Mark R. Wunsch has taught at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., for seven years, two as an adjunct for the Rome Program, one as a visiting lecturer on main campus and four years as an assistant professor of philosophy.
He recently spoke to Our Sunday Visitor on the ways ancient philosophy can teach contemporary students about how to have a moral foundation in life.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why teach ancient philosophy to 21st-century students?
Mark Wunsch: Philosophy deals with what is unchanging and eternally true. Thus, it can provide man with an escape from the monotony of the here and now. Paradoxically, the trained mind’s journey to the transcendent is achieved precisely through the here and now. He is trained to move past the particular things of our experience to their immutable natures and beyond.
OSV: How does Christendom’s philosophy department uphold the Catholic moral foundation in contemporary life?
Wunsch: Our faculty gives pride of place to the thought of the Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thought the Church has insisted time and again to have a sort of pre-eminence in regard to the teaching of philosophy and theology. Therefore, when we teach ethics, we naturally give his understanding of the moral life pride of place.
|Model for Truth Seekers
Christendom College is not alone in giving pride of place to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Through the years, Blessed Pope John Paul II had the following to say on the Angelic Doctor:
“The Magisterium’s intention has always been to show how St. Thomas is an authentic model for all who seek the truth. In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason.”
— Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), No. 78
“The philosophy of St. Thomas deserves to be attentively studied and accepted with conviction by the youth of our day, by reason of its spirit of openness and of universalism, characteristics which are hard to find in many trends of contemporary thought.”
— from “Address on the Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas for the Youth of Our Times” (November 1979)
Yet we in no way try to direct our students away from either the thought of other philosophers who have made important contributions to our discussions of morality or the thought of those individuals who have grave misunderstandings about what the moral life entails. After all, error properly understood can be almost as instructive as the truth.
OSV: What remains constant?
Wunsch: In light of the fact that human nature is fundamentally the same as it has always been, I think it is important to emphasize the continuity that exists between young people in ancient times and young people today. That is not to say that there is no discontinuity between ancient peoples and 21st-century Americans. By emphasizing what we have in common with those who have gone before us, I am only trying to avoid the modern tendency to exaggerate the differences between people who live at different times and places.
OSV: What has changed?
Wunsch: Technological advances. Of course, such changes are by no means exclusively negative. Learning can certainly be expedited and enhanced through the use of modern technology. And yet, for all of the many goods that technology brings, it also creates many serious challenges to the pursuit of wisdom.
For instance, as our inner-reflections on the nature of reality are progressively shortened to a 140-character tweet, how can we hope to prevent the erosion of our attention span? When I teach adults over 60, they are surprisingly able to maintain focus through a difficult 50-minute lecture. Meanwhile, many of our undergraduate students struggle to keep their hands off their phones for that long, let alone keep their minds engaged in a discussion about whether this is the best of all possible worlds.
OSV: Are there moral dangers in high-tech?
Wunsch: Any basic search for information can easily digress into a direct encounter with such moral evils as pornography. Another related challenge potentially leads to the degradation of the human person (which) can naturally lead us to prefer virtual reality to reality itself.
We can even prefer our virtual friends to the people with whom we live. Meanwhile, people online can easily become dehumanized and once we develop a tendency to dehumanize people online, it becomes easier to do so in reality.
OSV: What’s a student to do about this?
Wunsch: The way moral challenges have been overcome in the past should look very similar to the way the moral challenges of our day can be overcome.
The solution is always to turn back to the truth. When the philosopher Boethius in the sixth century bemoaned the moral failings of his time, he looked to Lady Philosophy, wisdom itself, for answers. The same truths she opened his mind to about the fallibility of all earthly goods and how complete happiness can only be sought in a good that is itself perfect are still open to those individuals today who earnestly search for a solution to life’s most difficult questions.
This does not mean that we have to divest ourselves of all technology or become a hermit somewhere to become wise. But it does mean we have to seek after a modicum of silence every now and then and give ourselves some leisure in order to ponder those questions that are the most significant.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.