Last week Comment selected a group of professors, students and colleagues to respond to an article by Dr. Anthony Kronman in the September 16, 2007 Boston Globe called, “Why are we here? Colleges ignore life’s biggest questions, and we all pay the price“. The collection of responses became a mini-symposium on the relationship between academia and religion for today’s young adults.
This week, we’ve invited Dr. Kronman to respond to last week’s discussion.
Kronman is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University Law School. We thank him for responding on short notice, and present his remarks below.
I am grateful for the many thoughtful responses to my recent essay in the Boston Globe. They raise important issues about higher education and our culture at large.
I cannot respond to every point, but I would like to say something in reply to a few.
To Dr. John Seel:
Dr. Seel describes my position as “an older form of existentialism,” which values decisions not on account of their truth but their decisiveness alone. On this view, any decision is as good as any other, so long as it is made in an authentic way. For those who take this view, it becomes hard, perhaps impossible, to distinguish between right and wrong. Even cruelty, after all, can be authentic if not concealed or disowned.
This is not my view. I do not think the only thing that matters about a decision is the spirit in which it is made. The substance of the decision matters too. This is most obviously the case with regard to decisions that concern our social relations with others. We have a shared morality that (with some elasticity) fixes our responsibilities to other people. But it leaves us considerable room to decide what sorts of lives we shall live—as artists, politicians, warriors, thinkers, mothers and fathers, priests, etc. This decision can be made in a variety of respectable ways. There is no single right answer to it. But in answering it, we are not free of all constraints. A person’s answer to the question of the meaning of life is not a good answer just because he makes it. The life he chooses needs to be one that offers some reasonable prospect of fulfillment, in one or another of its traditionally recognized forms. It needs to be one of the excellent lives a human being can live. Over millennia of human experience, a small number of different ways of living have been recognized as being deep and broad enough to meet this test. I do not believe there is a criterion for ranking these lives. In that sense, I am a pluralist, and a traditionalist. But I am not a relativist, nor an existentialist (a radical voluntarist, to put it in theological terms) who values only the choice and assigns no worth to what is chosen. My inspiration comes from Edmund Burke and Isaiah Berlin, not Jean Paul Sartre.
Dr. Seel concludes by saying that “moderns want meaning with autonomy” and denies that this is possible. I am sympathetic to his statement. But I would put it in the form of a question. Can human freedom be a source of meaning unless it joined to the recognition of our dependence on a power greater than our own—and, if not, in what sense does it continue to be free? This is a question not only for those whose views Dr. Seel rejects. It is a question for Christians (and Muslims and Jews) as well. Indeed, it is the religion of Abraham, in all its various shapes, that first raised this question and which presents it in its most excruciating form as the question of freedom and grace. It is a question at the very center of the program of liberal learning I endorse. In exploring it, there is, however, one alternative that Dr. Seel overlooks. Perhaps eternity is not a heaven beyond the world, but the order of the world itself, uncreated and everlasting, in which we participate in thought and love. That was Aristotle’s idea and, roughly speaking, Spinoza’s—the first a pagan, and the second a born again pagan. I must confess that I find this idea deeply appealing.
To Steven Garber:
What did Nietzsche mean when he said, “God is dead?” He meant that the idea of a world beyond this one, from whose vantage point everything here ‘down below’ is to be judged, is no longer a credible idea—even though many people continue to believe it. Nietzsche thought that in time (a century? a millennium?) this idea would be drained of its plausibility and power to compel, a power it has possessed for a very long time.
I believe that Nietzsche was right, and right also to view the death of God as a disaster. Nietzsche’s name for this disaster is ‘nihilism.’ Nihilism, Nietzsche said, is our ‘fate’. It is the destiny of Western civilization, hence the destiny of the world, which is in the slow process of being ‘westernized.’ (From this perspective, the otherworldliness of a resurgent Islam is a rearguard action that may delay the advent of nihilism but cannot prevent it.)
The great question for Nietzsche, and for me (for us?) is what lies beyond nihilism. Here there are, as I see it, three possible responses. The first is: nothing. There is nothing beyond nihilism. It is our condition from now on, for as long as human beings hop about the earth and do their modest and meaningless things. (To put it in Nietzsche’s terms: the reign of the ‘last man’ lasts forever.) Max Weber was tempted by this response. The second response is revivalist: the way out of our nihilist impasse is to embrace again the idea of a transcendent God whose rejection brought us to this impasse in the first place. This is the position of educated churchmen like T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.
