Thursday, December 9, 2010

Requiem for a semester...

Today another semester draws to an end (roughly my 56th semester as either a student or teacher, if I’m counting right). My Classical Political Thought class wrapped up by talking about the philosopher Paul Woodruff’s book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. Specifically, we discussed two chapters on reverence in ancient Greek thought and in ancient Chinese thought. (For an interesting New York Times piece yesterday, comparing Chinese and Western virtue ethics, see “Kung Fu for Philosophers.”) The message of reverence in both these traditions, according to Woodruff, is “Remember that you are human. …Between now and death you will have many opportunities to crash down from whatever height you have reached, and you will fall harder if you forget that the human path is strewn with stumbling blocks.”

Within a certain political narrative (i.e. the modern liberal enlightenment narrative, wherein self-mastery and sovereignty are the preeminent virtues and goals), Woodruff’s reminder can only be the source of despair. But journeying every fall through Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Confucius (not to mention grappling with Creon who, in Antigone, learns the lesson of hubris the hard way), gives me a chance to engage with an alternative account of what it means to be human. Within this classical narrative there is certainly some despair (to wit, Creon: “Oh weep, weep for the pain of human pain!”). But there is also a measure of awe and wonder, even joy, that comes from the way humans are, for better or for worse, in it together.

And so Confucius, the Master, says: “Virtue is never solitary; it always has neighbors.”

I count myself lucky to be surrounded by curious and smart and supportive colleagues, who embody the virtues of the life of the mind balanced with the active life. Good neighbors, indeed. And I count myself lucky to get to spend my days surrounded by critically engaged students who indulge my passion for pondering the big questions of life: Why be moral? What is power? Can leaders be virtuous? Does studying ethics teach us to be ethical? Is self-preservation always justified? Is efficiency ever a preeminent value? Does the state have a duty to produce certain types of citizens? Do teachers have a duty to cultivate certain types of students? Can you have true reverence without God? Can you have true justice without laws (can you have true justice with laws?)? And so on.

It’s not a bad way to spend one’s days. Grading the stack of papers that will start flowing in tomorrow, on the other hand…. Well, that’s the price of doing (intellectual) business, I guess. So be it.

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