Even students in religious-founded institutions can lose their faith. Others find God at Ohio State University. Some students mold themselves to the prevailing campus ideology, while others go through unchanged. One thing seems true. If we acquire a BA or a doctorate in physics or history but have a fourth-grade intellectual grasp of faith, we run into trouble. On that account, we have mostly to pursue the ultimate questions through our own efforts.
The crucial question according to Aristotle is not what we think but how we live: “Virtue preserves the origin, while vice corrupts it; and in action the end we act for is the origin, as the assumptions (hypotheses) are the origins in mathematics. Reason does not teach the origins either in mathematics or in actions; with actions it is virtue, either natural or habituated, that teaches correct belief about the origins [i.e., first principles].”
If we are virtuous, Aristotle thinks, we will recognize the truth when it finally confronts us. If not, we will not be able to spot it though it’s right in front of us.
Reason does not “teach” first principles. It teaches us the means that lead to ends. First principles determine how we choose to live and how we understand happiness. The first precept of action is the famous “Do good; avoid evil.” Aristotle tells us that vice will corrupt our first principles and send us in search of means to very bad ends. How so?
If we live a disordered life in any of the moral areas, be it thievery, lying, laziness, excessive drink, or illicit sex, this choice will direct all of our further actions to make them seem “reasonable” (see J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex). We want to achieve what we choose. We use our intellect not to critique our choice but to achieve it, however it is related to our highest end. Our habits, good or bad, will protect the end we have chosen. To justify how we live, we will develop theories that justify our choices.
A disordered life does not first arise from error of intellect. Rather, error of intellect originates in a disordered life. So how we live, especially in college, is not a merely “academic” question. A university curriculum can either reinforce or correct the erroneous choices we make. We can find, in academia, endless reasons to live a disordered life. We look for excuses to live as we want. We seldom hear the case for virtue. If we hear of virtue, it is usually derided.
Argument does not make us virtuous. As Aristotle observes: “If arguments were sufficient by themselves to make people good, the rewards they would command would justifiably have been many and large.” He continues: “The aim of studies about action is surely not to study and know about each thing but rather to act on our knowledge. Hence knowing about virtue is not enough, but we must also try to possess and exercise virtue.” We like to sit and talk about what is right or wrong. We argue endlessly. Usually, talk is an excuse for not actually becoming what we should be.
Aristotle tells us that we use a myriad of excuses and reasonings to avoid doing what we ought: “Arguments seem to have enough influence to stimulate and encourage the civilized ones among the young people, and perhaps to make virtue take possession of a well-born character that truly loves what is fine; but they seem unable to stimulate towards being fine and good.”
Why not? “It is impossible, or not easy, to alter by argument what has long been absorbed by habit.”
We go to college also for a job or a profession. Jobs and professions are good things. We need to work. It is a noble thing to make or sell or assist others through our skills. However, we need more than skills. In The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges tells us to organize our lives so that we keep some regular time to think, to contemplate, to pursue the things that are.
Something “liberal” should color our education, something that frees us from the absorption found in most lives and occupations. A “liberal” education “frees” us first from ourselves, giving us the “leisure” (in the true sense of the word) to look at the things that are.
Ultimately, this freedom to reason is what sets man apart from other finite beings. We are the “rational” animals. We do not cause ourselves to be what we are. Our task is to become what we are. We are the only beings whose perfection lies in our own hands. “Nor will greatness, or abundance, exempt [a man] from . . . this desire” to know, as Samuel Johnson wrote: “Since, if he is born to think, he cannot restrain himself from a thousand enquiries and speculations, which he must pursue by his own reason, and which the splendor of his condition can only infer; for those who are most exalted above dependence or control are yet condemned to pay a large tribute of their time to custom, ceremony, and popularity, that, according to the Greek proverb, no man in the house is more a slave than the master.”
Aristotle said much the same thing. We do not have to be “master of the land and sea” to be happy. The politician is busy. He is taken up with troubles all about him. He has no time to pursue the pleasures of intellect. He is often tempted by the less-noble pleasures.
The purpose of a “liberal” education, especially for those with a religious background, is to know what is beyond politics and economics, beyond the cares of daily life. The student today will largely have to educate himself in the highest things. He will do this by reading and conversing, even by prayer and fasting. The college student needs the virtue that enables him to see the origins, the first principles. These will be invisible to the person who cultivates evil habits—since his mind will busy itself, even exhaust itself, trying to rationalize the person’s bad decisions. He won’t even have the energy to try to search for truth.
James V. Schall, SJ, taught for decades at Georgetown University before retiring in 2012. He is author of more than a dozen books, ranging from The Classical Moment to Praise of “Sons of Bitches.”