These two responses are familiar in our culture. The third (mine) is less familiar, though I think it was Nietzsche’s too. Nihilism is what results from the separation of time and eternity, when eternity is no longer available and all that is left is a realm of pointless, empty transience. If nihilism is to be overcome, time and eternity must be rejoined, but not in the way that Christianity joins them—as separate realms connected by a Savior and a church. They must be rejoined in a more intimate way—as the form and moving matter of one world. Aristotle thought that eternity is the form of time. Spinoza believed something similar. Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return is an attempt to put time and eternity back together again, after their long Abrahamic separation. This is a promising possibility, more attractive to me than either resignation or revival. Others, who recognize the gravity of the problem, will have a different view.
Nietzsche is of course on the reading list in the Directed Studies Program at Yale—along with Kierkegaard, T.S. Eliot, Aquinas, Luther and Augustine. The question of the origins of nihilism, and its meaning, and the responses we might make to it, is at the Program’s center. For a thoughtful young man or woman, in the early twenty first century, this is, I believe, the question to ponder.
I agree that an education should be formative, that “it should actually mold and shape students into certain kinds of people,” and not merely provide them with useful information and techniques. But I disagree that for an education to be formative, it must be “oriented toward a particular vision of the Good,” unless pluralism of the sort I defend counts as a vision of this kind. I should perhaps say again what I mean by pluralism. Within the limits of moral responsibility (which constrain us all), there is more than one fulfilling sort of life a person can lead. There are different lives that meet this test, organized around different, and in some cases, irreconcilably conflicting, values—the life, for example, of a soldier, and that of a priest. I do not believe that the requirements of morality are up to each of us to decide on our own. I do not believe that the idea of human nature is an artificial construct with no meaningful content. I do believe that our nature is sufficiently plastic to allow for a plurality of fulfillments. Indeed, I would say that this plasticity is part of what our human nature is—part of what it means to be human. In this respect, I consider myself a follower of Aristotle, who maintained that human beings, like everything else in the world, yearn to be “part of the eternal and divine,” but who insisted that there is more than one way for us to do this (through reproduction, politics and philosophy).
As to “autonomy” or “self-determination”: this may be a hard notion to understand (I think it is), and it can certainly be abused in the ways Dr. Smith fears, but can we really do without it? And if we say that autonomy is just the acknowledgment of the Good—of what is true and right in the order of things, independently of us—then haven’t we recast freedom in rationalist terms in such a way as to eliminate that radical power of wrong (and right) doing that St. Paul discovered, and Augustine put at the center of Christian thought? The challenge is to preserve this discovery—the core of Christian ethics—while avoiding the moral emptiness that results from denying that the world has any order at all other than the order we freely choose to give it. Between Greek rationalism and radical voluntarism, is there a position that avoids the dangers of both? Some believe Thomism is such a position. I do not, for reasons that lie beyond the scope of this exchange. But the search for a third position of this kind is of tremendous importance.
To Greg Veltman:
“The invention of the community college” has not been “the only major innovation that the US has provided to higher education.” In fact, the most distinctive contribution that America has made in the realm of education was the invention of the small, liberal arts college that Mr. Veltman rightly praises. By the time of the Civil War, there were hundreds of such colleges, dotting the landscape from New England to California. Wherever Americans went, in their great westward expansion, they founded colleges to educate their young men (and, in a few cases, women). There had never been anything in the history of Europe like this. Higher learning in Europe was centered in two very different sorts of institutions—universities and monasteries—from both of which the American liberal arts college differed in fundamental ways. Nearly all of these small colleges had a religious affiliation, and this helped to reinforce the sense of community they sought to create. But even after their religious ties had weakened, and become mainly symbolic, it was still possible to find in these schools a spirit of community. Partly, of course, this was based on social and economic factors, which became increasingly important in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But in part it was also based on the belief that, although they were no longer religious institutions, neither were they places merely for the inculcation of useful techniques, but (as I would put it) spiritually serious, yet non-denominational schools oriented toward educating their students in what Meikeljohn called “the art of living.” This is what I think we need to recover, and though I agree with Mr. Veltman that the church is a wonderful and inspiring example of community, it should not be the example our colleges and universities follow.
