure aid efforts do the most good and the least harm?

Matt Zwolinski
Matt Zwolinski

Matt Zwolinski is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego. He is also a co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy, a member of the editorial board of Business Ethics Quarterly, and a blogger for Bleeding Heart Libertarians.