By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 4/22/2012
Three Catholic college and university professors explain how they foster virtues in the intellectual life of students.
Prudence is the ability to govern and discipline one’s self by the use of reason. Theology professor Steven A. Long discusses that and other virtues in his undergraduate classes at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla., in the light of the truth of the Church and of ancient philosophy.
“The kind of moral theology that I am particularly engaged in offering is largely Thomistic,” he said. “In the first part of Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas makes the observation that the only thing that divides practical knowledge from speculative knowledge is that practical knowledge orders the known truth to the good of an action, rather than simply resting in knowledge for its own sake. So all practical activity has an intellectual root to begin with since practical reason requires some understanding of the end.”
Thus, the general understanding of the order of things — and of the existence of God — provides the starting point for practical reason.
This leads to the distinctive requirement of putting truth into action, which demands prudence. “All issues of prudence arise because judging particular things that are concerned with action involves our inclinations, and the way we see particular things is affected by our inclinations. We need to rectify our inclinations so that they become reasonable and do not block our motion toward a good life.”
As an example, he explained, inordinate inclinations can render us slaves to anger or lust or pride, which distort our perception of what is good and obstruct both our natural good and our communion with God. Just as a diabetic who loves sugar needs to rectify the excessive inclination toward sugar to avoid bad physical effects, we likewise need to rectify excessive or defective inclinations to avoid bad moral effects.
“This need for prudence is simultaneously a practical virtue and an intellectual virtue,” Long said. “It is a matter of being able to judge our actions and inclinations and circumstances as they really are.”
That, he said, is important for young people who want to have dominion over themselves and their actions.
“They want to make progress to noble ends and they don’t want to be obstructed,” he said. “The only way to make progress is to develop prudence.”
A third dimension he teaches is the “incredible help” of the “infused” supernatural moral virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The infused virtues strengthen the recipient for a purpose that goes beyond even the end of natural virtue, namely a life directed toward union with God, he explained. These virtues still work by strengthening reason.
“Thus infused prudence strengthens the reason with respect to things to be done,” Long said. “Gifts of the Holy Spirit are ways in which all the powers of the human person are able to be directly moved by God beyond the natural proportion of reason.”
Aristotle’s writings on character and virtue are timeless, Brendan Sweetman said, and his “trenchant critique on hedonism, or the life of pleasure” is one that he teaches in his undergraduate program at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.
“We do live in a society of gratification, and there are three critical points Aristotle makes about the life of pleasure that always work well with students,” he said. “First of all, the life of pleasure is beneath human beings. It doesn’t really exercise our highest qualities. Second, pleasure pursued too far can be destructive, and then there is the deeper philosophical point that pleasure accompanies human activities but it is not really the main reason for them or shouldn’t be. That idea resonates in the whole discussion about virtue and character, and gets to the question of what sort of a person are you?”
Sweetman, who is head of the philosophy department, teaches several classes, including religion and science and the philosophy of religion. He also is president of the Gabriel Marcel Society. Marcel was a 20th-century French philosopher.
“Rockhurst is a Jesuit school and central to Jesuit education is the idea of character,” Sweetman said. “We look at various ethical theories, and in the history of ideas, we put a special emphasis on Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. In their theories, virtue, intellect and character are all central themes, and our approach to their ethics does put a fairly big emphasis on reason. St. Thomas was influenced by Aristotle, especially his ethical theory, which is sometimes called a virtue theory or virtue based theory because he places the virtues at the center of ethics, rather than rules — the virtues being things like honesty, courage, patience and justice. Aquinas was very much influenced by that approach and he adopted it over to Christianity. Aquinas has often been said to have baptized Aristotle.”
Students in Elizabeth Agnew Cochran’s ethics classes have debated the abstract issue of whether there are moral norms, or natural laws, that apply to people across different cultures and different circumstances.
What she encourages them to understand is that at a minimum, there is a universal recognition of behaviors in interpersonal relationships, and in relation to issues such as violence and war.
“There is a moral perspective we can all be committed to — one that involves respecting other persons, seeking to work cooperatively with others, and pursuing ideals of justice,” she said.
Cochran teaches theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa. In one assignment to challenge their perspectives and grow in their faith, she invites them to write personal reflection papers that relate to moral issues, for instance, current news like health care, or a matter that is personal to them.
What they seem most concerned about, she said, are major topics in sexual ethics like homosexual relationships, same-sex unions, the possibility of same-sex partners parenting, divorce and remarriage, and different models of the family, and issues related to prostitution and pornography.
In other words, is it ethical to place limits on those sexual issues?
“We talk a lot about natural law and concepts like justice to show how a reason-based idea can intersect with Christian concerns,” she said. “A lot of students are really interested in the relationship between physical intimacy and commitment, and I think there is an increased appreciation for ways in which linking physical intimacy to commitment can actually be good for people and can encourage people to flourish. Detaching the two can be bad for people. So understanding commitment and personal relationships in a particular way is fruitful for the human person. It isn’t just something that Christians are taught to do, but something that is encouraged by reason and by study of the natural law.”
Thus, the question arises: Is being virtuous a natural instinct?
“I have a strong enough account of original sin to know that a lot of things impede that instinct,” Cochran said. “But I think virtue is a natural instinct insofar as it is tied to the people that God created us to be, and to human nature as God intended us to live. I do think that an intellectual reflection on the good life can help people find those parts of themselves that are in keeping with God’s ultimate desire for us. That’s something that’s tied to human nature. I think that God desires for us to be virtuous, and the tools that God gives us to pursue virtue extend to Christians as well as non-Christians, and to people in a broad range of faith commitment.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
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