To Dr. Aaron Belz:
What is the relation between reading and character? Can a young person read Plato and Augustine and Tolstoy, and turn out to be a moral monster? Of course the answer is yes. There is no book a person can read, even study intently, that is a guarantee of righteousness. But though even the greatest books cannot guarantee this, I do not think that reading them has no bearing on character either. Reading these books carefully—which means with sympathy and under the guidance of a thoughtful teacher—tends, I think, to strengthen two traits of character that have a positive relation to moral responsibility. One is a respect for the diversity of human excellence, which is a stronger basis for tolerance than the belief that we must tolerate each other, despite our mutual disgust, only in order to avoid chaos and war. The second is the ability to recognize excellence where it appears, and to distinguish between the shoddy or mediocre and first-rate—a distinction that is the basis of our willingness and ability to preserve the best in our civilization, on which our entire civilization depends. Today, as Dr. Belz rightly points out, quoting from Solzhenitsyn, our “endless materialism” and boundless “humanism” (which is really, in my view, not a humanism at all) threaten to consume, or pollute, all the world’s beautiful things, and to destroy the distinction between the excellent and the useful, or pleasurable. A reading program of the sort we follow in Directed Studies is a helpful—though not surefire—antidote to the combination of (politically correct) intolerance and (culturally reinforced) bad taste that make our colleges and universities less human places than they can and should be.
Yes, of course, the claim that one can “live well and be good” only by “acknowledging God” is a claim we take very seriously in Directed Studies. We do not (or perhaps I should say, I do not, in my own Directed Studies classroom) assume this claim to be true. But neither do I reject it. My students and I examine the claim together. To what is it a response? What may be said on its behalf? Why do some reject it? Who, or what, is God anyway? We explore these questions in the context of Augustine’s Confessions and the City of God, Descartes’ Meditations, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and other texts. Indeed, the whole of modern Western philosophy cannot be understood except against the background of the Christian theology on which it has drawn for direction and inspiration. This is as true of Nietzsche as of Kierkegaard, of those who reject Christianity as of those who affirm it. I tell my students that every thinker we read in Directed Studies, after Augustine, is a Christian in one way or another—pro or con, but unavoidably shaped by Christian belief, as indeed we all are.
I agree strongly with Dr. Weed’s call for a basic “religious literacy” as part of a person’s college education. Whatever a young person’s faith may be, and even (especially!) if he or she has no faith at all, a basic working knowledge of the Abrahamic religions (and, I would add, at least some modest knowledge of the great non-Western systems of religious thought) is indispensable. Ideally, every college student should have some acquaintance with the Bible and Koran; with rabbinic Judaism, Christian theology, and Muslim theology and law; with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Philo, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes, even if only in a superficial way. Our world has been shaped by these traditions, and they remain alive today. No person can claim to be educated without knowing something about them. I’m in general opposed to required courses (Directed Studies is an elective program), but if I were going to require one course of every student at an American college or university today, it might well be a course in religious history and thought.
To Rev. Ron Choong:
Religion and religious conviction has been responsible for much good. Rev. Choong mentions several of its “positive cultural and social fruits.” But it should also be remembered that religious conviction has been a source of bitter struggle and war, and that the attempt to find a way of living together without sectarian strife has produced the modern liberal state, with its principled separation of state and church. I regard this as a great achievement, and one of the most distinctive (if still fragile) features of Western civilization.
Rev. Choong draws a distinction between conviction and commitment, which he says I confuse. I’m not sure how he understands these terms, but the distinction is a useful one. One of my aims as a teacher in Yale’s Directed Studies program is to help students explore their convictions, including religious convictions. Many come to college with strong and well-formed beliefs. I try to take these with utmost seriousness. After all, they often lie near the center of students’ lives. But at the same time, I invite the students whose beliefs they are to reflect on them in a self-critical spirit, considering what can be said for and against them. To do that, it is essential that I refrain from making any commitment myself, either for or against the convictions that are under examination. Not to take these convictions seriously is an act of disrespect. Not to make the effort to explore them in a spirit of non-commitment is to lose a precious educational opportunity, which for some students may not come again.